Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's all about ME!

The hawk lazily circles over the running river. Butterflies flit across the path and bees are busy pollinating colorful, majestic wildflowers. Morning walks, ping pong tournaments and deep conversations over wine with like minded colleagues. Typical summer vacation for a teacher, right?

NOPE! I am deeply immersed in my summer CSETL retreat and while all those things are certainly true of my environment, this is a week of hard work and deep introspection. I celebrated some great success in writing last week: a powerful three-day writing workshop, the launching of my blog, the creation of a model to integrate writing into the content areas. This week – dissonance!

I have spent the past year researching and exploring literacy in an attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be literate in social studies?” As a social studies teacher, I grow increasingly concerned with what I see in our classrooms. As I have mentioned here before – the TEST seems to drive everything we do. We eat, sleep, and breathe those assessments. We give up solid instructional strategies and our very passions, the reasons we entered this profession, for the narrow focus of preparing our students for this small moment in time. And while I tend to push teachers into thinking about a different way to practice their craft – it was pointed out to me today that I have fallen victim to the same trap.

I have spent this past year writing and rewriting and rewriting again the rationale and outcomes for a professional learning experience investigating literacy with the TEST sitting smack dab in the center of it all. That’s not what I intended, nor is it what I want to have happen at the end of my time with teachers. But somehow, I lost my focus and felt compelled to lure teachers in by dangling the carrot of the test in front of them. False advertising? You betcha! And the guilt associated with my religious upbringing is now weighing heavily on my mind.

So – I need to find me. What are my passions? What have my teaching experiences taught me? Why do I think what I do is worthwhile? That will make my work compelling to others and help me find other passengers for this journey.

Confucius, one of the world’s most powerful teachers, said “words are the voice of the heart.” Our voice is the key component to making our writing persuasive, provocative, and powerful. It took a conversation with a colleague I respect and a man I have grown to admire to make me seek my true voice. What will it take to help our students find theirs?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fruit Salad - Yummy, yummy!

What do you do with apples and oranges? Make fruit salad!!!

I’ve been in the “kitchen” for the past three days as eight reflective, hard-working, and motivated teachers worked to meld Step Up to Writing strategies with the 6 Traits assessment framework. (See the links on the right for more info on these resources individually). I think we were somewhat successful (based upon the daily evaluations) and I am excited at what these enthusiastic teachers might be doing this fall. (Stay tuned to this blog as they share!)

I feel strongly that to teach writing you must be a writer – our pens were moving this week! We created character sketches based upon a bag of artifacts, wrote complaint letters to businesses, and reflected on the mentor text in our life. We wrote. We shared. We revised.

And we left with a “floor plan” design to work with other teachers in identifying the writing activities that will be used in content areas. (Thanks again Richard and Harvey!) I hope that it was worth the energy for these teachers to construct their own meaning and appreciate the risks they took in sharing their thoughts and words. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Clothes, clothes everywhere - and not a thing to wear!

I dread shopping. I went shopping today for additional clothes for an upcoming trip and as always, came away with more purchases for my nieces than for myself. Not that I truly need more clothes – I have two closets full of beautiful, generally nearly new clothes. The problem is that they range in size from “Yea me!” to “Oh my God! How did I get to be this size?” And it isn’t that I didn’t see lots of things I thought would be great. It’s just that when I put them on – the mirror didn’t reflect the image that I had in my head when the clothes were on the hanger. Oh well! I have the best dressed nieces in town!

This brought me back to the writing workshop today and the end of day reflections. Throughout the session, we used “mentor texts” to work with the Traits that were our focus. A mentor textis a piece of literature chosen and used by an individual to hone some aspect of the writing craft.

What really strikes me about mentor text is that it is truly personalized – you have to feel comfortable with the text to be able to use it to develop your style. It has to fit you. Much like the ¾ of my closet that are currently too small – I like them, but they don’t fit. If I put them on I would not only look ridiculous but feel very uncomfortable. So it is with writing.

Writers, particularly developing writers, need to be exposed to the work of many authors before they fall head-over-heels-in-love a style that touches them in the place that sparks creatively and starts the writing juices flowing. The author(s) that I choose to apprentice myself to might be ones that you find strange and awkward. Think back to the first time you read a particular author - and then ran out to read every single word written by them. Sometimes, you became even more smitten and those works have a permanent part in your library (and your heart). But sometimes as you become more familiar with that style, you become very disillusioned and wonder what you saw there in the first place.

As in life, I have fallen in and out of love with authors many times – but we always remember our first love! Mine was “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I have always been intrigued by the time period in which the novel is set and drawn to strong female characters. I even read “Pilgrims Progress” and tried to get my siblings to create our own family newspaper to imitate the March clan. I ran back to the school library and eagerly checked out “Little Men.” Not so compelling! I didn’t dare touch “Good Wives.” (Where is the “Good Husbands” novel?) I still use Louisa May Alcott as a mentor when I write; I just needed to move on and meet new people.

I can’t give you a definitive list of mentor texts to use for writing – I can only share what I enjoy and what has shaped me in writing. And if we do that for our students, they are bound to have opinions!! Some might love the ending to “Grapes of Wrath” and others feel sorely disappointed. But they will read – and read critically – to help develop their individual styles. That fits!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Nothin' but Time!!

Time was not on my side today. Perhaps it was the time I lost when my workshop materials scattered across the school parking lot on my way into the workshop. Or perhaps it was the time I gained for reflection when I had a flat tire on the way home. Either way - it just wasn't working for me!!

As I reflected on today's workshop with my new found time, I thought about the Compare & Contrast strategies we worked through from Harvey Silver and Richard Strong.
Participant reflections included ideas about how it would deepen student understanding of the content, would give students a "voice" in their learning, and how the strategy would enhance the essays calling for compare/contrast that so often appear on NYS assessments. BUT it would take time to do the activity the way it was modeled. Since it was hot and dinnertime, my mind began to wander a bit and I started to think about the time I might have saved today had I (1) paid attention to the dashboard gauge indicating that my tire pressure was low and done something about it and (2) paid attention to where exactly on Route 20 I was when I got the flat so that the tow truck driver could locate me a bit faster.

How many times have we as educators had a flat tire? The lesson we so carefully planned and prepped for that fell flat on it's face or the writing assignment we had high expectations for that instead caused us to wonder what class we had been teaching the past 3 weeks. Could we have avoided the flat tire by paying attention to dashboard lights and the formative assessments we had been giving along the way that cried out for us to "re-teach" something? If we paid attention to the details like scaffolding instruction or going deep before going wide - would we have gotten better results?

I know, I know: the tests! Time and tests are to education as death and taxes are to the rest of our lives. They are the elephants in the room - one we fear we have too much of and the other not quite enough. Where can we find a balance? Taking a lesson from Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! I propose that we can take the time to scaffold our instruction, practice writing and re-writing, and deconstruct writing tasks so that our students can do them well. And I believe that our students will still perform on the assessments before them.

I agree with Francis Bacon who said "To choose time is to save time." If we choose to take the time teach writing, really teach writing, we will save the time we previously spent fixing flat tires. What have we got to lose? Time?

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Long Way to Emerald City

"But it is a long way to the Emerald City,
and it will take you many days.
The country here is rich and pleasant,
but you must pass through rough and
dangerous places before you reach
the end of your journey."
I have often felt a bit like Dorothy when teaching writing. As a social studies teacher, history is my thing and writing was something my students were supposed to learn somewhere else. I quickly learned I wasn't in Kansas anymore after reading the very first paragraph I asked my students to write. And so I embarked upon a journey to discover how to teach writing to middle school students.
Along the way, I have been trained in the Four Square Method, Step Up to Writing, and 6 + 1 Traits. And I have watched districts in our WNY region adopt various writing programs and assessment frameworks to improve student writing across content areas. Each time - we have discovered that there was something small about the wizard behind the curtain. None of these, alone, has helped to improve student writing.
So how do we teach "good writing?" In fact, what is good writing? I am hoping the participants in my workshops and those in the Web 2.0 will add to our learning and conversations as we travel the "rough and dangerous" places!!