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.

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