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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.

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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.)

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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.

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I was at a meeting this evening--one attended by teachers from a variety of levels. One thing that occasionally happens at this meeting is that a couple of the teachers will complain about students--that they are lazy, unfocused, won't do homework, have parents who don't care, etc. Every time this happens, I feel sad.

Don't get me wrong--I know that it's important that we teachers have safe places to vent. We have frustrations that are part of our every day jobs. BUT, and this is key--we teach kids, no matter who they are, where they are, how they act. There are certain things we can't control--their home lives, for example--unless we are willing to engage in creating programs and contacts that will intervene in society (which we absolutely should be doing).

But every day, in the class room, we do have control over a lot of things:

*We can try to make our curriculum relevant, supporting students as they make connections between what they learn in school and their every day lives.

*We can model and otherwise actively teach the behaviors/skills that we want our students to learn. For example, instead of bemoaning that kids won't read, we can try to teach them the pleasures of reading. We can find engaging books and take the time to talk about specific books in class. We can figure out what in a text will actually mean something to the kids we teach and focus our curriculum on that. We can model how we make sense of texts and ask students to practice making meaning. We can model for kids what reading adds to our own sense of who we are and how we understand the world around us.

*We can help our students experience the joy of learning--that doesn't mean we dumb down the curriculum, rather we help kids understand when they've had good insights, created an interesting sentence or otherwise done something well.

*We can refuse to give up, constantly reflecting about what works and what doesn't work and why. Then we can use our understandings to create better curriculum each and every day.

So, yeah, let's vent when we need to, but let's never lose sight of what we can do to help our students learn . . . and love it.

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Over the last few days, I've been reading a book by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm called "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. It's a really interesting book on a number of levels, but one of the most important concepts I've gained from reading this book is the idea of "flow."

Smith and Wilhelm summarize the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a psychologist who focuses on what seems to bring people happiness. From what I can tell, he coined the term "flow," "joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life." He also broke this concept down, specifying four qualities of flow (I'll use Smith and Wilhelm's words here):

  • A sense of control and competence
  • A challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill
  • Clear goals and feedback
  • A focus on the immediate experience (29-30)

I would guess that we all experience "flow," the feeling of losing a sense of time, even ourselves in an activity we enjoy. I've experienced "flow" in playing Scrabble, exercising, reading, even cooking. Usually, we experience "flow" when we're doing something that we love, but also something that we feel we're good at, in spite of how challenging it may be.

Smith and Wilhelm suggest that teachers create curriculum that will allow students to experience "flow," that instead of creating stand-alone units, teachers create a series of units that build knowledge and skills, that allow students to connect what they're learning with what they've previously learned, that help students build confidence in their expertise, and that are deeply satisfying to their students.

They use the example of plays, saying that most students probably encounter only one play per school year and thus are confused by the process of reading drama. They describe what teachers could do to prepare students to make meaning of plays: "We wonder how he [a student] would have felt if he had experienced reading short dialogues and then one-act plays as a way to gain experience in understanding the sub-text of dialogue, and of imagining scenes in which that dialogue takes place" (52). Their idea is that students would be more likely to be engaged in reading a long play if they felt they had the skills to do so effectively.

Smith and Wilhelm posit that students can experience "flow" in the classroom if teachers plan carefully. Isn't that what we want? Students who are deeply engaged in and who care profoundly about the content we teach? If this IS what we want, then we need to help students learn the skills necessary to engage with confidence in our curriculum.

Since I'm sick today, I decided to hold class online. Our goal for class was to talk about designing curriculum. I wrote a long note to my students covering what would have taken us 75 minutes to address in class--and what we will revisit throughout the semester. I know that my students will have a lot of questions and will likely need me to flesh out some of what I've said, but I thought it might be a helpful starting point for some of you new teachers out there. Here's what I wrote:

Today's class is about planning curriculum. Novice teachers are often focused on just filling a class period with entertaining activities, but curriculum design requires teachers to think globally, to identify their purposes (otherwise known as objectives) for a unit, to scaffold carefully, to check student understanding, and to reteach and rethink curriculum based on student learning.

Today, there are a couple of things that I'd like you to think about.
1) What kinds of units are there?
2) What do you need to consider as you begin a unit?
3) How do you organize a unit and a lesson?
4) What is scaffolding?

Let's tackle each question.
1) What kinds of units are there?

There are a lot of different ways to organize a unit. You're probably most familiar with the unit centered on a specific literary text, i.e., the Romeo and Juliet unit, the Of Mice and Men unit, etc. There are also units that focus on genre (the poetry unit), literary movement (the Transcendental unit), or writing assignment (the research paper unit). These are all valid ways of structuring a unit.

However, in this class, I'd like you to think about a more contemporary way of structuring a unit, a way that many English Education people are promoting, that is, the thematic unit. The thematic unit focuses on a theme, some idea or question that you want students to explore and form their own opinions about (this should remind you of Freire). Let me give you some examples:

  • finding the extraordinary in the ordinary
  • our neighborhoods, our communities, our perceptions, ourselves
  • overcoming obstacles

These themes allow students to explore ideas that could change their perspective on the world--and the medium, the way that students would explore the theme would be through literature and writing.

2) What do you need to consider as you begin a unit?

So, the first thing you need to do is brainstorm. What are some themes that you are interested in, that you know you could find literature to support, that you really care about, and that you think would be interesting and educational for your students? Come up with a list and bring it to class with you on Wednesday.

Once you decide on one specific theme, then you need to brainstorm some more (they don't call it "writing curriculum" for nothing!). Here are some things to think about:

  • What does this theme involve? What are some of the key words/ vocabulary related to this theme? What sub-topics might I explore in the unit? What assumptions/beliefs do I want my students to consider and re-consider during the unit?
  • Which literary texts could I use in this unit?
  • What kind of end assessment (preferably a writing assignment) could I use to solidify my students' understanding of theme?
  • What background knowledge do students need in order to understand the theme, the texts I select, the writing assignments in the unit?
  • What processes will students need to practice in order to do the reading and writing I assign? Is there something specific about the style of the literature I've chosen that students will need help processing? For example, The House on Mango Street is not a traditional novel, rather it's a series of vignettes. What reading strategies will students need to employ in order to understand each vignette and the ways that the vignettes work together to create a whole?

Use freewriting, mapping, or some other brainstorming technique to flesh out your ideas in each of these sections.

3) How do you organize a unit and a lesson?

One structuring principle I really like is one that I learned here in Fresno, "Into, Through, Beyond." For each unit AND each individual class period, think about how to get your students into the ideas that will be explored. In other words, you don't just say, "Class, today we're going to read chapter one of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Instead, you think of a conceptual hook that will make students curious about the content of the class period and the unit. It might be an activity where you get kids to think about the homes they've lived in or it might be a Take-a-Stand where you have students take a position on issues related to your theme. In fact, in a thematic unit, the first activity should be directly related to theme.

Next, you consider how to help students get through the unit/activities for the day. What can you do to help students understand the assigned readings? What activities will help students build their understanding of character? What activities will help students do the thinking necessary during the unit to be successful on their final writing project?

And, lastly, how can you help students think beyond the unit? What is the value of the unit in their everyday lives? The beyond activity is almost always tied to the final project/assessment in a unit.

4) What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is related to into, through, beyond, but it's a way of focusing on how you organize your unit, how you help student understanding and competency grow. It's based on the work of theorist Jerome Bruner. Here are some principles related to scaffolding:

  • Reduce the size of the task and the “degrees of freedom in which the child has to cope”
  • Concentrate the child’s attention on something manageable
  • Provide models of what is expected
  • Extend the opportunities for practice
  • Ensure that the child does not “slide back” but moves to the next “launching platform”
  • These are taken from Carol Booth Olsen's The Reading/Writing Connection.

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    One of the things we don't talk about enough as teachers is how much fun (yes, I mean it, fun) it is to prepare for a new class. Just before the holidays, my department chair asked me to teach a class in an entirely new area for me since one of my colleagues and friends will be out on maternity leave this semester (congratulations, Ginny!). Because I had so much grading and grant writing to do, it has taken me awhile to get to class preparation. I conferenced with Ginny getting her advice on how to teach the class, I ordered books, and otherwise gathered materials. But it wasn't until last week while I was on vacation that I was able to really start reading the materials.

    So, yes, I was on vacation in Mexico and I read a lot--I read when I was stuck in airports with long layovers. I'd read in the morning when I woke up and wasn't ready to go out for breakfast yet. I'd read at night when I returned to the hotel tired after a long day of doing what tourists do. I even took my textbook down to the zocalo (in Oaxaca) one night and read while I ate dinner on an outdoor patio. And you know, the readings were deeply engaging, interesting, and otherwise enjoyable.

    The class that I've been asked to teach is Literacy Studies. Although much of what I do in relation to English education is devoted to how to teach reading comprehension, writing, and literary analysis in secondary classrooms, Literacy Studies is more focused on the effects of literacy in people's every day lives. This morning, I've been reading essays about the history of standards-based education--and how the discipline of English/Language Arts and the basis for standards are antithetical. I've also been reading about how we impose certain expectations about school engagement on adolescents without questioning whether those frameworks are accurate or not--and about the ways that adolescents will assume certain attitudes about school because they think that is what is expected of them. I'm learning about the difference between the autonomous model of literacy vs. the ideological model.

    As I read, I take notes on post-its (because one of the books is borrowed from Ginny). My mind keeps making interesting connections. I want to send one article to the Writing Project listserv to see what teachers think about it. I am refining what assignments (both writing projects and oral presentations) I want my students to do. I'm thinking about the questions that will frame how I organize my class. I'm trying to come up with ways to make the material accessible to undergraduates. I still have about a half a book left to read, but I'm starting to feel a lot more comfortable about this subject area--and I'm really looking forward to discovering what my students will think of the ideas in these texts.

    I'm excited to teach the class--I just hope I can figure out how to get my students excited about this content, as well. Teaching is an intellectual exercise--which is one of the reasons that I love my profession so much.

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    I know, I know. I've gone totally AWOL over the last month. What can I say except that I've been really busy and productive in other ways.

    For now, let me fill in the gaps briefly:

    Life is an adventure.

    Teaching is a really satisfying career.

    Diigo and all the other techie stuff I've been learning about rock.

    Ask me to tell you a story--that's what I'm working on right now.

    That will have to do for now. Two more days of teaching. Big projects to grade. I'll be back when I'm either done with grading . . . or when I'm avoiding grading. 😉