Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writing for Now -- Declaring an Audience

This week I heard a newscast on NPR, "Twitter Seen As Tool For Change In China" (NPR Morning Edition July 24, 2009). The gist of the newscast, that some Chinese NGOs held a training course to teach citizen journalists how to use Twitter and other new media in their reporting, made me think of Tiffany Monk, the Florida teenager mentioned in Writing in the 21st Century, the NCTE report by Kathleen Blake Yancey. Tiffany like many young people, already knows how to compose for the audiences she chooses. Tiffany’s mobile home park was flooding with rain from Tropical Storm Fay and Tiffany knew there were many elderly and disabled people who would be unable to get out. 9-1-1 wasn’t an option, so Tiffany took pictures of the mobile home park, posted them on her computer, and sent them out in emails asking for help. Everyone was saved!

Tiffany is like most of our students. She already knows how to compose and, given an occasion, she knows what she wants to say and to whom she wants to say it. We need to encourage this in all our students.

On February 23, 2009, NCTE held a press conference to introduce Writing in the 21st Century and the National Day on Writing. Two speakers who joined Kathi Yancey during the conference talked about writing today in schools. Dan Brown and his student Mansur Muhammad from SEED Public Charter School, Washington, D.C , talked about writing—teaching it and doing it-- both in an out of school.

Dan’s the author of the blog Get in the Fracas and his July 7 entry states in underlined bold, “Students need more than just their teacher to be their audience in order to unlock their finest potential.” This blog entry, “The Importance of “Going Public,” echoing the title of an NCTE publication Go Public! Encouraging Student Writers to Publish by Susanne Rubenstein, emphasizes the need for us to design school writing assignments that push students to write to audiences beyond the teacher and the school. Another NCTE book, Designing Writing Assignments by Traci Gardner, and many ReadWriteThink lessons give us tips on how to help students work with various audiences in their writing.

I have to agree with Dan and with another idea that Kathi Yancey points out in Writing in the 21st Century. 21st century writers write in order to take action, to make a connection. As teachers, we need to provide our students with the opportunity to make those connections, using whatever tools are available and certainly starting with the tools the students are already using. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, agreed with this philosophy in his interview with Rachel Dretzin of PBS Frontline: Digital_Nation on July 14, suggesting to the surprise of many that teachers have students use cell phones for class work.

For me, having students “Go Public” to their selected audience, using the tools of technology that many are already using outside of school, and taking action are three vital components of the writing assignments I need to design for my students. I’ll need to often be more spontaneous than in the past to take advantage of current situations for writing, I’ll need to allow for students to pursue many different topics and audiences, and I’ll probably need instruction from some of my students on the workings of the tools while some of my students will need instructions on the same from their classmates or me.

I’m guessing, too, that like me you’d like examples of writings produced in this 21st century fashion. Here’s an idea for how we can get just that. Let’s have our students publish their writings to the National Gallery of Writing. I’d really love to read self-initiated compositions on issues important to students: a text message or Twitter exchange, a video, some prewriting notes, an article, a letter, or poem. I’m inviting you to see if your students have such compositions, particularly from their out-of-school lives. Have them publish to a local gallery that you start or to the NCTE Gallery.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Reading Record

The highlight of my summers has always been the chance to read – and read a lot. Growing up, I would go to the library every day. While I enjoyed the programs the library had to offer, I really loved the chance to peruse all of the books available. In college, summer meant I would finally have choice in my reading material after reading for courses all year.

As a teacher, my school year reading was usually in preparation for what my students would be reading. Summers were times for me to choose for ME. As I was reviewing summer reading lists this year, I thought back and tried to remember what books really stood out for me in my past summers. Then, after reading many blogs that listed the music people had listened to at five year intervals, I was inspired to choose specific points in my life and reminisce about what I was reading.

Age 5 – The Velveteen Rabbit
I never had a favorite blankie, nor was I a big fan of stuffed animals. However, this story of the stuffed rabbit that comes to life after being loved for so long touched me. As a youngster, I wondered what I could make come to life if I loved it. I loved and loved but none of my inanimate objects came to life. I used to imagine what they would do and say if they did come alive.

Age 10 – anything by Judy Blume
As a fourth grader, I loved that there was a book that I could relate to – Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Peter’s annoyance with almost everything as well as being misunderstood by his family – those things mirrored my life! I made it my goal then to read all of Judy Blume’s books. I enjoyed reading her because she oftentimes touched on subjects many tweens are dealing with but not many people like to talk about – bullying, puberty, fitting in. I was tickled as an adult to learn that she also wrote for grown-ups. And yes, I have read all of Judy Blume’s books.

Age 15 – Flowers in the Attic
I wish I knew how I came to read V.C. Andrews. I am not sure I would have picked out Flowers in the Attic on my own. But I did choose it and chose to read it over and over. I read every book in that series. I read other series by the same author. I was fascinated and mystified. I imagined the characters – what they looked like, how they would sound. I tried to put myself in their situation. How would I react? Could I escape? I was thrilled when I found out the book had been made into a movie. I was rather disappointed by the film. The one I imagined was so much better!

Age 20 – Nonfiction
After my reading material was called “junk” by a friend, we spent several summers choosing books for each other to read. We were allowed to read one book of our choice, and then we had to follow up by reading a book selected by the other. My friend picked nonfiction titles for me to read most of that summer. By fall, I read four or five books on Kennedy’s assassination. I was vaguely interested in the topic when the summer started and pretty much an expert when summer was over!

Age 25 – Parenting books
I became a mom around this time. I read a lot to my daughter, and she adored that time. In fact, her first birthday cake was shaped like a book and its title was “The Story of Kelsey’s First Birthday.” I also started reading all kinds of parenting books as I wanted to learn every tip so I could give my daughter the best possible foundation. After watching a segment on Oprah, I went out and bought the book See Jane Win. The author followed hundreds of successful women and she identified the traits and experiences they all had in common. It was very thought-provoking and an interesting read. Now that my daughter is almost a tween, it is a text I should revisit.

Age 30 – Magazines
By now, I had two kids, a new career and another part-time job. I became increasingly frustrated that it took me months to finish a book. I couldn’t stay interested because I would forget too many details between readings. However, with magazines, I could finish reading an article in less than 5 minutes! While I loved to devour magazines like People and Us Weekly, I would also try to balance those with Time and Newsweek. We subscribe to a large number of magazines at our house – and I still get a little giddy when they come in the mail!

What will I be reading at 35? I can name a few things on my list, but we will have to wait and see. What have you read throughout your life? What made an impact on you? Enjoy your summer reading!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Every Piece Counts

Part of the stated mission of the National Day on Writing is to draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing in which Americans engage as part of their daily lives.

To put this concept in concrete terms, I decided to try an activity I learned about through the NCTE Reading Initiative several years ago—a literacy dig. I looked back at a recent weekday (last Friday to be precise) and compiled a list of all the writing I did:
  • 15 work-related emails to 10 different audiences
  • 8 personal emails (including Facebook messages) to 5 different audiences
  • final edits, including basic HTML coding, to a lesson plan on responding to literature through microblogging and social networking
  • a draft of the INBOX Ideas and ad copy for an upcoming issue of Classroom Notes Plus
  • a personal blog entry on the New York City subway system, including five related images and captions
  • 2 comments on a colleague's blog
  • 3 posts on Twitter
  • 5 updates or links on Facebook and a response to a comment
  • a dozen or so words corresponding to images our son drew on a whiteboard in our living room
  • dozens of text messages
  • marginal notes in a textbook on learning in adulthood
  • online form to add a payee from my checking account
  • multiple IM chats
This list accounts for all the actual composition that occurred, and because I had a record of most of these activities, they were easy to recall. Missing from this list are activities such as the prewriting that occupied my thoughts on the drive back from a visit to a local writing project site. Participants shared videos of their writing processes, and I soon began thinking about how I might use images, sound, and text to capture my own writing process.

Even if the list is incomplete, as I look back on the variety of my writing from last Friday, I can see the value in the National Day on Writing. Some pieces, such as the marginal notes, are meant only for me, and they provide a permanent record of my thoughts at the moment as I read. The words on the whiteboard, in contrast, served to teach our son about the relationship between text and images, and they lasted only as long as it took him to bring the next supervillain to life in full color. Still different is the edited lesson plan, intended for a wide online audience and representing the fruitful collaboration among the author, reviewers, and NCTE staff.

Because each of these pieces reveals something about my identity as a writer, any of them would be an appropriate choice for inclusion in the National Gallery of Writing. Though we're each asked to contribute just one piece to represent ourselves as writers and citizens, the collective gallery has the potential to reveal diversity far greater than what any one of us does in a day, a month, or a year.

The challenge, then, is for each of us to do our part in getting the word out to community and civic organizations, as well as school and workplaces of every variety. The more people from all walks of life who contribute to the gallery, the greater will be its richness and its integrity as a representation of writing in America. If you're so inclined, consider making the extra commitment of establishing a local gallery yourself and serving as the curator.

We won't be able to see all these pieces of writing until the Day on Writing arrives on October 20, 2009. But as we talk to the people with whom we interact on a daily basis—our neighbors, the postal carrier, service staff at a local restaurant or bank—and as they establish galleries within the National Gallery themselves, we'll begin to gain a sense of the diverse and integral roles writing has for American life in the 21st century.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bringing Visual Literacy into the Classroom

I suppose it’s okay now to admit that I did my math homework—even calculus—in front of the TV in our den watching “The Soupy Sails Show.” So, I’m not surprised by the results of a New Jersey Department of Education survey that indicates 57% of Jersey teens spend 3 hours each day doing some sort of electronic viewing: watching television, playing video games, and being on the Internet ("High School Students Devote More Hours to TV, Internet and Video Games," The Star-Ledger, July 3, 2009). In fact, I’m almost surprised that the statistic is so low.

However, if the teens we’re teaching, or the preteens or college students, are spending so much time watching electronic screens, what are we doing in our classrooms to help these students develop critical viewing skills? “The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies” calls for students to ”manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information” and to “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts” in order to be literate in terms of this century. The companion guideline--NCTE’s “21st Century Curriculum and Assessment Framework”—gives us a way to look at how we work with students in our classrooms in light of the definition. Even so, sometimes it’s difficult to begin.

We might start with the news which is replete with articles about students and technology tools—how they’re using them at home or could be using them at school. The blog of NCTE’s Assembly on Media Arts is one place to keep up with this news.

We might also learn from the many teachers at all levels who integrate visual literacy into their English or language arts classrooms. Abigail Kennedy, 2007 winner of the NCTE Media Literacy Award is one of these teachers. Samples of her winning videos give us one of those a-picture-is-worth-1000-words glimpses into how we might use visual literacy in our classrooms.

NCTE has several resources on the subject.

Books: Lesson Plans for Creating Media-Rich Classrooms; Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and Other Nonfiction Texts; Great Films and How to Teach Them; Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom.

Many articles in NCTE journals.

ReadWriteThink lesson plans.

A kit: Engaging Media-Savvy Students.

A CD-Rom: Study Guides for 12 Great Films CD-ROM.

An On-Demand Web Seminar: On Demand Reading the Media: Helping Students (and Teachers) Become Media Literate by Teaching 21st Century Skills.

How have you worked visual literacy into your classroom activities?