Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Pays to Attend NCTE's Annual Convention

On the elevator ride to Kylene Beers’s presidential address on my last day of Convention in Philadelphia, I was joined by someone whose apparel told me he was in town for the other big event of the weekend—the Philadelphia Marathon. Noticing my tell-tale signs of convention attendee, he confirmed that I was one of those English teachers here for the meeting. “There are so many of you here! Is this a national thing?” he inquired. I told him a bit about NCTE, and as he started to exit on his floor, he said to me, “I can’t believe all of you are giving up your weekend for this. I hope your schools are paying you well for the extra time!” The doors closed before I could tell him that not only were none of us being paid to be there, but many of us were in fact paying part or all of our way to attend. This runner’s fundamental misunderstanding of what convention is all about prompted me to reflect on some of my most valuable moments of the experience:

  • Hearing author Junot Diaz’s talk at the Opening Session A good friend and colleague introduced me to Diaz’s collection Drown after I admitted that I didn’t really like short stories that much. I became an instant fan of his fiction and enjoyed his recent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well. What a pleasure it was to hear him reaffirm the notion of reading as a fundamentally compassionate act in the midst of a culture that prizes hierarchy and competition. It was also encouraging to hear him share the importance of framing learning as a process of discovery, not merely approval. (My blandly sanitized recap doesn’t really do the talk justice, believe me).
  • Seeing a teacher demonstrate a reading workshop conference with high school students I’ve been inching toward the workshop model with my struggling readers, but with so few secondary examples out there—in print or otherwise—I’ve been too timid to make the leap. Having the chance to see a very skilled teacher demonstrate her response process with four students from her class (with a page from Diaz’s Oscar Wao, no less) was just the confidence-building model I needed.
  • Learning with teachers at Bruce Penniman’s session I finished Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success on the way to Philadelphia, so I was pleased to see that the author, Bruce Penniman, was presenting on one of the topics he writes about so well in that book: differentiation within a heterogeneous classroom. In the session, Bruce came across just as he does in the book—wise but down-to-earth, experienced but still energized and enthusiastic about the very difficult work of teaching English.
  • Meeting a “stranger” on the train In a bizarre stroke of luck, seated next to me on a train ride was another convention attendee, a former librarian who had just spoken at the Secondary Section Get-together. After a few minutes of small talk, she shared with me that she was Nancy Pearl, author of the Book Lust series! I’ve certainly never had a more richly rewarding conversation with a new acquaintance, as we spent the ride swapping dozens of book recommendations. In fact, you might look for a few of mine in her forthcoming book on works about or set in specific memorable locales.
As I look back on this list—and all my memories of the convention—I’m struck at the mix. Some of the highlights were precisely what drew me there in the first place; others were completely serendipitous moments. But they all share the common threads of connection, conversation, and collaboration—the kind you can only get at a big “meeting of the minds” such as annual convention. Never mind that some of my bills for this one might not even be paid yet…I’m looking forward to Orlando in 2010. Until then, be sure to share some of your highlights from Philadelphia here or in the Annual Convention Ning.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Secret to Teaching Literature

In her Welcome to the 2009 NCTE Annual Convention, Carol Jago explains that the convention theme “‘Once and Future Classics: Reading Between the Lines,’ is designed to inspire courageous conversations about traditional and contemporary literature and foster lively discussions of how we teach as well as what we teach.”

Literature gives us so much to talk about, but eventually, we end up discussing how to teach the subject in ways that engage students while challenging them to think critically about what they read. The secret isn’t knowing how to identify every image or literary element. It’s not about finding some absolute set of classic texts. It’s not memorizing facts about the authors. It’s not telling students what makes a work great or even that a work is great.

For me, the secret is in my own attitude and reaction to the texts. If my choices and reactions show an enthusiastic and broad appreciation for literature, students are more likely to engage in deeper conversations about the texts.

The solution isn’t simply to gush over what we read. It’s far more complicated and nuanced. It has to do with how I think about literature itself and how my choices foster an open, supportive literacy community. Here are my secrets:

  1. Remember that any text can be a classic. There’s no useful reason to limit the definition of literature to certain genres, canonical texts, or popular choices. Literature can be anything from a graphic novel to a haiku, from the latest Gossip Girls novel to medieval madrigals. It doesn’t have to be a particular format. It doesn’t have to be in English. It can be fiction or nonfiction. Any text can be a “once and future classic” in the classroom. When all texts are welcome, the options multiply exponentially and readers are more likely to find a text they can engage with and enjoy.
  2. Recognize that the word text is not limited to print artifacts. As bookstores eagerly push ereaders like Kindle and Nook, we cannot deny that the age of paper-only literature is no more. Literature includes many media, from print to digital, and from films to video games. Classroom discussion can make connections to these many kinds of artifacts. We don’t even have to have computers and projectors in the classroom. Literary elements like plot and setting stretch from one medium to another. 21st century definitions of literacy respect these connections, and I prefer to welcome the full range of literature to the classroom.
  3. Find and build connections to and among texts. Simply reading one word after another or viewing one image after another is never enough. Literature isn’t important because of what it is. It’s important because of our reactions and interactions with it. Welcoming connections openly and supportively can make all the difference in teaching literature effectively. Students may identify with a feeling or experience. They may reject a presentation of reality or a decision a character makes. They may find that events in wildly different texts have more in common than they expected. These connections are what makes literature engaging and alive.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acknowledging the Role of Professional Development in Literacy Education Reform

I teach a reading course for 9th grade students who have been identified as needing additional support as they transition to the literacy demands of high school. Last week, students were learning about photosynthesis by participating in variety of reading activities involving picture books, websites, and excerpts from textbooks and trade nonfiction. At one point during the period, a student asked, “Why are we doing this in here? If this is a reading class, shouldn’t we be reading novels and writing summaries?”

Well, we do read novels and we do build comprehension skills such as summarizing in that class. But the student’s question couldn’t be more relevant in light of the recent introduction of the LEARN (Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation) Act to the US Senate. Too many adolescent learners think of English as the class in which they read. Too many teachers and administrators think of English as the class in which reading is taught. Logically, then, novels are taught, read, and written about; content area texts are “taught around.”

I am hopeful that the proposed LEARN Act lives up to its acronymic promise by helping us all better understand that, even for (especially for!) adolescents, school has to be about both learning to read and write and learning through reading and writing. This isn’t to say that every teacher has to become a literacy specialist, but it does suggest that everyone involved in the education of America’s students needs to be aware of the powerful ways that reading and writing can be used to learn content, with improved proficiency in reading and writing achieved in the process.

This shift in understanding doesn’t come easily, though. That’s why it’s so exciting to see that one of the three prongs of the proposed LEARN Act specifically mentions funding for professional development for teachers. Teachers are used to mandates that, even if philosophically agreeable, are doomed to fail because they focus only on the what of educational reform. The how of school reform involves time and money, so we’re often on our own to develop solutions.

I know I’ve profited immensely from engaging in ongoing, job-embedded professional development such as NCTE’s Pathways for Advancing Adolescent Literacy and web seminars like On Teaching Content: Building a Schoolwide Culture, all of which support the goals of LEARN. So even though this legislation is still in its very early stages of the process, I still have to be encouraged by a proposal that includes teachers as part of the “All” in LEARN and acknowledges us as active learners in the reform process.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What’s the Best Plagiarism Detector?

My favorite plagiarism story from the last month is the Time article “How Plagiarism Software Found a New Shakespeare Play.” The story explains how plagiarism-detection software was used to look for similarities between known Shakespearean plays and a work suspected to by the Bard. They found enough similarities to convince the author of the study that we should add The Reign of Edward III to the Shakespearean canon.

The Shakespearean study used the free software Pl@giarism, one of many checkers you can find online. Nick Carbone, Director of New Media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, recently posted a list of plagiarism detectors to several discussion lists. Nick, who has done a number of workshops on avoiding plagiarism, found the following programs, which he’s allowed me to share with you :

I‘m tempted to run The Reign of Edward III through some of these other tools to see if they concur with the original study, but that’s really the only way I’d use them.

Russ Hunt, from St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada, explains the basic challenge I see in such plagiarism detectors in a comment on a 2007 blog entry I wrote about plagiarism:

[W]e need to get rid of the “turn in” part of “turnitin.” What happens to student writing should be that it gets read, and matters: what happens in fact, way too much of the time, is that it gets “turned in.” I always think of the image of sod.

As long as student writing serves the sole purpose of being a medium by which students are evaluated (it's “turned in” so we can do that), students aren’t going to see it as real. We can “encourage” students to “choose topics that matter to them” all we want, but they have to matter to a reader too. And you don't “turn things in” to a reader. You turn them in to “the teacher as examiner.”

In other words, all the plagiarism detectors listed above focus on some finished product that students have “turned in.” They care only about a final copy and read the texts like a spell checker, with little passion for what the author has tried to say. As Hunt suggests, students’ work is not read, so much as examined. So if none of those tools do what we need, what is the best option?

The best plagiarism detector

  • looks at students’ work in progress. It doesn’t wait till the end to scream, “GOTCHA!” It looks at writing throughout the composing process and shows writers that a reader is genuinely interested in their take on the topics.
  • makes sure that writers are never working frantically, at the last minute. It guards against situations where students plagiarize in the anxiety of last-minute writing. It values not just that final draft that gets “turned in” but every draft—from jotted notes to sloppy copy to published submissions.
  • gives writers information about using sources in the context of the composing process. It teaches the difference between summary and quotation and how to check citations in the context of the work in progress. Ideally, when a writer begins working with outside sources, the best detection system would be able to step in and look at what the writer is doing and give feedback to help resolve any issues before the final draft is “turned in.”

In short, the best plagiarism detector pays attention to what writers are doing early on and throughout the composing process and fosters an authentic exchange between readers and writers.

And that’s why you are actually the best plagiarism detector. A writing teacher who engages students as an authentic reader and works with them throughout the process can detect more plagiarism than any software algorithm ever will. And more importantly, a writer teacher can not only detect plagiarism but also can talk to writers about how to fix any issues before that final draft is “turned in.”