Getting SCHOOLED with Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz

schooled-coverA lot of people talk about teachers but not many talk to teachers.  Authors Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz set out to address that shortfall in Schooled:  Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change (Teachers College Press, 2015).  Schooled profiles nine teachers whose stories reveal patterns running through numerous different forms of American schooling.

And now a brief digression for the purpose of transparency.  I’m proud to be one of the nine teachers profiled in Schooled.  If you and I already know each other, you probably won’t learn much new about me from this, but you should probably read it anyway for the authors’ insights into the context of my story.  I’ll say more about my experience with Schooled and its authors toward the end of this piece.

The Schooled teachers share pragmatism in the face of obstacles and optimism in the face of challenges.  Whether they are situated in small schools, large schools, home schools, charter schools, or reservation schools, these teachers see their jobs as not just conveyers of core curricula but as shapers of the future by way of their students.

Those students who inhabit the classrooms (or other learning spaces) with these teachers represent a young microcosm of our society.  Some students have relatively easy lives; some students have incredibly difficult lives.  For better or worse, these young people bring to school the outlooks and issues present in their families and communities, and the teacher’s challenge is to sort through all of that as effectively as possible and still use their expertise to foster learning.

Even though our professional circumstances varied, I found common ground with each of the other teachers in Schooled.  Ulla Tervo-Desnick, a Finnish-born first-grade teacher in Minnesota, shared my frustration with mandated, data-centered collaboration time with colleagues:  “If the focus of your time together is data collection, then the focus is data collection.  It’s not how to help this child or that child.  So unfortunately we look at it as a missed opportunity.”

Lisa Myrick, a high school science teacher in South Carolina clearly articulated one of the fallacies of standardized testing:  “Any teacher knows that scores on a test may vary greatly from year to year, although she may have taught the material using the same practices.  What is different is who walks through those doors in August and what their prior experiences have been.  Did they travel to the Caribbean this summer or did they get bounced between foster homes?”

Robert Lewis, a learning support teacher in Colorado is the kind of teacher all parents want for their children:  “I never think they can’t do it.  I always think, okay, well, we just have to get to it another way.  There’s a thousand ways to climb a mountain.”

I dare you to try not being inspired by the devotion of Glorianna Under Baggage, a teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota whose mantra is “encourage, encourage, encourage” but who has special fire in her words for “the reformers”:  “Who are you to judge those children that are suffering?  Who are you to judge them when they don’t even have a bed in their home?  That’s what they [the reformers] need to take care of.”

My involvement in Schooled came about when author Anne Lutz Fernandez, a public school teacher in Connecticut, contacted me through Twitter to ask if I was interested in being included in her newest book, co-written with her sister Catherine Lutz, a Brown University sociology professor.  Of course, I was interested, but I needed several layers of approval before Anne and Cathy could visit me on campus.  After I assured my supervisors that I was not under duress and was not being paid, the authors traveled to suburban Chicago.

We first met after school in a public library conference room just a couple of hours after the Boston Marathon bombings.  Because Anne and Cathy would be visiting my classes the next day, we talked about how that tragedy would affect my teaching.  Then we had a great conversation about all kinds of issues involved in contemporary American education.

Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz

Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz, authors of SCHOOLED: ORDINARY EXTRAORDINARY TEACHING IN AN AGE OF CHANGE (Teachers College Press, 2015)

The following day Anne and Cathy shadowed me throughout the school day.  They had agreed with our administration’s request not to talk to students, but they soaked up everything that happened in my classes and perceptively noted numerous quirky aspects of our school that I sort of took for granted.

I’m thrilled with the chapter that grew out of our interview and site visit.  I’m glad that my passion for nurturing lifelong reading habits and developing young writers come through so clearly.  I’m also glad my “irreverent and strong-headed” views on educational issues of the day are likely to be read by a wide audience and preserved for posterity.

Schooled will be an illuminating read for educators who are likely to find themselves nodding in agreement on page after page; parents who wonder what is really going on in the minds of their children’s teachers; those considering a career in education; and anyone who wants a more balanced view of what American education looks like in this time when much of the news coverage about schools is so negative.

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Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

watchmanDefense attorney Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my literary heroes, now finds himself in need of a defense. He is accused of being a racist based on the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. Although I would be a woeful defense attorney, this case is easy. The To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch is not the same person as the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman; therefore, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be called a racist based on Go Set a Watchman. These are very different books, and the two characters named Atticus Finch are very different people. The Watchman Atticus is a racist, but he is not the Mockingbird Atticus. Harper Lee changed many things as her story evolved, and one of the things she changed was the racial attitudes of Atticus Finch.

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird have other obvious differences. Significant characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Go Set a Watchman. Major characters in Go Set a Watchman who would have been part of the action in To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Mockingbird. Characters appearing in both books have different traits and outlooks. There are other instances of discontinuity between the two books. (Please excuse my lack of specifics as I try to avoid spoilers.) The two books cannot be regarded as prequel and sequel, or different episodes with the same characters. They are distinctly separate literary entities with some overlapping elements.

Most novels fare poorly when compared to Harper Lee’s classic, and Go Set a Watchman is no exception. Watchman is thinly plotted and heavily political. As characters talk back and forth about race for page after page, the dialogue becomes kind of boring. When the race discussion winds down, characters delve into the psychological imperatives of parent-child relationships. Also boring.

Still, Go Set a Watchman has its charms. It’s good to hear from some of these characters again after so many years, especially Jean Louise and Calpurnia. As Jean Louise remembers events from her adolescence, we are treated to some entertaining scenes that would not have fit in To Kill a Mockingbird’s time frame.

Go Set a Watchman is interesting as a literary artifact, but it’s not a satisfying novel. I would caution teachers against choosing it for study as a whole-class novel. Some of the racial language is disturbingly intense, much more so than in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let’s continue to encourage young readers to experience To Kill a Mockingbird. If they find their way to Go Set a Watchman, that’s fine. Discerning readers will see Watchman for what it is: a rough draft.

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How Do We Teach Style in Research Writing?

research_0“And this needs to be in MLA format.”

Those of us who teach in the humanities frequently ask our students to use MLA format when writing research documentation. Because a lot of research writing tends to come through English classes, especially in high school, students are most often exposed to MLA rules for citing sources.

Although there is nothing wrong with that, teachers should know that APA style is also alive and well on college campuses. Focusing exclusively on MLA might cause problems for students when they step foot on a college campus. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for teaching research writing in high school and introductory college writing classes.

Let’s take a step back. MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association, an organization focused on the use and study of language, primarily in academic settings associated with the humanities. APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association, an organization focused on all aspects of psychology that has developed a set of rules and standards for scientific writing used across many disciplines. Although MLA and APA are the most common formats used on college campuses, there are some professors who require papers written in other formats: Turabian, Harvard, Chicago Manual of Style, and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Because college students are likely to encounter multiple documentation formats in their classes, introducing students to research writing by requiring them to memorize the specifics of a particular documentation format is less important than helping them know how to find the right format. After all, the formatting rules change from time to time rendering obsolete those memorized specifics. If a student knows MLA and only MLA, confusion can arise when college professors require other formats.

Although I work with many humanities students using MLA format for documentation, one of my biggest eye-openers from working in our college’s writing center is the depth involved in the term “APA style.” Papers written in “APA style” for a nursing, psychology, or sociology class look very different from interpretive papers for an English class or a narrative for a child development class.

In other words, an individual college student is required to write in widely varying styles as he goes from class to class, so as we prepare students for college writing, we need to make them aware of these different expectations.

For example, in addition to documentation and page layout, APA style actually includes a rhetorical stance that emphasizes precision, clarity, and objectivity, which is consistent with APA’s scientific orientation.

apa pub manWhile more expressive writing may strive for variety by using synonyms, the APA Publication Manual suggests that using synonyms is risky in scientific writing: “The intention is commendable, but by using synonyms you may unintentionally suggest a subtle difference. Therefore, choose synonyms with care. The discreet use of pronouns can often relieve the monotonous repetition of a term without introducing ambiguity.”

APA style also prefers “economy of expression”: “Say only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication.” (“Publication” as used here clearly refers to academic or technical journals.)

For precision and clarity, APA suggests avoiding colloquial expressions and jargon, and being careful when using pronouns or comparisons.

APA style also has no use for what the Publication Manual calls “linguistic devices”: “Devices that attract attention to words, sounds, or other embellishments instead of to ideas are inappropriate in scientific writing. Avoid heavy alliteration, rhyming, poetic expressions, and clichés. Use metaphors sparingly … Use figurative expressions with restraint and colorful expressions with care.”

Perhaps the most important element of writing in APA style is the issue of bias. The APA Publication Manual devotes seven pages to guidelines for reducing bias in language relevant to gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and “historical and interpretive inaccuracies.” Objectivity is obviously important in scientific writing: “If your writing reflects respect for your participants and your readers and if you write with appropriate specificity and precision, you will be contributing to the goal of accurate, unbiased communication.”

So, if we want students to be college-ready writers when it comes to research, here are some suggestions:

1.  Provide students with practice in a variety of rhetorical stances, including those without traces of subjectivity or bias. In an earlier post, I wrote about how students think they are not supposed to use “I” in their writing, although they frequently misunderstand the intention of that rule. Be the teacher who helps writers understand how to adapt their writing to all kinds of situations.

2.  Provide students with practice in following in detail at least one specific documentation format, but make sure they are aware of the existence of others.

3.  Help students understand the mechanics and purposes of documentation. Be aware of the existence of automatic citation generators such as EasyBib, BibMe (my favorite), and Citation Machine. These are amazing time-savers, but they work more smoothly for those who understand what is being created. Although students are responsible for the results of their work, those who use these sites are not cheating.. In fact, many databases and college libraries now provide citations in a variety of formats alongside the entries so that users can simply cut-and-paste them.

expository_books4.  Help students understand the dichotomy of research writing. Research is not writing, and writing is not research. They are two separate activities. As we said in Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, “Good writers can create sloppy, meaningless research projects, and good researchers can write research papers that are dreadful to read.”

Of course, research writing is just one element of a healthy writing curriculum. In addition to the research writing discussed here, young writers need opportunities to practice narrative, analytical, expository, personal, and creative writing. Students who are comfortable and competent in all of those modes are ready to face not only academic writing challenges but can also embrace writing as a vital, fulfilling means of expression.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. What is your best tip for teaching research writing?

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My Illinois State Board of Education Adventure

isbe aud
In June, 2014 I made two moves in my professional life almost simultaneously: I retired as a high school teacher, and I renewed my K-12 Illinois teaching license. Although that may seem paradoxical, I was preserving my options in case an opportunity arose that might require a teaching license. Renewing a teaching license in Illinois is a fairly simple process that involves filing claims related to professional development activities, and I had plenty of those.

Then in January, 2015, an official-looking envelope arrived from the Illinois State Board of Education. Its contents informed me that I had been selected for an audit of the professional development activities claimed in my K-12 license renewal application. That’s right. Out of the tens of thousands of Illinois teachers actively involved in day-to-day contact with K-12 students, they chose to audit a college teacher with no K-12 affiliation.

Now here’s the part where I would like a do-over. During my last few years as a high school teacher, the time covered by my previous license, our on-site professional development was somewhere between comical and counter-productive. I considered it a point of honor that when I applied for license renewal, I did not claim those on-site professional development activities that I found so pointless. Instead, I used the activities I found more valuable—publications, conference presentations, and online activities. Well, that point of honor jumped up and bit me on the butt in the audit process.

For audit purposes, on-site activities are verifiable by a piece of paper, known in Illinois as a CPDU form, signed by an administrator. The off-site and publishing activities that I claimed required far more extensive documentation. I needed help from people at the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, The National Council of Teachers of English, and three different publishers in order to round up the documentation to complete the audit. (Thanks to everyone who helped. I literally could not have done this without you.)

So, a few reams of paper and a couple of print cartridges later, I submitted the documentation back in February. I was then informed that I would hear the results of the audit by late May or early June. Today—June 27—I received official notification from the Illinois State Board of Education that my audit “was completed successfully.”

So, what have we learned?

1. If you’re an Illinois teacher, hang on to your CPDU forms. Even if the activities they certify have questionable value, the form itself has value if you’re selected for an audit.

2. Save your righteousness for things that matter. If the bureaucratic game regards silliness and productivity as identical, do things simply and move on. Spend your energy more wisely than I did.

3. Growing professionally is important, and there are many ways to accomplish it. Keep learning for your students, your profession, and yourself, even if the educational bureaucracy doesn’t recognize or value it.

4. Share your mistakes so that others can learn and benefit from them!

Onward.

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Top Ten Summer Reads for #APLit Students

top ten covers

Advanced Placement Literature students and their teachers know that next May they will address a prompt that asks test-takers to discuss a literary work and how it relates to the prompt. The prompt will be accompanied by a list of books that are appropriate choices for the topic, but students are welcome to choose other works of merit that they know well enough to discuss. Obviously, the more literary books that a student has read, the more comfortable she will be in tackling next year’s prompt.

But it’s summer! Who wants to read those kinds of books in the summer? Summer is for beach reads, thrillers, bodice rippers, and melodramatic books with cliffhangers. Significance is for the school year! While I can respect those assertions, there is some middle ground.

For the list below, I chose books that are compelling enough to read during the summer and still make the “literary” cut. These are books that AP students can navigate on their own without the support of teachers, classmates, or Shmoop. Some of these books have appeared on the AP Lit test lists in previous years, so we know they are considered worthy. Some are by authors with other books that have appeared on the AP Lit test in previous years, so these are also likely to be safe. A couple of the books are by authors who have never appeared on the list, but they are clearly fair game when it comes to literary merit.

Most importantly, I picked books that are page-turners with deeply compelling characters and situations. Most of them have been best-sellers so they appeal to a wide audience. While not exactly frothy, these books are likely to be satisfying summer reads that will also make worthwhile additions to the list of literary titles that AP Lit students can draw upon next May.

Many thanks to Sandra Effinger for continuing to curate a list of titles and prompts that have appeared on the AP Literature test since 1971, including updates from May, 2015.

My choices for the Top Ten #APLit Summer Reads are presented here in no particular order:

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in a time when women are nothing more than birthing vessels, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred, a young handmaid who remembers how things were before.

Cormac McCarthy: The Road. A father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America trying to find their way home. Students who liked The Hunger Games and Divergent when they were freshmen are ready for The Road, a more haunting dystopian vision.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple. Set in 1930s Georgia, The Color Purple is told through letters, mostly to God, as several black women struggle to find their place in a changing society.

Cristina Henriquez: The Book of Unknown Americans. Published in 2014, The Book of Unknown Americans won numerous awards for literary excellence. It tells the story of two immigrant families, one from Mexico and one from Panama, who find themselves in Delaware trying to maintain hope in the face of discrimination and an immigration system mired in bureaucracy. At the center of the story is a riveting unlikely romance.

Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner. Set against a backdrop of Afghanistan’s political and cultural turmoil, The Kite Runner deals with a young boy damaged by his country’s caste system. The book’s central question is whether friendship can endure.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go. Students at a mysterious boarding school are treated as special. Years later, they discover the truth behind the bonds connecting them. Never Let Me Go has enthralled several of my students.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. If you just rolled your eyes over this choice, please hear me out. I’m pretty well on record as a big fan of this book. I’m also on record as saying I don’t think it’s a good choice for a whole-class novel after about eighth grade. Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird has appeared on the AP Literature test list five times in the past eight years. More importantly, seniors might be starting to feel a bit nostalgic about their younger years, and those who re-read To Kill a Mockingbird will perceive it differently than they did when it was assigned to them several grades ago.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. This is arguably the most challenging book on the list, but oh boy is it fun. There isn’t much plot—a Mississippi family takes its matriarch’s body for burial—but As I Lay Dying is full of quirky alternating narrators that force us to almost co-create the novel with Faulkner as we read. As I Lay Dying is also funnier that I just made it sound.

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar. This one isn’t for everyone, but in The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath takes us through Esther Greenwood’s disintegrating mental state. A masterful example of drawing a reader into empathy with a character, The Bell Jar is disturbing and powerful.

Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer. Does “Indian Killer” mean a-killer-who-is-an-Indian or one-who-kills-Indians? Shaped as a murder mystery, Indian Killer becomes much more as it examines both prejudice in general and issues related to Native Americans more specifically. Alexie’s Reservation Blues was on the AP Lit list in 2008 and 2009, and Indian Killer is just as solid.

There you go. However, there is nothing magical about the number ten. Feel free to quibble with my choices or make other suggestions of books that are both great summer reads and high-quality literature. As always, thanks for reading.

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What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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The Mariner and Me:  Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: ‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?’

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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Doing a Scary Thing

dT8bdoETeThis blog post is going to be a little different. It’s mostly just for me.

A revelation that came to me from Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, a book about habits, is that we form, maintain, and break habits in different ways depending on our personality traits. In my case, I’m not too good at keeping personal goals, but I’m very good at meeting deadlines. In other words, I might tell myself that I want to accomplish something, but if I don’t quite cross the finish line, I’m usually OK with that. On the other hand, if I have an assignment or deadline from an outside source, I make sure that it gets done.

Here is the scary part. I’ve wanted to lose weight for a long time, but it’s been an unaccomplished goal. So now I’m moving that goal from something that is “merely” personal and private to something that seems like an assignment because other people will know about it. The plan is to lose at least twenty pounds by January 1, 2016.

Blog subscribers who tune in here for posts about writing, reading, literacy, education, books, baseball, etc. need not worry. I don’t plan to write post after post on this topic, unless it happens to intersect with those other topics in unforeseen ways. Instead, I will post my progress, or lack thereof, in the comment section of this post once or twice a month.

It’s OK with me if no one responds to this. It’s also OK if someone wants to add a tip or two. The scary part is over after I hit the Publish button on this post. Whew.

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A Dozen Cool Ways to Use Periscope in Your Class

periscopePeriscope is a fairly new app (and web site) connected to Twitter. The basic idea is that a user can broadcast from anywhere any time with a device as simple as a smart phone. (In fact, I’m broadcasting my writing session as I draft this post! Why anyone would want to see that is beyond me, but 83 people have watched me type this.)

A Periscope broadcaster simply points a device’s camera and begins to broadcast through the app. The broadcaster can add a text description of what is being shown so that anyone surfing Periscope will have an idea of what the broadcast is showing. Broadcasters can also add a location or send a Tweet announcing the broadcast.

Those who are watching a Periscope broadcast can interact with the broadcaster in several ways beyond simply looking at the streaming video. Viewers can tap the screen which makes a little heart float up through the right side of the video. This is similar to a “Like” button on other social media sites. Viewers can also add text comments that appear in boxes on the lower left of the screen and also show the viewer’s screen name. If a lot of comments are coming in at the same time, this can be cluttered, but the boxes eventually sort themselves out when the comment stream slows down.

A dialogue can emerge if a broadcaster responds out loud to the comments through the broadcasting device’s microphone, or if the commenters begin to comment on each other’s observations.

As with any tech tool, there are advantages and disadvantages. Periscope is like Skype in many ways, although it is more portable. Skype, however, offers the advantage of two-way oral communication.

The Periscope app is free, easy to use, and actually pretty fun. Here are some nifty ways to use it for educational purposes.

1. Show how to do something. Your students’ classic how-to speeches can be shown in real time to the Periscope audience. Your students may or may not want to interact with the commenters in real time, but either way the speakers tend to take the concept of audience more seriously when they know it includes people besides the other students sitting in the room.

2. Arrange a virtual visit to a cultural institution or landmark. Why not use Periscope to visit a museum on the opposite side of the country, or check in on what is happening at one of the wonders of the world? Museums, parks, or other public facilities will usually work with teachers to arrange virtual visits. Talk to the most tech-forward person you can find in their personnel list, and tell that person what you would like to do.

3. Arrange a virtual visit with an expert. What are you learning about? Who is an expert on that topic? Contact the experts and ask if they will join you via Periscope to talk with your class and show where and how they work. I’ve had wonderful experiences doing this kind of thing with Skype, but Periscope’s portability enhances the potential for even more dynamic learning opportunities.

4. Perform live. Students who are working on monologues, dramatic scenes, or poetry readings can prepare their performances and then broadcast them to the world. Because Periscope can be easily connected to Twitter, these performances can be promoted ahead of time to ensure bigger audiences.

5. Help with homework.
A teacher or other homework helper can be available for help while class is not in session. When students get stuck on homework, they can type in a question as a text comment through Periscope, and the designated homework helper can respond out loud. This has great potential for review sessions.

6. Reach absent students. Sometimes students are unable to be in class. Periscope easily allows students to virtually participate in real time. Just point a device at the instruction as it’s being delivered, and the absent students can follow along in real time.

7. Invite observers. Periscope allows parents, or anyone really, to virtually visit your class. As the broadcaster, you decide when and what to broadcast. There is obviously potential for misuse with this one, but Periscope allows parents to get a sense of what your class is like.

8. Connect classes. Many of us have virtual colleagues, and Periscope allows us to join classes with teachers in another state or country. If you’re having a guest speaker in class tomorrow, why not broadcast it to the classes of your colleagues who would also benefit from the experience?

9. Show thinking. Sometimes we ask student to show their work or describe their thinking. A student can use Periscope to simultaneously create something, or solve a problem on paper or a different screen while narrating her process. You or other students can watch it live, or students can archive it for sharing with you later.
10. Ask for help. If the class is trouble-shooting or debating an issue, you can start a Periscope broadcast with an inviting query in the text description and see what happens.

11. Conduct a survey.
Your class can use Periscope to pose a question to other Periscope users. “Who would you like to see elected as the next governor?” “What did you have for breakfast?” “What is your favorite Shakespeare play?” As respondents provide answers in the comment bubbles, the results can be tallied in the video part of the broadcast.

12. Share a gallery. If your class has a gallery of recent artwork or writing, you can broadcast a “gallery walk.” Show each student’s creation while he or she tells about what the viewer is seeing.

As with any tech activity that involves the outside world, be sure to monitor what your students are experiencing. Although Periscope’s rules clearly prohibit most kinds of bad behavior, some things can slip through fairly easily.

As you can probably tell, I’m enthusiastic about Periscope’s educational potential, and I hope you will share your experiences and other ideas.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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