Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What I Want to See in the National Gallery of Writing

By now, you've probably heard about the National Gallery of Writing that NCTE is building online by inviting people to select and post one thing they have written that is important to them. Anyone can share any composition. It can be any format—from word processing to photography, audio recording to text messages—and any type of writing—from letters to lists, memoirs to memos.

I found a great example of the kind of writing that belongs in the Gallery. Read "Video Games: Play and Learn" from this week's Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. The article describes a project, created by at the Seward Montessori, that tackles reading comprehension, STEM, analytical skills, and community building:

Over a three-week period, the kids split up into groups and play video games. They also take notes. The goal is to explain how the game is played, how a player might win and how the game is designed. By the end of the session, the students will have created a multimedia presentation, including lots of writing, about their games that is then uploaded to the Web.

Students at Seward Montessori and their teacher Brock Dubbels describe the fun and engagement that are part of this video game unit, but there's more than just fun going on. Jess Sanchez, one of the students, explains that he likes "learning how the games can help you in the future and how they're made, instead of just playing them. . . . . It makes me think of them in a different way." Could a teacher ask for a better recognition of the critical thinking behind a classroom activity?

Dubbels has designed a great assignment, and what makes it work is that underneath it adheres to the basic principles outlined in the NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing. The students in the middle school class are positioned as authorities in an authentic research project. Their project is personally relevant, and they have a real audience of peers who want to hear what they have to say. The presentations students publish at the end of the unit are precisely the kind of work that belongs in the National Gallery of Writing.

So why do I want to see those presentations in the Gallery?  The Gallery invitation asks writers to share one piece of writing, anything that they "deem important or significant." Those multimedia presentations are perfect because, in them, the writers are exploring something that they know and care about. The presentations are "important or significant" because they matter to the people who wrote them. That's the kind of writing I hope people will share—and the kind of writing I hope all teachers will encourage others to submit.

Do your part. Register a local gallery in the National Gallery of Writing today, and make plans to submit your own writing and to encourage students, families, colleagues, local community members, and even your state and federal politicians to do the same. I want to see compositions that you really care about in the Gallery when it opens in October!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What’s on Your Summer Writing List?

Every school year, I amass an impressive pile of books for my own summer reading: novels, nonfiction, plays, professional books, journals, and magazines. Always more than I can realistically read in a single season, this collection represents the mythic promise of never-ending summer, abundant with time to relax and recharge.

As I look back on my annual ritual, I realize that I never plan the same way for writing. I typically neglect my personal and professional growth as a writer simply because I’ve never thought of giving myself the time and structure to focus on writing. There’s something about a list of future writing tasks that simply doesn’t hold the same appeal as that iconic stack of summer reading books.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to help me focus on myself as a writer this summer—just as much as I will as a reader. I’ll share a few of my ideas here, with the hope that you’ll contribute some of the ways you plan to keep writing on your list over the summer break.

  • Start a blog. The early days of summer provide the perfect time to go to Blogger or Wordpress, set up an account, and start writing. Last year, a colleague used her family’s summer vacation as the starting point for a blog, and now she updates it regularly with writing that is meaningful to her. It’s also not a bad idea to give yourself a few months practice if you’re thinking about having your students blog during the next school year.
  • Form a virtual writing group. Busy schedules and summer vacations don’t have to get in the way of sharing your writing with a group of fellow writers. Find a few friends or colleagues who are interested in supporting each other as writers. Set up a space in Google Docs where you can upload, store, and share writing. Even if you have a fully-functioning group that meets face to face, participating in an online environment can enrich and enhance the dynamics of sharing and responding.
  • Contribute a piece to the National Gallery of Writing. Whether you’d like to submit meaningful writing to the national-level gallery or to a local gallery (you can even start a gallery yourself), participating in the activities leading up to the National Day on Writing is a great way to reaffirm your commitment to writing as an important part of your identity.
I’ll consider this my first step toward a summer that doesn’t focus on reading at the expense of writing. Now let me start one of those books!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Summer with Standards

“No more pencils, no more books…” When I was a kid, we sang that ditty every year at the end of school and we sang it before that in hopes to bring summer on sooner. Now that it’s mid-May, I expect students are expressing this same sentiment, which in many localities will be fulfilled in the next several weeks.

However, while schools and their students and teachers are winding down, forces in Washington, DC, and elsewhere are winding up for radical changes that will affect what we teach, how we teach, and how we assess our students. In particular, a movement is afoot to establish national standards for student achievement.

Just last week Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began his travels to at least 15 states to ask teachers, students and parents about what they’d like to see changed in the No Child Left Behind Act ("White House to Seek Input on Controversial Education Law," USA Today, May 6, 2009).

1. Look for his arrival in your state and try to attend the meeting.

2. However, if you can’t attend a meeting, please comment online on his listening tour blog. Right now, he’s inviting comments online about raising standards As time goes on he will be asking other questions.

At the same time last week, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices began looking for states to sign letters of intent to develop "fewer, but clearer and higher" standards for what students should know and be able to do. This brings to a head their efforts to restart the push to have national standards ("Standards To Receive Fresh Push," Education Week, April 21, 2009). They’re joined in their efforts by The Alliance For Excellent Education (AEE), The College Board , ACT Inc. ,and Achieve with its American Diploma Project standards. Lawmakers seem to agree with the standards movement ("In Standards Push, Lawmakers Cheer States’ Initiative," Education Week May 12, 2009).

What does this mean for us? Well, change if nothing else. But how can we make sure this change is for the better? How can we keep up with and participate in these standards conversations and decisions?

1. Review the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts .

2. Keep up with what’s going on—use InBox , read blogs, read your local and state newspapers, check out the SLATE Newsletter for state legislation .

3. Get involved with your state’s standards revision process. Find your state’s standards and your state’s education agency's website . See what’s afoot and respond online and/or offer your services on a committee.

4. Join with your local NCTE affiliate, your school or district, or your teachers' union for a group response to standards proposals.

5. Respond to this blog with your thoughts on developing national standards and your suggestions for more ways to get involved in the discussion.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Have You Thanked a Teacher Today?

Teachers know that one of the great rewards of the profession is receiving a sincere gesture of gratitude for the work we do. Such gestures are especially appropriate this week, as it's Teacher Appreciation Week, a time when communities are encouraged to thank teachers for their intellectual and emotional contributions to students’ lives.

You can find digital alternatives to the polished red apple as the effort to honor teachers goes online. The National PTA, for example, has a Thank-a-Teacher Facebook group that allows users to publish words, pictures, and videos of thanks to an influential educator. The National Education Association is unveiling an online collection of thank you cards to teachers this week as well.

Because these initiatives serve the dual purpose of saying thanks while also raising the visibility of the importance of the profession, I certainly encourage you to use one of them to thank an important teacher in your life.

But I also hope you’ll take some time this week to thank some teachers you may not immediately think of during Teacher Appreciation Week: your colleagues.

Maybe it’s a grade-level partner who has helped you perfect the art of co-teaching. Or a team member who has worked with you on infusing literacy strategies in a content area classroom. Or a department colleague who’s always sharing new and fresh approaches to a shared course curriculum.

Even in the best collaborative relationships, it can be difficult to find the time to express proper thanks. So set aside a few minutes this week to thank a colleague for the difference he or she makes in your professional life.

After all, there are plenty of times when students and families aren’t providing that positive support for the work teachers do. Often it’s our network of colleagues—down the hall or across the country, in our buildings and in professional organizations such as NCTE—that support and sustain us.

Let them know that you value the work they do with you and the influence they have on you!