Saturday, December 29, 2007

And in conclusion....

As the year 2007 draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to post about writing conclusions. My guilty conscience is also leading me to do so, as I have been thinking about how to teach this element since being asked by a teacher for help earlier this month. (I haven't forgotten you Karen!)

As a teacher, I have always struggled with teaching conclusions to students. This is probably strongly linked to the fact that as a writer, I struggle with writing them!! I have always taught my students what they are NOT versus what they ARE and in retrospect, I wish that I had created samples of each for my students to use as models. For example:

Conclusions are NOT "beach trips"...

"Now that you have read about the causes of the American Revolution, I strongly suggest that you visit the city of Boston at some point in your life. When we went, it had great shopping and super restaurants. But be prepared to do a lot of walking (and I mean a lot!) by wearing your most comfortable sneakers!"

but they DO tie the essay together.

There were many reasons that the colonists decided to revolt against their mother country. Increased taxation to cover costs from a recent war, increased control by England over what could be manufactured/purchased in the colonies, and a sense that the colonists were not considered equal to British citizens all led to a new form of government and way of life in the newly formed United States."

While a list of this type might help students to see what conclusions should and should not look like, writing them can be another story. Teaching, modeling, and practicing writing conclusions often takes a back seat to time. Often, we are leave it out or assume that students can create conclusions once we have taught them introductions, transitions, details, etc. Three ideas to have students practice writing conclusions:

1. Provide students with a short 3-5 paragraph essay without a conclusion and have them draft a conclusion for the paper. Share the draft with a partner and then have them work together to write a third final version. Share with the class and vote on the most compelling conclusion.

2. Find great conclusions in stories/essays and share them with students. Ask them to identify the writing technique that makes the conclusion so powerful and create a class list of techniques. This also works well as a treasure hunt in your library if you are focusing on narrative writing.

3. From local state test anchor papers, cut out the conclusions of several papers. Giving students only the prompt - have them rank the conclusions from strong to weak and provide reasons. Rewrite one of the weaker conclusions to make it stronger.

I'm not sure these are the best ways to help students write better conclusions, and I certainly know that they are not necessarily the best ways, but it is a start!! I'd love to hear how others work with this tricky task!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Find Your Passion....Unleash Your Brillance

Here at the NSDC Conference, the learning opportunities can almost be overwhelming. I tend to overbook myself and then have to stop for a breather. But we had an interesting keynote this week the message won't leave my head.

Simon Bailey spoke to the group about releasing brillance through the power of imagination. We can't be limited anymore by what has always been done or the fact that no one has ever tried that before. If in business the most valuable resource is it's people - then in education, isn't it our kids?

And of course, in many of our sessions it is the "revised" Bloom's Taxonomy that is being used by presenters. In this one - the top level is CREATE!! Although I first read the new taxonomy and rationale two years ago, I have been hesitant to incorporate it into what I do - afraid, I suppose, that it was too unfamiliar to the teachers I work with. No longer! You can bet this is the version you will see!!

Kids as the most important thing. Create as the most important thing to do.

What does that have to do with writing? I came across this blog today - I am not going to say any more about it except that you have to read it. Don't say you are too busy or pass by clicking on this link: READ IT!!!

And then tell me why we can't get that kind of passionate writing within our (real or virual) classroom walls.

Monday, December 03, 2007

What was I hired for?

I am sitting at the NSDC conference in Dallas immersed in learning about learning with thousands of educators from across the world. It is an amazing conference to attend and the highlight of my professional learning each year.

Today, my focus is on Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. While I am familiar with most of the technology tools – it is interesting to view them through the organization of the nine strategies. It makes me think about how I can be more explicit in the organization that I use in my online work.

I was stopped short in my learning and compelled to write this blog entry at a comment made by the presenter. In discussing providing feedback to students, in particular around writing, he commented that as teachers we are not hired to be editors, we are hired to teach.

We are not hired to be editors, we are hired to teach.

I have been thinking a great deal about the activities I have been doing with teachers around examining student work. It is a natural progression after we have developed writing rubrics and determined the methods we will use to teach students to write. And I believe strongly that it is an integral piece of developing writing. However, as we look at the student work – I find that some teachers still make generalizations about the writing (“the good, the bad, the ugly”) instead of using the more discrete elements of the rubric to provide feedback (“that piece had great voice but was weak in organization”). And when the writing is “weak,” we give too much feedback. The student work swims in an ocean of red comments (or purple or orange) rather than providing explicit feedback and how the student can improve.

We are not hired to be editors, we are hired to teach.

We tend to be more comfortable marking up the papers (being the editor) rather than providing the feedback and mini-lessons that would help develop better writers (being the teacher.) Why is that?

Time? What better investment than to spend some time up front working with students on analyzing anonymous pieces, reflecting and getting feedback on their own writing, and revising with that feedback?

Too many kids? One of the best ways that students learn is from one another. Once we teach them how to give feedback using the rubric, we can focus on those who need some direct instruction rather than trying to get to all students in the course of one class.

Too hard? It is hard to plan for writing instruction. Each piece presents a different range of student abilities that we have to address and they generally are not things that we can anticipate. I still remember assuming that my students could write introduction and then being unpleasantly surprised to see my pet peeve intro (“In this essay I will tell you about…”) crop up all over the place –including on the papers of those writers I thought were “strong.” And I had little in my bag of tricks to help fix that problem.

So I had to start becoming a writer again – I had to write everything and think about how I thought about a lead or made transitions. I had to put my writing up for my kids to critique and give me feedback on. I had to write and read and write and read until I could also say that I was a writer to my students. It was hard…it was worth it…and I was a teacher, not an editor.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What do you get a Wookie for Christmas when he already owns a comb?

Members of our family have never really been lucky in a "Whoa - I bought this painting at a garage sale and found an original copy of the Declaration of Independence" sort of way. But we sometimes win at raffles (strangely - mostly we win mirrors) and radio contests. As a young child - "A Star Wars Christmas" was one lucky prize and the top hit? The title of this blog post!!

It made me think about what you get a literacy geek for Christmas when she already owns several blank notebooks, very comfy and colorful writing pens and more highlighters than should be allowed one person. And so - here is a list for all those teachers/literacy geeks in your life!!

1. Where the Wild Things Are Notecards - or other cards from your favorite children's books. This just happens to be my personal favorite!!

2. Mini-magnetic file folders: These are great! I have a habit of making notes on small pieces of paper or clipping out photos to put into my writer's notebook and then losing them. These help catch all.

3. Smencils - yup! You heard me! Smencils!! Imagine writing with a pencil, Number 2 no less, and smelling cotton candy or better yet - chocolate! Makes assessment season a bit more palatable!

4. The T-Shirt that captures it all!! Of course - this is just one of the many shirts that are perfect for the gym or lounging around the house blogging that you can find in this catalog!

5. Kindle!! I have to admit that I am longing for this little gadget!! Best sellers for $9.99 - newspapaers and blogs on demand - same size as a paperback - what more could you ask for?

These are my top five - if you have other ideas, I'd love to hear them!!

Monday, November 12, 2007

"I don't have anything to write about!!"

How many times have your heard that complaint from your students?

I am a big, big fan of writer's notebooks to help avoid this complaint but I understand that not everyone is similarly enamored. But I do love the idea on this post about coming up with a list of 100. In fact, I love it so much I am going to incorporate it into the trainings I do both for writer's notebooks and for creating blogs to use in the classroom.

I used to do something similar for my students when I wanted them to either think about what they already knew on a topic or what they had learned. We called it a "Three Minute Essay." Using an egg timer, students were to write continuously on an index card to answer the topic (i.e. What do you know about the American Revolution?) The only rules were that they had to continuously write, no stopping to think, for the full three minutes. Even if all they were writing was "I have no idea what I know about the American Revolution and I can't believe that I am continually writing that I have no idea what I know about the American Revolution." I found that the continual writing did help activate the students' memories and they did get some information down eventually. Spelling and grammar didn't count - it was all about getting the ideas out.

When using the list of 100, I will probably set a time limit for the brainstorming session and I am wondering if I will find the same trends:

1. First 30 entries or so: where you escape circular thinking
2. Next 40 entries: where patterns emerge
3. Last 30 entries: where the gems are

What list of 100 can you create with your students?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


I don't own this book...yet!! But reading about it over at Educating Alice has me hooked.

I love wordless books.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

As simple as a laptop?

I am a fan of using technology to enhance learning for students. I truly believe that the tools that we are provided on the web will engage students, are authentic to the world that awaits them, and in many ways are tools they are already familiar with. You can really focus on the content if student have mastered the tools.

So I was interested to read study that was done as a result of Maine's program to give every student a laptop computer. According to the Boston Globe article, the program sought to eliminate the "digital divide" between wealthy and poorer students and provided more than 30,000 computers to seventh and eighth grade students in public schools in 2002 and 2003. The study focused on the results of the Maine Educational Assessment to see if the standardized test scores backed up the perception that the laptops helped improve student writing.

The results?
- 49% of eighth graders were proficient in writing in 2005, up from 29% in 2000
- math scores remained unchanged, while science went up 2 points
- reading scores dropped 3 points

Additionally, teachers noted that the writing improvement was the same whether the students used the laptops or pen-and-paper - apparently the good habits of writing transferred over.

The study has me wondering - was it really the laptops? Did teachers change how they taught writing? I wonder what the students say about writing before and after the laptops - is it easier, more fun? Why an increase in writing and not in reading?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Candle On the Water

I've always wanted this blog to be a place where people who felt as passionately as I did about writing could find a friendly voice. And selfishly, I wanted to learn from others - from their struggles, from what they did with their students. And, of course, I wanted to write with a purpose. So I've changed the look and feel (I hope) of this space to focus on Why Write?

Writing is a passion of mine because there is incredible power in the written word. We send messages that last for ages, manipulate two dimensional words to create multi-dimensional meaning, draft each paragraph until it is exactly what we want to say. We can savor it, rage against it, copy it.

And it can help us find our voice - who we are, what we want to be.

I've always felt that teachers were the lighthouses for our students - inspiring them, lighting the way. I want this blog to do the same thing for the writer inside all of us.

I'll be your candle on the water
My love for you will always burn
I know you're lost and drifting
But the clouds are lifting
Don't give up you'll have somewhere to turn
- Candle On the Water, Helen Reddy from Pete's Dragon

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Finding Your Voice

At the urging of a friend who knows how I appreciate reading books with compelling voice, I picked up Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. In a nutshell - it follows a woman's journey through Italy, India, and Indonesia in order to find herself. My friend was right - I was hooked, page after page. The writing is descriptive and engaging and I could picture myself in each of the places the author wrote about - both physically and spiritually.

This post is my 99th on this particular blog. Bloggers tend to make a big deal about their 100th post - but I have been delaying that milestone for sometime because I feel like I am still trying to figure out what this blog is all about. It started as a place to continue conversations about writing with participants in my workshops. It evolved into the development of my own thoughts about writing and the writing process in general. And now - I am no longer sure what it is!!

I had pushed the notion of really reflecting about the blog to the back of my mind until I read this extrememly compelling post by Konrad Glogowski. He writes about his struggle to find his role as "blogger" with his eighth grade students.

"In other words, I want the students to see me as yet another blogger in their community, as someone whose reason for being there is not only to support and instruct but also to learn. To learn from and with my students."

In a very compelling way - he takes us through how he has changed not only the appearance of his blog, but the content as well in order to make it more of himself. I am undergoing a similar type of reflection - thinking about why I blog and who I am. And so I leave this 99th blog with this thought:

"I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me." - Anna Quindlen

Friday, October 12, 2007

Connections all over the place...

I know I shouldn't be blogging right now....My "to do" pile only seems to be growing this Friday afternoon, I have been creating data reports all day, and the sun is shining. But as I take a break to sit upright and read, I am finding connections all over the place!! And from just one email newsletter from NCTE!

First - a blog post about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. I was introduced to this site by a wonderful fifth grade teacher last year and blogged about it then. More recently - I had an opportunity to use it with teachers in talking about what makes a "good" website.

Then - I read an article about SE Hinton and the fortieth anniversary of "The Outsiders." I used Cris Tovani's Literary Histories this week in an inservice and more than one teacher brought up this book as an important piece of their past. I still remember reading it - and more importantly remember re-reading it with one of my eighth grade students who was a struggling reader. You go Devon!!

And THEN - I find a lesson plan to one of my favorite books to use with vocabulary: Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster!! Vocabulary was a topic of my inservice earlier this week - and it seems to be a thread that ran throughout the entire week. Each and every day of this very short, yet somehow incredibly long week, featured a discussion on vocabulary!!

And finally - I am intrigued by the ingenious teacher who decided to give the parents of his students homework by asking them to read the same things their children were and complete assignments on his blog!! Some interesting nuggets to chew on there!!

In a few more hours I will be connecting again - with my family and my couch and my weekend. In the meantime, I hope this finds you all well and rested!!

Photo from Jupiter Images.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Making Memories

As many readers know, my grandmother suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. Some members of my family and I walked in the annual Memory Walk in order to help raise funds for research, and even more importantly, for respite care. Each day, it seems that we lose more and more of my grandmother's stories and although my own Treasure Book tries to catch the snippets as she brings them up, I know there are many more that I have already missed.

The quote of the week comes from Ken Burns, who is referencing his latest WWII movie:

I'm in the memory business, and each time a person dies, it's a whole library of memories that leave.

Besides our writer's notebooks, what else could we do to help students capture memories - their own or those of others?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Quotation of the Week

Bloggers seem to have many carnivals and traditions in their blogs and I thought I would start one here on Writing Frameworks. I would often use quotations with my students to have them think about and make connections between their learning and their lives. Ironically, our NYS Regents exam asks students to do something similar in their "Critical Lens" essay. So I thought that I would post each Sunday/Monday the quote of the week - something that spoke to me and followed a theme. And you - dear readers, have the opportunity to reflect and post your thoughts on the quotation in the comments section.

Inspired by the "official" arrival of Fall and my reading of the book, Change or Die, this week's quote is about change:

We did not change as we grew older; we just became more clearly ourselves.

Lynn Hall, Where Have All the Tigers Gone?, 1989

Your reactions?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Chicken or Egg?

Readers of this blog know that my Second Grade niece, Amelia, is a budding author. In reviewing her first grade writing folders with her this summer, I came across an entry that had text but an incomplete picture to accompany it. I asked Amelia what happened and she said they ran out of time in class to finish it. I asked her why she draws the pictures last in school, when she always draws them first at home. Her answer? "Because that is the way we are supposed to do it in school."

In sharing that story with teachers this week, we entered the great debate of drawing to help inspire text. One camp believes that drawing pictures helps the students visualize what they want to write about and thus, provides richer text. The other camp believes that if the students are allowed to draw first, they will spend so much time on the drawing that the text won't get written.

There is some evidence of a strong link between drawing and writing. After a five month observation study in a kindergarten classroom Dyson found that as children's drawings become more elaborate, so do their texts. DaSilva writes about her own experiences connecting drawing to writing and reminds us that when drawing is a part of the reading and writing process, "it can help give ideas for writing and teach skills of observation, skills that encourage reading the world and reading the image. It can help propel thinking and revising."

I think about the details in Amelia's picture above - from the circles in the tree stumps to the multi-colored grass - and how powerful her writing would be if she captured them all in text. Is it worth the class time to allow students to develop those pictures and then conference with them to develop the details in writing?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Untold Stories

I just returned from a weekend trip to Boston. I have lots of blogs in my head - but for this post, mostly pictures. It is of the Holocaust Memorial in that city. Each glass tower represents a concentration camp and is etched with the serial numbers of the prisoners. The walkways have facts about the horrors of the concentration camps and inside each tower are parts of stories from survivors. It was a powerful memorial.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Treasure Books - Part 2

“Every moment in our lives is a treasure worthy of being written down.”
- Shirl Hawes, Primarily Writing (2001)

This is the quote that really hit home for me and has prompted me to change what I previously called Writer's Notebooks. While I was unsuccessful this past weekend in finding the perfect notebook - I thought a great deal about what to put inside it!! Weekends are my time to be with family - and in particular with my grandmother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. Now - truth be told - we did not always get along. She was a strong minded, strong willed, strong Polish woman who told you exactly what she thought when she was thinking it. Of course - that did not sit well with this strong minded, strong willed, strong Polish-Irish woman!! Growing up, I was my DziaDzia's baby and that didn't sit well with her either!

We're quite close now - or at least I number among the seven people that she still remembers. That might sound harsh in re-reading it but I consider it to be something of a badge of honor. While she often makes me her fifth daughter instead of her eldest granddaughter - the rest of the stories stay the same. My memory remembers them a bit differently, but I have started to write them down so that they cannot be forgotten. And, of course, we continue to make memories...each and every day.

So - the thought of being able to help students (and teachers) begin to think about their memories and experiences as nuggets of stories to mine is pretty important to me. My mom found an old school paper of hers the other day and shared it with us. It was written in September, 1953 on one of her first days of school. Along with the picture - the text told about how she spent her summer. Because she was about the same age as Amelia (eldest niece) is now - Amelia got the biggest kick out of it. She compared her writing (Amelia's is neater), the details in the drawing (Mom wins on that one - but only by a hair), and of course the topic of how they spent their summer (swimming vs. jump roping). My mom shared many stories of her summers growing up as we compared the pictures, which made me think about how we spent our summers growing up. I came right home and jotted down my top five favorite things we did when growing up:

1. Spending days at my parents cabin in the Alleghany region creek-walking and catching crayfish.

2. Swimming at my grandparents house and in particular, sliding down what seemed at the time to be the highest, steepest slide ever into the water.

3. Visits from cousins who lived in other states. Because our family is so big and close, we made little disctinction between first cousins and second cousins - the ages seemed to blend together. But it was always a treat when relatives came in from Ohio or Arkansas or Indiana to visit.

4. Surprise visits from my Uncle Billy. My father's brother - he always just seemed to appear from out of nowhere. He lives in California and these once a year visits were not only unpredictable but caused severe upheaval to everyone - he was loud, told incredible stories (that age has taught us were quite exaggerated), and he did whatever he wanted, when he wanted. It drove my mom crazy - but it was an incredible week!! And then, as soon as he came, he disappeared. (PS - nothing has changed!)

5. Playing "raisins" with the neighbor kids. Raisins was a game that we made up and the rules always changed - so that we would win of course!! We jokingly try to play it with the nieces and nephew now but they don't let us get away with it.

What would your top five summer memories be?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Treasure Books

Whew! The first week of school is now officially over and somehow - summer has turned to fall. It isn't the weather - I woke up this morning to a very muggy 73 degrees out - but the feeling is definately fall. At least, that is what I have been scribbling about in my treasure book.

I am going to get a new treasure book today - I don't love the one that I picked up years ago to use. It doesn't "speak" to me and make me want to go running to it. Now that I am trying to be more conscious about the decisions I make with my treasure book so that I can work with others, I want to be able to say why a particular notebook called to me. I was inspired to do that after reading Chapter 1 of Aimee Buckner's Notebook Know-How and her story of Chance's notebook.

I've read this book before - but all by myself. Now I will be participating (or lurking) in a book study online with a RealWriter's Yahoo Group that I have belonged to for quite some time. It helps me to read and reflect with others, I am a better reader that way. And I am hoping this helps me to become a better writer.

I am also wondering how I can use Treasure Books with the district that I work in two days a week. I will be leading the Literacy strand of our professional development days but they have been shortened this year from three days to two because of a regional event. And - these aren't always the folks who are the most open to the idea of reading/writing in the classroom. But I think that I can hook a couple - it's finding how to start....

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Speaking of a nation of writers....

What a great writing topic - blogs or not!! Let's write!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Nation of Writers

I love to be with people who have a passion for education. Yesterday, I was able to meet with some leaders of my organization to plan for an upcoming series we will host on "Changing Perspectives: 21st Century Learning." We've been reinvigorated in our region with some initiatives and it was great to collaborate and harness our collective wisdom.

One of the pieces that we will be hosting will be on educators as writers. It has long been interesting to me that many educators don't consider themselves writers. And it makes me wonder about what the definition of a "writer" is. The Free Online Dictionary defines a writer as (1)writes (books or stories or articles or the like) professionally (for pay) and (2) a person who is able to write and has written something. It seems to me that most of us fall under the category of (2) - although we might not practice it much!

In a recent blog post by Roy Peter Clark (one of my favorite feeds), Clark lays out ways for us to create a "nation of writers" as inspired by the late Donald Murray. In the words of Clark;

"Murray left us -– students, teachers, writers all –- a path to follow. He dedicated his life to a simple proposition: that the act of writing was not a magical power possessed by a precious few. Writing was a process, a craft, a set of tools within reach of us all."

I know that lots of folks are worried about the state of writing. And many blame technology for some of that - "look at the kids IM'ing - it's not even a real language", "no one cares about spelling anymore - they just use spellcheck" and on and on. But I liked the take of a recent news article that argues that "rapid fire lingo" actually shows that our language is evolving!

As my team and I have learned more about the new technologies available to us, we have begun to adopt them as a matter of doing business. We all have tried our hand at blogs and wikis, we use Google Docs and more recently Google Groups. We are trying to find out how they "fit" into our work - as opposed to just adding them on. Some have adopted these easily - for others it is a bit of a struggle. But it has helped us grow as a team and interestingly, as writers.

Embracing the new technology is not easy. But we are educating our students for a world that we are not experiencing today, and in fact are not even sure what it will look like. Integrating the technology is not throwing out the old, looking at screen still requires reading and typing an email still requires writing. We just need to find a balance and teach our students which language is appropriate when.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Relaxing Friday

I'm taking a personal day today as I am just burnt crispy by my schedule and to help out my mom - who, caring for four children under the age of six and my grandmother with Alzheimer's each day this summer, is similarly crispy. But before I head over to corral the children, I thought I would blog.

I've had writer's notebooks on my mind since last week and in reviewing my own entries it's interesting to see how some of my entries have changed. I've been jotting things down but rather half-hearted it appears, as more recent entries are richer in details and bigger nuggets to mine. I'm debating getting a new notebook to serve as my own "action research" piece about what I write and trying some of the ideas that teachers are using before I put the workshop together. Borders is on the agenda today so I am sure that one will leap off the shelf at me.

Lots of folks in the blog world participate in something called Poetry Friday, where they share their favorite poems and how they use them. It is hosted by a different blog each week and is here this week. Poetry has not been one of my favorite things but when I am touched by one it is amazing. I don't think I have enough to really share and participate but I do read all the posts and am increasing my collection.

This poem, posted at Two Writing Teachers, really struck me given the topic:

My Writer’s Notebook by Brod Bagert

It’s a black and white composition notebook,
A hundred pages
with blue line
that await my words:

Diamond Search

My life lies before me
Like the bed of a shallow river.
My fingers sift sand and gravel
For the rough diamonds that lie hidden.
And as I find them
I put them in this notebook.
I write… I cut… I polish…
And they shine.

My words on an empty page
In an ordinary notebook,
The silver setting for the jewels of my life.

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Just Read It!

I can't do it better than they do and I certainly can't write like they hook up your RSS feed and read Two Writing Teachers!! And read it often!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Word Counting

During law school, in a particularly long and over-crowded class, a group of friends and I used to play bingo. We'd create a chart of the words that certain folks in class liked to use a lot : jurisprudence, estoppel, caveat, in toto, controlling decision. You get the picture. The words that lawyers use as code and are generally what my students would call "dollar words." It was a tradition that I carried on after I left the legal profession to opening day speeches from superintendents, BOE members, and outside consultants - only this time we counted educational jargon. Probably not the most mature way to spend my time in either scenario, but I like to spin it now that I have always had a fascination with words. (See what law school will get ya??)

The words we choose when speaking or writing are what helps to define our voice. Do YOU have a signature word or phrase? If you aren't sure - ask your family or colleagues and I guarantee that they will let you know. For example, I have a good friend who expresses her surprise or shock at something by saying "Holy (fill in the word) Batman!" It makes me laugh every time I hear it - and I tend to repeat it often when I am with her. Holy secret code, Batman!

And so I found this link from Cool Cat Teacher's tags very interesting. Using tag clouds (a visual depiction showing the frequency of word use), someone charted the words used by the Democratic presidential candidates in an April 2007 debate. The type size of each word varies according to how often it is used - with the largest words being used most often. Even more interesting are the comments that follow about how the readers were surprised about which words were used and which were not - showing that those who closely follow this type of thing already have an expectation of the words certain candidates will use. (NOTE: This is not a political stance - I couldn't find a tag cloud of Republican candidates or I would link to that as well in all fairness.)

It got me thinking about word choice as a writing trait and how we could use tag clouds with kids. Perhaps the students could focus on parts of writing - like leads or conclusions - to see how often they use certain words. Or perhaps students could use one or two different pieces of writing to find the words they tend to use often. I also wondered about taping the conversations we have with students about their writing to see which words we use most often.

It's not that using words repetitively is bad - it would just be interesting to know and be able to point out. By the way, using the free service at TagCrowd, I made a tag cloud of this post:

created at

Sunday, August 19, 2007

All Written Out and Powering Up

I had four straight days of writing workshops last week so you would think that I have plenty to blog about. I am sure that I do - but I am still trying to process some of the questions/issues that the participants raised as well as what I learned. The reason that I love teaching about writing and teaching writing is that I learn something every single time. So, in the spirit of a new blog that I am reading, I will consider this a Writer's Notebook blog entry. I like their style so much that I'll tag all Writer's Notebook entries as they do- WN - so that I can be sure to come back to them later.

Power of Picture Books: I pulled a number of them off the shelves and brought to share with the teachers. I haven't taken time to really organize them with the lessons but will be fast-tracking that soon. The picture book with the greatest impact was Not a Box and my colleague Chris helped me with an extension activity using pom-poms. Great fun!!

Power of Conferencing: Early in the week, the teachers wanted help with what a writing conference would look like, particularly as young writers bridge pictures to text. Lucky for me - I have a ready and somewhat willing niece who loves to help her aunt and we created a video for the teachers that night. I was far from perfect and Amelia had no problems letting me know when I crossed the aunt line! But I learned a great deal from that conference and the teacher reflection that followed!!

Power of Voice: I am always asked how to "teach" voice - and I answer that it isn't something that can be taught, it needs to be uncovered. But that is not a good answer. The last two days spent with upper elementary teachers has be pondering what comes first - voice in the abstract or the more concrete traits that help to make up voice (sentence fluency, word choice, conventions). I am chewing hard on this one.

Power of Collaboration: The best part of the four days was each time the teachers worked together in grade level teams to make plans for the upcoming year and using their new K-5 writing rubric. They did amazing work and asked incredible questions. Made me miss my classroom more than ever. But I did get to spend all four days with a colleague and get valuable feedback and ideas. We don't take the time to do that often enough and I am putting it on my work plan to do more often.

Power of Writer's Notebooks: I actually chose to call them Treasure Books (as I learned from Primarily Writing). I like that turn of phrase better - makes them be more than just a class assignment and an exercise in compliance and more personal, more authentic. Chris and I brainstormed a workshop on just using treasure books and I think we purposefully integrated them much better in the last two days. While I keep a writer's notebook myself, I haven't spent much time thinking about what I keep or how I keep it. I need to do more of that to model for teachers.

Power of Re-Charging: Seriously - I was exhausted by the end of the week and it felt good to re-charge my batteries. I didn't do anything monumental - cleaned two of the seven downstairs rooms, loads and loads of forgotten laundry, watched movies with the family. I took a break from writing, from the gym, from work - all the things that while they make me happy, also tend to stress me out. I dread Mondays - but maybe this one won't be quite so bad.

Happy Writing!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Trippin' Over Myself

It's August already! Hard to believe that it won't be long before school is in session and I feel like the "to do" list has not gotten any smaller. I'm on a mad mission to conquer Google Earth as a means to link Social Studies and ELA with a frequent visitor to this site. (Hey - you visit and comment once - you're frequent!)

It started with a simple conversation about a visiting author for this spring and the fact that this Super Teacher has already signed her kids up for an essay writing contest around the book Hana's Suitcase. Since the conversation happened in a DBQ development workshop, we starting talking about Google Earth, which let to Google Lit Trips - which led to us creating one (right now - hoping to create one!)on the book.

The plan is to map the locations in the book - with the pushpins pieces to be DBQ like questions. I haven't mastered how it all fits together and it is complicated a bit by the fact that I am blocked from Google Earth at work and too hot and tired when I get home to play too much.

I know I will conquer this because as a teacher in my district shared her plan to read Judy Moody Declares Independence, I was already imagining not just the Lit Trip but how my planned trip to Boston in September could provide a wealth of Flickr activities for her.

I see this as a pretty powerful model to use with kids. Once they have taken a few lit trips - I can imagine them creating their own for the book they are reading. It gives them a global perspective and can help them make powerful connections.

So now I am wondering - what other books might make a good basis for a Lit Trip. What types of questions would teachers want to see at each stop? How can we get around the blocks that many districts have put in place around Google Earth?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Kids 1, Lunch Lady 0

I loved reading about the power of the pen in this article!

"The menu at William V. Wright Elementary School is getting a makeover after Constantine Christopulos' class went on a poignantly polite letter-writing campaign aiming to see less of that particular vegetable in the cafeteria.

"A little boy said, `Anything, anything, I'll even eat broccoli,"' said Connie Duits, the lunch lady. "So that one touched my heart."

The children were careful to offer praise as they expressed their concerns."

The article goes on to explain that the letter writing campaign began after reading Frindle, in which the boycott of the cafeteria there was deemed a bit less respectful. Students weighed in on which foods they wanted to replace the green beans (and it was not peas!)and while they may not be getting "'stake' and lobster" it does appear that the new choices will be a step up!!

In case you missed it, these kids are in second grade!!

Monday, July 30, 2007

My Mandala

My computer is back - well, at least the most important part!! Nothing was lost, the old computer was under warranty, and I made it through the first day of our DBQ Writing Institute without causing too much harm. So, without further delay, my mandala is below...let the interpretations begin!! What do you see that might reflect me?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Wandering Lost!

I guess I never realized how attached I was to my computer until the hard drive crashed (I think) this morning. Yesterday was something of a whirlwind - between sharing my musings about Web 2.0 groups with interested Fellows, to clarifying what I can do to make my Keep On Learning site a via "publishable" piece, to canoeing down (and eventually swimming in) the mighty Housatonic River I was exhausted. We have spotty Internet connection here at best, so I captured by blogs thoughts in Word late last night and go up early to post.

Alas - the computer does nothing.

Thanks to JoAnn, I am working on a computer but it isn't mine, with my scattered desktop and the comforting pictures of my family in the background. I am trying to remain calm -but the flood of work that I have created may be lost and it is causing rising panic. (I know - I should back up more often and I have learned a powerful lesson!!) Fortunately - a great deal of my work is available to me on-line through blogs and wikis so I am not totally despondent.

I have come to realize that my computer has become an extension of my hands. Pens and pencils work at times, but how I organize my thoughts and my writing is all done electronically. It is comforting to me - the warmth of the battery, the click of they keys, the glow of the screen. I am not sure how to write and organize without it.

Much of our conversation the past two days has been around the use of electronic tools - and I can see the look of confusion and trepidation on the faces of many of my Fellows. It can be a powerful way to join our two communities (Upstate and Downstate) into the one community we become in the summer - but it could also cause others to disengage. I am mindful of this as I ponder ways to integrate these tools into the Collegial Circle that I am planning for the Fall around literacy. I will need to take it slow, temper my enthusiasm to allow others to discover these tools the way that I have, ,and build the community of learners one at a time.

Cross-posted on Grand Rounds.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Letting the Pencil Lead You

We created mandalas this evening. From the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, it represents wholeness and can be seen as a model of an organizational structure. Mandalas can be found in nature, in cultures from Native Americans to India, and can take many different forms.

As we were learning about mandalas and sketching some ideas, our leader in this activity mentioned that we would find that our "pencil would lead us" and what resulted would express our inner self. Strangely, I did find this to be true - at least my pencil leading me part!! (I'll post my mandala after it dries - perhaps you can help me decipher what it says about me!!)

It made me think about writing (of course) and the flow of ideas. In keeping a writer's notebook, I gather a collection of things that strike me: comments, phrases I hear and like, observations. Sometimes, I draw but mostly it is text. Each of these are seed ideas when I am stuck for the right words to say or the right topic to write about. Writer's notebooks are individual things and highly personal.

In taking these seed ideas, sometimes I just write. What ever comes into my head comes out on paper. It isn't always pretty or frankly, any good. But I can then go back to the pieces that sound "right" and refine them. The pencil leads me.

This is particularly true with my blog writing - I find that the words flow very easily in this medium and that other than some spelling and syntax fixes, I change very little. Because I use my blogs to tap my inner voice - it seems to be easier to write.

As I ponder my own writing, I think about what I need to do to help teachers become more comfortable with their own writing - whether on blogs or in model lessons. How do I encourage teachers to take the same risks we ask our kids to take? To write and submit writing for comment. To publish writing and await the reviews. To revise, edit, and revise again.

In researching mandalas after our session this evening, I learned that Tibetan Buddhists believe a mandal consists of five "excellencies:"

The teacher * The message * The audience * The site * The time

If you were to draw a mandala of your writing in light of these five excellencies - what would it look like?

Image from Creative Art Studio.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reflections on Writing: Blogs

I am away this week with my CSETL Fellows reflecting upon my practice and finding a focus for the upcoming year. As always with this group, my thinking is pushed, I am asked wonderful questions, and my head is pounding. I am a bit better off than my colleague Julie who continues to refer to the bile rising in her throat - but not much better. Ahhh....cognitive dissonance! There is nothing like it!!

A large part of my focus this week is on using Web 2.0 tools to build a community of learners. I am posting on Grand-Rounds on how that work is going. A bigger part of the challenge for the week is that I must develop a plan for "publishing" my work in this arena. Clearly - I love to write and care deeply and passionately about writing. It is the formality and structure of writing for publication that is daunting.

And so - this week, I will be reflecting upon my own writing as I experience the ups and downs of a CSETL retreat.

One thing I focused on today was the use of blogs and wikis in education. I have identified three reasons why I don't seem to be having the success I envisioned when I began this process. One biggie is a lack of technical knowledge on the part of the users. The two others are somewhat combined - time and writing.

I've thought a great deal about my blogging process. When I first began blogging, I wrote everything in Word first, then transferred it over to Blogger. It was time consuming but I had a horrendous fear of mis-spellings!! Since then, I have become more comfortable with the tools available on Blogger (including spell-check) but also with leaving things in draft form.

As for ideas - they come to me often and I do keep a writer's notebook after reading about their power from Ralph Fletcher (if I could make one electronically I would be very, very happy!!). More often though, my posts come from something niggling in the back of my head that I just feel the need to get out. I rarely leave something in draft form and visit it later anymore - I am bit more comfortable in my skin now. In fact, after being challenged by Richard Strong last summer to write with my real voice (versus the one I thought people wanted to hear) - I have found my voice in blogging.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Year of Blogging

One year ago today - July 17, 2006 - I began this blog. It was my first blog, although I have created several since. It came to life at a large regional conference called High School's New Face. I didn't actually attend the technology workshop with Will Richardson - but he did our keynote and we all received a copy of his book. Harnassing the excitement of my colleagues - I sat down and experimented, making lots of mistakes, but also learning along the way.

My first blog post featured wisdom from the Wizard of Oz:

"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."

Looking back - I know I have not reached the end of my journey (does any educator?)but I have passed through some rough and dangerous places!! Unfortunately - some of those have been of my own creation. Not on purpose of course - but nonetheless, I hold responsibility for choices I have made.

Blogging hasn't quite gotten me what I had hoped. There have been times that I neglected it because it feels a bit like talking to myself. I believe that it can be a powerful tool - but instead of persevering, I let go and walked away. But I always come back.

I hope to use Web 2.0 tools to build community among teachers - to serve as a means to meet and share ideas, to break down the walls of our classrooms. I have moments of sucess, but they are fleeting. It seems that we are all fighting the drumming of time and trying to fit it all in - to many, blogging and using wikis seems like an "extra."

As I enter my second year of blogging, here are some things that I hope to accomplish:

1. Teach my colleagues and staff about blogs and wikis so that we can model their use. Currently- only two of five of us use either blogs or wikis. If we can train each other and slowly ease one another into using these tools, I think that we will be "practicing what we preach" and it can only benefit everyone.

2. Integrate my blogs and wikis into my workshops. I am comtemplating the blogs/wikis being added to my email tags and potentially to business cards. I know I would like them to be added to the BOCES website but might have to deal with some internal politics with that one - and understandably so!!

3. Track the time I spent on my blog/wiki development. This might be important in teaching about these tools to teachers - a way to decide whether they can fit it into their schedules. And a little action research never hurt anyone!

4. Connect more purposefully with other blog/wiki educators. I need to use Skype better and figure out what everyone is Twittering about. I want to partake in the on-line conferences and see how we can use those tools in our region. I get the basics - now I need to expand.

5. More of my writing. Not just on the blog - but for professional journals and colleagues. It will push my writing abilities (the point of this blog) but also help me to clarify the things that I value and believe.

I'm hoping that these goals will help me to utilize this blog (and Grand Rounds)as a tool for collaboration and reflection, to serve as a model for other educators, and to push thinking (and hopefully get pushed back). So - Happy New Year!

Monday, July 16, 2007

I am a writer!!

I am spending the week at an advanced Cognitive Coaching training. We are at a beautiful central New York resort town, which is very conducive to reflective learning. Today was day one and already my head is brimming with new ideas.

One piece has been incredibly relevant to writing : the idea of nested levels of learning from Robert Dilts discussed in the beginning of the session. Below is one page of my notes on this. As we discussed the hierarchy in this model - we thought about where most of our classrooms lie.

We know that when we begin a new initiative or attempt to create change in our classroom, we begin at the most basic level - environment. At this level - change is easy to implement and it is fast. I think about folks moving to a writing workshop. Teachers change the structure of their classrooms or perhaps parcel out their time with kids a bit differently. Voila! Writing workshop.

The next level has to do with behaviors and skills - the what of teaching. With a writing workshop - we conference with students, we provide mini-lessons, we hone our coaching skills. And sometimes - this is where it ends. Some of our students stand up and say "I am a writer!!" - others, most others, don't.

If we are lucky - our classrooms reflect the capabilities phase. We provide structure and frameworks for our students, big ideas about writing for students to hold on to. We begin to develop their capabilities as writer - to make choices about the words they use, the way they organize their thoughts and ideas. They make choices in writing and monitor the impact those choices have on a reader.

But these things can only happen if we approach the values/beliefs stage. If we truly believe that we want our students to be writers, rather than just write (which is the identity phase). And here is where I struggled a bit.

I am wondering if we can ask our students to be writers if we are not writers ourselves. I try to structure my workshops on writing to involve a great deal of writing - and this is where my workshop evaluations fall into the danger zone. Many don't like to be asked to write - just give me the strategies and I'll implement them - thank you! But it is never as easy as that - we need to experience what we are learning so that we can figure out how to make it our own - so that we can adapt it to our learners. And this is very, very important in writing!!

So what is it that makes people reluctant to write? Why don't we write more? We can blame new technologies but I think about this blog. It is a new technology that allows me to write - to hone my writing skills - to be a writer. Does it take time? Yes - but because it is fundamental to who I am, I make that time.

Perhaps if we tapped into what makes us reluctant to write - we might be able to tap into what will encourage students to write. And together - we can all become writers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Collaborative Stories

Stumbled upon this collaborative writing wiki from teachers in Alabama. The stories are pretty great - some a bit rougher than others but they show what a powerful collaborative tool wikis can be!!

I am thinking about their use for curriculum mapping, planning for larger workshops and teacher collaborative writing. I use lots of different wiki spaces at the moment, but haven't yet settled on a favorite.

Will Richardson also has an interesting post on wikis - Wikipedia specifically. I think the biggest hurdle I have encountered in using wikis with educators has been the idea that it is intended to be a collaborative, not static, web page. He outlines a "classic teachable moment" - be sure to read it!!

It seems to keep coming back to a control factor of sorts - yes, we want to control what our kids post on-line so that it is not harmful to anyone and so that it is in a "final" format - correct puncutation, grammar, spelling, etc. But the power of wikis are that in addition to writing - we can help students work on their editing and revision skills.

I need to think about this more before my next Wiki workshop so that I can model it for teachers better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Educating Half a Child?

I recently read "Two Takes on Whole" from the Summer on-line Educational Leadership. Hugh B. Price and Stephanie Pace Marshall are interviewed on what it means to educate the "whole child." It continues to surface for me this week as I work with teachers from a local district investigating assessment and grading.

As a middle school teacher - I fully embrace the concept of educating the "whole child;" being able to see beyond just the academics to teacher character, problem-solving and citizenship. These were kids experimenting with being adults, often reverting to early childhood, all within the same day (or class period!) It made sense to me then and it continues to make sense now that we need to equip them for what lies beyond our formal public education system.

I don't think any teacher is out there purposefully teaching to half or three-quarters of any child. It is hard to be in a room full of learners - of any age - and not recognize the other pieces that will come into play. Personal life - how well they slept - what motivated them to be there. All will play a role in how much they learn that day.

So I started thinking about authentic assessment - mostly because at the end of the interview, both Marshall and Price are asked about a childhood moment they'll never forget:

Price:When I was growing up, I couldn't hit a curve ball. But in the course of pursuing my love of baseball, I devoured baseball magazines—for children as well as for adults. I discovered that if I could understand how to calculate a batting average, I'd have long division down cold. In other words, the pursuit of this first love reinforced everything that school was about. It reinforced teamwork, it reinforced my academic skills, and it reinforced my curiosity.

I've often said that a school could take Jackie Robinson's life and turn it into a yearlong course that covers many subjects, from the migration of blacks to the North and West, to equal opportunity, to the military justice system. All these things were incorporated in his life. Moreover, kids could learn how to calculate the square footage of a baseball diamond. In the infield, the bases are laid out in a perfect square. But once you get to the outfield, you've got all these weird shapes, and you've got to learn how to analyze that. You can learn some physics too: When you throw a ball and it's fired back at you, it's coming through a certain plane at a certain speed. The education experience should really zero in on and nurture kids' passions and curiosity.

Marshall: I was always so affirmed as a learner when I was growing up that it stayed with me and built a grounding of unshakable courage. We had a 1956 Ford when I was a child. My father chose to buy it without a radio. Why would you buy a radio, he said, when we could sing? Whenever we went on long family car trips, we made up songs, we spelled words backwards, we identified which states all the license plates were from, and we took the map with us so we knew exactly where we were in the world and in the country. We learned how to pay attention. Everything was a question. We always made up stories, puzzles, and rhymes. It was always about learning. But it wasn't about schooling. It was about learning and trying to figure things out and what would happen if. I was just so blessed.
Those childhood moments capture authentic learning - learning that meant something to the learner, that was relevant and useful to them. We could teach that way - we could create authentic experiences for our students, but somehow we feel bound to "The Test." I am not convinced that was the intention of the test designers - but it certainly is the unintended consequence. I have long stated that I like the NYS Social Studies assessment with respect to Document Based Questions as it asks kids to think like historians- something I was never asked to do from elementary school to college (where I received a degree in history!!)

Now - my childhood memories do not involve unearthing hidden historical treasures. However, many summers were spent at the family cabin in Onoville, NY. Near the Alleghany State Park, there was plenty of outdoor adventure for us: hiking, swimming in creek beds, boating. One of our favorite things to do was to examine the rocks in the creek behind the cabin for fossils. These rocks would have the image of leaves or small bugs embedded in them over time. The highest value was placed on the fossils that looked almost like rock sea-shells. We would save them, trade them, try to sneak them home in the car. Somehow - I believe they all ended up back in the creek!!

Yet they provided hours of imaginative play for us - using them as money like we had read Native Americans did, imagining what the world was like when the fossil impressions actually lived, creating stories about ancient peoples. It was rich fun and probably fueled my love of history. But it wasn't a story I ever shared with my students.

I wonder what our classrooms would look like if we tapped these childhood experiences and brought them to our students. If we designed our lessons to provide opportunities to learn in a more authentic way - to follow a path of curiosity. I'm willing to bet our students would do just as well on several state assessments - maybe even better. So help me - what are some childhood memories of learning you have that we can use to develop lessons in our classrooms?

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Real World

I was asked some very thoughtful and thought-provoking questions by a student today. I don't often get to interact with students one on one anymore - something I miss greatly. For several reasons, I was able to meet today with a student who was asking for help in preparing to retake her Global Studies Regents exam in August.

She failed the exam by one point.

Why is this important? First - she came to school last week, asked for a copy of her exam and feedback on what she could do better. Second - when I met with her today to review the test and prep for what she could do in August, she had reviewed that test. And reviewed it very carefully. She knew what she didn't know. And she knew, in terms of her writing, what she didn't do. What she didn't know was how to "fix it" for August.

And she did all this - because of one point.

As we talked, it became obvious that she knew where she had failed, but also how her teachers had failed her. As we talked about how she took the exam and why she chose not to use a graphic organizer or why she changed correct answers on her multiple choice sheet, she was frustrated that no one had taught her "how" - they just expected her to "do." I shared some vocabulary strategies that she could use and we started by having her highlight all the words in the test that she could not talk to me about with confidence. There weren't a great number of them - remember, she missed passing by one point - but there were enough.

We then looked at her writing. She knew she wandered, she knew it wasn't well organized, and she knew she probably didn't answer the question. But she knew she had better include the appropriate number of document references. I showed her how to organize her writing by taking apart the prompt and then use two column notes a la Step Up to Writing to help guide her. Like me, she's not a big fan of the mind map so this plan seemed to make more sense to her. We talked about her writing the longer DBQ essay first, then moving to the Thematic essay - even though they are not in that order in the test booklet.

And we mapped out a plan for her to tackle all of this before the next exam. No more than 20 minutes per night, learn what you don't know, practice organzing writing. Remember that she knows a lot - she only needed one point.

She wants to be a nurse - and starts some CTE courses next year. She asked why I don't teach anymore - I told her I do, I just work with teachers. She asked why...I told her I thought that I could impact more kids this way. She asked me when I was going to start in her district. She made one powerful point!!

You see - I do work in her district. I have for the past four years. Yet somehow - it hadn't filtered down to her yet. All the time looking at data, meeting with teachers, talking about practice, scoring assessments, leading inservice dates on reading and writing - none of it made a difference on the day in June that she took that assessment. One point.

I wonder how she would have done if she had been taught the vocab strategies or writing organizer before the test. I wonder what difference it will make when she takes the test again in August. I wonder what I need to do diferently next year so that there are fewer kids like her - missing things by one point. Missing things by five points. Just plain missing things.

She left this afternoon - off to a holiday camping trip with a folder full of papers and a 20 pound Global Studies book in hand. Hopefully - she'll follow the plan and contact me if it isn't working. But in the meantime - she made me think, and think hard, about the role I play. And she made one big point.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Teaching the Academic Essentials - The Finale

I took a day off from blogging on the conference to let it all sink in. Honestly - the last day of the conference was the best for - with rapid fire connections happening all over the place.


1. When discussing the reading process, we often speak about before-during-after reading activities. But more importantly - as teachers we need to think about what we should be doing before we give the reading, while the reading is happening, and after the reading is completed. Seems like common-sense but the planning page provided here, along with the matrix discussed in a previous post, really tied things together for me. We discussed our purpose for having students read certain text, thinking about how we wanted them to interact with the text and how to monitor those strategies, and WHY we had them do particular things after the reading.

2. We need multiple entry points to reading. Again - common sense but the visual that was presented was pretty powerful!! (I'll see if I can scan my notes!) Kids have lots of barriers to reading: lack of background knowledge, social/emotional/cultural issues, vocabulary, poverty to name a few. We need to be purposeful in structuring our before-reading activities to help all students access the text.

3. Thinking in three complicates things. Never really thought about this before - but as we progressed through examples, it really started to make sense. For example, we could take the current war in Iraq. If we made a simple T-chart of the perspectives of those in the U.S. for and against the war, our students might do this easily. It also forces them into an "either or" position - where they have to decide which camp they fall into. That could be dangerous - and narrow. So - let's add the perspective of the Iraqi people. That could complicate matters. Now let's add the perspectives of the various Iraqi people - Sunni and Shia. Now - let's add the perspectives of Great Britain. See how things become much more complicated and will involve a higher level of thinking? The more layers we add - the more complex the thoughts.

Jim Burke also had an afternoon keynote - which will be podcast soon. Some highlights:

4. Learning should be an "invitation to struggle." In his work on academic essentials, Burke keeps coming up with words like "grapple" and "struggle" and "wrestle" - and those need not be bad things. Back to the weight-lifting analogy, education is something we are all trying to get better at - so wrestling with these things means we are growing.

5. First and foremost, Jim Burke is a teacher and one who obviously cares deeply about his students and their success. Over time, he and the class have developed a set of principles that are practiced in the classroom, and eventually in life. Telling a series of personal stories, Jim shared the following with us.

Put yourself out there!
Do what you think you can't.
Success is never an accident.
Everyone must find their "thing;" all education is SELF education.
You are worth the effort.
Invest in yourself.
If you cannot SEE it, you cannot BE it.

Cross-posted on Grand Rounds.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Teaching the Academic Essentials - Part 2

Top 5 take-aways from today:

1. "Discussion improves comprehension, increases engagement and enhances memory when it is structured, purposeful, meaningful, and constrained by time. Even one minute of effective classroom discussion shows measureable benefits to student learning." This was a nice reinforcement of what a CSETL Fellow has been sharing in her work with academic discourse, as well as a reinforcement of my belief that learning is social. While much of my learning during this workshop has come from the presenter, I have learned a great deal from those folks sitting around me, in part because the presenter has worked discussion into our day on a regular basis. It is a refreshing change from rushing through material. If I feel that way - I can only imagine what it will do for kids.

2. "You have the men you have - and it's up to you to make them into the soldiers you want them to be." This quote (or something like it!) was attributed to George Washington but it makes a great deal of sense about education as well. Whenever I hear teachers complaining that students don't work hard enough or won't do this and can't do that, I get a little angry. We should be teaching with the belief that the students in our classroom can succeed - or we have failed. I have always said that parents send us everything they've got - they aren't hiding the good ones/the smart ones at home! It is our job to teach each and every child that we are gifted with.

3. Most teachers, particularly those at the secondary level, don't know what we do when we "read" - it just happens to us. We, as teachers, need to be more explicit and transparent with our students and bring our process into the class. We did a great activity in the session today after reading a "complex" piece to chart visually our reading process - what we did when we didn't understand things, how we made connections to comprehend. This reflection was very helpful to me in thinking about how I have taught reading in the past - but also how I might be able to do it with teaching writing as well. I need to ponder this a bit - but you can bet there will be more to come!!

4. There are many different kinds of text and we use different strategies when we read them. I have known this - as I believe that each content area has it's own literacy. We read different things in social studies class then in science, math, and ELA. I needed to teach my kids how to "read" political cartoons, maps, newspaper articles written in the 1800s. Charting out what I do for each of these different texts will help me when I work with teacher and primary sources.

5. I don't like Yeats. I'm kidding - sort of! We did a great activity at the end of the session using "The Second Coming." The discussion around the poem and the strategies that we used were invigorating and inspiring. If I could open a school with the people sitting in that room today - the kids would be engaged and all see success. I am still tortured by the poem and what it means and the fact that I didn't get it the first three times we read it (not sure I still get it but I've read enough Internet reviews to fake it!!) Jim Burke made a great analogy today when we compared learning/reading to weight lifting. When you lift weights - you want to lift a weight heavy enough to cause fatigue. That allows your muscles to grow. If we don't challenge kids with difficult text - and teach them to navigate problems - they won't grow as readers. I might not like Yeats but I loved the discussion today!!

Cross posted on Grand Rounds.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Teaching the Academic Essentials - Part 1

I'm lucky enough to be spending the next three days re-charging by attending the 3rd Annual Reading Institute in Jamestown, N.Y. First - I need to say kudos to the folks who have organized this - it is impressive!! And an even louder round of applause for the over 200 teachers who are attending this session in the "shadow" of their school year (we just ended last Friday!)

The speaker that I was originally going to be spending time with had a family emergency and so I was cast adrift. Fortunately - my dear friend David charted a course for me. So I will spend the rest of the week with Jim Burke.

I hope this doesn't offend him but to this point, he has presented in much the same way that I do. If we are going to be spending time writing - we best be writing!! Too often - we want to sit and absorb information. If our brains click with it - we use it. If they don't - we discard it. But if we really engage in the activities, then we can determine how to make it our own, to make it work inside our own classrooms. I can understand how my participants feel when I make them do this - so I took some notes about what I can tweak in my own work - but I loved that I got to write, write, write today!!

Top Five from the session today:

1. "Graphic organizer" can be too limiting a term. Instead - we should be providing students with "tools for thought." I liked this idea - it was really about setting up a simple tool for students to organize thoughts and some guiding questions/prompts to start them on their way. We folded a piece of paper into thirds and simply labeled them to guide our reflections. Jim then led us in narrowing down what we had written about to reflect further - and then share with colleagues. For this exercise, we reflected upon what worked this year (or what didn't!)

2. Weekly poems. This was something that worked for Jim last year (yes, Virgina - even presenters share!!) He selected short poems (less than 30 lines) that students read each day for a week. Each time they read the poem - they reflected or reacted to something different (initial reactions, imagery, tone, etc.) so that at the end of the week, they had notes to use to write an analytical piece. These poetry pieces could be done in just 10 minutes of class time but certainly packed a punch.

3. "Well Words" These words come from Jim's Teacher's DayBook. We selected five words from the list of 52 that would have made an impact on our personal/professional lives if we paid a bit more attention to them. We then narrowed it down to one word and then developed 2-3 questions we might ask to prompt writing around that word. Finally - we wrote. GREAT STRATEGY that followed his "Academic Essentials Matrix" and had us "Bloomin' upward!" Careful! This strategy will be coming to a workshop near you soon!!

4. The emphasis on connecting to students!! And that without connecting to students - we'll never get them to learn (or see themselves as learners.) This was especially powerful to me - as I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this since last year's High School's New Face Conference. Jim read to us from my favorite coffee table book and had us reflect upon the connections we have made (or not made!) in the past year. Very powerful community building exercise for us!!

5. The idea of teaching and expecting students to be generative thinkers. The premise comes from the work of Judith Langer and seems to fit what I have felt all along. Students need to create their own knowledge - to seek out different viewpoints, to search to make their own meanings and connections. Much of what we did today modeled how to scaffold instruction so that students could practice this important life-long skill.

I left re-energized and with a million thoughts floating through my head. I can't wait for tomorrow!!

Cross-posted on Grand Rounds.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Flying High!

I've been spending some time recently in a district where year one of curriculum mapping did not go as well as planned. Probably lots of reasons behind it - and ones we are all familiar with - but one thing that stood out when the teachers talked was the need to have reading and writing integrated across all curriculum areas. What would that look like in a curriculum map?

I am not sure I have the right answer - if there even is one. Having worked on ELA maps in my own district, they are not easy nor are they ever done. And integrating reading and writing skills can be a complex task. Perhaps it is my bias - perhaps my background - but I still find social studies the easiest path to take.

For example - Orville and Wilbur Wright. Airlines have been in the news lately - with the high cost of fuel, cancelled flights, technology delays, etc. And many more kids are flying these days than when I was younger (Case in point- my nieces are soon to fly to Aruba for their third time and they are six and four years old!!) So it seems a natural connection to read about the famous flying brothers.

In New York State - this could happen at several points in the elementary social studies curriculum as we talk about transportation, our communities and other communities, world communities, etc. etc. In searching, I found this interesting book about the history of flight written from the perspective of animal characters.

I haven't read it - but it is a RAFT model. The story of the first flight is told through the eyes of the animal characters (ROLE), the AUDIENCE is young children of today, the FORMAT is a children's story, and the TOPIC of course, is that historic day in 1903 that "made the world a forever smaller place."

In addition to working on writing skills, this particular writing piece measures student comprehension of material as they are asked not to regurgitate it, but to synthesize it. RAFTs were my favorite thing to do with students - it helped them to pull apart NYS writing prompts as well as sneaking a little of that middle school creativity into the content. Win-win!!

Now imagine RAFTs from another perspective - rather than telling the story of the first flight from the point of view of someone there - what if Orville and Wilbur were to view this video:

Students could then write from the perspective of Orville and Wilbur demonstrating how their invention has changed the world. Or about how the world and technology has changed since 1903. The possibilities - seemingly like flights! - are endless!!

Thanks to think:lab for the video link!!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hook 'Em Danno!

"I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things."

No - this is not a line from my diary!! Instead it is the first line from Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee. I don't own it yet - but with an opener like that you can bet I soon will!!

And I was hooked from the moment I heard the series of leads from YA literature on my long trek to work today being read on NPR. The complete listing of books and their leads are on the NPR website but even better is the podcast of what I heard!! Can you hear the passion of this librarian??

This is a great set of leads to hook young adult readers - particularly in the summer months when some might have a quota of 25 books to finish by September!! Even better - it is a great set of openers to share with students as they refine how they begin their own stories.

What's your favorite lead?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Half Full or Half Empty?

Waking up this morning - my glass was half empty. Comments from teachers about the ability of their students - particularly in writing are weighing heavily on my mind. Concerns about the fact that a district I am working with has a problem with writing yet many of the teachers continue to point fingers at each other and the kids make me wonder if anyone can change that culture, let alone me.

And so my post this morning was going to be venting that and trying to work out why some folks take such a negative view of student abilities. But I decided to open my Bloglines and read first. And now my glass is half full.

The Fischbowl shared some freshman projects from Learning and Laptops. Since links in blogs are meant to be clicked - I checked them out and soon became immersed in what these amazing teachers and students were doing. One teacher chose an essential question to examine for the course of the year: "What does literature say about human beings?" The students used this question as a lens for all reading that year and created collaborative projects in which the students not only had to answer the question, but to use modern examples to prove/disprove their answer. (I know I am not doing credit to the description of the project - please read the blog posting to get the full picture.)

Viewing the student work began to fill my glass. One requirement of the project was to produce a final multi-media project that was "creative, captivating, and thorough" - and these projects were amazing! Adding to very powerful voices throughout the pieces, the students selected visuals (and in some cases music) to capture what it was they were trying to say. In addition to summarizing and showing that they had read and understand the literature pieces, the connections the students made are original and very telling about the world our students live in now. A world very different from the world many of us grew up in.

I haven't watched all the presentations yet - but I plan to. I feel re-energized. I feel hopeful. I feel like I can use this teacher and her class as an example in my district of what we can accomplish when we tap into the potential that our kids have, rather than focusing on how we might think they don't quite measure up.

"What's amazing about human nature which is shown through literature time and again, is that through all the bad in life, we somehow manage to find the good." (Tana, Jessica, Elyse in "Experiences" from the project.)