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I started graduate school right after I earned my B.A., in part because I wasn't ready to face "real life" yet. I moved from Utah to Arizona, not exactly sure that it was the right move for me, but absolutely sure that I needed to leave Utah and experience something new.

That first year, I immersed myself in American literature, loving everything about being a graduate student. I read and researched and studied and wrote--and I didn't quite care what would happen to me at the end of that process. But somewhere along the way, I acknowledged that ambitious part of me that wanted a career as a professor--at the same time that I came to understand how difficult it was to get that type of a career as an Americanist.

Would I have pursued graduate school if I had really known how challenging the job market was? I don't know. All I know is that I worked hard and strategized about how to get a job. And, miraculously, at the end of graduate school, I was hired as an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. I felt so lucky that this happened to me, that I was one of the lucky few to get employment as a tenure track professor.

Fast forward 16 years to today--I just found out that I have been promoted to full professor. Over the years, I've thought about the tenure system, job security, and the inequities of a system that focuses so much on publication over any other sort of dissemination of information. I don't like that about my career--and yet, at this particular moment, I have to pause, reflect, and enjoy the moment. I know I have worked as hard as anyone I know to get to this point in my career. Although I don't believe that I deserve this more than anyone else, I do believe that I deserve this moment, this time to feel proud of my career, and to appreciate how unlikely this seemed so many years ago.

So I rest, I accept the congratulations of colleagues, friends, and students. I consider how many people have helped me get to this point. And I'm grateful, so very, very grateful. I can't express how much I am grateful and humble and appreciative that this job worked out for me.

And then, I contemplate my next steps and the kinds of differences I can make given the position I am now in.

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My nephew Sam sent his friend Flat Stanley for a visit. We've been having fun hanging out in Fresno and also driving to other parts of California. You can check out our adventures at tumblr.

I started to feel like my teaching life was taking over this blog. So I decided to start a new teaching (only) blog: smartboard. It has taken me a couple of weeks to figure this all out, and for now, you'll only see recycled blog posts (from this blog and my previous teaching blog) on the site. I'll start posting new material soon, though, including some thoughts on collaboration and technology in the classroom.

I've also integrated my food blog into this site, so that this is all the more personal stuff that I post. I'm going to try to keep this blog teaching advice free, although I still may talk about work in a personal way here.

Please note that both on this blog and on smartboard, you can subscribe to my posts in three ways:
1) if you use an RSS Reader, there's the usual orange widget.
2) if you'd rather receive my posts by email, you can subscribe through feedburner.
3) if you are a Facebook addict, you can have my posts appear on your feed by following me on networked blogs. Frankly, I think this will happen anyway, but if I can get a lot of followers on Facebook, this will make it more likely that people who don't know me will be able to find my blog. So please sign up to follow my blog . . . All of these options are available in the right sidebar and are pretty easy to figure out.

I do hope that you will read the blog entries that interest you--and I always LOVE it when people make comments, so please don't be shy about that.

Lastly, if you have a blog that you would like me to link from mine, just send me your URL.

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I'm not really a PowerPoint person. The only time that I've used that style of presentation regularly was when I was traveling from one school to the next while in Norway. I knew that I needed visual effects to help students stay engaged with my presentation--and that I didn't want to be carting notes, DVDs, handouts, etc. around everywhere. PowerPoint (PP), or Keynote, the software I used, really helped. But, aside from that, I haven't really used PowerPoint (PP) presentations in my teaching.

But this summer I became really engaged in the idea of using technology in the classroom. My students told me that the PP presentation was one of the only uses of technology they had experienced in the classroom. But they also told me that they thought PP was pretty boring because it was so teacher-centered.

So I challenged myself one day last week to make a Keynote presentation that would actually encourage participation instead of stifle it. My students had read a particularly important but conceptually dense article by Brian Street on the New Literacy Studies. I knew that it was essential for my students to have a solid understanding of the article and that isolating important ideas or passages that I selected could actually increase their comprehension. I designed a presentation in which I gave an overview of important ideas, but integrated discussion points throughout. I identified specific passages that I thought were key to Street's article, and I stopped talking frequently (after asking questions) to allow my students to interact with the article. I listened closely to my students who were increasingly confident in their understanding of Street's article. It totally worked.

Thursday, I did something similar with another key article by James Gee. In this case, I worked hard to suggest applications of Gee's ideas to make them more tangible for my students--who fleshed out my suggestions in ways that demonstrated understanding. I also divided the students into groups at one point in the PP to allow them to become experts on key terms that Gee uses. This presentation was even more interactive than the first--and, again, I felt that my students left class with a much better grasp of key ideas in literacy studies.

I'm glad that I was open to a different way of using PP in the classroom. In November, my friend and Writing Project colleague Jeromy and I will be making a presentation at the NWP's annual conference in Orlando. We'll be doing an Ignite style presentation--20 slides, 15 seconds a slide. I think I want to try this technique in class at some point this semester. Here's an example of how it works:

I've had a lot of first days of school, so many that I've lost count. The first day of school usually (but not always) looks like this:

  • Put on a new item of clothing (today, it was a dress I bought a month or so ago). My mom even asked me the other day if I'd gone school clothes shopping and was a bit surprised when I said no. She told me to go shopping . . . but I don't have the money right now.
  • Get to my classes early. I still worry that I'll have a hard time finding the right classrooms.
  • Be excited to see former students. I'm almost always glad when a student decides to take another class from me. Today, I also ran into former students as I walked around campus. I don't always remember the names, but I almost always remember their faces. And seeing them brings fond memories of good discussions in classes past.
  • Be excited to meet new-to-me students. I love meeting people, and on the first day of class, I get a sense of how the rest of the semester is going to go. Today, my students in Literacy Studies were smart, engaged, and made me laugh. I can tell it's going to be another good class.
  • Memorize the name of every student in my class and find out a little bit about their lives. By the end of both classes, I had every name down. I knew who liked to travel and which students had kids. I know that by Thursday, I'll forget a few of the names, but I'm almost superstitious about this now. I feel like I *have* to memorize the names on day one or I'll never remember them. And I believe that it's really important for teachers to recognize their students' humanity--by acknowledging that they have names (!) and lives outside of school.
  • Do something to introduce the ideas that will be central to the class. Today, in Literacy Studies, I asked my students to share what they remembered about their literacy learning. I also tried to give an introduction to the discipline of literacy--and I talked a little about why I'd made certain curricular decisions. I don't know whether students remember much about the first day of class, but it feels right to me to contextualize the class right away.
  • Try something new (yeah, I know, that's my mantra right now). In my 175T: Teacher Lecture Series today, we worked on planning the syllabus together. I asked them what kinds of things they wanted to address in class, and it was really helpful to get their ideas. I've already emailed a bunch of teachers to see if they'll be guest speakers in my class. Are any of you teacher-readers willing to drop by, as well?
  • Respect the knowledge that my students bring to the class. Also in 175T, one of my students is currently teaching at a local community college. He knows someone who would be a great speaker on one of the topics my students would like to address--I was more than happy to ask him to try to arrange with that person to visit my class.
  • End the class abruptly. Now, this isn't something I try to do, it's just something that seems to happen. I map out a lot of what I want to talk about, but I always fail to map out an ending. Ah, well. I guess it's good for students to get a taste of what the semester will be like. The End. (See? That's what my classes are like.)

I'm moving to an office down the hallway on Thursday, so I've been packing books and files over the last week. I've also been sorting through things, deciding which things aren't worth the move. I've filled boxes and boxes with recycling and books/journals to donate to our department's "orphan bookshelf." It's been good to purge many of the papers that have been piling up over the years, and I'm determined to do a better job of getting rid of things in the future.

As I've gone through piles and files, I've discovered some artifacts from my teaching past. Some of these artifacts have brought smiles to my face, particularly the notes that my 6th grade students wrote to me in 1990 when I was leaving public school teaching to return to graduate school. I loved these kids, went back to their middle school graduation two years later, and have frequently wondered what they're doing 20 years later. Hard to imagine that they are mature adults who are older than I was when I left their school.

But I've also encountered some detritus that has reminded me about my struggles as a teacher. One of my biggest failures as a teacher was my first semester as a tenure track professor in small town Texas. I knew that my department wasn't a good fit for me when I found the multiple choice test for a literature class someone had left behind in the copy room. I tried and tried to get my students to discuss and think for themselves, but they really just wanted someone to tell them what literature "meant," so they could regurgitate that interpretation on a test. That wasn't the way I taught literature, and I didn't understand the student population well enough to help them adapt to a different kind of classroom. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the majority of the students in my Southwestern women's literature class hated me and the class.

That class reminds me of what it's like to fail as a teacher, and it has reminded me how important it is to listen to our students and try to teach the students we have . . . not the ones we wish we had.

But thinking about that class also reminds me of all the people who have helped me grow as a teacher over the years. So, Rick Hansen, Ruth Jenkins, and all my colleagues who have shared their successes, brainstormed with me, and otherwise taught me about good teaching, thank you.

And may all you teachers have a great year!

When good teachers get together . . . collaboration happens. There doesn't need to be "a teacher" or an assignment. In the Invitational Summer Institute this past month, teachers decided to collaborate across grade levels, asking their students to write for and work with each other. For example, Jeromy's first graders and Erin's English tenth grade English language learners are going to be sharing their work with each other. And Elva has some great ideas about asking her students to translate their understanding of principles of biology into picture books for elementary school kids.

When good teachers get together . . . they want to practice what they've learned. Our ISI participants wanted to try out digital storytelling, so they are working on videos we can use to promote our site.

When good teachers get together . . . they reflect on their teaching. Our ISI Fellows weren't intimidated when we asked them to do teacher research. They are going to try integrating a new strategy in their teaching, exploring the effects on student learning and reporting back to us on our first post-Institute day.

When good teachers get together . . . knowledge is not only shared, it is constructed. Our ISI participants shared their teaching experience--and they created new understandings of teaching. Together, we figured out new applications of technology in educational settings. I'm committed to creating an ENGL 131 that will allow me to employ (and practice) the new knowledge I've gained from working with this group of teachers.

I have really enjoyed working with the SJVWP ISI 2010 Fellows. They are an amazing group of teachers and really wonderful human beings. I'm excited to see how their pedagogy will shift over the coming year. I'm convinced that they will do all kinds of great things in their teaching careers.

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Today, one of the participants in the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project's Summer Institute picked out an amazing quote to discuss from the NWP's publication, Because Writing Matters. When I read the book, my eyes must have glossed over this passage, so I'm very glad that Lesli pointed it out:

"If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with details, wrestle with facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write."

I love how this quote focuses on how messy learning can be and why writing is such a crucial part of learning. I suppose conversation could take the place of writing here, and that certainly is another important component of learning. But as I think about all the times in my life that I've written about a topic . . . even in email when I'm trying to communicate something important . . . I see how writing helped me, eventually, find clarity and a deeper understanding.

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Tomorrow, I'll be talking about technology and teaching in both my classes, so I decided to try out some new sites last night. One of the most interesting sites is Wordle, which allows one to enter text into a box, then generate a word cloud. After a couple of tries, I learned to limit the number of words (150 is the default, I found that 40-50 created a more accessible cloud). I also learned to use the "mostly horizontal" setting, which I liked better than the other settings. Here are three examples of the word clouds I made:

This word cloud is made from the prompt I use for the unit plan assignment in my Methods class. I think it demonstrates how Wordle could be used to help students understand what's important about the assignment. Notice that, besides the word unit, the largest words are "teaching," "writing," and "students." The word "include" is quite large, too, a lesson to me that I need to find other verbs to use.

I also made a word cloud from my course description in my literacy studies class:

I was relieved to see words like "language," "communities," "practices," and different forms of the word "literacy." The important verb in this cloud seems to be "understand," an unconscious reminder that this was new content for me and that this semester I've been learning with my students. If I teach this class again, I'll do a new course description, then see what Wordle creates.

I can imagine using Wordle to help students process their own writing--and then to analyze what the results mean. Do certain words show up because they are important to the argument/topic? Or do they show up because the writer needs to expand their vocabulary?

I can also see using Wordle to replicate a passage from a literary text. Last week, I observed a student teacher who was just finishing The Great Gatsby. I love the last few paragraphs of the novel . . . which create this word cloud:

What stands out to me here are the words "green," "wonder," "back," and "hardly." That last passage emphasizes both the wonder of the New World and its loss--and these words remind me of the sense of impossibility at the end of TGG, the difficulty of going "back" to recover what once was.

I'll be trying to use Wordle occasionally in my teaching. I see it as a tool that can help students focus on and analyze text.

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Yesterday, my students read an essay about the very proscriptive Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing. Schaffer advocates a rigid paragraph structure with topic sentence, concrete details, two sentences of commentary, another concrete detail, two more sentences of commentary, and then a concluding sentence. She also asserts that body paragraphs should average about 100 words and that introductions/conclusions should average about 40. Schaffer even includes counting words as part of the revision process. The article my students read tries to be even handed, pointing out some of the benefits of formulaic writing while still critiquing the approach. My students' reaction surprised me.

Although they labeled the approach "extreme," they said they had never seen this sort of formulaic approach used in schools. They seemed unable to see the parallels between Schaffer's approach to writing and the five paragraph essay, which many of them said was the way they were taught to write.

So . . . I backed up. I asked them to tell me what they saw as defining these kinds of approaches. They listed things like thesis statements, topic sentences, etc. When I tried to get them to think of these things as genre conventions specific only to certain kinds of writing, they resisted. One student even said she couldn't imagine any kind of writing that didn't fit that kind of structure--and she asked me to give examples of writing that didn't. I was happy to provide some, making sure to include an argumentative piece of writing that might have a paragraph structured as a comparison/contrast or some other type of organization that didn't fit the evidence/commentary model. Another student asked me what other approach to teaching writing existed (a question that I think she thought would stump me). Keep in mind, that I started this part of my curriculum with a handout that detailed different approaches to writing. And that over the last few weeks, we've been studying genre theory and talking about how teachers can help students learn to make decisions and be strategic when they write.

Although I'm glad that my students feel that their teachers emphasized that the five paragraph essay can be flexible, I'm troubled that they feel that formulaic approaches to writing have a premium on helping students understand structure (which is always related to genre rather than being something that can be reduced into one structure for all essays). Even more troubling is the idea that teachers need to give students a format for their essays, that kids are incapable of learning how to make those decisions themselves.

Realistically, I know that kids need help with writing. I know that many have difficulty generating ideas and figuring out how to put them on paper. In my opinion, the five paragraph essay can be useful for on-demand writing, i.e., timed writes with little time for brainstorming and the generation of ideas. However, I maintain my belief that writing is thinking--and that teachers who provide short cuts to thinking ultimately hinder students' writing development.

So . . . today I'm feeling like a failure as a teacher.