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.