Your Relationship with Reading (Poll post)

Dear Reader. I married him. Ha kidding – English teacher joke (Jane Eyre). Anyway – dear readers, I would like to ask you a favor. I will be teaching some less than enthusiastic readers this year, and I was hoping to give them a picture of what adult readers look like. Most of my students think that teachers were born good readers, always like to read, were always good at reading, and read high level literature for fun all day long. Meanwhile, they think, normal people don’t. So I’m hoping to utilize this week’s post and poll to test out my hypothesis (that that’s just not the case). If you could take a moment and just answer a couple of questions below about your reading habits, your earlier reading experiences, and your current reading habits, that would be great. I will be sharing this information, anonymously, with my students as evidence (hopefully) that reading isn’t just for English teachers and that their preference for it might change over time.

Thanks for your time!

Do Schools Kill Creativity? (Video post)

Below you will find one of my favorite YouTube education videos of all time from Sir Ken Robinson on whether or not school systems kill creativity. While I don’t personally go that far, I do find his analysis of the industrialized school system and the American public school system to be fascinating in particular. At our core, we teachers know that not every kid is the same and that we must differentiate (to the best of our ability) to help children reach their potential. However, we only have so many minutes in a day and minutes with a given student, and that number gets lower as you add more students into a classroom and more classes to a day and more courses to our loads. So my mind cannot help but question – what if it’s not us and our style or our students who are flawed but the basics of our system? What if the industrialized system of moving children through a standardized, for all intents and purposes, machine is what’s flawed? I have some ideas about what could replace it, and many of them, in my dreams, involve something like England’s Summerhill school. However, I’m more practical than my dreams, so I know better than to think it’s that simple. Just the same, I won’t give up trying to imagine different versions of what we have. And this video, no matter how many times I watch it, always gets me thinking about what other ways we could do this thing we all love so much… 

 

 

Post-Things Fall Apart: TED Talk – Andrew Bastawrous (Audio Post)

As part of my 10th grade literature class, students study a variety of World Literature including the juxtaposition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. One of the frustrations I have in studying both of these novels is that students still walk away with an image of 19th century or maybe at latest early 20th century Africa. The bottom line is, many of my students tend to believe that the history they study is still true today in much of the continent, with a few exceptions. However, with podcasts like the one below from Andrew Bastawrous on the exceptional technology development coming out of various countries in Africa, and videos from MamaHope and another TEDTalk video from Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story,” my students start to get a very different and very modern picture.

Why Read? (Image Post)

Moving into August, I’m thinking about the coming year more and more. I will be teaching some students who struggle to read well, let alone on level, and I want to develop some better strategies to help them improve. One thing I always come back to is independent reading. I value assigned reading, pushing them out of their comfort zones, but I know how important independent reading is for lifelong readers. They have to connect with what they read, and while I will choose things that teach them necessary skills, I want them to keep reading long after my class because they love the characters and the stories, not because they love analyzing diction and syntax.

Here is a wonderful infographic from Kelly Gallagher’s website made by a teacher after one of his workshops that illustrates the importance of reading. We all know it, but this just acts as a beautiful visual reminder of it all.

Why Read Infographic

Infographic pulled from Kelly Gallagher’s site and can be found here.

Millenial Students – Is there a difference in their learning?

As part of my EdTech blogging course, our professor offered the following prompt

“Earlier this summer semester, you read:

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants – Part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6). Retrieved fromhttp://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism: Digital delusions and digital deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Retrieved fromhttp://fno.org/nov07/nativism.html

Reeves, T.C. (2008). Do generational differences matter in instructional design? Online discussion presentation to Instructional Technology Forum from January 22-25, 2008 at http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/Paper104/ReevesITForumJan08.pdf

The main take aways from these readings included:

  • while the theory of generational differences exists and is a valid theory, there is no research at present that indicates instructional designers should modify instruction or instructional strategies to accommodate today’s generation of students
  • there is no reliable and valid research to support the belief that technology has somehow changed today’s generation of students
  • further to the fact that Prensky’s notion of digital natives isn’t based on research, McKenzie does a convincing job of illustrating how Prensky even misused the anecdotal “evidence” that he presents to support is beliefs
  • the only thing that can be said about today’s student, based upon reliable and valid research, is that they are more narcissistic than any previous generation

However, even faced with these realities in almost every semester where I use these three readings there are multiple students – often the majority of students – who still believe that the students they teach are fundamentally influenced by digital technology and it has changed the way that they learn in the classroom.

As educational technologists, what did you take away from these generational differences readings? How would you handle a colleague who bought into the notion of digital natives?

While I am a strong proponent of sociology and anthropology and their use in classrooms, I know these are generalizations, like the findings of most any study. We, as teachers, see children every day who do not fit into the molds set forth about them based on their gender, age, race, sexuality, level of intelligence, area of town, standardized test scores, course levels, and more. We know that differentiation matters because all children are different, so I appreciate information like this for basic information’s sake but not for the be all, end all. It is not the final word. Instead, I base my teaching on what I see of my own students and what’s best for them more than what a study of other students says.

So here’s what I see:

My students love their cell phones but don’t do much more than surface-level activity on them. They play games that require very little in-depth thinking, things that last maybe 60-90 second bursts at a time and often times are rapid paced. In addition to game playing, they check Twitter and love Instagram and Tumblr. They’re becoming increasingly more visual and less textual. Like the games, they want surface level and quick. Their love of visual is moving into text messaging too, and they’re moving away from public displays of information – Tumblr isn’t as public and does not allow true comments the way most other social networking does. They don’t communicate with Twitter as much, and instead, they spend much more time talking to friends with Snapchat, an app that allows them to send private messages to friends that are usually pictures or video and might have limited text too. Its appeal rests in the fact that the message disappears (or supposedly does) as soon as its read, so they like its anonymity (though it can be saved, screen-shotted, etc.). 

To me, the way this informs my classroom is that my students need a break from their phones most days. I spend a lot of time telling them at the beginning of the year that it’s okay to put them away, take a break, not respond just because it vibrates. They are not Pavlov’s dog. They do not HAVE to respond. When they do get to use their phone in my class, I’m trying to show them the more in-depth versions of what it can do and then move that in-depth work into the classroom work. My students need to be more patient and need to “drill down” as some of my colleagues say. They want to stay on the surface and go quick, quick, quick. So I need to help them take more time, dig deeper into text, and see other ways to use technology beyond socializing. 

I don’t know if all of this means that students are fundamentally influenced by technology. I know that these aforementioned readings, at the youngest, are still six years old and in terms of technology, that’s significant. Most teachers I talk to, who have been in the classroom much longer than me, say they do see a difference in the students overall with this idea of taking less time with their work and digging less into it. With five years under my belt, I have not seen enough to tell them they’re wrong. And the articles aren’t modern enough for me to use them to support my argument either, since most of their research would have happened before their publication, making them even older. All I know is what I see, and I know what I need to do to help my students prepare for life after high school. 

As for my colleagues believing in the idea of the digital native, I don’t think anyone I work with believes they cannot learn because of their age or that they are somehow fundamentally less capable because they were not raised with technology. Yes, it’s harder to learn when you’re older, and there’s lots of research that reinforces that idea. But it doesn’t pertain to only technology but learning in general. However, I know all of my colleagues work their behinds off to keep up with the changing times and changing technology, trying to know what their students know in order to keep their techniques relevant and keep their students engaged. While the basic skills of literature haven’t changed too much, how we go about teaching it and engaging students in it have, and that’s where technology comes into play. If I were to come across anyone in my department who believes in the idea of the digital native, I would merely offer up what I said previously – all learning is harder when you don’t grow up with it, not just technology, but we must keep up with the times and with our students in order to be most effective. I know no teacher who would disagree with that. 

Technology for Technology’s Sake? – Guest Post

To bring another, more seasoned perspective to the blog, I’ve asked my colleague Tracy Houston to offer her insights on the use of technology in the classroom. An almost 30 year veteran, she amazes me by still being on the cusp of what’s coming in education and technology while holding true to what she knows works and what’s best for her students. Without further ado, Tracy…

 

In 1983, after I graduated from Penn State with my high spirits about teaching and my education degree in hand , Howard Gardner busily introduced the seven multiple intelligences in his book Frames of Mind. I had not read the book nor had any knowledge about these distinct intelligences – the education world did not embrace philosophies or practices as readily as we do today. On the technology front, the Commodore 64 made its way into some homes, businesses, and classrooms, but I still used the dreaded correction tape on my old manual typewriter (later I upgraded to a baby blue electric Brother typewriter!) With my first teaching job, I would learn how to use that wonderful piece of technology for copying handouts: the mimeograph, better known as the ditto machine. I could crank out – literally crank out – copies of handouts for my students, who would then take long whiffs of the noxious solvents needed to produce the pages. And so my teaching career began.

In 1999, through the technology explosion, block scheduling, and many educational philosophies/strategies that included Socratic Seminar and the Jigsaw, I finally took a course in MI (one of the many acronyms I would grow accustomed to seeing). In 1999, though, Gardner added an 8th intelligence in his revised book Intelligence Reframed. My experience in discovering how the theory applied to me drove me to filter the findings into my classroom, allowing my students to discover the same through some simple activities. While I realized I did cater to some of my students’ needs and even if they did not discover firsthand how they best learn, my view of learning completely changed as did my instructional strategies. Halfway through my teaching career, I revised, retooled, revamped, and reenergized both me and my classroom. Of course, now I had to worry about Y2K!

Once the ball dropped at midnight and we “survived” the havoc of the millennium bug, Howard Gardner again reflected on MI and its relation to technology and education:

“Technology is neither good nor bad in itself, nor can it dictate educational goals. . . . Before embracing any new technology, we need to declare our educational goals and demonstrate how a particular technology can help us to achieve them. And of course we must provide adequate technical assistance if the technology is to be deployed effectively.”

Unbelievably, he stated this in 2000! And, I totally agree given today’s standards.

Approaching my 30th year of teaching and adding to hundreds (if not thousands) of additional acronyms in education, I continue to reflect on my students and how they learn best. While technology has changed (and changes every day it seems), education has changed because of it and for the better. The question asked of teachers has evolved from Do you use technology in your classroom? to How do you use technology in your classroom? From Gardner’s perspective (and mine), that should not be the question either since using technology is but a means to an end. We should ask this question: Why use technology? What do we hope students take away by or through using the technology? No doubt, today’s technology has changed the way we teach – probably faster than most initiatives have – and the way students learn but not how they learn. For me, technological advances simply re-emphasized the need to maintain our perspective on differing learning styles and provide an environment in which every student can thrive and succeed.

Sure my students use computers and smartphones regularly in my classroom, an English classroom; I use edmodo.com, Google docs, YouTube, Twitter, Prezi, etc., for communicating, for completing projects, and for engaging students. I am not going to suggest that any particular use of technology is better than any other use of technology. I do suggest, however, that teachers embrace technology, find their comfort zone with technology, be open to new technology, but do not overuse technology for technology’s sake.

 

Tracy A. Houston

English Teacher

Quakertown Community High School

thouston@qcsd.org

@TracyHouston

 

 

Cross-Level Planning – Commentary Entry

I’ve been spending a bit of my down time between Pinterest and Netflix so far this summer. I haven’t quite learned to just sit and watch a movie, without doing something else simultaneously, so Pinterest at least makes me feel a little productive when I’m focused on pinning education-related items for the coming school year. Lately, I’ve noticed quite a few posts incorrectly teaching the difference between “main idea” and “theme,” and based on the image and the elements of the lesson, they seem geared toward lower level students (upper elementary and middle school). While this is not a criticism of those teachers, it is a frustration of the system in which we work. As a high school teacher who teaches primarily 11th grade, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of what students learned, particularly at younger ages, really sticks hard in their minds (thankfully in most cases). However, there are some things they are taught or some things they misunderstand at lower levels that then need to be untaught in high school, and theme is one of those things.

I would say theme is the hardest concept and one of the most important basic reading concepts students must learn for literary analysis to even begin. Many of my students walk into 11th grade believing theme is the “moral of the story” or a “lesson” learned by the character. It is SO hard to break the students of that learning, no matter how many times I repeat “a recurring subject or issue in the story” and then I show them examples that could be one word or a whole phrase, depending on what they may see later on (i.e. jealousy, friendship, the conflict of race in a Reconstruction South, etc.). I am not pointing fingers at lower level teachers, and I have had conversations with 9th and 10th grade teachers who have the same issue. The problem is we don’t all have a common language for what we teach all of the time, especially with harder issues like theme, so when we teach it differently over and over, students tend to revert back to what they remember from early on. 

My point comes in here – we need to not only have common planning with our colleagues who teach the same grade level course but also different grade levels, so we can have common language for basic and particularly most important terms. That way, we don’t have to spend so much time reteaching complex concepts or breaking students of habits but instead, we can build on the language they were taught previously and either continue forward with the same language or add another piece of complexity to the term. With this, students won’t be married to one definition of a term but instead can see language as something that evolves and becomes more difficult as they grow, that things like metaphor and simile aren’t just “comparing two things” with or without “like or as” but that we then add a piece about HOW authors use metaphor and simile. Same with theme: if we can have a common definition for that, like we do metaphor and simile, we can spend more time on HOW the author develops the theme and less time on helping students understand that it’s different than what they thought.

Common planning is not a new concept – far from it. Teachers call for it often, fight for it in our school and others across the country, but in large public schools with too few teachers and too many students, it’s not easy to arrange. To make it harder, the few times teachers do get common planning, we often have so much to do with our regular job requirements that often times common planning falls to other more pressing conversations or bureaucratic issues.

So that’s why my proposal comes more as a focus on common terms – if we could come together as a curriculum area, figure out what terms are covered in what grade, and then determine district wide how we want to define it to our students, then we would have common language for the district. Obviously, at upper levels, certain terms will become more complex, as I outlined above, and others will not come into play until upper levels, but for the ones that transcend from beginning to end or matter from year to year, common language would do a huge service to our students and our teachers. It wouldn’t require huge time away from the rest of our work, and we wouldn’t need to pay any outside experts to inform the conversation. We teachers are more than qualified and intelligent enough to hold the conversation and develop the list and definitions ourselves. It would be a wonderful first step in cross-level planning, and it would be a great way to streamline what our students learn in a way that’s valuable, without taking away from differentiation or teacher voice. It’s a way to help students and teachers alike!

Teacher as Blogger: Where’s the line? – Discussion Entry

I have been a writer in some fashion for most of my life. Journaling through childhood, participating in writing workshops in adolescence, and becoming an English teacher and joining PAWLP as an adult, I have always loved to write. It’s where I best express myself and sort out my ideas. However, now as a teacher, I find myself more careful than ever about my writing. At 29, I was raised at the beginning of the internet generation and went through college during the social media rise. Facebook debuted my freshman year of college; we were part of the first group to use it. So, it’s become a norm for me – sharing my life on the internet. But, as a teacher, I’m more aware than most of what I put online and how much of myself I share with the world wide web. I know the draw backs, the dangers, and I am careful to be respectful and conduct myself in a manner online (and in life) that I wouldn’t mind my students, parents, boss, superintendent, and my own family members reading. But as a teacher, in the last five years in particular, I’ve seen quite a few stories of other members of my profession getting slammed for their blogs and social media presence, even when it’s about teaching.

Here’s what I would like to do: I want to share my teaching ideas, research findings, classroom successes and missteps, and daily musings with the internet world. If anything, I think what’s amazing about social media is the chance for us to realize how similar our experiences are. Many of us walk this world feeling like we’re the only ones going through a given situation, and as teachers, I think we feel a lot of pressure to show a perfect face to the world. We don’t like to admit or show failures because we fear judgement (whether by colleagues or by state evaluations that may soon tie to our paychecks and our jobs). Mistakes are becoming a no-no. But I still firmly believe what my father taught me at a young age – mistakes are how we grow. Fail, fail, fail again. In failure is how we find success. So I want to share my failures and my successes, because I think we are smarter together than we are alone, and by blogging instead of just writing in a paper journal, I can get ideas and input from others in my situation. It opens up my job and my ideas to a conversation across the country or even the world, if I’m lucky, and as Schmidt and Kjellberg both noted, blogging is about building a network of ideas – whether for socializing or for research. At the end of the day, it’s both about building a community of ideas.

But I have hang-ups.

Where’s the line? How can I, as a teacher, have a social media and blogging presence about my profession and still maintain the line of appropriateness? And is the line the same for everyone or do some districts and administrators see it differently than others? Do I tell my principal that I have a blog and want to write about the happenings in my classroom (without student names, obviously), or do I write anonymously (still without student names)? Do I not write about my classroom at all and just stick with theory and educational readings to be safer? Or do I avoid opinions all together in case I cross a line I didn’t know existed or risk my opinion crossing an administrator’s opinion, without my knowledge?

The bottom line question is: as a teacher who wants to blog regularly, how do I find the line that might be invisible in what’s acceptable and what’s not as a teacher blogger? And what may be the hard and fast rules of being a teacher blogger, if I am permitted to even be one?

Nine Ways to Better Teach Reading and Writing (through some summer prep) – List Entry

In a continued effort to keep up with my summer motivation and still-reeling school brain, I’ve been thinking a ton about how to better teach reading and writing. As a high school English teacher, for the first time in my career, next year I will teach co-taught classes. When I was in school, I was labeled “gifted” with a particular emphasis on reading and writing, so clearly this was never an area in which I struggled. And when I first started teaching, I thought that just by being “good” at English, I could teach it. But as any teacher knows – simply being good at something doesn’t mean you can be good at teaching it. Often times, in fact, it means the opposite. So in my first five years, in particular the last three really, I’ve been trying to improve my teaching of writing and make it much more concrete. With the help of incredibly talented colleagues, I’ve grown as a writing teacher, without question. I wouldn’t call myself a good writing teacher yet, but I’m far from where I started. However, I still have a long way to go as a reading teacher, especially for students who are struggling readers, and I want to take some of what I did in becoming a better writing teacher and apply it to becoming a better reading teacher. So below, I’ve developed a list for myself, as well as anyone else, of some steps to becoming a better teacher of reading and writing. Some are common sense steps and others are links to resources and books that have helped me along the way.

1. Take off my “strong student” hat and put on my “struggling student” hat. I have to think of this as myself in Chemistry or math class, instead of English class. I have to remember what it was like sitting in a class, doing something in which I wasn’t strong. Looking at the reading or writing piece as a struggling student, I need to first identify where I would be caught up – tough vocabulary, sentence structure, multiple narrators, setting, description, literary devices, background information, etc.

2. And then with that, what do I, as a teacher, need to prepare in order to help with those areas? In a co-taught class, I’m going to have students at all different levels with very different issues. So I must differentiate using each of those possible areas of difficulty I identified.

3. Visit Reading Apprenticeship site for resources and ideas. This was a program I participated in the last two years that focuses on struggling readers, and instead of just giving those students a list of strategies or differentiated activities, RA starts with the premise that students need to be aware of their own reading issues and be able to identify first what problems they have. Then, they can pick and choose from possible tools to help themselves, but they must first be aware of and think about their own reading abilities and reading process. This was an amazingly different way to think about teaching reading and what really got me started down this path for the summer.

4. Consult other reading experts to help me on my way. Some of my favorite books on reading are The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller, Reading Reminders by Jim Burke, Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher, Note & Notice by Kylene Beers, and When Kids Can’t Read by Kylene Beers. I have seen many of these authors speak at NCTE or other smaller conventions or speaking engagements. These are the people who have inspired me most about reading and my students, and with their help, I have been better able to put myself in my students’ shoes when it comes to their potential areas of difficulty.

5. Once I’ve practiced this a few times and have a sense of what it means to be a struggling reader, I need to figure out what I want my students be able to do by the end of the year. I am a firm believer in Wiggin and McTighe’s Understanding by Design which focuses on “backwards design” or “beginning with the end in mind.” Where do I want my students to end up by the end of the year, and then I use the answer to that question to plan backwards from there, from goals to assessments to activities to materials.

6. Following UBD, I would now move to the assessments piece of my planning. What writing assessments could I provide for students in order to assess their reading and writing, checking to see if they got as far as I had hoped by the end of lesson/unit/year? I am a firm believer that strong readers can become strong writers, so I start with reading and move into writing. I want my students to read like writers, see what writers do, look at language, and then model what they do in their own work. Then, from there, they can move into playing with language on their own, evaluating author work, and commenting on author choices. So for me, those writing assignments would focus on such points over the course of the year.

7. So again, I would take off my “strong student” hat and put on my “struggling student” hat for the creation of the writing assignments. Where will my students struggle with either the directions or the requirements of this assignment? Then, like with the reading pieces, I will create differentiated activities to help either clarify or practice areas of the assignment so all students can succeed at the proficient level, at minimum.

8. As before, I consult the experts. I find myself truly rejuvenated as a teacher by the words of professionals, people who are in the classroom and truly work with students, know what works and what doesn’t, and have beautiful insights into what I might try with mine. Some great writing books I look to include Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson, Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle, Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar by Constance Weaver, What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel. Again, as before, the words of these teachers inspire me to help my students by taking a step back, re-evaluate my path when I get stuck, and then push forward in a different direction.

9. More than anything else, my biggest piece of advice to myself and others trying to become a better teacher of anything is to remember why you started the profession in the first place. Teaching is hard. Anyone who says or thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Teaching. Is. Hard. It’s only getting harder as the state piles more and more requirements on us, and many days I feel myself and my passion getting lost in that pile. But whatever my reasons for starting to teach, those are what I have to go back to on the days when I feel overwhelmed and overworked. For some, it’s the kids, for some it’s the material, for some it’s planning, for some it’s the act of teaching itself. Whatever it is, that’s what helps me when I get overwhelmed, and that’s what I have to remember every time I’m trying to become a better teacher – I have to go back to the beginning and remember why I started.

Digital Teachers List to Keep You Motivated in the Summer Stretch

While many of my colleagues have the fortitude and focus to completely let their brains rest and refresh in the summer time, mine has a tendency to keep running at full speed for weeks on end. Though I know that some of my energy gets used up on graduate coursework and readings, much of it doesn’t have anywhere to go. In an effort to keep from emailing links to colleagues over and over for the next month until they politely and jokingly laugh at my inability to relax, I dove into the world of blogs and Twitter, keeping up with other colleagues like me – machines with a broken “off” switch!

Below, you can find a list of blogs and Twitter users to follow who put out a multitude of course ideas (particularly geared toward high school and English, FYI), technology resources, engagement strategies, and more to keep your fire going through August:

Blogs:

Eat. Write. Teach. 

Thirty Something and Fabulous

Sam & Scout

The Curly Classroom

Teaching Teens in the 21st

An Ethical Island

 

Twitter Users:

Tom Murray

Jenny Grabiec

Scott McLeod

Donalyn Miller

Kaelyn Bullock

Dylan Wiliam

Eric Sheninger

Jackie Gerstein

Rik Rowe

Marzano Research Lab

By keeping up with those above and the many others on the internet, we can keep our interests up and refresh our brains during the summer, without completely checking out. For me, I don’t feel so blind-sided by the end of August if I keep up just a little bit with my ideas during the summer. Only then do I feel prepared for the beginning of the school year instead of bewildered at how the summer flew by so quickly!