Saturday, November 1, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome Little Harris!

I'm happy to announce that Harris Robinson joined us on Friday, September 26th at 10:59 in the morning. After a relatively short delivery, little Harry arrived weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces and measuring 20.5 inches long. We've been enjoying getting to know our little boy over the last two weeks, and I'll be sure to blog more about our adventures in parenthood soon. New mom, dad, and baby are all doing well.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hope Restored

By this point, many of you have already viewed Randy Pausch's last lecture on YouTube or read the best-selling book version of his speech, already translated into 35 languages in less than a year. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given a only few months to live, Randy Pausch gave his last lecture to a packed auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University on September 18, 2007. His speech, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," has touched thousands of people, but it is especially inspirational for anyone interested in education. Professor Pausch leaves a lasting mandate, a legacy for educators, " might as well be selling something worthwhile, like education."

After a rather difficult day in the classroom - challenged by behavioral issues, disheartened by students already struggling, overwhelmed by grading, and left questioning my role as a teacher - I came home to watch Randy Pausch's last lecture for the first time today. Not only am I left with a feeling of hope, but his speech reminded me why I love what I do, why I hope to do it every day of my life. Without the challenges, the brick walls, I would not be the teacher I am today, or the one I am meant to become.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Making Learning Personal: Using Memoirs in the Secondary Classroom

“Memoirs are in essence historical documents. They are timeless perennials that not only describe a period of history, but also address the universality of collective human experiences. History, after all, happens to real people. It isn't just cold facts, but a living, organic changing thing. It is about life, human life, with all its triumphs and failures, its increases and decreases, its courage and weakness, its lights and darks.”
--Eleanor Ramrath Garner
As educator Eleanor Ramrath Garner writes in the introduction to her 2004 ALAN Review article titled “Memoirs In Adolescent Literature,” there has not been enough written about the significance of using memoirs and personal stories in the classroom. Whether it is because some teachers view memoirs as a grey area somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, or whether it is because of a lack of familiarity on the part of teachers, memoirs are generally a forgotten genre in the world of secondary education. This is strange given that the genre has been steadily rising in popularity with the general pubic since the early 1990s. In fact as early as 1996, New York Times writer James Atlas pointed out, “the triumph of memoir is now established fact.” And it is easy to understand why. As many writers have pointed out, memoirs not only expose readers to truths about the human experience, but they also connect readers to the lives of others. Memoirs, Atlas suggests, are “…a democratic genre -- inclusive, a multiculturalist would say. The old and the young; the famous and the obscure; the crazy and the sane…” Because anyone can be a memoirist, everyone can connect to the memoir.

This is an even more important idea to consider when reflecting on the use of multicultural literature in the classroom. A great deal has been written about the benefits of using the voices of writers from a variety of backgrounds in the classroom setting. Caroline Cavillo suggests,
“One should think of critical multicultural literacy as citizenship or character education, precisely because it concerns itself with issues of power, domination, authoritarianism, and the diversity of human beings and their decisions about how to act, think, and behave with others.”
It is for these reasons in addition to so many others that the use of literature from non-western writers has become a priority for many educators. Literature from traditionally under-represented populations not only broadens students’ cultural horizons, but it also aids in the articulation of shared and differing values, exposes students to a variety of writing styles and themes, builds empathy, and connects students to a world that is growing smaller through technological advances.

Although a great deal has been written about the importance of including multicultural voices in the classroom, and some has been written about how memoirs might be used, when combined, there are very few educators writing about the use of memoirs from non-western authors as a way to connect students to perspectives and voices from other walks of life. And yet, this seems to be intuitive. As educator and writer Katherine Bomer points out in her book Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning--and Triumph Over Tests, memoirs are “…how we connect to each other, how we find out that other people feel the way we do. It is also how we learn about lives that are vastly different from our own so that our minds and hearts can stretch to understand how life is for others” (Bomer 2). An exploration of memoirs written by non-western authors brings numerous benefits to the secondary classroom. Such works are pivotal for
  • encouraging students to make connections;

  • encouraging students to think about how writers engage their readers;

  • exposing students to a variety of perspectives, beliefs, and values;

  • broadening students’ cultural horizons;

  • aiding in the articulation of shared and differing values;

  • exposing students to a variety of writing styles and themes;

  • building critical thinking skills and reasoning abilities;

  • and, building empathy.

  • As a genre, non-western memoirs would benefit from more exposure. More and more writers of non-western memoirs must find their way into our classrooms.

    For more information on using non-western memoirs in the classroom, check out these resources:
  • Ward's World Wiki: Using Non-Western Memoirs is a wiki that I've started to develop with a list of example memoirs, lesson plans, and resource links for educators

  • The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School is a site put together by Annenberg Media’s which explores Native American, African American, Asian American and Latino works through various pedagogical approaches and offers many linked lesson plans.

  • Web English Teacher: Autobiography, Biography, Personal Narrative, and Memoir Lesson Plans and Teaching Ideas, put together by teacher Carla Beard, this site offers many linked lesson plans for how to use personal writing and memoirs in the classroom.

  • Supporting Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Learners in English Education is a list of guidelines established by the Conference on English Education together with the National Council for Teachers of English meant to educators think about integrating a variety of cultural perspectives and materials into their curriculum.

  • Booklists for Young Adults on the Web: Nonfiction, compiled by librarian Maggi Rohde, is linked to many other sites that provide extensive booklists and book reviews for using memoirs with students.

  • Read Write Think is a wonderful resource that offers a wealth of lesson plans for teachers. Use the search box in the upper left corner to search for lessons on “multicultural memoirs.”

  • And here are some great examples of memoirs written by non-western writers that could be used with high school students:
  • Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

  • Alphonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak’s They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky

  • Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

  • Paul Rusesabagina’s Ordinary Man

  • Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves

  • Yang Erche Namu’s Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World

  • Farah Ahmedi’s The Other Side of the Sky

  • If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

    Friday, August 8, 2008

    Reading the Web

    In a recent posting on his blog, Will Richardson reacts to Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I was struck by Richardson’s question for educators: How is reading on the web changing the way we teach reading skills and strategies? He points out, “…what I do know is that very few schools are thinking deeply about what this all means in terms of reading development and practice.”

    This is the very same issue that Motoko Rich raised in last Saturday’s edition of the New York Times. Although her article, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” at times seems to declare that online reading is not educationally relevent, she does point out that the types of critical reading and thinking skills necessary to read on the web – “locating information quickly and accurately, corroborating findings on multiple sites” – are skills that are applicable to multiple areas of study. Unfortunately, as both Richardson and Rich have pointed out, schools do not seem to be catching on. Rich writes,
    “Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.

    Some literacy experts say that reading itself should be redefined. Interpreting videos or pictures, they say, may be as important a skill as analyzing a novel or a poem.”
    Instead of blocking and banning Internet use in our classrooms, 21st century teachers must learn to embrace this new frontier of reading. This means teaching our students to be critical readers and consumers of media. In reality, this is no different from the skills that we have been teaching our students. It is not necessarily a change in content; it is a change in where and how we apply the skills of critical literacy. Practically speaking, this means that English teachers must broaden our definition of what constitutes a “text.”

    In order to prepare our students to live, work, and interact in an increasingly connected world, we must include reading web-based materials in our curriculum. If we continue to think that the only texts worthy of study are those that are bound together with glue, we are not only doing a disservice to our students, but we are also dooming our profession. Instead, we must include the reading and writing of blogs, wiki sites, and social networking applications into our curriculum. We can use these new technologies to open the doors the present as well as the past. Students and teachers can access annotated Shakespeare texts online as well as contemporary blog reactions to such traditional texts. Not only will utilizing Web 2.0 technologies engage our students, but they will also help them become more competent readers in the world they already dwell in – the world of Web 2.0.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008

    The Changing Face of Pedagogy

    GUEST POST BY: Heather Johnson

    Classrooms are getting a new look, and it’s not just the faces of students that change each year. New words are being added to the pedagogical handbook - bits and bytes, electronic circuits, mobile and wireless technology, networks, connectivity – the list is added to almost on a daily basis. The most significant change that has taken place in the field of pedagogy over the last decade has been the introduction of technology into the classroom as a teaching and learning tool.

    To misquote a popular phrase, the children of today are born with electronic chips in their mouths – they’re hardly walking but they’re already familiar with computers, laptops, mobile phones and PDAs. They learn to talk, but only after they know the ins and outs of these technological wonders. Simply put, they take to technology like fish take to water. So it’s no wonder when they walk into a classroom and face a computer with all the enthusiasm they would show on meeting an old and trusted friend.

    It’s the teachers who are wary of the new technology and timid in its adoption as education tools. For some, it’s the fear of not being able to learn as much as they should; for others, it’s an innate stubbornness that prevents them from letting go of the past and accepting change as a positive thing. There’s no doubt that technology in the classroom is here to stay - because if we are honest with ourselves, we can see that computers and the Internet make it easier to communicate, evaluate and track performance. Resources can be shared, as can be work spaces. It’s a concept that involves interactive learning, with inputs from both the teacher and the student being necessary for progress.

    Teachers must learn to let go of the tight reins of control they hold over their students and allow them to embrace the concept of collaborative learning, within their own school and with schools of similar ideals in other places and even other countries. It’s no longer necessary for students to depend on teachers for all their learning needs – Google plays the role well enough. But that does not mean that pedagogy is a fading art – teachers are still important when it comes to offering guidance. The vast amount of information available at their fingertips means that there’s an overload, and teachers can step in to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Students must also be taught how to use the resources at their disposal wisely – plagiarism and short cuts defeat the very purpose of the existence of the technology, which is to enhance and improve learning.

    Teachers must equip themselves with the new skills that they need to be able to take technology head on and use it wisely, both for their own personal advancement and for the betterment of their students. The only thing that’s constant in this world is change, and if teachers can bring themselves to accept this philosophy, they’ll do both themselves and the children they teach a world of good.

    This article is contributed by Heather Johnson, who regularly writes on Alabama teacher certification courses. She invites your questions and writing job opportunities at her personal email address:

    Sunday, July 27, 2008

    Am I Losing My Mind?

    Nicholas Carr's recent article in The Atlantic with its scintillating title "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" is making waves through the edublogosphere. Carr's article actually focuses less on Google and more on how online reading has changed the way we interact with literature. Our media has changed our medium. For the most part, reactions to Carr's work have reiterated this thesis. Not many seem to disagree that the Internet has changed the way that we interact with text.

    Leonard Pitts, Jr. agrees with Carr's assertion that the omnipresent internet is perhaps rewiring our brains. With so much information filtered into our email inboxes, returned by search engines, coming through our RSS feeds, it is no wonder we are distracted by the sheer volume of information bombarding us the minute we flip open our laptop screen. "So perhaps it is to be expected that we learn to skim and scan information but lose the ability to truly absorb and analyze it," asserts Pitts.

    This is not a new idea. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the connections in our brains are not static but can be changed over time by certain stimula, was first discovered in the 1990s and has been written about by many involved with technology. In 2001, when Marc Prensky first coined the term "digital natives" to refer to those who had grown up with technology and whose brains seem to work differently than "digital immigrants" who were forced to learn how to interact with technology later in life, he relied heavily of the research of neuroplasticty to support his claims.

    But even before scientists coined the term neuroplasticty, Carr points out, writers have been keenly aware of how media can change the medium. I was struck by Carr's connection to Nietzche. Upon switching to the typewriter, this 19th century philosopher noted that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Technology changes how we interact with one another, how we interact with the world, so of course, it would change the way that we as readers interact with the written word.

    Although I haven’t noticed as much of a change in my reading habits when I have a physical text in hand, I have noticed a change in how I read online. For example, the way that I read the newspaper on Saturday mornings is very different from how I read the news online. Saturday mornings I seek out the feature articles, look for the indepth stories of human interest while I sit sipping my coffee, my fingers turning inky as I flip slowly through each printed page. But when I go to the New York Times online, I seem to follow each link, forgetting sometimes the original article I was reading. I have multiple tabs open on my browser so that I can make a connection at a moment’s notice.

    It is this type of reading, the frenzied, madly clicking, quickly connecting, stream of conciousness type of reading that most bloggers seem to be reacting to. However, I believe the following idea from Carr's article has the most impact for educators:
    In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.

    Does the web provide us with so many easy to find answers that we are losing our ability to problem solve, our ability to think critically? Carlo Scannella over at extensions also seems to ask this question when he writes, "Can we really spell all that well anymore, when our spell-checkers do it for us? Can we write in cursive, when we now type our expressions? Can we continue to remember, when wikipedia does it for us?" As readers, are we more concerned about getting what we need from a text and less about the message? Is reading about answers instead of questions? And if this is the case, what does this mean for teachers of reading? Do we embrace this change or challenge it?

    I do not disagree that the internet has changed the way we read. The web, much like the typewriter did for Nietzche, has definitely changed the "forming of our thoughts." As an English teacher, I wonder how I will need to change the way I teach reading.

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    It's All In the Approach

    I keep running into Marc Prensky. Not literally, of course, but filed away are various photocopies of his articles passed my way by well intentioned administrators during staff meetings. I first encountered his writing this past school year when some of his work was included as part of an online course I participated in. Similar to my initial impressions following my reading of his article "Engage Me or Enrage Me" in the September/October 2005 edition of Educause, his recent article "Young Minds, Fast Times: The 21st Century Digital Learner" left me with a number of concerns and lingering frustrations. I'm struggling with some of his arguments for why teachers should use technology in their classrooms. While I agree that technology must have a role in our curriculum, I don't think that technology is the answer to all the problems of student engagement.

    I don't think that the goal of educators is to entertain our students. While I agree that in order to succeed, we must engage our students, get them to buy into what we are teaching, and take ownership of it, I don't think that is what Mr. Prensky is arguing. His articles seem to argue that technology is the simple solution for getting students to engage in the classroom setting. This makes sense given that his livelihood depends on us accepting this idea. However, I think some of his proposals for change are a bit short-sighted. Technology is not the magic bullet for student engagement, and it is certainly not the only tool that educators have at their disposal for encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving in students.

    Additionally, his over generalizations and patronizing tone do little to forward what might be a number of very important suggestions - namely, that educators need to involve students in the learning process rather than dictate knowledge to them. While I wholeheartedly agree with this proposal, comments like "It is a measure of the malaise of our educational system that these old folk -- smart and experienced as they may be -- think they can, by themselves and without the input of the people they're trying to teach, design the future of education," do little to help change the minds of educators using what are now labeled as more traditional teaching methods. Instead, his arguments alienate the very voices that need his support for change. It is ironic that he touts himself as someone students can connect with "...because I communicate somehow to the kids that I truly respect their opinions," but he does not extend this courtesy to his fellow educators.

    It is the goal of educators to prepare students to be active, responsible, reflective citizens. Technology most certainly can help us meet that goal. We should and must use technology to help students integrate fully into the modern world, but technology is not the easy answer to the question of how do we engage students. Instead, I agree more with Will Richardson's suggestion that "By inviting students to become active participants in the design of their own learning, we teach them how to be active participants in their lives and future careers." Technology certainly aids in the this endeavor, but it is not the only way we encourage students to active participants in their learning.

    Is This Going to be on the Test?

    I'm currently sitting in my first PA Writing and Literature Project class of the summer. In our conversations today about reading and writing in digital spaces, we discussed the conflict that arises between what we are mandated to teach in accordance with high-stakes, stardardized, state tests and the skills students will need to live and work in the 21st century. To jump start our conversation, our teacher, Diane Barrie, shared this music video by Tom Chapin. Enjoy!

    Friday, July 18, 2008

    Wasting Time

    I find my personal life blurring into my professional activities recently. Just before students left the classroom for their summer adventures, I found myself sitting through yet another meeting which ultimately devolved into complaints about how often teachers and administrators in my building find students wasting time on the web during class. Our high school is in the midst of reviewing which web applications to allow and which to ban students from accessing through our school network, and of course the one site that nearly drips with venom from the lips of most educators these days is Facebook. However, I’ve seen how social networking sites like Facebook can be beneficial inside the classroom.

    After listening to many of my colleagues admonish students for wasting valuable classroom time goofing around on Facebook, someone in our meeting pointed out that I had used Facebook with a recent student project. Students in my tenth grade English class had been given the task of finding a way to present their research on an issue currently facing a non-western culture to an audience outside the walls of our classroom. Some of the students adapted their research and presented their work to middle school students. Others wrote letters to senators and newspaper editors. A number of students used Facebook.

    Students asked if they might use the Group application in Facebook to form awareness groups and recruit members to join from both inside and outside of our school community. Students posted information, links, videos, discussion questions, and more using the application. Some groups experienced phenomenal results. A small group of girls put together a page about the challenges faced by girls and women in Afghanistan. Their Facebook group is still going strong with just over 250 members from all over the world – the United States, Singapore, Ireland, India, and even Afghanistan. Another group started a page on the challenges faced by former child soldiers in Liberia. Their group started some wonderful discussion threads that pulled in people from Australia, France, Minnesota, and India. Students rushed to our laptops each day to excitedly check and respond to whoever had posted to their discussion section. The students were truly engaged with an audience outside of our classroom based on their research endeavors. And because I too had a Facebook account, I could monitor what the students posted, and I could respond to their discussions.

    However, this is also where my professional persona started to overlap with my life outside of school. Technology has a way of bridging gaps in unexpected ways. I originally started my Facebook account so that I could connect with students. My persona, Teacher Ward, was “friended” by my students. They could read my profile and see which groups I had recently posted to. Students would email me and post questions to my “Wall.” This worked well, until my friends outside of school also found me on Facebook. Suddenly, I found myself having to explain my teaching persona to my non-teaching friends. My students were using Facebook to connect with audiences halfway around the world while my former high school classmates were also trying to reconnect with me. It was an uncomfortable mix. Ultimately, I found I needed to “unfriend” my students in order to separate my personal life from my professional one, but I was still able to join and monitor my students’ groups without them being able to similarly monitor me.

    It has been interesting to see how using social networking sites like Facebook and Nings inside the classroom have changed how I connect with others outside the classroom. Not only were my students connecting with others outside of their immediate community, but so was I. Using Facebook gave my students an opportunity to share their interests and research and connect with others. Ultimately, it has also done the same for me. Together we have bridged various cultural and perhaps even a generational divides. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a waste of time.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    One Year Anniversary

    I just realized that today is the one year anniversary of this blog! I started it this time last year as a place to more deliberately reflect on my teaching experiences and philosophies, and in the process, I have learned a great deal not just from writing, but from also reading other blogs and responding to suggestions and links made by commenters here. Thank you, readers, for joining me on this journey. I hope next year brings many new connections for us all.

    The Lessons I Have Learned

    With the posters off the walls, the curriculum binders packed away, and the final papers graded, I’ve spent some time the last few days reflecting on the year, my teaching style, on what worked and what didn’t. Reviewing my blog entries from this past year reveals that I spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about ways to bring authentic assignments and learning into my classroom. Many posts rattle on about wanting to help students use their knowledge to engage in the world around them; however, as I reflect on my teaching strategies, I wonder how much time I actually spend doing this. I have a few key assignments where students write or present for an audience other than the teacher, but looking at what I do on a daily basis, most of the time, students are working at their desks. One of my goals this summer is to evaluate my assessments. What am I spending time assessing my students on? Is this worthwhile? Where will students need to use this particular skill in the future? I’ve signed up for a couple of classes through the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) in the hopes of engaging with other teachers as they also reflect on these curricular conundrums.

    But of course, that’s not all I’m going to spend my summer doing. With little baby boy on the way, I’ll also be spending some time thinking about what my changing identity means. Lately, I’ve been remembering moments from my own childhood that have shaped who I am today. I’ll be raising my child in a very different world than the one I grew up in. Whereas my summers were filled with bike rides, boat trips, and picking cherries, my little boy will have a whole technological world to explore that wasn’t there when I was growing up. It has me thinking about the lessons that I learned, and the lessons that he will learn.

    So taking some inspiration from California Teacher Guy’s blog entries, I thought I would post some of my lessons learned in the form of poetry. Not only is an appreciation of poetry something that I try to pass on to my students, but one that I also hope to foster in my child as well.

    Children of Cherries

    Summer smells of pesticides,
    cherry pits,
    grass stained knees.
    As children,
    we chose to stay hidden in the pines
    edging the orchards
    when the sprayers chugged by
    spotting new fruit.

    The migrants refused to wear
    regulation OSHA masks,
    sweaty WWI contraptions
    which left rings ‘round the nose and mouth,
    and in the warmth of June,
    made it impossible to breath.

    We would make a game of it:
    dashing into the pines as
    the bright red sprayer drew close,
    jumping out again
    after the haze had settled
    to holler and wave at the migrants
    and slowly breathe in our
    summer of pesticides.

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    Today's Lesson: Speak Up

    I avoid conflict. I withdraw from situations where I am asked to stand apart from my peers. I am much more content to quietly lead by example, to sit back and listen while others debate. I rarely speak up in department meetings, workshops, trainings, or conferences unless called upon. I can be painfully quiet. I realize this is rather strange coming from a high school teacher who stands in front about 90 students on a daily basis, but when it comes to touting my accomplishments, arguing my position, or debating whether or not something should or shouldn’t be in the curriculum, I am much more comfortable listening and analyzing rather than jumping into the ring. That said, I find myself recently in a number of frustrating positions where I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone.

    This morning’s three hour curriculum meeting left me drained. Although I find it intensely useful to question what we teach and how, to revisit our focus and methodologies, I find it immensely frustrating when as educators we are asked to reinvent the wheel in a different format every few years.

    A few years back, the curriculum that I now love to teach was a bit all over the place, each teacher doing his or her own thing, using different books and materials. In the course of the past few years, my English colleagues and our social studies counterparts set about establishing a connection between the themes taught in the world literatures course with those taught in the world history course that students take in the same semester. Over the past few summers, we established core skills and themes: what grammar, writing, and reading skills students should leave the course with in order to be successful. Our goal was to have students walk out of our two classrooms, history and English, feeling empowered, seeing connections between what they learned in class and what they encounter in their world, and feeling more confident as critical consumers of the information they are inundated with on a daily basis. We wanted to get away from didactic teaching methodologies in favor of engaging students in the learning process. In order to be successful, students must own their learning and know their voice matters. Granted, this is also my personal take on education as well. I firmly believe that true education happens when students are in the driver’s seat and can prove their understanding in authentic situations.

    Stemming from this philosophy, I developed a culminating research project about four years ago which was later adopted by all the teachers in my grade level. Based on the ideals of formative assessment (now known as assessment for learning) and authentic assessment strategies, the research project not only incorporates traditional research and expository writing skills, but most importantly, requires students find ways to share their research outside our classroom community in authentic writing and presentation situations. In the last few years, I’ve had students teach their topic to middle and elementary school students, start student clubs based on their research, write senators, create online web pages and communities dedicated to their topic, compose articles for local newspapers, sponsor community-wide fund drives, and host school-wide fairs. Students have taken this research project beyond the realms of the classroom, beyond the confines of the course, and continue to be engaged with their topics even after graduation.

    Unfortunately, some of my colleagues have not seen similar levels of success. This is in part due to the fact that my grade level has seen a number of faces come and go in the last five years, which translates into a curriculum that remains a bit fragmented. This morning’s curriculum meeting was to be a time to re-establish and clarify those initial goals. So when a couple of colleagues today suggested that our research project was not "Englishy" enough, and that perhaps we should return to a final English project that asks students to analyze a literary piece, at first I sat quietly and listened.

    As I heard a peer suggest that our English curriculum should focus more on teaching literary analysis and devices, about writing papers for the teacher, and reading literature in order to dissect it, I grew more and more frustrated. It is not that I think these activities don’t have value (ask any of my students what a microcosm is and they’re libel to rattle off not only a definition but a nearly infinite number of examples). However, if this is all we do in an English classroom, we are doing our students a great disservice. If students do not have the opportunity to write for a real audience, to write, read, and speak about issues that have meaning and value for them, as teachers we have failed them. Teaching English should be helping students develop an appreciation of literature and writing by guiding them through diverse and authentic interactions with reading and writing, not by dictating that appreciation to them. Very few of our students will be asked to regurgitate a definition of metonymy once they leave academia. However, all students, regardless of if they go to college, trade school, or immediately enter the working world following high school must know how to critically decipher the bias inherent in the magazine articles they read, must know how to use rhetoric in order to persuade, must know how to write for a real audience. I cringe at the thought of going back to a curriculum that is based on a set of terms and not on a set of skills. Unfortunately, teaching terms is easier, more measurable than teaching skills.

    Realistically, however, I also know that as this was my initial project, and I have more investment in it than some of my peers. But I don’t think that my frustration lies with the dismembering of a research project. My frustration is born in what that project represents. I see a divide among my peers, not just those within my department but within the curriculum as a whole. On the one side are the traditionalists who argue that the teaching of literature and writing should take the shape of a more formalist approach, understanding the merits of a work’s style, devices, and diction in order to pass on the beauty inherent in a particular work of literature. On the flip side are those that argue anything can be literature – from a pamphlet, to a billboard, to a blog entry – and that it is the role of the teacher to help students critically engage and produce texts of all sorts. Granted, this is an oversimplification, but it is one that I saw emerge in today’s meeting.

    I understand my role of teacher to be somewhere in the middle. I cannot force my students to appreciate literature, but perhaps I can guide them in that direction. I understand that there is usefulness in simply memorizing some things (if you know your 23 auxiliary/to be verbs, you are more likely to use action verbs to structure better sentences). However, the lessons that students remember beyond high school usually cannot be reduced to a single multiple-choice exam. As a colleague asked of us today – do you remember the questions on any particular test that you took in high school? However, you probably do remember an assignment where a teacher asked you to produce something, to be the owner of your education. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t more of our learning opportunities be structured around this philosophy. What is it that we want our students to know? More importantly, what is it that we want our students to understand and why?

    What should English teachers teach?

    Friday, April 4, 2008

    Where Have You Gone, Ms. Ward?

    I've gone AWOL. I've been a bit disconnected from my online community this past month, but for some exciting reasons. First, I found myself living in an apartment on Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans for a few days during my spring break a few weeks back. Although it was only five days away, it gave me quite a bit of time to reflect, and I'll be writing more about the experience soon. And, the other reason I've been a bit detached from the computer - I'm going to have a baby!

    I've spent a great deal of time lately reflecting on my role as a teacher, as a parent-to-be, and as an individual. Our little bundle of joy won't arrive until the end of September, but already I find that my understanding of who I am is starting to change. Hence the title of this post. I'm in the midst of an identity change which will certain impact how I think about my role inside the classroom. So you can expect a number of future posts on this theme.

    Monday, March 3, 2008

    Meme: Passion Quilt

    Blogger Tamara Eden tagged me with my first meme. A meme is type of blog post (though the term did not originate with blogs) that builds on a bit of cultural information. Bloggers complete these memes, usually a set of questions which were passed to them by other bloggers, as a way to build on a theme or idea.

    The meme Tamara tagged me with asks educators to find or design a graphic that depicts that one idea that you hope your students leave your classroom with. I love quotation by Gandhi that she selected: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I, too, come back to this idea at many points in my curriculum focused on world literature.

    As students learn about Liberia, Morocco, India, China, and people and situations all over this world of ours, it is critical that they do not see only our differences. It is important to acknowledge and respect the diversity of beliefs and traditions in our world, but it is equally critical to share with students the qualities and truths that connect all of us, regardless of one’s ethnicity, religion, traditions, or upbringing. Our humanity connects us. And this connection means that we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings.

    Keeping with this idea, I wanted to find an image that spoke to this responsibility, the idea that we need to “pay it forward.” In my search, I also happened to stumble upon on a related website. Did you know that Friday, April 4th is Pay It Forward Day? What will you do to make this world a better place?

    So now I’m passing this meme along to a five other edubloggers that I enjoy reading. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.
    1. Penelope over at Where’s the Teacher
    2. Mr. B-G’s English Blog
    3. Fred the Fish over at Are We Doing Anything Today?
    4. Clix over at Epic Adventures are Often Uncomfortable
    5. California Teacher Guy

  • Post a picture or create your own image that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about

  • Give your picture a short title

  • Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt”

  • Link back to this blog entry

  • Include links to 5 people in your professional learning network
  • Saturday, February 23, 2008

    Killing Them Softly?

    It all started with Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry.” I read the poem to my third block class, and then asked them to spend a few minutes writing a response, reflecting on how they encountered poetry in school. They started their written reflections, but I couldn’t hold this conversation back. They wanted to talk. Students are taught to analyze poetry for rhyme scheme, meter, and literary devices. They’ve been asked to list countless metaphors, similes, and lines of alliteration. They’ve circled and defined vocabulary words. A few teachers have asked them to memorize Shakespearean sonnets. Some students suggested that poetry always seemed to be left for the end of the year, squeezed in during the last week - only if it fit.

    The conversation changed directions when one student raised her hand and timidly suggested that school killed poetry. She has learned to hate poetry because she thought it was all about “digging for the hidden meaning.” Her voice was joined by an echoing chorus of agreement. The conversation grew as we started to talk about their experiences with reading in general. English class was all about “over analyzing” a work of literature, ripping apart the text, leaving it dissected on the page to expose some secret innards. Students thought their teachers saw secret symbols everywhere. When I asked the students what they thought the purpose of such activities were, a few voices volunteered the answer they thought I wanted to hear: “Because it teaches us to look at a text more critically.” And then one shy voice near the back of the room called out, “School’s not really about learning but more about adapting to particular teacher’s expectations. I interpret a text like my teacher tells me to.” My students felt that the purpose of school was to train individuals to be good at jumping through hoops. And this is where the real discussion began.

    Their pent up frustration came flooding out, and the 10 minutes I had planned to spend on using Collins’ poem to introduce the need to balance glossing with an appreciation of literature, turned into a very meaningful 45 minute discussion on what my students felt about their educational experiences. The students felt that the purpose of school was to pump students full of expectations and discrete facts without encouraging any real learning to take place. They weren’t asked to come up with the problems; they were given them. They weren’t asked to discover any new solutions; they were told the answers. When I asked students how they could advocate for real learning opportunities in their classrooms, a girl who had been attentively following the conversation but hadn’t yet spoken volunteered that she thought honors students didn’t know how to rebel against such a system. After all, they had proved they were very good at working within it. It broke my heart to hear such frustration and sense of powerlessness.

    Arthus Erea, a high school student in Vermont, expressed a similar sentiment in his recent post over at Students 2.0:
    Frankly, I think schools are becoming far too business-like. Many of my peers often think of school as unpaid work. Of course, professionalism is continually emphasized as the highest principle for which students must strive. Schools even use the same reward/punishment system as the workplace: good grades = good job = $$$ and failing school = unemployment ≠ $$$. I think this is the core of what is wrong with schools: all students are expected to be professional students. That is, it is expected that we will only learn if we are forced to do so either because we desire the reward (grades) or fear the punishment (failing). In fact, this is setting up students to hate learning.
    Many authors have written on the dangers of an educational system based on such bribery. Alfie Kohn's book Punishment by Rewards declares,

    When we repeatedly promise rewards to children for acting responsibly, or to students for making an effort to learn something new, or to employees for doing quality work, we are assuming that they could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to the contrary can fairly be described as dehumanizing. (26)
    Are schools killing our students’ desire to learn? In an educational system so focused on standards and high-stakes tests, teachers find it difficult to balance their required curriculum, already packed with multiple 500-page classic novels and units on every culture in Africa, with student-chosen reading materials and self-directed learning opportunities. Very few students have the opportunity to seek out information. They are given it. How can we encourage students to be life-long, self-motivated learners in a system that is not based on developing problem-solving skills but instead rewards students for regergitating facts? When the time crunch of the semester bares down on us, it is easier and faster to teach students functional knowledge (information that is memorized and repeated) rather than promote a conceptual understanding of the themes and ideas we are teaching. Our students know our curriculums, but do they understand what they have been taught?

    The conversation with my students has me contemplating how much conceptual, self-motivated learning really takes place in my classroom. How much of a say do students have in exploring issues, developing questions, and searching for solutions on a daily basis? Even though I have been incorporating more student choice into assignments and using formative assessment techniques to guide how I teach, I know that I also rely on what might be considered traditional methods of teaching – give students the information on auxiliary verbs, ask them to memorize it, and test them on it. I struggle with my role as a teacher, attempting to find a balance between being a coach and being a conveyer of facts.

    I believe there are somethings that we must just know (e.g. our times tables, that potato does not end in an "e", etc.). These are the functional bits of knowledge that students must know. However, I believe the learning that sticks with us is more concept-based, that is, a type that provides the broader conceptual framework holding together the various knowledge-bits. For example, in talking with a student not long ago, he explained that last year his math teacher not only taught students how to use pi in mathmatical equations but also had the students do experiments with a number of circles to prove that the ratio of the circumference to its diameter was indeed the same number, pi, each time. "I just thought it was a number that people memorized, but now I know why." It's the difference between knowing something and understanding it. When students in my class select an issue currently facing a non-western country to research and present to an audience outside of our classroom, they understand that particular issue and how it affects the culture in a much deeper way than I would ever have time to teach. The student poses the problem, seeks out the background research, proposes solutions, and presents the information in the hopes that change begins to happen on that issue. Students are engaged and invested in these types of learning opportunities. And in talking with my students the other day, they seem to be begging for these types of experiences.

    Photo credit: dro!d on Flickr

    Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    I've Flipped!

    I love my Flip! I first heard about the Flip at last November’s NCTE conference, and was later inspired by Bob Sprankle’s post titled "Caught of Video," which offers a number of intriguing ideas for using the camera in the classroom. So, I flipped for one (I couldn’t resist the pun) last week as my students were adapting their “This I Believe” essays into speeches. Last semester I video taped student speeches so that they would have an opportunity to critique their presentation skills and set goals for later presentations. Although the now classic VHS camcorder is nearly extinct (and I had the hardest time finding a place that still sold VHS tapes), it still is the easiest way to hand students a copy of their presentations the same day they complete them. Student gives speech, I video tape it, hit the eject button following the speech, and hand the student her tape. It takes a matter of minutes.

    However, this semester I not only wanted to give students an opportunity to see their presentations, but also play around with presenting to a wider audience via the internet. The Flip camera made this easy. Student gives speech, I record it, plug my Flip into the USB port on my computer, and email the student a copy of her speech to both review and edit. Using this Flip, my students now have an opportunity to edit their video, adding music, text, or images. The students will then post their speeches to our Ning page where other students and our pen pals in Morocco, Liberia, and India will be able to view their speeches.

    I’m not requiring this of every student. As the technology is still a bit new to me, I wanted to test it out first (and I’m not sure how I would email 80 or so student videos in one day). In addition, many students were hesitant to post their speeches on the net, with a majority opting to complete the critique of their speeches using VHS tapes. As today was the first day of taping, I’ll be curious to see which format students prefer most.

    However, I see a great deal of potential in using this camera in the classroom. I see the use of video as a way for students to get more involved in the assessment process. Providing students with more opportunities to review their own performance will help them not only reflect on their progress but also make adaptations to their learning. As students watch videos of their speeches, or class discussions, of their group presentations, or writing conferences, they can reflect not only on their preparation for such tasks but also on their skills at communicating their ideas. This is especially important in an English classroom, where we often times focus intensely on reading and writing strategies to the detriment of communication skills. I see video as a way to help engage students in their metacognitive processes. So, needless to say, I love my Flip!

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008

    Creating an Authentic Classroom

    My second semester students are revising the third drafts of their “This I Believe” essays, adapting them into speeches. Earlier this year I decided to spend the first few days of class on something besides hokey introduction games and diatribes on my syllabus. Inspired by NPR’s weekly broadcast of short essays on the theme of belief, I created an introductory lesson that not only gets students talking and writing about their core beliefs, but they also start our class by exploring the values and ideas that separate and connect cultures.

    Reading through their drafts over the last few days, I am again surprised and appreciative of just how much my students put of themselves into these essays. They open themselves up, expose their hearts, make themselves vulnerable, knowing full well that I will be asking them to share their writing with their classmates. My desk is scattered with hand-written drafts about the betrayal of a first love, neatly typed pages about the loss of a beloved pet. Students write about their faith in their fellow human-beings, their joy at finding happiness in even the smallest moments. I have a student who shares a heart-wrenching story about how she learned to trust again following what seemed insurmountable family problems, and another who writes of the debt we owe to the mentors that have lit our path.

    This semester, I’m trying a few new twists with the assignment. Last semester, I had students not only present their essay as a speech to the class, but I also video-taped each student as a way to have students reflect on effective verbal and non-verbal presentation skills. I encouraged students to submit their essays to NPR and rewarded them with extra credit. And while both of these opportunities gave students a way to adapt their writing to a specific audience, they received limited feedback. This semester I’m going to give students a couple of options for how they present their essays to a specific audience.

    Students will have an option of either presenting their speeches to the class or recording their presentations for a video podcast. Either way, the students will have an opportunity to review their presentation skills and set goals for later presentations. Additionally, for those that opt to complete the podcast, I’ll have the students post them to our Ward’s World Ning, where others in our class can view and comment on the presentations, allowing for even more feedback on their writing and presentation skills. The added incentive will be that these podcasts will also act as an introduction for our pen pals from Morocco, India, and Liberia who will also be accessing our Ning.

    My goal is to find more ways for students to write and interact with authentic audiences. I feel very fortunate to have access to technology in my classroom that makes it possible for me to facilitate connections between my students and those all over the world. I see these connections as a way for students to put a face on their world, increasing the potential for future connections. And not only are my students making those connections, but so am I. We are learning together, and isn't that what an authentic classroom should look like?

    Monday, February 11, 2008

    Earth Hour

    Recently, a friend fowarded me information about Earth Hour, a simple idea for reducing our environmental footprint. Last year people in Sydney, Australia, took a stand against Global Warming by dedicating one hour when everyone turned off their lights. Major landmarks, bridges, businesses, communities-2.2 million people turned off their lights for an hour. In just that one hour, 10.2% of the city's energy use was reduced-the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road.

    This simple act of turning off the lights for one hour caught the world's attention. As a result, on March 29, 2008 at 8pm millions of people in some of the world's major cities, including Copenhagen, Toronto, Chicago, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Tel Aviv will unite and switch off for Earth Hour.

    We need to promote awareness about climate change, and this is a wonderful way to start. Find out more at Earth Hour. And spread the word!

    Thursday, February 7, 2008

    Good Deed, Good Search

    GoodSearch: You Search...We Give!

    One of my students passed this to me, and now I’m passing it on to you. is a search engine with heart. You select from a large collection of non-profit agencies (or add one of your own), and with each search item you enter or item you purchase via the site, you are donating to your designated charity. Change your search habits and change the world, one search at a time!

    Saturday, January 26, 2008

    Blogging Basics

    In speaking with a colleague yesterday about finding authentic ways to use blogs in the classroom, I mentioned that I had been following an educator’s blog on the very same topic. The colleague replied, “You read blogs? I have a blog, but no one reads it.” I could sympathize with him because this was my initial reaction when I first started my blog this past summer. I didn’t understand how one gained a readership beyond just family and friends. However, the more that I’ve ventured into the blogosphere, the more I’ve learned that blogging is not merely about posting.

    Effective blogs are not simply wonderfully written diatribes on a specific topic. Successful blogs are those that are articulate, reflective, and polished, but whose writers are also connected to a larger writing community. Effective blogs are those that are managed by effective bloggers. An effective blogger is not a writer who simply posts, but one who also reads and responds to other writers. As Will Richardson describes it, blogging should connect “…analysis and synthesis that articulates a deeper understanding or relationship to the content being linked and written with potential audience response in mind.”

    I still feel relatively new to the whole edublogosphere. I’m still learning the lingo, still learning my way around. However, as an educator venturing into this arena and contemplating helping my students transition into the world of blogging, I thought it would be useful to compile a list of helpful resources to aid others in their blogging adventures.

    Using Blogs With Students:
    • ”Visonary Classroom Blogging” is a wonderful description of how to set-up and use blogs authentically in the secondary classroom. Not only does Clay Burell break down the step-by-step process of establishing a viable blog, but he also helps students find models for their writing through use of a Guide for Quality Blogs.

    • Transitioning to Web 2.0 has a wonderful list of resources for why and how to use student blogs in the classroom. Janni Black, the author of the site, has assembled an amazing collection of resources.

    • Online Educational Database (OEDb) has a wonderful post titled “101 Web 2.0 Teaching Tools” that lists and explains a number of wonderful and free blogging tools.

    • ” Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom” is a wonderful post on Into the Blogosphere about why blogs should be used in the classroom.

    • Enhancing Technology & Learning @ BGSU has a posted a wealth of rubrics for grading student blogs.

    • Classblogmeister is a free service that facilitates blogging in the classroom. The teacher establishes a blog, students submit posts to the teacher, and the teacher approves the post before it is ever published. It is problematic in that once a student leaves the class, he or she would not be able to post to the site, so it is not an authentic blogging experience for the student, but it is a good start for students and teachers who haven’t had much exposure to blogging.

    If you know of other resources, please let me know. Happy blogging!

    Monday, January 21, 2008

    Research Matters -or- Making Research Matter

    The ubiquitous research project can be a daunting process for students and teachers alike. A requirement in most English departments, the research process is often taught as a stand-alone unit, stiff and formalized, with no clear connection to other materials in the curriculum, let alone to real-world applications. The traditional research unit tends to spend a great deal of time emphasizing discrete skills: thesis writing, creating note cards, outlining, and using persuasive rhetoric. While these skills are helpful for students to know and understand, lost somewhere in the mix are the equally if not more important skills of creative and critical questioning, along with the practical application of research.

    It’s time to step back and re-envision what research can be – a fruitful avenue for teaching students the purpose of research, namely, affecting change. Research can be a form of authentic assessment, with students engaged in both their local community as well as their larger global community. Research can be a way for students to look more closely and critically at issues facing their world, act on their research in hopes of bringing about a positive change, and share their research using a variety of writing styles.

    By incorporating the principles of formative and authentic assessment, I've changed how I teach research skills to my tenth grade high school students. When introducing our research unit, I no longer start with what it is that the students will produce. Instead we start with a discussion about why research is done. The guiding premise of my research project is simple: research is done to effect change. By starting with this premise, students not only understand the value of research but also begin to understand themselves as researchers.

    In the last three years I've moved from teaching a traditional research unit to making research something that we engage in throughout the course; after all, the principles of research are the same principles that we want students to incorporate and use in a variety of contexts. Whether we are talking about a novel or writing an essay, students should be evaluating and analyzing a text for its bias and meaning in order to form critical interpretations and original responses. These are the very same goals we have for teaching research. So moving research out of a "unit" and integrating it into the foundation of the course makes absolute sense.

    Making Research Authentic
    Today's students communicate with people all over the globe through use of instant message services, social networks, blogs, and forum sites, so finding an audience for our students' work outside the walls of our own classrooms is much easier than it was even five years ago. However, finding ways for students to present their research and writing to an authentic audience is only part of what makes an assignment a form of authentic assessment. In the world outside the walls of our classrooms, scientists and writers alike choose their subjects. Not only do they hypothesize where their subjects (whether an experiment or a character) will go, but they also test and retest their subjects. They consult colleagues and outside experts, and they revise their work before it is ever published. And even after it is published, scientists and writers continue to work with their subjects. So as much as possible, it is important to adopt this process inside the classroom.

    As I've revised my research project, I've done away with the list of potential topics. The students and I both found it stifling. Instead, as we talk about the purpose of research, we also talk about who does research. Research is done by educators and doctors. It is done by writers, anthropologists, historians, musicians, environmentalists, and artists. So when they are given the rather large perimeter of finding a research topic about an issue currently affecting the culture where their pen pal lives, they come up with a wide variety of topics that interest them. This semester, when their pen pals were from Morocco, Liberia, and India, they came up with a number of unique research topics based on their personal interests. I had projects on everything from the prejudice Muslim women experience as a result of religious dress to the reliability of charitable organizations operating in Liberia. Students researched the loss of traditional storytelling in Morocco and the current plight of Untouchables in India. They chose topics that interested them, and as a result, they were invested in the process of researching.

    Additionally, one of the requirements of my research project is to take the research outside the walls of our classroom. Students have to find a way to present their research to a targeted audience. This year some students worked together to put on a Cultures Fair for our school and community which raised money to help educate children in needy areas, while other students prepared lesson plans and taught their research to various middle school and elementary classrooms. I had students that created web pages and wrote letters to our local newspaper editors. I had students coming into class excited each day when ten new people had signed onto their Facebook group about aiding former Liberian child soldiers. And, you should have seen the students’ excitement when they started to have students from other schools reply to their groups. My students came into class talking about how a student from another local school posted a response to the group on helping those in Liberia who suffer from AIDS. A student from India responded to the Facebook group about Moroccan women’s access to education. My students used their research to raise awareness not only within their school and their community, but within the world. And isn’t that what research should do?

    Utilizing Formative Assessment Techniques
    More and more we see "formative assessment" (also known as assessment for learning) cropping up in educational journals along with discussion of differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences. The premise of formative assessment is that students have an opportunity to question, interact, practice, and reflect on the material being taught before use of any summative assessments. Formative assessment hinges on the student and teacher working together to help the student self-assess his or her learning. Students have an opportunity to practice a skill before they are tested on it. Teachers use informal assessment to adjust what and how they are teaching. So before a student has his paper cut to shreds by the teacher's red pen, both he and the teacher have feedback on exactly what he needs to work on before anything receives a formal grade. The student has an opportunity to master a skill. Such practices making teaching about learning rather than about grading.

    Incorporating formative assessment into teaching research is a simple process. All I had to do was stop slapping a letter on every essay. Honestly, formative assessment was a relief. I could read a draft of an outline without having to keep a rubric or a score sheet handy. Instead, I read the students' work. After reading an essay, I would write a couple of targeted comments at the end, giving each student specific feedback on where he or she should spend time revising. I wrote questions at the end of each draft to help students reflect on the assumptions they made in their arguments. I used comment-only grading to help differentiate how I teach writing. Formative assessment practices helped me be a more effective writing teacher. It also helped the students become better at peer and self revision. When they weren't looking for the grade at the top of the draft, they focused on the comments, and then applied this technique to their peer and self revision. The students spent more time thinking about their writing, and isn't this what all writing teachers want to see?

    The Cultures Project
    I still make adjustments following each semester, reflecting on what worked and what did not. This past semester I spent more time on thinking about the comments that I made on each student's draft, making sure to write some of my comments in the form of questions. Next semester, I'll have the students keep all their written drafts in a file in the class room along with a log of when they turned in various drafts. In the past, I kept track of all of this information, a logistical nightmare. However, part of using formative assessment is giving the classroom back to the students. The more they have ownership of their research, the more they are invested in the project as a whole. The more the students have ownership of the classroom, the more they are invested in their learning. My goal is to be the facilitator that helps the students navigate the learning process. Together, we are both active learners in the classroom.

    I've posted the project handout on my classroom website, and it is also attached HERE. Please feel free to adapt and use it if you are interested, and let me know how it goes!

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008

    On Being Published

    When I arrived home this afternoon, I found it perched in my mailbox. Clutching it to my chest while I fumbled to make my key fit in the lock, I rushed inside and immediately flipped to the last few pages of this month’s edition of the English Journal. And there it is in tight black type at the bottom of page 120 – my name.

    A poem I submitted months earlier has found its way into NCTE’s publication for secondary English/Language Arts teachers, the English Journal, with its circulation of 25,000. I’ve taught writing for a number of years, and over that time have prodded and cajoled a number of my students into submitting their work for publication outside the walls of our classroom, having never done so myself. However, after a wonderful conversation about publishing opportunities last spring with my after-school creative writing club, the Writers Guild, I finally submitted a few of my pieces to the English Journal. And low and behold, “When We Dance” was selected for publication.
    When We Dance

    Each morning I stop to kiss
    your warm forehead
    nestled deep in the down.
    Your hot cheek pressed against
    my freshly washed one.

    Each night we bob and weave
    our arms and hands
    across the sink reaching for
    the toothbrush or toothpaste,
    a comb, some floss, or ChapStick.
    an intricate ballet.

    I stop to try and remember
    the first time we danced.

    The excitement of seeing my name in print has been a motivating experience that I hope to be able to pass along to my students. In my own writing life, the opportunity to be published has changed the way that I think of myself, the way I identify myself. I am not only a writing teacher. I am a writer. Imagine if all our emerging writers had this experience. There is power in putting your words into the world. And when we get a response to those words, it is a validation of the effort, the creativity, and heart that goes into writing. It is motivation to put your writing out into the world again and again. Every student should have this experience, should be motivated to write and to create for an audience outside of the classroom.

    Saturday, January 12, 2008

    I Walk the Line

    Martin wants desperately to be a writer. He adopts the writer’s stance: lurking in corners, brooding over a book of verse, stealing across the parking lot to smoke a cigarette. In creative writing class, he turned in a play, not a one-act like I requested, but three acts complete with scenes and stage directions. A love story filled with temptation and doubt, a conversation with the devil, and an implied suicidal ending.

    Sarah is heading into her sophomore year in college, but it was during our sophomore English class that I knew she was destined to see her words published. In a personal narrative writing assignment, she explored the anger and loss she felt by her mother’s death just three years earlier. Her figurative language so beautifully intertwined with her raw emotions. Somewhere on page three, she dropped the f-bomb.

    Sam sits at the back of the first block tenth grade English class, 32 seats and all are filled. I watch his shock of red hair bob some mornings as he snaps his eyes open, fighting to say awake. For our study of myths, he handed in an 11-page hero’s cycle about an Irish dock worker forced to choose between his own identity search and the desire to avenge his father’s death, only to realize too late that he’s made the wrong decision so decides to take his life.

    I see stories about the gore and violence of war each fall. I’ve participated in senior project panels where the topic was female genital mutilation. Stories about death and sex and drinking and drugs, filled with curse words and innuendos are piled in my turn-in bin each year. All this comes despite the fact that each year I engage in a very frank conversation with my students on how high school writers must walk the line between the authentic and the appropriate, between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear. In some respects, educating teenagers is perhaps the most difficult age group to teach. In middle school, parents and teachers need to shield adolescents from some of life’s most grotesque realities. As college students, no content matter is taboo. High school is a time of balance for teachers, students, and parents alike. It is a time when students are initiated into the world of adulthood, truths revealed and fantasies shattered. Students are initiated into the realities of our modern world in the hopes that they will learn from the mistakes of the generations before them. So of course as they encounter these realities, they should and will want to write about them. But how much is too much?

    As part of a poetry class I took this summer offered through the PA Writing and Literature Project, I was introduced to writer Heather O’Neill. In a wonderful letter titled “On Liberating the Sixth Grade,” Heather runs headlong into this very problem as she invited into a classroom of sixth graders to teach poetry. When given little direction, students will turn in what they think is appropriate for school, and as Heather writes, “There was nothing personal in any of the poems.” But once she begins engaging the students and participants in the world and writers of merit, she finds herself in a bit of a predicament. She quips, “We’re in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff.” It’s all about finding the balance. Letting you write that stuff-puts the ownership of the writing back in the teacher’s hands where lifeless poetry is born.

    Teachers and students alike must learn to walk a very tight line. At the start of each creative writing assignment, I remind my students of just this idea as we have a frank discussion about the trials of being a high-school writer. I tell my students that I have no answers for them. Writers are rebels who test the limits; it is what we remember all great artists for. But in high school, students are boxed in by the teacher’s and the school’s fear of litigation. If a student mentions marijuana in an essay, he must be smoking it. Send him to the office. If a student has her main character commit suicide, she too must be contemplating suicide. Send her to the social worker. If a student uses a curse word in a short story, he is profane. Assign him a detention and call home. In a society where the threat of litigation is ever present, especially for teachers, I am stuck between the profound and the profane, between free speech and censorship, hope and fear. I don’t have any answers. I simply walk the line.

    Tuesday, January 8, 2008

    Time for Change

    It’s been that day. You know the one. The day that you trek two bags of grading into school and three bags back out at the end of the day. The day that students hover over your desk asking about grades while you’re also trying to respond to thirty-five different parent, administrator, and teacher emails. The day you have two meetings after school, a student club meeting to sponsor, and two parent phone calls to respond to. The day you have to send the failure letters home to parents. The day that you’ve come to school with the third incarnation of the stomach virus that the students have been passing around your classroom for the last month and a half.

    I am overwhelmed.

    I have spread myself so thin, I am transparent. Between the administrative paperwork, grading, trainings, committee meetings, district testing, I’ve little time left to spend doing what I love – talking and working with students. It is unfortunate that the one area that should have priority – being in the classroom working with students – does not always seem to be a priority in the traditional educational system. I’m pulled out my classroom for fire drills and trainings. Classes are shortened for extended homerooms and district testing (check out Barry Bachenheimer’s video on this very theme below). I’m feeling the frustration that many other bloggers have recently expressed more eloquently than I.

    Clay Burell’s recent post ”On Leaving Teaching to become a Teacher” has sparked a number of comments and reactions in the edublogosphere. Will Richardson’s response to Clay’s original post reflects on how modern technologies are changing our students, but in some respects, we have yet to change our classrooms and curriculums. I was particular struck by some of the ideas presented in Mr. Richardson’s post. He dreams of a school:
    “…where long term collaborations and research and learning can happen over extended periods, all of it real work for real audiences, published and reviewed by engaged readers participants acting as mentors from global audiences. The adults in the room are co-learners with the students but also educators who can model and navigate the skills and competencies, the ‘network literacies’…”

    However, there has been some debate over such educational reforms. Local Philadelphia educator and blogger Chris Lehmann’s response to Clay Burell’s and Will Richardson’s post offers up a note of caution. He writes, “There are some things that we have to deal with, and they can be difficult, especially if we hold onto an idealistic vision of what we want our schools to be for every child.” In some respects, I agree with Mr. Lehmann’s arguments. I believe that compulsory education is necessary and beneficial. However, I think most of his response to Burell’s and Richardson’s posts is off the mark. Change is necessary. Record numbers of teachers are leaving the profession as a result of the very frustrations I expressed earlier. Additionally, we have a growing number of students that are being tested-out of our education system, falling through the cracks created by district, state, and national mandates stemming from NCLB. I disagree with Mr. Lehmann’s suggestion that we need to “temper our idealism with a healthy dose of pragmatism…” True change does not come from working within the system but in finding a new way outside of it. In order to change the limitations of our current system, we must be willing to push those limits to discover what is beyond, what is possible.

    Saturday, January 5, 2008

    What's So Bad About Being A Girl?

    Walking through the bookstore in December, I stumbled across a display of bright turquoise books – The Daring Book for Girls. Flipping through its pages, chapters on how to tie knots, a section on how to short sheet a bed, tips for public speaking, and a chapter on modern women leaders, I knew that my nine year old godchild would love it. Later that evening before wrapping it up, I found myself reading some of the chapters aloud to my husband. Not only is there a chapter on how to make a lemon powered clock, but as an English teacher, I loved the chapter titled “Words to Impress.” My first thought was, “Finally, a book that doesn’t distinguish between activities being either ‘girly’ or ‘tom-boy’!” The chapter on “Knots and Stitches” is followed by a chapter on the rules for softball. The chapter on “How to Change a Tire” is followed by “How to Make Your Own Quill Pen.”

    However, in the December issue of Philadelphia Magazine, Sandy Hingston declares, “If girls were buying this book for themselves, I’d be worried.” In her article “A Dangerous Book for Girls,” Ms. Hingston rebukes Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz’s new compilation as nothing more than a modern etiquette book meant to reinforce feminine stereotypes. In addition, she denounces the book for being a mere marketing ploy meant to ride on the success of the wildly popular and mildly controversial The Dangerous Book for Boys. In a patronizing tone, Ms. Hingston writes, “Where boys played rugby, girls would play hop-scotch. And where boys skinned rabbits, girls would…well, there really wasn’t anything analogous to that. Girls would learn Japanese t-shirt folding, though.” Her article begins with subtle jabs at the authors and quickly descends into venomous quips about how of course publishers would want to put out a comparable book for girls because “After all, there’s blue and pink. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Football and cheerleading. One water fountain for the white kids, and one for the …oh, wait.”

    Her critique starts with the book’s “sparkly” cover, which she declares indicative of the stereotyping held within its pages. She highlights stereotypical chapters. “Take the chapter on ‘How to Negotiate a Salary.’ It quotes JFK (‘Let us never fear to negotiate’), suggests girls research the going rates, and advises them to smile and be friendly. Uh-huh. That’s how Rupert Murdoch made his.” In essence arguing that our goal should be to create an army of seven year old girl cut-throats? Ms. Hingston ends her diatribe by declaring the book as nothing more than a “big, sparkly vitamin pill” girls will be forced to take by well-intentioned but ill-informed adults. She seems to be arguing for a book for girls that pushes past anything traditionally considered feminine and instead wants a book for girls that includes…well, what? The same chapters as those found in The Dangerous Book for Boys? Why do we recoil from anything labeled feminine?

    Ms. Hingston seems to be attacking the book from an American feminist stand-point. The American feminist position is one that tends to focus on equality and works to identify male privilege and create social change to provide women with similar privilege. An important and noble pursuit, especially given that women have been marginalized throughout history and to this day. However, such a stance can be viewed in contrast to the French feminist position. The French position, a feminism of difference, is one which is cognizant of historical and current ways that the feminine has been pathologized and suggests that there are uniquely feminine socially constructed attributes (not biological) which account for the differences between the genders. The danger in Ms. Hingston’s position, that is, one of a feminism of equality, is that it functions as a veiled and even more profound form of misogony in that all things thought to be stereotypically feminine are considered reprehensible. Do we really want a book for girls that contains the exact same chapters as the book for boys? Such a book would cover-over the real (albeit, socially constructed) gender differences between the masculine and the feminine, and would in fact support the idea that anything traditionally considered feminine was shameful. What would happen to the girls who enjoyed hop-scotch?

    There is a tension between a feminism of equality, which at its extreme pathologizes the feminine, much like Ms. Hingston does in her critique of the Daring Book for Girls, and on the other side, a feminism of difference, which at its extreme can sink into biological essentialism, the sophmoric Mars vs. Venus argument. Is it possible to talk about gender, specifically feminine attributes, in a positive fashion without falling prey to these extremes?

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