Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Blog Entries of 2009

Year-end summaries are checkpoints for teachers. While it may be the end of the calendar year, we’re at the midpoint of the school year. It’s the perfect moment to reflect on where we’ve been and adjust for the second half of the academic year.

Of the 49 entries published this year, these were the most popular with readers:

  1. Five Ways to Learn about Students This Fall (August 18)
  2. Three Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Writing (February 24)
  3. Building Community in 15 Minutes a Day (August 4)
  4. What's the Best Plagiarism Detector? (November 3)
  5. Five Things I've Gained from Reading Literature (April 28)
  6. Writing Poetry: Putting Chaos into Perspective (March 24)
  7. What’s on Your Summer Writing List? (May 19)
  8. 21 Great Library Links (with Related Classroom Activities!) (September 1)
  9. Wordle and the Inauguration (January 27)
  10. Daring to Disturb the Universe (April 7)

So what can we take away from 2009? What will matter as we go forward? What do these entries tell us? The top blog entries of 2009 show that we are interested in connecting with students, building lively literacy communities, and finding the best strategies to support readers and writers.

There may have been some chaos. There have certainly been challenges. But we teachers are always willing to look for something better, a new way, or a more effective solution. Most importantly, we dare to disturb the universe. We push students into those dissonant places where learning happens—and we provide them the support and encouragement they need to grow as readers and writers. Here’s to an even more daring 2010!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Look Back at 2009: Meeting Professional Learning Goals

‘Tis the season for year-end best-of retrospectives, and though I’m not a film critic or Amazon editor, I’ve got a list of my own to share. I’m fortunate that this year has brought me enough positive professional development experiences that I’m able to recommend three of them in this, my last INBOX blog of 2009.

Certainly each of these recommended NCTE resources is of exceptional quality in its own right, and I’m confident you’ll find something of value in them. But what makes these three my top NCTE resources for the year is the way in which they met specific professional development needs and goals I’d set for myself: assisting my district’s efforts to reform English curriculum, learning about Young Adult literature to share with my struggling readers, and promoting a building-wide culture of literacy and learning.

In order corresponding to those goals, then, here are three 2009 NCTE resources worth checking out:

Bruce Penniman’s book Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success
Yes, I blogged about this one last month, but I still contend it’s the best professional book I read in 2009. At once both comprehensive in scope and specific in examples and explanations, Penniman’s discussion of designing a writing program, designing a literature curriculum, and creating an assessment system reinforced what I believed I was doing well, challenged some practices I may want to change, and gave me new insights to approaches I hadn’t even considered. Valuable for new and veteran English teachers alike, this book is one that secondary methods teachers should consider adopting as well.

Jennifer Buehler’s podcast “A Conversation with Matt de la Peña
Jennifer recommended de la Peña’s second book, Mexican WhiteBoy, in her ReadWriteThink.org Text Messages podcast back in 2008, but it wasn’t until I listened to this October 2009 conversation with the author that I took her for her word and read one of his novels, Ball Don’t Lie. In this episode, she and Matt talk about his writing process and the characters from his newest book, We Were Here, which is on my reading list for winter break—if I can get my copy back from the student who’s already reading it first.

Doug Fisher (and team)’s web seminar “On Teaching Content: Building a Schoolwide Culture
I’ve mentioned this resource before, too, but like Penniman’s book, it merits a second recommendation. You can access the archived version of this hour-long learning experience to see teachers across subject areas discuss the ways in which instructional routines develop students understanding about content. You’ll also see and hear from students in these teachers’ classrooms who can attest to the benefits of these approaches to building vocabulary and background knowledge and promoting learning through writing.

With your learning goals for 2010 in mind, I encourage you to check out the resources I’ve recommended and peruse the NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org websites for other professional learning materials that can help you help students succeed!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to Move Closer to School 2.0

William Kist’s “From Web 2.0 to School 2.0: Tales from the Field” includes vignettes of teachers across the United States using digital technologies to connect students to one another and to the texts that they explore.

The remarkable thing about the activities Kist describes is not the technology the teachers use. The social networking tools he discusses are widely available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia are part of everyday conversations. They’re mentioned on television and radio regularly, seen in newspaper ads and on billboards, and even plastered on the sides of products you pick up in department and grocery stores.

It’s not availability that makes these social networks a significant tool in the classroom. Simply adding digital technologies doesn't guarantee an empowering, student-centered pedagogy. Read the recent Edutopia article “Skip the Sub and Teach with Twitter” to see what I mean. The teacher in the article functions as the traditional sage-on-stage. She’s just controlling the class from a distance, even down to the point of telling a student to stop talking. Twitter could easily be replaced with a telephone and the same teaching would have resulted.

To move closer to School 2.0, teachers and students need to rethink the classroom. I recently watched the GRITtv interview Clay Shirky: The Social Media Revolution, which colleague Chris Boese blogged about. GRITtv Interviewer Laura Flanders captures the challenge of building School 2.0 when she asks Shirky, “How do we help new tools really be voices for new ideas and new populations and new ways of looking at things and not the same old power struggles?”

That’s the question we need to ask in the classroom: How can we use social networking tools, or Web 2.0, to bring out new voices and ideas, rather than repeat the same old power struggles and pedagogy? What steps can we take to bring the social media revolution to the classroom (and not simply digitize the sage-on-stage tradition)?

There are three important things we can do in response that will help us rethink the classroom and move closer to School 2.0.

1. Ask Students for Suggestions

When we look at the classroom, we often see only what’s obvious. We need to see the wider range of possibilities. The solution is simple. Just ask students to list the social networking tools and technology they have access to and then ask them what they could do with these tools in the classroom.

We need to ask students to help us see the classroom in new ways, ways we have never thought of. This kind of rethinking and re-envisioning is the crux of the social media revolution. To show you what I mean, let me borrow a quotation from Boese’s blog, related to how Twitter works:

The simplicity of Twitter, of course, is its genius. It has the power to do so much by doing so little. But that’s not the only thing that’s simple about Twitter. The service itself was only intended to share 140-character messages with the world. Its significance is its evolution. Everything from @replying and retweeting to using hashes and symbols can be attributed to the users. It has brilliantly allowed users to define it – almost entirely. As Shirky points out, “Most of the uses of Twitter were not imagined by the designers of the service – they were managed by the users of the service.”

When we ask students how they would use social networking tools in the classroom, we encourage them to take the step that Twitter users took. We ask them to imagine ways of communicating that we haven't thought of—and we encourage them to take the steps necessarily to make that communication happen.

2. Look for Roadmaps

New directions require new roadmaps. Don’t panic when you find you don’t know how to do all the things students want to try in the classroom. Look to the work of other teachers already on the way to School 2.0.

Kist links to a number of tools you can use in his article. You may pursue your own dedicated Ning or contribute to an existing resource like Wikipedia. Either way, consider Kist’s descriptions of how these tools have been used can serve as potential models for the classes you teach.

Additionally, check out resources on the ReadWriteThink site:

Finally, look for support among other teachers. Join the NCTE Ning and ask your questions (or share your fears). Chances are someone will be able to help you!

3. Encourage and Support Trial and Error

There’s no one right way to do things when you’re working with social networks. What works for one person (or class), may not work at all for another. You will only find the best fit if you are willing to try, retry, rearrange, modify, and customize the ways that you use Web 2.0 tools in the classroom.

Look back to that quotation from Boese’s blog. What has made Twitter an active social networking tool isn’t its original design, but Twitter’s evolution in the hands of its users. Twitter users try out new tools and new ways of encoding their messages all the time. The techniques that work best stick. Ways that don’t work are dropped. When something better comes along, people switch and begin using it instead.

It’s the same for those of us moving toward School 2.0. We’ll only find the best ways to use social networking in the classroom if we are willing to evolve. We have to help students develop, test, and rethink their use of digital technologies, and we have to remind them constantly that there is no one right way to use social networks. School 2.0 is one place where it has to be okay to fail. Indeed, it’s a place where failure is actually a sign of progress.

Rethink. Evolve. School 2.0.

Kist tells us that ”In this new media age, it seems we are all not only constantly recipients of messages but creators of them as well.” That simple truth is also secret of School 2.0. Once we invite students to help us rethink and evolve the ways we communicate in the classroom, we can move closer to School 2.0. And when that happens, students are no longer simply “recipients” of educational messages and literacy instruction. They are, in fact, “creators” of education and literacy as well. That shift is ultimately what moves us all closer to School 2.0.