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?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Grammar Anyone?

I have grammar on the brain. A recent email conversation has me contemplating the role of teaching grammar in the language arts classroom. The NCTE advocates that grammar should not be taught in isolation. However, in talking with some fellow teachers and bloggers, I am questioning the usefulness of the Whole Language approach to teaching grammar and mechanics. Tamara Eden, fellow blogger and teacher recently posted a reflection on our email conversation about teaching grammar to high school students. Should high school students be taught dangling modifiers and shifts in construction?

I am a product of Whole Language education; grammar was never something that I was taught in isolation. I learned phonics and the difference between the subject and predicate as a first grader. I didn’t really learn grammar until I started to teach it to my high school students about six years ago. It was drilled into me while in college that English teachers should be concerned about content over conventions. And, to some extent, I agree.

However, in my last few years of teaching, I have run across students who are not voracious readers, and by extension, they are not well equipped writers. More problematic though, I have this year a number of students who are voracious readers but who cannot construct a paragraph to save their lives! This is where I see grammar as being useful.

I tell my students that if they step out of my room after a semester and can’t tell me what a dangling modifier is but know how to fix it, they will succeed. However, I don’t think that grammar and mechanics are something that we just pick up as we read. I agree with Tamara, they must be taught.

Why teach grammar? I firmly believe that the ability to read and write well grant students access to world of possibilities. Language equals power; therefore, I must find ways to integrate grammar and mechanics education into the teaching of writing. What good is a thought if you cannot express it clearly?

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