Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Welcome to my writing classroom. This is a place where all of us get to explore our thoughts, our reactions, our beliefs, among other topics, by freely writing, purposefully revising and editing, and compassionately sharing our work. All of us write, including me, your coach. We get to know each other through our first narrative project, and we build trust through our classroom activities, where the first rule is respect for the thoughts and feelings of others. We learn to listen carefully, to discuss ideas comfortably, and to live with multiple viewpoints. Humor is often what saves us from ourselves and our tendencies to misunderstand and to judge harshly.

After building this trust and comfort, we embark on the journey through growth as writers in a community of writers. We faithfully carry our writing journals back and forth from our homes to this class, so that we can hold on to the ideas that rise up, fleetingly, when we are away from this community. We read widely outside of class, both materials assigned for class and shared in class, and texts we choose for ourselves outside of class. We sample academic nonfiction, both classic and popular fiction, poetry and drama, especially that written for young adults, and new sources of nonfiction being enjoyed by a growing audience.

Classes start with the spoken word: samples from the universe of good writing, located sometimes by careful readers in our class, but usually by me, the coach. Short periods of writing follow immediately, with or without sharing, carefully stored in writing journals to be mined systematically for topics we need to write about. As coach, I will ask for writers to share striking sentences or ideas, and sometimes I will request some response from everyone. I will have to make judgments about who needs the nudging toward audience with these spontaneous writings -- not an easy decision to make. I will always be aware of my writers' feelings, and try to do no harm. As coach, I will also demonstrate different techniques for mining those materials, using examples from my own writing life and from the life of writers who have discussed such topics in interviews or in their published works. Sometimes one of us will demonstrate a new way to mine our writing journals.

My experience as a writer, my background as a teacher, and my observations of your writing will help me decide on minilessons that are needed, rather than some set schedule or curriculum of scope and sequence. Every group of writers is different. No one else can make the professional decisions I must make about what lessons my writers need. Sometimes minilessons examine a well-written text to discern what we can find out about writing that lasts, that stays with its readers. Sometimes minilessons address process problems and solutions, or revision and editing challenges. Our constant movement back and forth from writing to reading will inform our understanding of the dialogue between writer and reader.

Often the minilesson will consist of my modelling of a point in the process, or a specific technique, or experimentation with a genre. As coach, I must allow my writers to see me wrestling with the unfamiliar, wrapping my mind around the challenging, and of course I must use my background as a writer and a teacher to adjust the level of my modeling and demonstration to the needs of my community. It is difficult to make the familiar strange (for me, an experienced writer) and the strange familiar (for my developing writers), but that is my responsibility during these sessions.

During the time set aside as workshop, we find that each of us is in a different place. Some are searching for or rehearsing an idea for a new piece; some are freewriting on a topic, or drafting from a freewrite or notes or straight out of our heads; some are revising, perhaps from the ground up, a draft prepared at home or in a previous class; some are conferring with other writers, aiming to clarify or polish certain passages in a draft; some are finalizing a piece. Talk bubbles up, but never overwhelms other writers who may need more quietness. Whether tapping on computer keyboards or scratching ink onto paper or conversing, we are a caring community.

As coach, I may ask you for and guide you through pieces of writing that demonstrate your understanding of the ideas about text and process that we wrestle with from day to day. These transactional pieces will be closer to what educators might call formal writing, or academic writing; our experiences in a community of writers will show us again that our development as expressive writers spurs our development as transactional writers -- in other words, that our workshop experience is valuable for improving our ability to write for assessment. Those who employ us as teachers will need to hear this lesson and see it in action again and again, or they will force us to conduct our classrooms in traditional ways that do not allow writers and thinkers to grow. To do so -- to accede to such pressure and revert to traditional methods -- would be immoral, knowing as we do that such methods stifle writing and take the lifeblood of ideas from our students, leaving them stuck in boring classes exposed to meaningless instruction.

Our classes will end with some sort of sharing, perhaps by writers I approach as I am conferencing, perhaps by volunteers who need feedback on some specific experiment they have tried with a scene or section. The atmosphere surrounding this classroom sharing must again be compassionate and respectful, but writers must also learn how to provide useful feedback, and not simply confirmation and praise. This learning may take time and will certainly require modeling.

The texts we produce will need audiences. The coach is not the audience, nor am I the only coach, but rather an aide, as are the other writers in our community, in getting texts ready and putting them in front of authentic audiences. As coach, I will work to arrange for publication of pieces for an appropriate audience, whether in a newspaper, literary magazine, or at a performance event. Sometimes it will be appropriate for a writer to publish only within our caring community, and I, as coach, must make that professional but difficult judgment. I must always be aware of what each writer needs, and nudge accordingly and in a responsible fashion.

Because writers will need feedback, in the form of grades, in addition to critical commentary about texts they produce, we will need to pause periodically for reflection on our work. Great value accrues to writers when they spread out the work they have done over a period and choose a best piece, reflect on the genesis and development of that piece, and examine what they, as writers, have learned from that piece and other work done during a period of time. A writer's reflections on a body of work will help us decide what grade writers have earned. This is an agonizing part of our role as writing coaches, but it cannot yet be avoided, until we arrive at schools that do not require numbers for evaluating learners' progress.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

there was intent, today: intent to attend a faculty gathering at BCC, intent to pick blueberries, intent to avoid potato chips. none of these worked out too well. the BCC gathering was on my google calendar, but i was not in the car dressed like a faculty member at 8:30 this morning, so that didn't happen. stone hill, my new favorite pick-your-own blueberries patch near nineveh, is closed on thursdays now, which i found out when i reached the turn for route 235 off of route 7 and saw their cardboard sign with the new schedule.

i redeemed the morning with a visit to the enchanted garden, where sherry and i talked over blood pressure medicines and other topics. i drove down route 79 with a stop at john's sister's house to drop off table and keg tub, borrowed for the recent wedding celebration. a little further down route 79 i was able to purchase, as planned, the six 80-pound bags of ready-mix concrete, pulling my camry a little closer to the road surface even when carefully loaded. i intended to drive straight home, but i had to pass by the middle school. i just couldn't do it without stopping in to see "my" classroom.

there have been breaks in my 30-year career before; for example, those years when there was a pink slip or a reduction-in-force because of population changes, and i took a job editing at singer-link or running the BCC tutoring program. i don't remember much about the fall after my first son was born (everything was a blur that year); i went back to work when he was one. nate was born in early september so the new school year feeling was replaced by "when the hell am i going to have this baby i feel like an enormous cow." once again, i went back to work when he was one. after that year, i stayed home for some years, during which my sons started going off to school in september. my love for them eclipsed my september longing for tile flooring and chalk dust...until the year i was called into service at the middle school.

that august, i spent time in my new classroom whenever i could arrange it. august was a month of blue skies, crisp nights, and unpacking boxes, rearranging books, creating new materials to use. for sixteen years, then, i looked at august as the time i got to spend in my quiet classroom preparing for it to be a noisy, busy place, where students read quietly, discussed loudly, and wrote. my classroom moved twice after that, but the actual room did not matter. august was still for re-thinking tables, chairs, bookshelves, and ideas.

so how could i drive past the school this morning, when for sixteen years i had spent hours there on warm august days? in fact, i drove past and then turned around. i pulled into the north end of the driveway and parked in my usual spot at the very end of the line. i noticed that the cafeteria hall door was open for some maintenance activity, so i snuck in there and up the stairs to room 234. it was locked, but i could look in the door and see that my successor had been very busy. bright crates of books lined the same wall where i had put my old wooden bookshelves. i had left her most of my 300-book classroom library; i was glad she was using it. there were the tables with tennis balls on the legs to protect the floor. there were the opened boxes of supplies i had had to order way back in december, before i knew i was going on a leave of absence.

i didn't get teary-eyed, though, as i gazed on the media projector attached to the ceiling (i had only had a year or so to play with the smart board) or the changes she had made to the front corner, or the tall file cabinet she had put behind the door. i thought i would, but i was really just excited for her to have her own classroom now. i thought of my consultant teacher. at her room, just down the stairs, her keys were still in the lock, so i knew she was around. when i found her, we caught up on summer news, avoiding the knowledge we both dreaded - that we had only gotten to work together those two years.

i know she will do a good job co-teaching with the new ELA teacher, and i know that i will visit other times and renew the friendships that i have enjoyed. former students will still say hello to me at the giant or on facebook. i will find other tile floors to haunt, other chalk dust and marker fumes to inhale in my new role as doctoral student and adjunct instructor.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

every day when i go to the mailbox, there are three or four more bubble pak or padded envelopes with my name and address sharpied on the front. i open them up, take out the slightly scuffed or worn books, and place them on a shelf, in the air-conditioned front bedroom i once shared with a sister, in alphabetical order by author, so that i will be able to double-check that i received all of them.

i had ordered them earlier this month from half dot com or amazon used books after getting the list from the binghamton university bookstore website. now i see that the list is also on the BU blackboard website, under each class that i am taking. to buy all of them, new, would require at least $700. i have kept it under $350, but there are still a few supplemental texts i'd like to own. i may wait until classes start at the end of august, though. i'm feeling a bit overwhelmed.

overwhelmed, indeed, especially since i logged on to the blackboard site and read the syllabus posted by each professor.

have i made a mistake?

will i be able to keep up with the reading? will i be able to navigate the volume of research? will i be able to write scholarly papers and responses on a regular basis? have i given myself enough time by taking a leave of absence from my middle school ELA classroom?

the discussion/seminar format of the classes does not worry me; i have enjoyed the process of making meaning in collaboration with other thinkers when asked to operate that way during the writing project summer institute. indeed, i wish all my coursework, way back in the seventies, had been conducted that way. some of it probably was, but i hadn't been ready for it yet. too bad. my loss.

even as i read these doctoral level syllabi, i'm preparing a syllabus for my own freshman writing class, thinking about how to make it work as a discussion-based writing workshop, when i know that not every student will have read assigned essays. according to the new staff orientation i went to thursday afternoon, not every student will be purchasing the text immediately. financial aid checks to cover textbooks will not have been issued to every student who needs them by the first day of classes. another adjustment, another allowance i will have to make. and come up with a way to accommodate those students and include them in class discussions until they have the money to join fully.

i don't expect my professors to make such allowances. they do not expect me to enroll in these courses without buying the books and making the commitment of time and effort. each one requires me to write an article (25 to 30 pages) that would be of interest to the academicians in each field: history of education, educational planning and policy, and educational research. i know there are topics in each of those fields that i myself am interested in. i will have to choose topics carefully. no one will want me to spend this kind of time unless it is a question i need to learn about.

i hope i can translate this attitude, this approach, into my expectations of my writing students. i want to help them write for college level courses, so it should be about topics they are interested in and studying, if not this fall then next spring. their writing should come from questions they have. their writing should come from what they find out when they investigate their questions of interest. they will need help, as i do, with their research and reading. they will need help summarizing or paraphrasing. they will need help with attributing thoughts to their sources; that is, where did they learn this or that fact? how did that source contribute to their own thinking about the topic? how can they best show that relationship when they present their ideas in writing?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

in august, when nights get cool and days are crisply blue-skied and goldenrod-hemmed, i may start to get some bad dreams. in august, i have started to plan my first few days of school, and often i am visiting my classroom every day to restore bookshelves, put names on folders, set up crates for storing student work. at night, my subconscious, annoyed with the neat and tidy appearance of my classroom by day, messes with my head.

the terror these dreams evoke always involves being grossly unprepared. for example, there is that classic dream of being naked or dressed inappropriately (pajamas, perhaps) just minutes before i am supposed to walk into my class; or the one where i am at school, ready to teach, but i know in my heart that i have no plans and cannot seem to remember what it is i wanted to do. another places me at home, but not ready to leave, when i know i must be in the car by that time. i have seen variations of these over the decades of augusts.

last night i had a new one, but it was so telling. it reflected a new feeling i've been getting about initiatives our administrators have been pushing. in this dream, i was at school or in a large room like the ones we have our superintendent's day meeting in, but not an auditorium. packets were being given out - the ones that contain payroll forms, substitute call-in information, updates on construction in this or that part of the school district. in this dream, there were also Lego toy sets in clear plastic bags for some reason, and other toys and trinkets.

i knew i wasn't supposed to have a packet, or a bag of toys, because i am on leave and will not be in my usual 8th grade ELA classroom, but i was there anyway. it made me want a packet, so i stood in line. the young girls (probably high school student council members, put to work quite often at conference days of late) didn't realize i wasn't supposed to have these materials and gave them out to me. then we all sat down to learn the choreography for our conference day dance. hmmm, i've been attending these conferences days every september for so many years - never were we made to learn and perform a dance. what a dream, huh?

and yet not so much of a dream. we are asked to learn new dances often. the dances are called by many names: balanced literacy, parallel tasks, RCT, collaborative learning, 7 intelligences, learning styles, APL, no child left behind. the new vocabulary dominates the memos, or emails, we receive for that year. announcements are made at faculty meetings that walk-throughs will be looking for this or that. to many of our staff, the terms are new and strange. they feel like students who have not studied, and start the year with that same uncomfortable feeling that many of our students feel about so much of the material for which we hold them accountable.

in my dream, i felt great relief when i realized i didn't have to learn this latest dance. i was so relieved, in fact, that i offered to help teach the choreography. then i woke up.

for teachers to put best practice into effect, they have to own the process. how often have we made this statement about our students? yet we expect to impose knowledge and practice on the staff of an entire school. garbage in, garbage out. shoving something in by memo, lecture, and one demonstration does not ensure that it will be seen in stellar form in our classrooms. rather, it encourages students/teachers to fight back with passive resistance, working to a grade (hey, my students pass the state assessments; isn't that good enough? why don't they leave me alone?) or sniping at administrators and compliant teachers. not a good way to run a school.

what if learners/teachers met together because they wanted to and were used to such a practice to talk about what was working in their classrooms, what wasn't working, what students were writing and how they were performing, what was new in the professional literature? what if these communities generated the next big push, the next district-wide initiative? what if these communities determined curriculum together?

it's funny, that's what i thought was coming when my district announced a big push, a new initiative, to engage in Professional Learning Communities. it turned out that this variety of PLC emphasized investigation of data rather than discussion of teaching technique. examining data is important, if we remember that its value is limited by the strength of the assessment that gathers it. the more important discussions, of teaching method, of points of emphasis, never got the time they needed when we were all focused on entering numbers into Excel spreadsheets.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 WE WRITE

what if a learner writes and no teacher is around to grade it?

when i was in eighth grade, i felt as though i would like to satirize things that were happening in my school. i watched laugh-in on monday nights. i felt as though i would like to do it in a mini-newspaper/newsletter format for like-minded classmates to read. so i wrote a little newspaper (i don't remember what i called it, but i decorated the edges with vines and flowers; it was, after all 1968). i wrote articles making fun of the hall monitors, clothing fads, slang of the day, courtship customs (remember ID bracelets?), teachers we loved and hated. i let my friends read my single copy, by which i mean two or three people who put up with my nonsense on a regular basis. no teacher ever saw it UNTIL pat kilker got hold of a copy somehow. he was my eighth grade english teacher, then later when i became an eighth grade english teacher he was my colleague. then he was the playwrite of a holocaust play i directed several times in the binghamton area. he made sure one of my articles got into the school newspaper, usually reserved for upperclassmens' writing.

he never graded it. my writing was for a small audience of people who like that kind of writing and humor, just like me. it was authentic. i had become a writer, mostly without teacherly intervention.

same with my poems, written when i discovered ee cummings. same with my songs, written when i learned three chords on my cheap guitar. no teacher intervened. i sang, i wrote, and it was almost just for me. all of it, my entire opus, contributed to my sense of who i am, and of course still does. how important is that? what is it good for? what have i learned? i don't even think that can be measured.

what if my classroom could be a place where students would feel they could write stuff that enlarges their sense of self, their sense of connection to the world? what would happen if learners were encouraged to question, read, write about their questions and their reading and their ideas? instead of being discouraged from it? what kind of world would we have then? if leaders emerged because we nurtured them, rather than triumphed despite forces that hold them back? do obama's books have in them any anecdotes from his education? i'd love to see how it went for him. much is written about how he overcame difficulties in his life; i wonder if some difficulties were related to educational practices in the schools he attended?

a top student in my real-life classroom, a student who might get a 95 or 98 or 100, drafts quite a bit both informally and in a "writing process" sense. Some drafts are turned in to trigger a conference or response session with me and some revisions. some revisions involve only mechanics if the draft is effective right away. sometimes substantive revision and/or format revision is required, but usually only for one major writerly decision (say, 1st person versus 3rd person point of view or line endings or meter). At least five pieces make it to final copies which are recorded in "THE BOOK" and filed in the final copy folder for that student. that student takes risks by trying to write material other than memoir, perhaps a poem, perhaps a script for a skit, perhaps an obituary or news report or informative piece similar to pieces they might choose to read in their favorite magazines. That student is reading at home and in school, in a novel of her choice, in magazines or on web sites she likes, all the time, weekdays and weekends. that student is reacting to the characters, events, ideas in her book each week, making statements, supporting them with text details, reaching for understanding of the world represented in her novel, and also of our current world, by making connections, asking questions, and being nudged by me, the reader of the reading response, to do research or make hypotheses, or read related books or similar authors. this top student tries books that are not from their favorite genres, because she listens to books talks i give once a month, or book talks we hear from the librarian in the library. this student chooses books by very good writers, enlarging and giving quality to the voice she hears in her head when she is reading and when she is not. this top student participates in discussions in class that follow minilessons or are part of guided activities or reading groups. this student has set goals for herself as a reader and as a writer. by the end of the quarter, she can write about her success, or lack of it, with those goals, and also write about some other important thoughts or understandings that she arrived at while spending time in my classroom.

what is wrong with encouraging students to use language in these ways? that's what a workshop classroom does. never is a numerical grade placed on a piece of writing. if i were better at stopping myself, there would never be a pen mark of any kind on the drafts that come to me. and yet students can report things they have learned about writing, and even demonstrate them, in writing, on common assessments that we are required to administer. don't we want thoughtful learners who learn and also reflect on what they learn? numbers on writing papers lead to passivity, lack of engagement. "I got a ___; that's good enough. what does she want me to do next?" numbers on writing lead to students who will only jump as high as we set our very low standards (ask any teacher who has scored the intermediate assessments for more than 5 years). no numbers on writing lead to students trying incredibly difficult strange new unforeseen projects, like the emotionally-draining poems about lost relatives, brave soldiers, family issues. how important is that stuff to adolescents? supremely important, and so they are willing to listen to me discourse on first person versus third person, or about questions left in a reader's mind, or about the importance of sense imagery and correct emotion vocabulary, stuff that they wouldn't give a shit about if i were in front of the room with skill and drill warriners text open or worksheets or other material so removed from their interest.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009 SI


spring forth from my brain, my womb, my heart
grow and change.
glom on, ideas, and arrange yourselves
in pretty phrases,
cadenced sentences,
unified chunks.
convince readers.
stir listeners.
persuade inform delight bring tears
and sighs of agreement,
sighs of sorrow,
sighs of we-know-this-thing-called-life
familiarity and yet not quite:
give it the twist that comes from me and me alone
from my actions, my life,
from my DNA, from my loves and heartbreaks,
my biases, my peeves,
my peevishness,
my openness and love for the universe
stir me to action
persuade me of what i might not be sure of
inform me of what i can only know when i commit words
delight me with beauty
in a sound, a word, a parade of ideas
draw from me the tears i couldn't weep before
the sighs i must share and not keep to myself
and as i share them to show others
what i am finding out each day

show us that in the growth and change that happen
as we write and think and speak and listen,
there lies at the bottom of the chest
that glowing gift called

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

[We chose a line from a poem, "How to Like It," by Stephen Dobyns:]

the place where the answers are kept

[and we wrote from that, so i went on...]

has smooth walls. answers don't stick
but slide around; it's so easy to pick
one that doesn't seem to fit
my question.

my questions are many, and they breed, they squiggle, they reproduce: myriad questions like tadpoles in the shallow pond out back. if only the answers were developing as their tails dissolve. i scoop up a couple with my net of sentences, hold them up, examine them, and continue to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. i pause to build a small nursery pool from the clay that lines the pond, to catch some of these questions so i can really look at them.

every once in a while i look up from my page, away from my computer screen, where i have scrawled my scrawny thoughts. stars swim in my feverish vision. oh, no...some of them have gotten away.

smooth walls, glass ceilings, prison cells that don't appear to be classroom teacher status was becoming a prison for me. i was understanding why the caged bird sings: i wrote poetry and blogs and political rants never read by politicians, but the time was coming that i would have to move, change, grow, pick a new career, not just write about my dissatisfaction. i couldn't see a way out, though. i had been teaching so long that i was only suited to employment in a public school, was making too much money to go to another district (not that things would really be different if i simply jumped to a classroom at another school), didn't handle the new technology well enough to find a job in a related industry, say, a book company like Scholastic, or, god forbid, a testing company or, the horror, state ed department which does in fact have job openings in the Albany area, i know because i checked. what was left for me? a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a learner...a learner...

i had recently met a young woman with a doctorate who taught at oneonta, preparing young pre-service teachers for the classroom. i remember thinking to myself, at the time, "i could do that." we were at the state conference for english teachers. i was on fire again, a condition that often afflicted me when i went to a conference, like the national one in new york city a couple of years back. i was afire not just with ideas but with the chances i had to make meaning in collaboration with other readers, thinkers, writers, teachers. into the heady brew of carol burning, stir my involvement with the new national writing project site, 7 valleys, out of cortland. a score of like-minded reader/writer/thinkers, reading and talking and writing in a building in cortland every week day for twenty days -- it was an accelerant to the fire of my burning questions, my aching dissatisfaction, my struggle to burst out of a self-perceived prison cell.

they encouraged my rants, my questions, my anecdotes about years as a workshop teacher. they encouraged my growth, when i feared there was no direction to grow in. later that year, i met my friend from oneonta, and talked to her about preparing teachers, about her experience at binghamton university.

i interviewed the director of the program at BU's school of ed. he encouraged me and answered questions about finances and future. i wrote the essay that introduced me to the panel that accepts or rejects, not entirely aware of what an important document it was. i met with my superintendent and very candidly told him that i wanted to study full time and i wanted time off to do it. he couldn't get me a sabbatical (listen - you can hear nbc's brian william's saying, "in these tough economic times...") but he got me a two-year leave of absence, so there was a plan B if i needed to come back to a classroom job. BU got me an assistantship, so important bills would be paid while i was studying. my partner assured me that every thing else would be taken care of, at least for the two years of coursework. a doctoral candidate was born.

now i pick the brain of every fine teacher/student/tech nerd i can find: my son ty, my friend (doctor) david, and i take notes and i go over the notes and i read articles and books every day and i blog about them, i recall classroom situations and i blog about them, ending always with questions, always asking more questions, reading more and finding out that i have more questions, that other people are asking them, did ask them, too. it is a wonder that my brain doesn't shut down from lack of answers. some questions simply have to be answered, you know, or the brain suffers from a lack of firm, solid, grounded information.

ha. i wouldn't be a teacher if i really believed and relied on that. tom newkirk, in his new book, Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, likens teachers to doctors and nurses healing the sick. they are faced with new situations constantly, medical emergencies or conditions that are like textbook cases EXCEPT for one aspect. therein lies the task of the medical help - to problem solve on their feet, to move beyond the rules since the casebook didn't have a ruling on this one or that one. we teachers do that every day, every class, every child in our positions. asking the right questions can help us help children. so developing this questioning ability may be very helpful to new teachers.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Garden Once More

The rain is over.
With time and drier weather,
I start in the row of chard
a lacy line of sturdy
edible leaves.
Each ray of grass,
each mint-related invader,
one by one
I pull up by the roots
and fling onto the lawn
until the piles of the dead
loom large
and my fingers ache.
Flowers bloom;
fruit is forming.
Neat rows emerge --
I see
a garden once more.

July 7, 2009

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"Carol, March Madness is one of the things you did that I'm going to keep next year. Those kids were learning and didn't even know it." My consultant teacher, Melissa, was reassuring me about the value of my '08-'09 lessons.

It was true; several times kids would see what time it was and tell me, "Wow, class is over already?" or "This class is always over before you know it," or, "I wish all my classes went as fast as this one." They had been discussing two poems during my March Madness segment. They had been using tactful sentence frames, respectful ways of stating agreement or disagreement, frames to guide them to support their statements with text evidence. They had continued their discussions after the minilesson was over, after the heads-down voting, right into workshop time.

They learned without even knowing they were learning. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Don't we enjoy those experiences where we lose ourselves in a topic or a hobby or an interest? I know it happened for me last night when I played the bass and sang blues tunes with a drummer and a guitar player in my living room. I hadn't dusted off my bass amp since March; it was a transcendent, healing experience long overdue. The songs poured out of my heart and I loved hearing what came out of the speakers, loved hearing the drums underneath, the guitar riffing away from the melody.

And what about that half hour of weeding after my walk and before I got in the car to drive to Cortland on Tuesday morning? Nothing else was in my mind except finding and grasping each tenacious weed and flinging it out of my sodden garden plot. I heard birdsong, smelled damp earth, felt mud and cool air...and thought nothing. A pleasant, though soggy, half hour passed.

And what about the hours I had spent on the Jersey shore, umbrella up, sunglasses and sunblock in place, book in hand, lost in a story? All that time, I was adding to my working vocabulary, to my knowledge of syntax, to my repetoire of voice and cadence...and following the plot, getting emotionally lifted and suspended and dropped, again and again...and when I looked up it would be time to leave the beach, shower, and find some seafood for supper.

That quality of getting lost in learning, or of learning as playing, is not present in our classrooms enough. We have made it too true that it is the "job" of a student to go to school. School is an onerous job, not a lively pursuit of our curiosities, varied and personal. Yet we know that what is learned out of love is learned well. How can that playfulness be brought back from yesterday's kindergartens (I suspect that today's kindergartens are too tinged with academic goals and assessments: perhaps I should visit some lest I misjudge)? How can our public schools be suffused with the intellectual freedom and curiosity and passion that at various points in history led to inventions, revolutions, innovations? Some might say that free minds, curiosity, and passion led to the establishment of the United States of America.

Okay...well...maybe I'm getting a little carried away.

So what other lessons did I have this year that took kids out of themselves into that zone, that happy place where learning happens almost invisibly, despite their best intentions to resist it?

Last June, '08, my students had to work in pairs to create little skits in which the author of, or character in, one student's favorite book met with and talked to the author or, or character in, their partner's favorite book for the year. Those class sessions flew by for many kids.

The Scrabble tournament: a game at every table, every day, even as official games are played in a single elimination tournament for each section of ELA 8. Winners get to play Ms. Mikoda at lunch or the day before vacation. Those sessions, where dictionaries flew off the shelves, and much discussion of words ensued.

The science newspapers were the culminating projects in science 8 after the state assessment was over in May. Partners wrote articles in which science concepts played an important role, many teachers were exploded or had accidents, fictionally, and solid understandable writing resulted. An otherwise difficult time of year went by almost painlessly, according to my colleague, who worked with me to develop this activity.

Individual students experienced this flow-that-one-can-get-lost-in quite often, resulting in novels that they finished reading and written pieces that were satisfyingly rendered in final copies. Reading workshop, two segments each week, and writer's workshop, three segments each week, were reliable structures that ensured that this would happen. I have no data to support this; just anecdotal remembrances of seeing this student hard at work, head down, oblivious to what was going on at the next table or across the room, until the bell rang.

Sometimes the evidence was a poem, typed and published on a piece of construction paper, with a related picture taped next to it, and posted along the tops of the lockers in the hallway near my room. I could tell a story about each one, each year, over the past 14 years.


Monday, July 06, 2009

March Madness

I wish I could say that the March Madness poetry study was my idea. It was not; I got it from someone in a discussion group that I met with online during the nineties, a group of English teachers that found each other through AOL. Someone described a unit that paralleled the NCAA basketball tournament, where students considered two poems a day; winners of each discussion meet up with other winners until a grand champion poem is proclaimed. I chose 32 poems somewhat randomly, and set up a schedule for the month of March. Silly me, I hadn't noticed that much of March Madness, in the sports world, takes place during April. And didn't I realize that April was National Poetry Month? I love serendipity, though, and it turned out that by April my students were so ready to talk poetry, recite poetry, argue poetry, judge poetry, and WRITE poetry! Perfect timing. I put the 32 poems in a physical packet, had the packets copied, and we were off and running.

Some of my students had been writing poetry before March Madness started, and I had other tools in place to get students digging into collections of poetry, but it was during March that we developed our poetry reading skills in depth as a class. My most recent experience, March of '09, was once again quite successful, and has some significance since this was my last year in my 8th grade classroom before I take a leave of absence to study full-time for my doctorate. My consultant teacher included March Madness as one of the elements she will insist on keeping when my replacement plans her 8th grade curriculum. "Students really got it when you taught it that way," she wrote to me in her farewell card.

The first eight class days in March, we skimmed through four poems each day, in addition to the workshop time (individual writing or silent reading) for each day. I read each poem, made almost no comment about it, unless there was a need for some context, or if students had particular vocabulary questions. I did not include any T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, but included poets like Frost, William Carlos Williams, in addition to some poets I had found on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac and even among's daily featured poems. I snuck in a poem of my own, using my stage name for a nom de plume (my poems have never gone farther than the sweet sixteen, though, most often losing in the second round).

During these first eight days, I allowed students to vote for as many of the four poems as they liked. Then I took the top 16 vote-getters. I scheduled them the way any good tournament planner would, using total (all five classes) votes as a way to seed them, until the next eight class days were scheduled. On these days, I would read each poem twice and ask the essential question, "What did this poet do that good poets often do?" Students mentioned techniques they understood well, such as rhyme, alliteration, comparisons such as simile, metaphor, or personification.

I would lead off discussions, though, with some devices that were less familiar, or more difficult to explain. Students know rhythm when they hear it, but find it hard to explain. I would make a statement about a rhythmic poem and then back it up with a detailed count of beats per line. Often I had to teach them about beats by having them beat the rhythm of their name. They found it easy to catch on, though, so we could move on to other concepts, like imagery of the five senses, imagery of emotion, imagery of nature. We also discussed ways of ending poems (we found full circle and twist in the poems I put before them). This year, at student insistence, we discussed format as well (short lines, long lines, sonnet).

Over the course of eight days I discussed every device I wanted them to be able to see, although not every device that every poet used in every poem (which would have been overkill). At the end of these discussions, students were only allowed to vote for one of the two daily poems. To avoid peer pressure, we put our heads down while voting. We ended up with our Elite Eight.

At this point, students were capable of finding many devices. Now I wanted to train them to back up their statements. They had to first state what device they saw in the poem being discussed. We posted a sentence frame to remind them of ways to make such statement ("The poet used ___________."). In addition, they or a friend had to come up with examples or illustrations that proved that statement, and again had to use a sentence frame that we posted: "For example, the poem says___________________."
Students began to correct each other if the frame were not used, or they would catch themselves. We always took time to do a short writing burst or a short pair/share before our forum began; in this time they might plot to work together on their statements and support.

After they had the sentence frames down, I had them, occasionally, write their vote with reasons and support provided.

Before we knew it the long month of March was almost over. The Final Four were very familiar to us, each poem having been up for a vote three times before. Without their knowledge, students had gotten to a point of very deep reading. Some grew attached to this poem; others to that poem. Heated arguments might take place during workshop time supporting one or another finalist. This year I set up the two discussions of the four poems as rough contests: students could chose a side of the room for either poem, and the two sides took turns making statements (worth a point), or backing them up (also worth a point). It was a rough contest, where I simply tallied successful comments until no one could think of any more that could be supported. It didn't matter that I didn't keep score; they enjoyed the spirit of game show and read the poems SO CLOSELY to prepare. Again we voted.

With only two poems to consider, we made the vote a written one: each student had a couple of days to write a poem reflection supporting one or the other, giving reasons by making statements and supporting them. The sentence frames stayed posted on the whiteboard. Much paper was used for drafts, loyalty to poems crossed many clique lines, and students could be heard at lunch tables discussing merits of the war poem versus the humorous/scary one.

These reflections served to elect one poem as our champion. They also served as a practice essay for the common assessment with the other 8th grade ELA students taught by my colleague. We had them write about Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," a poem that neither of us had studied with our students.

The tournament essays were a joy to read. They really did get it: the repetition, each day in March, in meaningful context, stuck with them. They did not too badly with the Frost poem on the common assessment, though most played it safe with rhyme and repetition. I was so proud of them.

I saw the value of providing sentence frames to help them with discussion, and then with composition of their written argument. It was also helpful to them to see the repetition of these statements in a context that made sense: looking at pairs of poems again and again we had to say some similar things, but it wasn't boring. It was needed practice in a realistic situation. And they were doing what every English teacher loves to see: they were getting lost in those texts.

Where else could I set up such repetition, such context for sentence frames, such investment in texts? What other texts could evoke such responses? How can I model this for pre-service teachers? For freshman writers?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Water Cycle
written April 4, 2009

I am that wisp of cloud
that floats slowly through the blue of the spring sky,
slowly enough to look at the details of the landscape below.
I gaze longingly at the pond
where water lilies, cattails, and lotus
are sending up their green shoots and tendrils again,
or at least dreaming about it.
It is not time for my molecules to condense and fall there as rain;
no, I will go on to admire
two handsome black ravens scratching in the grass.
They, too, are fliers in the sky,
and they join me for a time
before they are distracted by crystalline glimmers
from someone’s backyard chimes.

I move on, impeccable in my wordlessness,
delighting in my formlessness,
my vapor shifting with some stray breeze, some changing current of air.
I take the shape of a smooth stone,
of a clump of moss,
of the fertile cloud of milt spreading over fish eggs suspended amidst lake weeds.
I am fertile – ideas fill me;
they dwell within each atom.
They shine like stars or like the sparkles of sunlight on windswept water.

I see a woman hanging sheets out on the line,
singing softly to her children,
a special song,
setting up a vibration in the air that transmits itself
into every atom of hydrogen and oxygen forming me,
as well as those of the surrounding air.
The delicate but powerful force of her love
travels miles.
I smile as I float above with her love resonating in me
as if I, too, sang that song.

Moisture condenses and falls from me
until I am that cloud no more.
I do not take it personally –
change has come to me as it must.
Now I push between blades of grass, clods of soil,
on my way to a stream.

I quicken my pace as I sense the nearness of a broad river.
As I join it, I am aware
that this journey will lead to the ocean.

I have missed the ocean.
I need to hear its constant motion,
feel that circular flow, warmed by sun and cooled to drop down to the depths. Will I be thrown up on the beach in a symphony of breaking waves,
or carried far out to travel to another land?
Will I be lifted up out of this liquid home, evaporated again?
Will pollution stagnate me, hold me hostage,
sensing only the absence of the vibrations of life?
Will I ever reach a place in this world
where it is cold enough for me to experience freezing,
or has the earth passed that point?
I long to feel that low and slow vibration of a solid
that floats in the ocean,
but perhaps it is not to be.

Perhaps I will once again live the dream of a woman.
I make no assumptions, but instead question
what that dream will be – the concert pianist, the passionate dancer,
the contemplative monk, the thinker and writer
who changes the course of events in the world?

Or will violence end my life in those cells?
Will an accident stop me before I can have any effect?
Will a bullet from a combatant’s gun
or refuse from a terrorist’s bomb deflect my force from its true goal?

The sun sets.
I do my best to return to the now,
to the love and light that propel me
to merge with the indigo line at the eastern horizon.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Yesterday I found something out about Bloom's Taxonomy, so familiar to teachers and so often referred to when an administrator is exhorting us to raise test scores by calling on students to use Higher Order Thinking in our classroom activities. I found out that a student of Bloom's got together with some other Bloomies in the nineties and revised his taxonomy! No one told me! Why wasn't I told? Why, just last fall, a consultant advised us to present our essential learnings as, "what students need to know and be able to do," which is no longer kosher.

This development emerged in the nineties: an email should have been sent to the alumnae of all teaching colleges and school of ed grad students. Changes to that taxonomy are like changes to the U.S. Tax Code, or changes to the Constitution! Big news! Sad that classroom teachers are the last to know. How could this problem (of classroom teachers in the trenches not getting really important research information) be rectified? A question for another day.

I'm happy to see that the taxonomy has been recast in verb forms, participles that show an active mind, an active student, rather than monumental concrete nouns that do not seem connected to classrooms with children in them. I'm happy to see that synthesis has become creating and that it has been moved to the top of the ladder as the highest form of cognitive process. The books I have been reading by Deepak Chopra and Miguel Ruiz also point to creating as the highest manifestation of spiritual existence. I love it when there is concordance within my studies.

I also love the interactive chart that Dianna Fisher came up with. "Click" and you've got an example of an appropriate activity for any level of cognitive process or knowledge dimension. I also like the way the Encyclopedia of Education Technology differentiates between unclear objectives and better, revised objectives. Too many of ours, during curriculum alignment exercises, were written in the unclear form.

Once again, though, I must think about the idea that reading and writing are processes, not collections of facts. There is little that we work on, in reading and writing workshop, that my students need to name or remember. There is much for them to connect, apply, discern, judge. When I ask them to read, they must use those skills, those verbs, constantly. When I ask them to write, they are constantly judging, evaluating, creating.

My mind is clouding over...I am growing drowsy...
P.S. great article here, too.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I finally read all of Mike Schmoker's article, Radically Redefining Literacy Instruction: An Immense Opportunity, from the March 2007 Kappan. It came up when I searched Balanced Literacy, and the word radical jumped out at me, rebel that I am.

I have shared this article with my writing project colleagues, who in turn are sharing it with this year's Summer Institute participants, one of whom is the superintendent of a small upstate district. I hope he will pursue its recommendations with a vengeance. I want to scatter copies of it throughout my school; not that it would bear fruit. One of the reasons that I have left my eighth grade classroom is the powerlessness I have felt: I seem to have no way of influencing literacy instruction, not as a mentor for student teachers, not as a member of a "Professional Learning Community," not even as a department coordinator for my middle school ELA team. And this article is GOOD STUFF.

The improvements it suggests are not high-tech or expensive in any way. I will be able to follow his recommendations as easily when I am teach writing to freshman at the local community college as I could when I was teaching reading and writing to eighth graders. All we have to have is some paper and pens, some reading material, some provocative questions, and our desks facing each other in a U-shape, or a circle.

Get ready for a revolutionary approach to teaching: his recommendation for improving students' literacy and thinking skills is that we should have them read, discuss, write, discuss some more, all while they are in our classrooms. The teacher's job: to get the reading material together, propose provocative guiding questions before they read, facilitate discussion after they read, ask them to write about what they read and discussed, talk to individual students about places in their writing or thinking where they were weak. No homework need be assigned or graded. No essays need be graded with extensive red marks or useless comments.

Direct instruction in reading and rhetorical strategies cannot disappear, but would make much more sense in the context of the authentic purpose for which we develop such skills, rather than to fill up a workbook, a Scantron, or a planbook.

I think I'll go read some material that I might use in September, and think of some provocative questions to go with whatever I find.

Monday, June 29, 2009

(note: I wrote this in January 2009, as a personal statement of my research interests in the field of education)

In 1974 there were no personal computers, only room-sized machines. Cell phones did not exist. The internet was in the early stages of development by the military and a few universities, although probably without Al Gore’s help. Teaching and learning went on in classrooms with blackboards and overhead projectors. Research in libraries involved paper-bound collections of monthly journals and published articles.

Professional development from school districts in which I taught (including JC, Binghamton, Harpursville, and Windsor) in the seventies and eighties was spotty at best. I relied on additional coursework in reading, subscriptions to IRA and NCTE publications and attendance at some state conferences to stay up to date.

In the nineties, after some years at home with my young sons, I returned to teach at the middle school. My Syracuse mentor, Dr. Margaret Early, recommended Nancie Atwell’s book on workshop-style classrooms for middle school English (1987). I became an Atwell clone, and grad students visited my classroom to study how change happens in a teacher’s career (Mikoda and Beddow, 1995). My work with students led me to write more myself, giving me even more insights into the decisions a writer faces if she really cares about what she is writing.

Changes in professional development policies in my district brought better speakers to our superintendent’s conference days, copies of current professional books, and more chances to attend state conferences, to listen, to present, or even to speak and present. Because of the internet I was now able to communicate with English teachers all over the nation to discuss new methods and changes we had made to the workshop style

Now, as a twenty-year-plus veteran, I have watched my district begin to develop into a professional learning community (PLC) after reading Richard Dufour’s work and listening to him speak (2006); I have watched my department follow the elementary teachers into the balanced literacy movement. In the middle of these two consuming initiatives, I incorporated computer software for attendance and grade reporting, interactive Smartboard technology for lessons and planning, as well as a Blackboard site for my 8th grade ELA class. More important to my own professional path was the establishment of a new site of the National Writing Project in nearby Cortland, where I participated, in July 2008, in my first Summer Institute.

It was a galvanizing experience. I was among other questioning teachers, searching for new knowledge and fresh best practices. We taught ourselves, in that first summer institute, how important it is for learners to construct their knowledge in social settings, and to transform their understanding with frequent bursts of ungraded writing interspersed with reading and discussion. In my personal research, I discovered ways to use my new online course site (Cook 2008, DeSouza, Farabaugh 2007) and justification for its use (Wright 2006).

Why is institutional change so slow? Change is difficult for human beings; literature and political history bear this out, but aren’t teachers a forward thinking lot, or shouldn’t they be? Can the personal quality of flexibility be identified, encouraged, developed in pre-service teachers? Some say no to this question (Gladwell 2008). I’m not sure I can see it in a pre-service teacher, after hosting five student teachers, two research assistants, and many observers logging their fifty hours preceding student teaching.

Professional learning community (PLC) tenets require me to re-evaluate my methods continually after examining data from common assessments. What do my students need to know and be able to do? Are students learning that? If they aren’t, how will I help them? If they are, where will I go with them? As department colleagues score state assessments, we talk about the student results and writing before us. There is still disagreement about methods, even when research is laid before us by consultants and district administrators. What are the habits of mind that prepare a pre-service teacher for this constant examination of formative assessments and the data they produce?

We could not foresee Facebook, Myspace, AIM, CAD-CAM, an on-line course sites, and neither could our teachers, who worked with paper, pen, and textbook. We have expanded our awareness of literacy to include visual and technological literacy, but we cannot know the technology that our students will know in their lifetimes – how can we prepare them for the new skills they will need? How can we best prepare teachers? These are questions of critical national importance, and perhaps global significance as well.

During this same half-century of my lifetime, research into brain structures, revealing more sensitivity to visual cues, has become more sophisticated. What will we find out next, as generations of video gamers, graphic novel and manga readers, and ipod and Blackberry users grow up and have children (Carr 2008). What impact should all this have on our schools? If writing can be considered a technology that restructures thought (Ong 1986) how will use of the internet restructure thought? How can our educational institutions become more flexible? How do we change faster in midstream, not 180 degrees but tweaking that makes perfect sense in other settings (manufacturing, sales), but somehow eludes educational institutions?

My recent experiences as my district develops into a PLC make me very interested in creative problem solving in educational settings. We are faced each day with new problems to solve. We know we cannot do what has always been done. PLC structures, imposed from above, sometimes seem more like tedious punishments than solutions, swamped as we are with student/parent personalities, curriculum issues, new state mandates. The National Writing Project’s Summer Institute showed me the power of our writing and discussion; how can all teachers, and especially new teachers, be brought to that same table?

Global shift and a new level of connectivity suggest to me that we should be dreaming up new ways to set up schools; some people already are. See, for example, “The Networked Student,” suggested by Alec Couros’ Networked Teacher (, or Clay Shirky’s discussions of connectivity ( I want to be in on this dreaming and think-tanking, and I want to set up our future classrooms to be more responsive, more based on knowledge that change is constant, and embracing guided flexibility. School days need to allow for more teacher discussion and revision of lessons, classrooms need to be seen as more virtual, with laptops everywhere, wireless networks, and discussion groups mushrooming both in school and at home. Measurement of growth in some other way than numerical grades, changes in school calendars, even school “walls”…teachers should know when they enter the profession that change is needed constantly. Current research fed to us via network, like intravenous nutrition, would be common and expected and would inform our teaching. Teachers would discuss research findings and their consequences in classrooms. We would no longer regress to “teach as we were taught,” because colleagues would help us solve problems in constant reflection and discussion.

Early in my career, I agonized each August over how I would set up my thematic units and whole-class books throughout the year. Later in my career, I have suffered through tedious mandated curriculum “realignments” to match state standards. The product, a huge three-ring binder, sits unused, while teachers still need to talk to each other about what is being taught at each level. How can we encourage that constant discussion, so that we all can improve our response to diversity and ensure equity of experience among all our students?

Is it possible that curriculum can best be set by the individual learner, following motivations that come from deep within? New and developing technology and sites foster individualized progress and social connectedness. Wikis proliferate, some as conduits of socially created pools of information (Levin 2008). Perhaps a teacher’s role is to be a facilitator in the vastness of the internet and the moderator of socio-educational networks (Drexler 2008). Just as I could not have imagined using Smartboards instead of blackboards, it is difficult to imagine the direction our classrooms could take, but we must. It falls to us, even in our outdatedness, our immediate obsolescence, to train those who will define the new roles of teachers, the new form of schools.

Individual learners can be a driving factor in where a classroom goes. I think of the first few weeks after my Smartboard was installed. I hadn’t yet had more than one training session. Students were sometimes my teacher as we both learned the new hardware, they with more savvy than I, so lines were blurred between roles of teacher and learner. I am often reminded, in such situations, or when my student groups arrive, through discussion, at the same list of learnings as I would have given them, of something that my Syracuse mentor, Dr. Early, told me as I finished my studies for my master’s degree: “Let students take over as much as possible in classroom. Design your classroom so that can happen easily and safely.” She wasn’t just talking about handing out papers or collecting milk money. When students take responsibility and an active role searching out information, they learn more. Letting students, with some training at first, discuss what they are learning, reflect on their abilities, teach each other, encourages the kinds of attitudes toward new knowledge that can be as important as factual knowledge stored, which computers can do for us.

Attitudes and habits of mind appear to be more important than anything students could memorize about language use. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess attitudes and habits of mind, and yet I am expected to do that as my school community develops as a PLC. Now I use scores from multiple choice reading comprehension tests developed by state sub-contractors. In effect, I am saying that those scores reflect students’ application of reading strategies or habits of mind we have discussed and developed. Those tests do not measure how well they will do when faced with a web page they need to decipher, but they are all I have now, with no time to develop more responsive measures.

As for writing skills, we all use the holistic scoring for transactional tasks, but what will my students have to present to the public world in the future? Certainly not five paragraph essays, as we see from news accounts on line (Carr It seems apparent, though, that people will always tell stories – in print, in video – and so it still seems important to work with students to understand how to tell our stories more clearly, more artfully, and knowing that, to understand how to get more from stories that others tell.

I can reflect on these issues at my yellow writing table in the peace and calm of my home, but every morning, I return to my busy classroom, where I face students with a wide range of abilities and attitudes: non-readers and proud of it, word-callers who are proud of their phonics skills, avid readers who devour Twilight or Uglies or End Game or Maus or Lord of the Rings, even if a book is far above or below their “level” (Fountas and Pinell, Reading Recovery, Rigby, DRA, Wright Group, etc.), writers who can’t spell, spellers who can’t think critically, resisters who glare out from behind a skateboarder’s fringe of hair, Goths all in black who read only manga.

Every student who sits around my large u-shaped table is wrapped in a delicate, volatile blanket of emotional growing pains compounded by societal issues played out in their fractured families – mental illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, over-abundance, grandparents as parents, absent parents, children raising children. Before I can teach them, I must motivate them to listen to me, using all my skills as an actor and entertainer. Before I can teach them I must meet each student where she is, or where he hides, and bring them to another place.

I have many questions about how to do this right – how to help adolescents who manage to reach that age without decoding or comprehension skills, perhaps because of disabilities; how to reach teens who have much to say but resist writing for whatever reason; how to work in a team of teachers. I look forward to the chance to examine the research, to ask new questions, to find new ways to be an educator and train new ones in the 21st century.


Atwell, Nancie, In the Middle, Heinemann, Portsmoth, NH 1987

Carr, Nicholas. "What the Internet is doing to our brains: Is Google Making Us Stupid?." The Atlantic Online 200807July/Aug 2008 24 Jun 2008 .

Cook, Devan. "A New Kind of Reading and Writing Space: The Online Course Site." Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal 1533242X(2002) 18 Jul 2008 .

Drexler, Wendy and her students. “The Networked Student,” video posted at, November 26, 2008.

Dufour, R. and R., Eaker, R., and Thomas. Whatever It Takes: How PLCs Respond When Kids Don’t Learn, Solution Tree, Bloomington IN, 2004.

D'Souza, Quentin

Farabaugh, Robin. "The Isle is Full of Noises: Using Wiki Software to Establish a Discourse Community in a Shakespeare Classroom." Language Awareness 16(2007): 41-56.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Most Likely to Succeed,” The New Yorker, December 15, 2008

Levin, A.. "Social Software: What's New." BookBlog. 16 Oct 2004. 11 Jul 2008 .

Mikoda, C. and Beddow, J. “Searching for Meaning and Making Change: An Insider/Outsider Collaboration,” The Potter’s Wheel: Change in English Language In Language Arts Classrooms, ed. Rosalie Rafter, NYSEC, 1995.

November, Alan. Web Literacy for Educators, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA 2008.

Ong, Walter, "Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought." from The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. 23-50

Reid, Alex lecture delivered at Seven Valley Writing Project Summer Institute, Cortland, NY Monday July 21, 2008

Richardson, Will

Shirky, Clay. "Institutions vs. Collaboration." TED Ideas Worth Spreading. July 2008. TED. 20 Jul 2008 .

Shirky, Clay. "Why Abundance Should Breed Optimism." Britannica Blog 2008/0721 July 2008 22 Jul 2008 .

Shirky, Clay. "Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr." Britannica Blog 2008/0717 July 2008 23 July 2008 .

Tovani, Cris. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Stenhouse, Portland ME, 2004

Wright, J. Lenore. "Creating Community in the Philosophy Classroom: Using Blackboard's Online Journal to Improve Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Speaking." Teaching Philosophy 29(2006): 1-21.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Data, Data, Who's Got the Data?

Mondays -- I hated Mondays. Not just because they were the first work day after a weekend at home, either. No, for the last two years, they were not just Mondays, but PLC Mondays, the day our newest contract designated for tacking on fifty minutes of Professional Learning Community activities. Fifty minutes of manipulating numbers obtained by giving quarterly common assessments to all students taking, say, seventh grade science, or eighth grade ELA, fifty minutes of looking at data, comparing students scores, discussing instruction that preceded those scores, planning instruction to improve those scores.

I had heard of professional learning communities before PLC arrived in Windsor. This PLC, however, was a purchased program from Chicago. It was not about discussions among colleagues who respected each others' backgrounds and opinions; rather, it was enforced dialogue about improving student scores between people who did not necessarily respect each other. Rather, we tolerated each other because we happened to work in the same building, in the same department, on the same core team.

Good discussions about pedagogy happened, despite our mixed loyalties and twisted intentions. We did observe trends among our students, depending on how we taught certain concepts. We devised plans of action to reteach some skills, to reinforce material that didn't seem to be well understood. We sometimes talked about teaching without acting as if what we did in our classroom was secret and perhaps shameful.

During these valuable discussions, though, I always felt uneasy because of what I saw as flawed, almost certainly questionable data. To obtain information about students' comprehension of what they read, we had to ask them to read material that was not at their independent reading level, was not about their topics they chose, material in which they probably had no interest. Then we asked multiple choice questions, some of which required students to use particular skills and strategies we had been focusing on. We could not ask our students, however, to read too much text; we could not ask them to answer more questions than they could manage in 45 minutes. We might end up with a data base of responses with only five questions testing inferential skills, among the twenty questions that involved a variety of other comprehension skills. Five items asked about two small texts, do not seem to give a good indication of whether a student "gets" the idea of combining text evidence with outside knowledge to draw inferences. I was not the most conscientious student during my Tests and Measurements class at Syracuse, but that does not seem like a good sample. And yet, talking about our flawed analysis still yielded important agreements about classroom practice or helpful suggestions for the teacher just beginning a career.

PLC Mondays were accompanied by requirements that we write up our discussions, write up our data analyses, write up up our plans of action. These tasks wore down my enthusiasm for the process. I got confused by many new acronyms and forms, slowed down by technical difficulties with files and folders on the shared drive, irritated because some colleagues were more accessible, more amenable to the process than others.

To complicate the PLC initiative, there were other movements afoot. Balanced literacy, a new twist on ELA for the middle school, required much intellectual and persuasive energy. Countering arguments and attitudes was an additional source of Monday afternoon stress. On some Mondays, after dealing with students' emotional backlash from weekends spent in dysfunctional families, I had nothing left for these PLC sessions.

I wonder what would happen if schools got together for PLC in units bigger than districts, perhaps facilitated by BOCES or NYSED. Would it be easier for teachers who didn't have to work in the same buildings to discuss classroom practices and their consequences more honestly and authentically? Talking with building colleagues involves ego, past history, competition, cliques. What would have to change for better quality PLC sessions to happen?

Also, are there better ways to find out whether students are understanding the processes and skills cultivated in an ELA classroom than to give a paper and pencil, multiple choice reading comprehension test? Should ELA classrooms be treated in a different way because they involve processes rather than content knowledge? But wait a minute...even in the so-called "content" areas, aren't habits of mind more important than knowledge that can become obsolete so quickly? So how can discrete data like answers to multiple choice questions be helpful? Is PLC really about reflection and collaboration more than hard data?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The water, almost at high tide, tumbles toward me again and again, the sound of it striking the sand building and subsiding in overlapping sine waves. my ears and eyes can't get enough, and then, strangely, they overdoes so that I must close my eyes and simply listen for a bit. I open them up again to see the soft grays and blues, the frothy white, the wet sand, As I look down the beach, all the colors fade into the haze of evaporating mist and sandy cloud; the same effect as I look up the beach to the north.

The sun puts a bright gloss on the waves that crash in to my left, there to the north. My mind, my senses, are totally engaged, as the ocean smell blots out even the scent of copious amounts of sunblock. A white sail, with sun on the leading edge, emerges from the gauze of the horizon,, like part of the atmosphere, but then recedes again into the gray distance, just out of perception, or perhaps just within it. All I see here is wavering, indistinct, shape-changing, amorphous, shimmering.

My awareness and my consciousness transcend the mundane, the everyday, the voice of knowledge and civilization in my head. I am drawn from my everyday self to another place. My usual stressors are gone, replaced by the constant sensual barrage of the beach, and I am healed, as if the content of the air -- every ion, every water molecule, every mineral carried in the moisture -- were medicinal. I am healed a little more with each gust of the breeze, each lapping of a wave, each cry of a gull. I am healed.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Power of Reflective Writing

“Only two questions,” I assured my students, during one of the last classes of the year. We were discussing the final exam which they would take during one of the ninety-minute test sessions during two half-days the following week.
“Only two?” a student repeated, evidently distrustful of this information. The other three finals, in math, social studies, and science, involved anywhere from 45 to 100 multiple choice questions.
“The first one is an essay about your best piece of writing this spring. The second one asks you to discuss some event or person or book that changed you this year.” The best piece reflection I had used on the final exam for at least ten years. The question about a major influence had come to me during discussions with the other eighth grade ELA teacher about end-of-the-year requirements. He had agreed that another reflective essay, this one about students’ personal lives, would be a good accompaniment to the essay about what they had done that good writers do. Little did we know how well our students would do with this question.
I wish there were additional time in the school year. Many students chose to write about a teacher or coach at school, and I would love to have had the honored teachers stop in at my room to read the tributes. One teacher did stop by, at my invitation, and he was moved, especially by the essay of a girl in his advisory group that he had especially tried to encourage all year. She had been depressed about problems in her family, so he made it a point to cheer her, and show her the value of choosing one’s own attitude. She wrote about exactly that – seldom does a teacher get to hear or read such praise. Many of his baseball players wrote about his efforts with their rather dysfunctional team. As Mr. B said, “You can’t tell whether it’s sinking in when you’re working with them,” but it obviously did for those three or four young people.
Sometimes students wrote about their own friends, or family members. Others reacted strongly to an injured veteran of Iraq, a Windsor alumnus, who spoke to us in an assembly about his journey to overcome his inertia, pain, and depression after losing a leg and his boyish good looks. Our fall team-building event, a visit to the ropes course, was also the topic of many essays. The more papers I read, the more certain I was that the money spent for that field trip and for other character ed programs was money well spent. Our own professional development sessions in the past ten years had told us that middle school students remember affective experiences, that which appeals to their emotions, far more than any academic work done in these pre-teen years. These essays were proof of that, as our eighth graders wrote articulately, passionately, convincingly, about how they had been changed.

The more papers I read, the more sure I was that reflection like this is a good way to get the best writing out of our students during an end-of-the-year exercise like this final. Isn’t it easier for us, as adults, to write about things we care about? And if it is easier to write, then isn’t it more likely that we will care about saying it correctly, effectively? I know that it is much easier for my teaching to have an impact if I am working with a student on ideas he cares about. Research supports me in this classroom observation, research too voluminous to cite here. Nancie Atwell found it in the ‘80s, but it has been researched and written about even more since she asked about the power of student-centered writing to improve their formal writing.

Why, then, do teachers continue to fight this knowledge by working on student writing through assignment of formal essays and other heinous parallel tasks? Is it fear, when faced with classrooms filled with reluctant writers, that forces them to fall back to antiquated techniques? Is it lack of awareness, even after decades of research?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I'm thinking about modelling. I'm thinking about learners creating rubrics, and about learners needing time to work with material that is easy for them at first, and then working up to material that is right at their instructional/learning/nudging level; I'm thinking about scaffolding.

When post-secondary students (pre-service teachers, perhaps) are examining pieces of writing to develop a list of criteria by which quality can be measured, they should start with samples of writing from younger writers, much younger at first, and then work with samples of writing closer in intellectual age to them, and so on and so forth until they are reading, critiquing, and having writing conferences with their own classmates. Good writing conference techniques may not have been used when they were students in elementary and secondary classrooms, so retraining should occur so that the same mistakes are not made when they are in a classroom with their own students.

When students are learning the groundrules for discussion in a classroom, they should at first discuss a text or other content that is simple, and then work up to a text or content that is more complex. I have seen this go wrong. Class discussions gone wrong are not a pretty sight, and they were bad enough to keep me from having them for many years. Small groups were not much better if students were not trained and given templates for their remarks.

For reading lessons, tudents can work with a really easy text, say, a children's picture book with minimal text, then a fable or fairy tale (not saying they are easy, but they are short and can be used to demonstrate certain strategies). Then students have guided practice, in a small group, perhaps, with a more complex text. Those who demonstrate understanding can practice the technique with their chosen independent reading text, while others benefit from some reteaching.

This can apply to listening: Have students listen to a children's story aloud, with no pictures. Guide them to listen to increasingly difficult material. Discuss the techniques they used. Show them some additional ways to focus, similar to reading strategies but without visual cues. Read aloud some short news stories. Work up to New York Times articles.

How does scaffolding work in other subjects? ELA is more process, far less content than most subjects taught in school. I am lost in a sea of wonderings; I'll have to talk to some colleagues.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Boxes and dust -- they abound in my classroom this week. Students are here for three hours in the morning, to take finals, but then they leave and I have started to clear out the papers and books I have accumulated in a thirty year career as a secondary English classroom teacher. The traffic patterns of a school year are such that there are entire shelves of professional development material that have not been touched since September, folders jammed with papers and exercises I have not used in five years, collections of student work from a decade ago. Much of it goes into decrepit boxes stolen from the main office, to be dumped in the recycling dumpster. Some folders go in a crate to take home.

How do I decide what to keep and what to discard? My criteria can change, even as I am sitting in the midst of it all. What stuff is gimmicky and what stuff is really what children need? Lots of stuff was gimmicky: word finds, templates for students to create wordfinds, checklists for peer editing, rubrics in educationalese, student posters with erroneous definitions of words that convey emotion, exercises designed by teachers who are now travelling consultants, giving presentations to other teachers on how to raise test grades fast.

I have left for my replacement teacher all the folders of material related to the state assessments, some dating back to the first test, given to my students in 1998. There are actual test booklets, scoring leader guides, scorer guides, exemplars written by adults, exemplars written by students, many multi-colored copies of state rubrics. I also left in the filing cabinet the student "literacy folders" that were delivered to me last week, associated with students who will be in eighth grade next year. They used to be gold writing folders, with samples from fall and spring each year from kindergarten up. Those we gave to eighth graders in June. These literacy folders are new -- I gather that they will travel with our students up to the high school, though I can't imagine how the high school English teachers will use them, with their carefully recorded running records of miscalled words. It's too late for that information to help students or teachers by the time they are teens.

I have also left packages of construction paper, empty manila folders with writing only on one side of the tab, hanging folders, plastic tabs and paper tabs to go in them, if they only have student names written on one side (I have recycled this way for years). A few boxes of Ticonderoga pencils are left from a year when they flew out of my drawers like flies, on the occasion of every state assessment (there were four), every common assessment (there were four), and often on plain old class days (there were far fewer than 180). There is much Wite-out, left over from my serious writing workshop days, before other district initiatives interfered with that very student-centered activity in which children found their writing voice, had things to say, said them to some extent, wrestling with words and ideas all the while. It was nice while it lasted, a little over ten years. Some new black and white composition books, which I used for students to record their reading responses, fill spaces in a bottom drawer, along with boxes of paper clips, rolls of transparent tape, index cards of many colors, red and green Bic pens that workshop writers once used for self-editing.

Most of my extensive classroom library, over 300 paperbacks and a few hardcovers of well-written young adult literature and non-fiction, will stay here. Titles will change, but the concept of putting the right book in front of the right child will not, and my replacement will need a collection to get her started with that process. Some of my historical fiction has been farmed out to social studies colleagues for the same purpose, to put the right book in the hands of a student who is curious.

I take with me the material I want to be reminded of when I am training new teachers. I take student writing: the most authentic, so they will know what heights writers in student-centered workshops can attain, and some of the least, to show them what to question and nudge. I take copies of poems that worked for students, that inspired writing and reflection. I take collections of poetry and short stories that allowed me to develop literate readers who could discuss ideas and assess quality.

I hope to be training new teachers. I don't want them to think that teachers have to amass papers (or power point presentations, or Smartboard files) which contain gimmicky activities, though. I want them to be as comfortable as possible with change, since the constants of our profession, as of our lives, are few. I want them to be readers of current research, experimenters, classroom researchers, always asking themselves whether this lesson or that lesson really helped students read, write, speak, listen, understand the world around them better. Keeping up with technological changes, alone, will require teachers (and students) to be flexible and forward thinking. I want them to be reflective, as Socrates advised, not just to make life worth living, but to make their classes worth attending. Most of all, I guess, I want them to know how to ask good questions. And there aren't a lot of papers in my files that help teach that, which is why I'm throwing so much out.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The tears I wiped away from the corners of my eyes on Friday night, at the moving up ceremony for our eighth graders, were not tears of regret for my decision to leave the classroom, nor were they tears about missing particular students as the year ended or colleagues as I ended a portion of my career. I was listening to a student sing a song often chosen by middle schoolers who like musicals. "Tomorrow, only a day away." She sang with a strong voice, once she got used to the microphone and forgot her nervousness about the crowd. Another student had sung before her, with a paler voice, pitch perfect but thin. The applause matched it, strengthened only by the desire to get out of that auditorium and into the gym where they could move around and listen to loud music and show off their clothing. But then her singing was over and this girl stepped forward.

This girl would not have been in our school if not for two decisions on the part of our local school board, at the recommendation of our superintendent. She is in a special program for educating autistic children, one classroom of which is housed in our middle school so that its participants may be placed in core classrooms while receiving the support they need to succeed. Our school board had to approve the location of that group of students in our building. According to our superintendent, the decision was not unanimous. Some members had to be convinced that it was a good thing.

That same school board approved another recommendation by the superintendent, five years ago; that is, to pursue a policy of inclusion. Our classes would include all the students with individual educational plans, IEPs, and consultant teachers would be hired to co-teach for all students of differing abilities. In other words, resource room students were to receive the same education as their non-IEP classmates. This decision was controversial with teachers who felt unprepared or who didn't want to interrupt the sovereignty of their rule over day-to-day classroom curriculum. I admit that I was nervous about co-teaching, but I welcomed the shift in attitude and the insistence on teaching to all children instead of just to the middle.

And so it was that, five years later, Olivia, the singer, came to my classroom, and students like her to other classrooms, and students with a variety of special needs into other classrooms where they had seldom been seen before and had certainly not been welcomed with special instructional awareness before. Olivia, and these other students, came to be accepted and included by the other students, as well as teachers who felt more and more comfortable as training was provided and their comfort level with the consultant teachers increased.

I don't want anyone to think that our middle schoolers no longer used the words, "retard" or "retarded," in a negative way. I have had to say my standard admonishment, "We don't use that word in that way in this classroom," more than a few times this year. The behavior of students, the treatment of students with differing abilities by their classmates and by their teachers as well, though, has changed. Attitudes, and thence behavior, take time and legislation to change. The legislation was provided when the board adopted the inclusion policy, and invited the Oaktree classrooms to our district. Training came in fits and spurts, sometimes amid protest (it was stressful to be out of my classroom with state assessments and the accountability that accompanies them hanging over me) even as we knew we needed help. Time passed, until the evening that Olivia stepped to the microphone.

My tears came when her classmates heard her sing so beautifully and reacted so honestly by listening, murmuring their astonishment, and standing to give her a loud, heartfelt ovation. She almost couldn't continue the song because of her own tears, but her classmates stayed standing and the cheers subsided enough so that she could put the last chorus on the song and finish, again to loud applause, cheering, and obviously compassionate support. I was so moved by the changes in attitude displayed by often immature, needy, difficult eighth graders -- in other words, normal thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds.

Our school's journey to that moment was not easy or smooth, didn't always look polished or professional. I remember the first year when the state sent an audit team to evaluate our response to students with special needs, and I was so unsure of many practices in my classroom. We grew through that bumpy beginning, though. It was simply a given that our students were going to be given quality instruction in the same classroom at the level they required, with awareness of special needs, learning styles, brain-based research. All decisions flowed from that assumption. All expectations began there.

Underneath my proud tears and astonishment at our students' growth, at our school's growth, are my questions: why can't we make other educational changes so quickly? Why do some changes occur with just a bit of kicking and screaming, while other conflicts between past practice and current research resemble civil wars in third world countries, with fires set in the streets, sniping from the rooftops, secret meetings at midnight in the faculty lounges? How can educational reform happen faster so that more students reap the benefit of new research?