Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflection on Writing Mentors

Before my class begins at the end of June, I’ve been asked to read Ralph Fletcher’s What a Writer Needs. As I sit here reading and reflecting on the opening chapters, my one and a half year old plops himself at my feet, an arc of picture and board books around him. He’s thumbing through page after page, babbling words, trying on different voices. When I lay my pen down, he makes a grab for it so that he might mark his pages like mommy is marking hers.

It seems fitting that Fletcher’s first chapter is on “Mentors,” beginning with Haim Ginott’s quote:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”

My little one reminds me that even in our quiet moments we are mentors, modeling for our students our beliefs and expectations. It isn’t just what we say to motivate, engage, and encourage students; it’s about what we do. We pass on our love of reading and writing when students see us reading and writing.

Fletcher also makes the point that as writing teachers we are writing mentors and as such must take care to foster a relationship with our students that enables them to grow in their writing process. This involves finding the important balance of maintaining high expectations and encouraging novice writers. Mentors must be careful not to overly praise mediocre work while remembering that “Even in a ‘bad’ piece of writing, the mentor reaches into the chaos, finds a place where the writing works, pulls it from the wreckage, names it, and makes the writer aware of this emerging skill with words” (14). But what resonated with me most was Fletcher’s advice on risk.

By holding to a suffocating definition of what constitutes “good” writing or formulas for how particular pieces should (or shouldn’t) be written, we not only strangle the life out of our students’ writing, but we also deprive them of the joy that comes from playing with language. “You don’t learn to writing by going through a series of preset writing exercises. You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you” (4). Formulaic writing prompts only result in predictable, unimaginative essays written for the teacher to shred with the dripping red pen. What does this teach our students? How to write an essay for a particular teacher – one person. And although students do need to learn what how to meet a variety of expectations throughout their lifetime, isn’t it more important that students learn to write for more than one person at a time, to take a risk in their writing, and learn to appeal to larger audiences? The danger, as Fletcher points out, is that under such writing assignments our students learn to write for one particular teacher’s rules “instead of trying to internalize their own high standards for writing” (22). As writing teachers, writing mentors, we must find ways to encourage novice writers to play, take risks, and internalize their own high standards for writing.

Fletcher points to a wonderful quote by Patrick Shannon, “Risk allows children to outgrow themselves” (17). A writer constrained by the schema of right and wrong when it comes to writing will never find the “fluency and playfulness, the time and perseverance she will need over the long haul to become a skillful writer” (17). We must remember how we came to love writing and foster those moments, that environment, in our classrooms. My guess is that very few people remember one assignment or writing prompt that “turned” them into a good writer. Instead, good writers are grown in nurturing environments: fed with honest and compassionate feedback, allowed to stretch their writing limbs, to dig into their roots, and cultivated with creative and authentic writing experiences. Writing mentors remember that writing is a process not an end point, and therefore, we must nurture the journey.

Fletcher, Ralph. What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1993. Print.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Makin' it Real

This has been my favorite teaching semester.

Why? Because I've taught less.

One of my goals for this school year was to spend less time standing in front of students and more time learning right alongside them. Instead of dictating notes, I've focused on honing my skills as a facilitator, setting the stage for students to learn and discover literature concepts on their own. I've tried to find more ways to get my students in front of the classroom, teaching their peers about various grammar mistakes, about motifs from The Kite Runner, about themes from Asian poetry. I'm no longer afraid of open-ended assignments. In fact, I relish in them. I don't want to read 30 of the same exact essays on cyber bullying. Instead, students research issues that have meaning for them and find ways to adapt and share their research with authentic audiences outside our classroom. And in doing this, I find that my students are more engaged and more interested in delving deeper into our content. And as their teacher, I have an opportunity not only to learn more about my students but also learn about a topic that I might not have otherwise encountered. I've tried to find more ways to connect my students with authentic audiences as a way to encourage deeper, more meaningful reflection on the skills and content we learn in class.

In this past semester alone, I've been able to bring in a speaker from Penn's Middle Eastern Center and one from the South Asian Center, Michael Herskovitz spoke with students about his experiences in the death camps of World War II, and most recently, my students have connected with students from Kabul's Marefat High School in Afghanistan through our Ning discussion site. Students have been learning about history first-hand, an experience I hope to replicate semester after semester. There's something about learning from those who have lived through the experiences we've studied in our literature and social studies courses that cannot be replicated by a teacher standing in front of the room with a PowerPoint packed with notes. The connections, the questions, and critical thinking that such opportunities inspire make the effort of organizing them well worth it.

Over the last couple of years, I've tried to cultivate these sorts of opportunities in my classes. It has not come easily, and goodness knows, I've definitely made many missteps along the way. But more than anything, I've found value in learning from those faltering steps right alongside my students. It is such opportunities that make it enjoyable to come into the classroom, for students and teachers alike. And, with so many wonderful collaboration opportunities available through education oriented websites, it's even easier to bring the world into the classroom, to make literature come alive. So, I thought I would pass along a few of my favorites. Check 'um out:

Taking it Global Educators (TiGed)
What is TIGed? (from the TiG website)
  • As TIG's vibrant global community has evolved, educators inspired by its young members have sought to integrate its resources and focus on action-based learning into their teaching. This was made easier beginning in 2006, with the launch of the TakingITGlobal for Educators (TIGed) program. TIGed allows educators to leverage the resources of the world's most popular online community for youth who want to make a difference - - in ways that meet the needs of their learning environments.

    TIGed is a community of globally-minded educators interested in empowering their students to think and act as world citizens, a collection of resources that facilitate the inclusion of global perspectives in the classroom, and a virtual classroom that allows students to use collaborative technology in order to connect with people from around the world and learn about global issues.
A Community of Global Educators
  • TIG members who are actively engaged as educators can apply for an educator badge through their profile settings in order to join the TIGed community, a network of thousands of teachers and students from over 70 countries around the world. Collectively, the TIGed community comprises diverse perspectives, expertise, and knowledge and members can potentially learn a lot from one another. TIGed uses technology to make it easier for global educators to connect, share ideas, and work together.

    TIGed members can network, communicate, and collaborate in several ways. Having an educator badge allows users to search the member database for educators only, thereby identifying potential friends, allies, and partners. A discussion forum allows educators to share successes, challenges, strategies, and ideas with respect to integrating technology and global perspectives into education. A collaboration database of educators interested in partnering with other classrooms around the world facilitates international learning partnerships. Meanwhile, regularly produced TIGed blogs and newsletters help TIGeducators stay up to date on developments and events related to the TIGed community.


Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
Planning to take your students to worlds unknown? Partnering with CILC is a great way to start! Here you will find information and tools to help make your job easier and to enhance learning through the use of videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies.

BENEFITS: In addition to searching a variety of databases, membership in CILC enables you to
  • create a Custom Catalog aligned to discipline types and/or topics, audience type or grade level, national standards, and/or learning objectives

  • post collaboration requests in the Collaboration Center

  • Receive in your inbox weekly updates matched to your preferences, CILC e-News, published 5 times from September to May, e-Flashes sharing special CILC offers, usually once a month, and e-Updates explaining new website features, usually twice a year

  • access to manage your CILC member profile, view all your collaboration and/or class requests, and see all the Favorites you've marked as you searched
TAKE THE CILC TOUR: Learn where and how to access all your benefits.

The tour is a free, live presentation, accessed through the Internet at your computer, which provides a complete overview of View a variety of dates and times and REGISTER.


ePals: Welcome to the World's Largest K-12 Learning Network!
ePals is the leading provider of safe collaborative technology for schools to connect and learn in a protected, project-based learning network. With classrooms in 200 countries and territories, ePals makes it easy to connect learners locally, nationally or internationally.


People-to-People International
From the People-to-People International website:

People to People International's School and Classroom Program is a free service that connects teachers and their students with classes in other countries for pen pal exchanges and projects that improve cultural understanding and encourage friendship. Classes are matched according to similar age and number of pupils to form partnerships. Students interact by exchanging traditional paper letters or email messages supervised by their teacher, who receives a program manual for guidance. Teachers may form partnerships with classes in multiple countries and work together for one or more school years.

Primary, middle and secondary-school classes and youth groups (grades kindergarten-12) from all countries are welcome. To join, we ask teachers or adults, who supervise students, to register. Registration is open during July - October. Registrations submitted before or after this time will be held for the following semester or school year. We will contact you to discuss options.

Register here or contact


More Ways to Connect with other Teachers/Classrooms:

Try finding other teachers interested in connecting with your students using one of these sites:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Finding Voice

I’m in the process of discovering my voice.

I find this a bit ironic since this is something that I supposedly teach. I tell my tenth grade students at the beginning of each semester that one of the goals of our tenth grade writing curriculum is to help students identify and hone their unique writing voice, that by the close of the semester each student should be able to turn in a typed essay without a name at the top of the page, and I should be able to tell whose it is simply by the voice of the piece. In reality, they are just beginning to figure out who they are, who they want to be, trying on different personalities and styles, much like they do in their writing. And, at twice their age, I still find myself doing the same thing.

Maybe this is what makes writing engaging and exciting – it is always new. Perhaps good writers are always a bit unsettled, trying out new ideas and new styles. Perhaps this is what keeps writing fresh, what keeps us coming back to the blank page – the possibility. It is through writing that we are able to discover new possibilities in ourselves, in our lives, and in those around us. So perhaps it isn’t a bad thing that I haven’t been able to pinpoint who I am as a writer or nail down my own style.

Or, maybe this is just what I tell myself so that I don’t feel like I’m still floundering when faced with the blank, bright white screen in front of me.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my own writing and what it means for me to be a writing teacher. I was recently accepted into this summer’s Pennsylvania Writing Project Summer Institute where I’ll become a fellow in the National Writing Project. As part of my application and interview, I talked about my interest in engaging students in the writing process through more authentic writing opportunities like those that can be offered through collaborative web 2.0 sites. In fact, I just delivered a professional development workshop on this very topic this past week to a group of my fellow teachers. Each semester I ask my students to post to discussion boards, write and respond to blogs, and collaborate on wiki pages. I’ve found that when I ask students to write for larger audiences, when they write and post pieces knowing that their fellow classmates, other teachers, and sometimes the general public will be able to read and respond to their work, they take the writing process much more seriously. They are writing for an actual audience and not just a single teacher. They seem to understand better the need to be clear. They spend more time with the writing process rather than just rushing toward the end of the page. This semester, I’ve asked my students to write personal narratives and reflection journals as blog entries, post videos of speeches they’ve written and given, use a discussion board to connect with students in Kabul, as well as collaborate, create, and post online a variety of presentation materials. In short, my students have been working diligently on establishing their writing identities in a public space, online. But as their teacher, the one you would think should have the most experience with these sorts of opportunities, I’ve found recently that the writing I tend to do most is didactic, not the same sort of reflective writing exercises that I ask my students to engage in.

I don’t seem to be carving out the same time that I ask my students to devote to figuring out who I am as a writer. I’m not writing with my students. Instead, I find myself giving instructions rather than instructing, meaning that rather than modeling my expectations, I seem to just be dictating them. I think this is an easy trap for teachers to fall into. I get so caught up in wanting to make sure that my directions are clear, that my rubrics make sense, that my lessons are meaningful, that I forget that good teachers are also learners. Students need to see their teachers learning right along with them. How else will they understand that learning is a life-long process if the adults in their lives don’t model this?

I am certainly not an expert in writing. In fact, I have a very long way to go in order to figure out who I am as a writer. But maybe that’s okay to share with my students. Instead of getting so caught up in the directions and grading, I need to spend time exploring my writing voice right alongside my students. I have a feeling that they can teach me a thing or two about writing, about what it means to be open to exploring new possibilities in my writing. I need to be willing to find my own voice together with my students as they discover theirs.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Today's Interesting Links

  • Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC): Advancing ...
    The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) supports and advances education through videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies. A nonprofit, CILC offers access to quality professional development and student educational content, as well as consulting and technical assistance. This helps schools leverage technology to improve educational outcomes, while saving time and money.
  • GrowingWithGoogle - home
    Essential Questions:
    - Which Google Tools can help us to be more effective in our teaching and learning practices?
    - How can Google Tools be used collaboratively to transform teaching and learning experiences?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used creatively in classroom instruction?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used to organize documents, presentations and other types of materials?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used to create efficiency in teaching and learning?
    - How can Google Tools create rich documentation of teaching and learning?
  • Google Forms: Self-Graded Quizzes « Robin's Technology Tips
    Google forms can be used to create a quiz that can be graded automatically in the spreadsheet using formulas. To save you time, these instructions are for a 20 question (or less) quiz using the template with the formulas already entered.
  • — Any file, in your website
  • Wissahickon School District's eToolBox - pln
    Personal Learning Networks defined:
    * Personal - particular to a given individual
    * Learning - the acquisition and development of memories and behaviors, including skills, knowledge, understanding, values, and wisdom
    * Network - an interconnected system of things or people

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Write Online?

In his recent English Journal article, "Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter," Grant Wiggins elaborates on why creating authentic audiences for student writers can have such a significant impact on student writing. When creating online writing opportunities, keep the following in mind:

Ensure that students have to write for real audiences and purposes, not just the teacher in response to generic prompts.

Authentic Assessment Demands:
  • Engaging and worthy tasks of importance
  • Faithful representation of the contexts
  • Nonroutine and multistage tasks -real problems
  • Tasks that require the student to produce a quality product
  • Transparent or demystified criteria and standards
"Real writers are trying to make a difference, find their true audience, and cause some result in that readership," writes Grant. "...the point is to open the mind or heart of a real audience - cause a fuss, achieve a feeling, start some thinking. In other words, what few young writers learn is that there are consequences for succeeding or failing as a real writer."

Further Resources/Research on Creating Authentic Audiences:
In thinking about how to use online tools to connect students with authentic audiences, I put together this resource page. I'll be using as part of an upcoming session on how wikis, Nings, and Google Docs could be used in the classroom to foster such creative collaboration and writing for authentic audiences. I'll also be introducing a number of sites that teachers can use to connect with other classrooms around the world - TiGed, CILC, ePals, and People to People International.

You can join this session virtually on Tuesday, May 18th as I will be broadcasting it live via my UStream channel. More information and times to come.

Holocaust survivor bears witness to atrocities - News Of Delaware County - Delco News Network

Holocaust survivor bears witness to atrocities - News Of Delaware County - Delco News Network

By Lois Puglionesi

HAVERFORD TWP - Haverford High School English instructor Jen Ward has taught thousands of students about the Holocaust through books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” But Ward has always felt her classes have difficulty “making the connection between history and a real person.”

So this year Ward tried something different. With help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center she arranged for a Holocaust survivor, Michael Herskovitz, to visit the school last week.

A warm and affable man with a heavy European accent, Herskovitz, 81, described growing up in a small Czechoslovakian village where his religious Jewish parents owned a grocery store. Herskovitz said he never felt different because people treated each other with mutual respect.

But in 1943, when Herskovitz was 13, Nazi soldiers arrived and the happy life he’d known forever changed.Herskovitz described how within weeks synagogues closed, his parents lost their store, Jews were put under curfew and forced to wear yellow Jewish stars.

Stating that it was for their own “protection,” Nazi soldiers transported Herskovitz, his parents and siblings to a ghetto where they were given a tent to live in and fed once or twice a day.The situation grew even more ominous when soldiers took the family to a railroad station and put them on cattle cars crammed with 60-70 people. The train picked up many more passengers before reaching its final destination, Auschwitz.

Read more at the News of Delaware County

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