Monday, February 23, 2015

Engagement or Lack Thereof

If you didn't watch the debacle that was the Oscars last night, consider yourself lucky. The first few minutes were way cool, then it quickly devolved from there. I won't go into the poorly written jokes. That's what all of the withering criticism you'll find everywhere from The New York Times to Entertainment Tonight is for. What I want to discuss is what I did while I waited for something worth while to happen, and let me tell you, I waited a good long while. I tweeted.

Lest you think I was pursuing something educational, I wasn't. I just wanted to amuse myself until that crazy Lego song was over and Neil Patrick Harris stopped embarrassing seat fillers. So I followed the hashtag #Oscars2015. There were some amusing comments like this one:

And this:

Even Tyrion Lannister weighed in:

Though I don't know any of these people personally (and, of course, one of them is fictional), it still felt like we were passing notes in class. It was fun and killed the tedium. As the above tweets attest, there was plenty of that to go around. Saturday night, however, there was no need for snark when my husband and I watched The Theory of Everything. The movie was so engrossing that I easily dismissed the dozen or so texts that my friends were sending me in a group chat. Creating that level of engagement is the kind of teaching I aspire to.

You know how your heart sings when the kids hear the bell at the end of class and say, "Wait. Class is over? Really?"compared to those days when they try packing up their bookbags long before you're through. While I certainly have my share of the latter, today's "Frankensteining" activity was more of the former. My colleagues and I decided to introduce a particular type of analysis question by having kids take the responses that we wrote to it and creating a hybrid, a "monster" answer. Once they'd crafted what they thought was the best response from ours with their tablemates, they had to explain their thinking behind each choice.

That this was a precursor to writing their own essays, they cared not. They were having fun, ripping our essays to shreds to combine them into something new. No one paid attention to the bell when it finally rang. No one passed notes. Not today any way.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Last week was Random Acts of Kindness Week. We discussed how we might be kinder to each other in LEAD, our mentoring program, Monday afternoon, and then we teachers kicked it into high gear by leaving encouraging Post-its on every student locker after school for kids to find when they came in the next day. Admittedly, most were not as photo-worthy as the one pictured above, but they were all heartfelt. The kids really seemed to like them and hung onto them for days.

Students reported doing little things for each other and their families throughout the week, but the most generous act that I know of was a collaborative effort from four friends. Inspired by our Post-its, they decided to leave each 8th grader a valentine in their lockers so that no one would feel left out on Friday when the inevitable wave of flowers, chocolate, and teddy bears descended upon the school. They spent the rest of their lunch periods that week cutting out over three hundred hearts and writing the same message on each.

Other students were so tickled by this message that they left their own on each of the mirrors in the girls' bathroom. Another hit with their peers.

All of this started because teachers spent no more than thirty minutes writing and then posting our messages for students. It's no surprise to those of us who are parents that children imitate what we do. Whether it's expressing concern at a coughing fit, "Mommy, are you okay?" or repeating an expletive when we're cut off in traffic, we know the power of our modeling.  Imagine what would happen if  we made a concerted effort to model the behavior of scientists, mathematicians, readers, writers, historians, artists - whatever our subject matter.

And I don't just mean that they need to see us with a book in our hands from time to time if we're English teachers. They need to get the skinny from us on how we go about navigating as well as creating text. We need to "teach with the top of our heads off" to steal a Don Graves' quote so that students better understand how a proficient reader/writer makes sense of  the text structure of a a new nonfiction book being read or figuring out how to craft the title of a poem to both invite interest and hint at its message. If we do, they'll be better equipped to do the same.

So in addition to being kinder, let's also be more thoughtful in how we approach our teaching. Students are bound to emulate us if we do.  And there's nothing random about that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

No Tutus Required

Last night's #engchat was about student PLNs. Tonight's PLN was at my pottery studio. There are us newbies who cheer each other on, and then there are the "Big Girls", the women who are not large in size - just in stature. They've been through a few cycles of this class before and need little guidance from our teacher. They remind me of the older girls in a dance studio that all of the little ones look up to. And just like the Big Girls at dance class, they're protective of the neophytes in the room.

Brittney is one of them. She stopped by my wheel to compliment a pot I was trimming. I had been very frustrated with this process, but a kind word from her and a hint about using a different tool saw me persevering despite not knowing how to control my speed.

She, Kari, Sharon, and Sue all also serve both as role models - they always have a vision for what they're creating while I'm just trying to keep mine on the blessed wheel- and as cheerleaders for our fledgling efforts. The picture above is of my new friend Christine. Bolstered by smiles and sage advice, she's determined not to let the wheel get the best of her.

Pottery's not coming easily to me as I am an impatient cuss. I might have ducked out if it weren't for Big Girls in my class. But I'll stick with it. This week let's all strive to be Big Girls in the various arenas of our lives. We can make a real difference to someone and we won't even have to wear tutus.

Friday, February 6, 2015


So we're less than one week away from our Twitter chat with Tom Newkirk about the role of narrative in nonfiction, an idea that forms the basis for his new book, Minds Made For Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informative and Persuasive Text. If you're free, we'd love for you to join us on Twitter Thursday night at 7 pm EST. Look for #mindsmadeforstories.

Here are a half dozen questions Tom and I hope to discuss with you:
    What happens to us as readers of well-crafted nonfiction?
    1. Which books/authors meet Tom's reasons to "stay with me" (Chapter 5) and blur the line between what Rosenblatt calls reading "efferently" and "aesthetically"?
    2. Is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction really misleading us? Don't they operate on the same principles?
    3. How is narrative treated in your curricula and standards?
    4. What practices cause students to follow rules that good nonfiction writers do not obey?
    5. How do we help students to write nonfiction engagingly? To privilege the use of metaphor and narrative in persuasive and informative texts?
    You needn't prepare anything ahead of time. Just thought you'd like to know our thinking at this point. See you in a few days.

    Monday, February 2, 2015

    On Honey, Polenta, and Other Assumptions

    My husband and I take turns with grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning too. Last week it was my turn, so I prowled the aisles in the midst of Snowmageddon preparations. I could find most of the things I needed in spite of the crowds, but two things remained elusive: honey and polenta. At first I hoped I'd happen upon them as I picked up the other items on my list when they weren't where I thought they'd be. When that didn't pan out by the time I'd otherwise finished my shopping, I began an active search.

    The honey wasn't in the aisle with sugar and other baking supplies. It wasn't with breakfast cereals. Instead I found it with peanut butter and jelly in the bread aisle. I suppose some see it as a sandwich spread, but I would have placed it either with the other sweeteners or maybe in the tea aisle. Then again Acme didn't ask me to design their stores for a reason. The polenta was another story altogether. Yes, you can buy it premade, but that's not how we eat it at my house. What I should have been looking for is cornmeal. Lesson learned. (Why I didn't know this, I'll go into another time.)

    It occurred to me as I dodged other shoppers' wayward carts that I needed to activate my schema of both the store and of the missing items in order to locate them. I knew where particular aisles were located. More importantly, I needed to think about the nature of honey to know with what items it was likely to have been grouped. I knew not to look for example in among the bottles of shampoo in the personal care aisle or for it among the bags of Doritos, Cheetos, etc. I may have had to go to three aisles before I struck gold, but I didn't have to go to thirty.

    On the way home I wished I could say that my students apply this same kind of strategy to their reading. After Christmas, we began reading pieces that we simply found to be beautiful and to admire their craftsmanship divorced from whatever we are studying one day a week. We were reading an essay last week about a woman who volunteers at a local nursing home by bringing her dog in to visit the patients. I asked what I thought was a fairly straightforward question before talking about the writing itself, "What precipitated her decision to begin volunteering?"

    Some students could easily find where the author told us that her daughter had gone away to school and that her dog needed more exercise, but an alarming number of them, began rereading the article from the very beginning, hoping they'd stumble upon it. At least that is what I thought initially. It occurred  to me later that maybe they were reading strategically if they believed that information about the beginning of her volunteerism was at the beginning of the article. Alas, it was not. It was actually located three quarters of the way through.

    What I thought would be a lesson for finding information strategically within a text turned into a discussion of what they were thinking while they were looking. Those who began at the beginning did in fact believe that because whatever prompted her volunteerism happened before the essay began that it would be located there. Another student told me that she began looking in the middle because authors often include background information here.  Clearly, my assumptions about their  lack of use of strategy were wrong-headed as so often happens with assumptions. I simply had to ask to find out.

    Who knows? They might teach me a thing or two - perhaps even about polenta.

    Tuesday, January 27, 2015


    A few weeks back I wrote a book review of Tom Newkirk's Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read Informational and Persuasive Text. It was favorably received. Some commented that they wished we could have a book club about it. I concurred, waiting for someone else to get the ball rolling. Turns out they were rightfully waiting for me. With a prod from Penny Kittle, I contacted Tom and arranged a Twitter chat for Thursday, February 12th at 7 pm.

    Tom is a neophyte when it comes to Twitter as I am when it comes to hosting chats, but we're both willing to give it a go if you're willing to join in. Look for discussion questions posted here soon to whet your appetite. If you're a newbie to chats, you might want to follow one in the meanwhile to get a sense of how they work. They run throughout the week and on a variety of topics. I highly recommend #engchat for English teachers Monday at 7 pm and #titletalk to discuss books on the last Sunday night of each month.

    I'll certainly participate in them with a keener eye. I'm grateful for the chance to lead this discussion and don't want to screw it up. I'm also inspired by the new learning. So thanks to all who helped to make that happen. If ever you're in doubt about whether you should go to the trouble to leave a comment on someone's post, wonder no longer. They are what propelled me to take this on.

    See you on Thursday the 12th at 7 pm!

    Tuesday, January 20, 2015


    Last week I mentioned that despite my best efforts to banish thoughts of school in my pottery class, that exemplars wouldn't decamp from my consciousness. It's because there weren't any save the ones the instructor made in front of us to work from. She told us there were many different directions in which we could go, but without actual vases, plates, etc. in front of me - heck, pictures would have sufficed, I was stymied.

    And because I write, I knew exactly what the problem was and how easily it could be fixed. I strive always to provide my students with models to emulate both by their peers and by me. To that end I've spent the past few days working to create exemplars for my students for some notebook work they'll do as means of refilling our writing topic reservoir for the second half of the year. Using ideas stolen from Penny Kittle's website, I created both a photo autobiography and an infographic to represent highlights from the past five years.

    Here's a rough draft of my infographic in progress.

    It's serendipity that I stumbled across Penny's tweet about her revamped website. We had just started examining infographics in class a few days before. Creating their own will both serve my students' future writing and their understanding of what makes infographics tick. Mine will probably change as I mull it over further.

    What won't change is my insistence on attempting anything I ask of my students and my tendency to steal good ideas when I come across them. It hardly amounts to piracy on the high seas when I am sure to give credit where it belongs and when a teacher of teachers uploads them to her website. But I'll take it on the chin if that's what you want to accuse me of. I'm proud to fly this flag if it grows my students' literacy.

    P.S. I just got back from class where we were shown some pictures of exemplars: a step in the right direction.

    P.P.S. A few weeks back I wrote a review of Tom Newkirk's new book, Minds Made For Stories. There were a few calls for a fuller discussion of it. I 'm pleased to say that Tom's agreed to participate in a Twitterchat some time in February. Once we have a definite date, I'll let you know. If you've been meaning to read this book, move it to the top of your to-be-read pile and stay tuned.