Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coveting Books

When I learn of book awards like NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award and ALA’s Newbery and Caldecott Medals, immediately my list of books-to-read grows—as if that pile by my bed could get bigger without toppling over and burying me. I begin to anticipate opportunities with these books... maybe I could read this with my granddaughter or maybe I could use this book or part of it with my college freshmen. Maybe this is a book to recommend to one of my two book groups or maybe I could have one of those luscious Sunday afternoon reads of a book just for my pleasure much as Matthew Bucher describes in "The Book Club with Just One Member" (The New York Times,January 23, 2010).

A friend once told me that his younger brother would panic when he didn’t have a song in his head. I feel that way about books. I need to have book words playing around my brain both to anchor and challenge me. I can’t imagine how dreadful it would be not to feel that way, but unfortunately, many of our students have no such kinship with books.

Katie McKnight’s 2008 Annual Convention Session posting and subsequent discussion on the NCTE Ning, “Pedagogical Practices For Teaching The Classics To Struggling Readers,” features several tips and more booklists to help us help struggling readers. And Kylene Beers’ book When Kids Can't Read--What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 provides a handbook of ideas for reaching those kids without “book words” in their heads. You might want to take the survey Kylene and Robert Probst have just put out for teachers of students grades 4-12 regarding novels for struggling readers. Note that the survey ends January 30.

Two of my favorite online resources about books for young people and teachers of books are Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn’s A Year of Reading and Teri Lesesne’s The Goddess of YA website.

And, if you’re thinking you’d never use those Orbis Pictus winners in your classroom, think again with the NCTE books The Power of Picture Books: Using Content Area Literature in Middle School and The Best in Children's Nonfiction: Reading, Writing, & Teaching Orbis Pictus Award Books.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Metaphor Makeovers: The Secret to Test Success

When students sit down to take a test, how do they think about themselves? It may seem like a silly question, but the answer probably matters more than you think.

Attitude Matters
The Truth about Grit,” published last fall in The Boston Globe explains the significance of the way we think about ourselves and our effort. It turns out the way you see yourself can be the difference that makes one person succeed where an equally intelligent person fails. If you think of yourself as someone who is smart, you may do reasonably well. However, if you think of yourself as someone who works hard and tries to improve, you’re more likely to succeed according to the studies described in the Globe article. You have what researchers call grit.

It’s not just stubbornly sticking with something though. There’s more to it. People with grit believe that they have to work hard to succeed. They have an organic notion of how success is achieved. They believe it takes ongoing effort, with constant attention to thinking, changing, and evolving your abilities. As the article explains,

One of the most important elements is teaching kids that talent takes time to develop, and requires continuous effort. Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, refers to this as a “growth mindset.” She compares this view with the “fixed mindset,” the belief that achievement results from abilities we are born with. “A child with the fixed mindset is much more likely to give up when they encounter a challenging obstacle, like algebra, since they assume that they’re just not up to the task,” says Dweck.

If you’re not yet sold, Dweck’s research may convince you. Dweck took a group of fifth graders and gave them various IQ tests. After the first test, half of the fifth graders were told that they must be very smart while the other half were told that they worked very hard. The fifth graders who were praised for hard work (for their grit) did better on subsequent IQ tests than students praised for being intelligent.

Testing Metaphors
Now consider how we currently talk about achievement tests and education. In her book Adolescent Literacy at Risk? The Impact of Standards, Rebecca Bowers Sipe describes the two predominant metaphors used to talk about education: an industrial, assembly line metaphor, and an agarian, organic metaphor.

Using the assembly line metaphor, education focuses on “breaking complicated literacy tasks down to their smallest parts, teaching and testing the parts, and eventually producing a shiny new high school graduate who would roll out of the school and into college or the workplace fully prepared for the challenges ahead” (p. 16, PDF of Chapter One).

Compare that way of thinking with the agarian metaphor:

The farmer realizes that growing quality crops is a highly recursive process, one that requires careful and reflective practice across a career. Every crop is different. Crops in different fields vary in growth patterns. The strategies that work best with one set of circumstances may be less effective in another. The job of the farmer is to pay attention to the very complex and interconnected set of circumstances in play and to bring the very best professional expertise into practice day-by-day. (p. 16, PDF of Chapter One)

Given what we have learned about the way grit and a growth mindset affect success, it’s obvious which metaphor will better serve students. Standardized notions of education simply don’t work as well. When students take a test, their success may hinge on which educational metaphor is in play. If they have adopted the industrial metaphor, they see education as fixed, with a standard system and uniform parts and measures. The agarian model, on the other hand, is both figuratively and literally about a growth mindset—and research says that mindset is more likely to foster success.

Metaphor Makeovers
How can we help students move more toward a growth mindset? Changing the national conversation about education may be the best solution, but we have to be realistic. How can we help the kids we have in the classroom right this minute? I prescribe Metaphor Makeovers! Ask students to think about how they fit in the educational system, reflect on the way they describe themselves, and then change their thinking in ways that will make them more successful.

Begin by establishing how students feel about themselves. No matter what they feel now, there are ways you can help them change their process and thinking to support a growth mindset. I begin with a writing activity like this, taken from Designing Writing Assignments:

Describe yourself as a test writer by using an analogy. Begin by completing this sentence: “When I write a timed essay, I am like a _______.” For example, you might complete the sentence this way: “When I write a timed essay, I am like a gardener.” After you’ve come up with your analogy, explore your choice in a journal entry. If I were comparing myself to a gardener, I’d talk about the way that I get started on a paper and the way that I start work on a garden— gathering seeds and tools is like gathering ideas and basic information about the writing prompt. Your response should do two things: show how you write a timed essay and make comparisons that clarify for your readers the way that you write.

Students can work in journals, informal writing, or essays. Whatever format you want. Be sure the students understand they will share what they write with the class later. To scaffold the activity, brainstorm a list of metaphors as a class that students can draw from. You might even work through an analogy together to model the kind of thinking you want them to do.

Once they have established their metaphors, you have the “before” snapshot for your makeover project. Have students share their metaphors with the class or in small groups. Talk honestly about what works and what doesn’t. You can model the classroom discussion on whatever makeover show you and students are familiar with (e.g., Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, or The Biggest Loser).

As you move to the makeover stage, students can try switching metaphors, trying on someone else’s practices, or tossing out an old practice. Make it clear students are just trying options. They can always return to the old way of doing things. Encourage trial and error. Your job is to provide feedback that encourages that growth mindset. Don’t just make suggestions though. Be sure to explain why you’re making them, just as someone on one of those television makeover shows explains suggestions.

At the end of the process, students can present “before” and “after” descriptions to the class, or you can have students write a short reflection piece on the process that the two of you discuss together. Just as they do on the shows, you might even return to the metaphors several weeks later to see how they are working—have they returned to the old ways, or sticking with the makeover?

Throughout the activity, remember to talk about how hard they are working. It’s not how smart student are that matters after all, but whether students are willing to work hard to be smarter.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From Potential to Power: Reading and Writing the National Gallery

As teachers of writing, we are acutely aware of how important the presence of an authentic audience can be for students' motivation to write. Though my state’s standards call for students to “write for real or potentially real situations” [emphasis mine], it’s a challenge to find such opportunities on a regular basis.

When I first heard about the National Gallery of Writing, I was naturally excited about the idea of NCTE launching a large-scale project to highlight the centrality of audience and publication in the writing process. I find that the Gallery has achieved that goal, and I’ve enjoyed my time spent browsing galleries that interest me and searching for entries by friends, colleagues, and community members.

It wasn’t until mid-November, though, that the real power of the Gallery became clear to me. I was at my Writing Project’s reunion dinner when a Teacher Consultant described a local gallery he curates. Knowing his students’ interest in giving voice to their ideas with a real audience, he had them submit pieces of creative writing, opinion pieces, poetry, and multi-modal compositions (many of which were about the power of language and writing in their own lives) to the Gallery. His students are incarcerated men.

I respect this colleague’s work generally, and I’m very interested in the intense social justice approach his work is taking, so I rushed home from the meeting to have a look at the submissions in the gallery, Education Justice Project: Voices from Prison. What I found there confirmed my sense of the importance of a National Gallery of Writing, as the authors represented in that gallery are truly among the most voiceless in America. Yet their writing is as poignant, thoughtful, and articulate as anything else I’ve read in the Gallery.

Though I could point to any number of examples, I encourage you to read “On ‘Being pushed’ vs. ‘Being pushed around,’” a two-part piece that contains a foreword and a letter to the author’s son. Admittedly, being a father of a young son and a believer in the power of writing myself, I’m perhaps biased in my assessment. But I think you’ll agree that, with introductory material that describes the written journal he’s keeping for his son and that specifically identifies his ability to “pour [his] emotions onto the pages that [he] writes[s]”—to say nothing of the contents of the letter itself—this is writing that both profited from and richly deserves the potential to be read.

With this in mind, take some time in the weeks to come to help ensure that the audience for the writing in the National Gallery is real—not just potentially real. Search for pieces written by children the same age as your students by using the age range filter and share them with your classes. Have students look for writing on topics that interest them by using a title keyword search. Using other search tools, such as author’s state of residence, technology used, or media type, find a piece that is particularly inspiring to you and share it on Facebook, Twitter, or another social networking site.

However you go about it, capitalize on the rich potential of the National Gallery of Writing to help get the word out about the importance of writing in every aspect of our lives.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Reading Jane Eyre in the Bathtub

Nearly every time the Kindle or Nook comes up in conversation, someone will complain that it’s just too hard to read a 600-page novel on such a little screen, and just as surely, someone will lament that you can't take an e-book into the bathtub.

You may think I’m kidding, so look at the comments on Lynn Neary’s NPR article “How E-books Will Change Reading and Writing.” Right there in the comments, Leslie Thomas (Carrington) states:

You can't take a dogeared old copy of Jane Eyre—in an electronic gadget—to the tub to read in a bubble bath.

The answer to that little problem, by the way, is to put the so-called “electronic gadget” in a Ziploc bag. That’s a little beside the point though.

The real problem is that when many people hear the term e-book, they think almost exclusively of paper-based novels (typically very long ones) that are shifted onto an electronic contraption that seems wholly unsuitable. People conjure a sort of “fish out of water” image. Or I guess to be true to the bathtub reference maybe a “synchronized swimming kittens” image would be better.

This (mis)understanding of e-books is what we teachers need to talk about. Take a few minutes to read “How E-books Will Change Reading and Writing.” Neary is talking about Twitter books and cell phone novels, and she explores how the various ways of reading digital texts shape how those texts are written.

This reshaping of how people write for online readers isn’t really new at all. Digital hypertexts have been around for over two decades. Take a look at the work of Michael Joyce for example. Yet we’re still in a society where people reject e-books because you can’t take them in the bathtub. Our job is to get people past these dated notions of texts and reading.

As teachers, we need to help students, colleagues, family members, and administrators recognize that learning 21st century literacy skills is a much more complex then simply trading ink on paper for pixels on a screen. It’s not about reading that dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre on some electronic gadget. It’s about a completely re-thought notion of what we read and how we read.

The best place to start is to ask students to pay attention to their reading habits. By noticing all the different kinds of texts they read, students begin to consciously recognize the many literacy demands in contemporary society. With this start, they create a working definition of literacy that they refine and explore further—and which they can share with their families and their wider community.

I recommend three ReadWriteThink lesson plans to begin a discussion of reading in the classroom:

It’s unlikely that every student will have access to an e-book reader like the Kindle or Nook in today’s classroom. But every student can get beyond the notion that the only kind of book worth reading is dog-eared and bathtub-ready.