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The End (of the ISI): Thoughts Mostly for Myself

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I have done more writing in the past four weeks than I believe I have ever done in such a period in my life. Not as much of that writing has been here as I would have liked. It is important to write publicly, at least for me. Whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t really matter. Putting my writing and my thinking out beyond me pushes me to think deeper and to take things a step further.

I was a co-director for this summer’s Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) for the Northern Virginia Writing Project. Last summer was my introduction to the ISI. I wrote some about it then, certainly more than I managed to do this year! Last year was an absolutely amazing experience and gave me a passion for the writing project that kept me involved throughout the year and brought me back this summer.

This summer was even better. We were a much larger group, more than double last year’s size. Fifteen amazing people last year and thirty-two this year. When everyone is fabulous, having more fabulous people makes it better.

A typical morning at the ISI starts with thirty minutes of ‘morning pages.’ Just silent writing. I did a terrible job of continuing that throughout this past year and I’m aiming to do better this go-round.

After that we had demonstration lessons. Every participant gives an hour and fifteen minute demo lesson about writing. We had lessons on revision, mentor texts, multi-genre writing, persuasive writing, using rhetoric in writing, poetry, tone, journalism, nonfiction, voice, and more. Each morning we would have two of these demo lessons before lunch.

After lunch we had guest presenters (people who had done the ISI in the past and had stellar lessons to share), conversations, or our writing groups. We met in writing groups of about five people twice a week for the entire afternoon. We brought writing to share and talk about. At the end of the ISI we create an anthology with work from everyone.

I plan to do some serious reflection on this year’s ISI and what I gained from it over the next week. My ‘morning pages’ (which might be written at 7:30 at night) will be a post about my thinking. I have a composition book full of writing from morning pages, demo lessons, and conversations to review. I think there’s gold in there if I’ll just take the time to sift through.

Final Two Chapters in Choice Words (Seven and Eight)

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

My husband, a college history professor, and I drove to Princeton, NJ this weekend for a wedding. On the drive home he asked for the highlights in Choice Words. I told him he didn’t need me to give him the highlights because he reads my blog. He did not seem to think that was a sufficient response. I read him a few parts of chapters seven and eight. Reading aloud the book felt very different to me. It felt more academic, more intellectual. Reading it to myself I feel like I’m talking with an old friend. It was an interesting thing to notice.

Having now finished (re)reading the book, I am grateful that Opening Minds is waiting for me. I don’t feel quite the same sadness as I finish knowing that Johnston has more to say to me, more to teach me.

Chapter seven is Evolutionary, Democratic Learning Community. In many ways all the other chapters have clearly been building up to this one. Here Johnston makes the argument that the language teachers use in their classroom creates (or at least helps create) the community in which the teacher and students live together. The importance of this is voiced early in the chapter, on page 65:

Some teachers are particularly good at building learning communities in which individuals feel valued and supported, and that sustain productive and critical learning. Children must have the experience of such communities if they are to know what to aim for in constructing their own learning environments. 

We’re back, as always, to the idea of agency, just on a slightly grander scale. We have to model for students how to do what they will need to do for themselves. In this case, construct a learning environment that will help them continue learning outside of and beyond school.

A lot of this is more focused on the social aspects of interactions than the academic. Johnston talks about use of the word ‘we’ in building community. Other language pulls students in to thinking about others, how they feel, what they like. Another important role of language here is to encourage reflection. He writes about inviting students to reflect on the process of working together and solving a problem (“You managed to figure that out with each other’s help. How did you do that?” p. 71). Reflecting on this helps students create a narrative for themselves about collaboration. Another example is on p. 72, “How do you know when a conversation is finished?” Johnston explains this reflection as a way to think about

how to manage not just one’s own cognition, but the source of one’s cognition in the learning environment

As reflection has been a big focus of mine I was especially interested in these ideas.

Johnston does a lot in chapter eight, Who Do You Think You’re Talking To? More than I can begin to process here. One important piece is the idea that language doesn’t stand alone. It is received in context of the situation, the past, body language, tone, and more. On page 78 Johnston writes briefly in a way that sums this up for me:

You have probably had someone talk to you in a way that made you think, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” or, equally, “Who do you think you are?” When this happens to us, the other person has clearly communicated, by the way they talk to us, who they think we are. We become conscious of it because who they think we are conflicts with who we think we are.

As adults we are capable of dealing with this, often through immense frustration, but dealing all the same. Children, on the other hand, are still developing who they think they are and use all they take in to do so. Our language and all that goes with it, are often shaping a student’s self-concept. That’s a large burden but also a wonderful opportunity. We can, if we are thoughtful, help students see themselves as learners, caring individuals, writers, mathematicians, scientists, activists, etc.

One final quote on page 84 is, I think, a wonderful, one-sentence wrap up of this book.

If we want to change our words, we need to change our views.

More Thoughts from Chapter Four of Choice Words

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

I really need to get rolling with chapters seven and eight of Choice Words but some thoughts from chapter four keep ringing in my head so I’m going to reflect on them first.

On page 31 Johnston writes,

We hear a lot about teaching children strategies, but we often encounter classrooms in which children are being taught strategies yet are not being strategic (Ivey, Johnston, and Cronin 1998). Teaching children strategies results in them knowing strategies, but not necessarily in their acting strategically and having a sense of agency.

That distinction between knowing strategies and acting strategically is a critical focus and there is such a huge difference there. He continues on citing work from Marie Clay about having students generate strategies themselves. One more quote, on the next page, helps me clarify why this feels so important.

The strategy of arranging for a student to figure something out independently, without full awareness, and then reflecting on it, has been called “revealing.” Courtney Cazden (1992) contrasts this with “telling,” in which the teacher is explicit up front and then the student practices what he has been taught to do by someone else.

Johnston considers the possibility that revealing is a harder skill for teachers than telling and I think he is probably right. I often feel that doing the right thing as a teacher, for my students, is harder than traditional teaching methods.

As I reflect on things I have learned, especially things I have learned in recent memory, I know that when I have had to struggle a bit, work through things and work them out on my own, I tend to feel more confident in my knowledge or skill.

Reading this reminded me of some recent studies I had learned about. One I read about on KQED‘s Mindshift blog and it hit on why students should work things out themselves rather than simply be told something.

So important is the feeling of confusion, writes D’Mello, that parents and teachers shouldn’t try to help children avoid it, or even simply accept its presence. They should deliberately induce confusion in learners. Not “hopeless confusion,” of course, which occurs when “the impasse cannot be resolved, the student gets stuck, there is no available plan, and important goals are blocked.” Rather, “productive confusion” should be the aim. It’s achieved by helping the student recognize that the way out of confusion is through focused thought and problem solving; by providing necessary information and suggesting strategies when appropriate; and by helping the student cope with the negative emotions that may arise.

This sounds an awful lot like what Johnston is talking about regarding agency. Allowing students to take their confusion and work through it not only helps them truly learn something but it shows them that they are capable of doing so and of solving their own confusion.

EdWeek had an article that reinforced this thinking for me.

Robert A. Bjork, the director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA, calls this sort of challenge “desirable difficulties.” Just as in physical exercise, the more students have to exert their mental muscles to learn a new concept or recall and idea, the stronger their memory and learning will become. 

The analogy to physical exercise helps this make more sense for me. All of this: Johnston’s book, these articles and these studies, reminded me of my husband’s (a college professor) mantra: “Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.” This is how he wants his students to be. Pushed out of their comfort zone but just enough so that they work to make these new skills or new content comfortable for themselves.

As I reflect on this I feel that this is something we do both really well and really poorly at primary grades. We work to give students independence and let them solve their own problems, but sometimes we fall into the habit of simply doing something for them or telling them how to do things because it is so much faster. I need to remember the idea of agency and keep myself in check.

The Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA sounds like a really amazing place. What an awesome name for a place to work.

Choice Words: Chapters Five and Six

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Chapter five in Choice Words is Flexibility and Transfer (or Generalizing). Dr. Derek Cabrera, about whom I have written before, refers to transfer as the Holy Grail of education. The idea is that if we can help students take skills, concepts, or ideas learned in one subject or one setting and transfer them to another independently we have significantly upped our impact.

On page 44 Johnston explains how the language from the earlier chapter on identity plays into transfer:

Once a child incorporates into his identity a sense that he is a writer doing writerly things (or a scientist, mathematician, and so forth), he can ask himself in a new situation (not necessary consciously) what he might do as a writer, since those roles do not stop at the border of a single activity setting.

Another piece that struck me was using the word like. Johnston says on page 46:

This means thinking beyond the literal to the metaphorical, and the word like is very good for invoking metaphors.

If I remember correctly, and I’m being lazy and just going with my memory rather than any research, metaphors were one of the, if not the most,  powerful tool Marzano wrote about in Classroom Instruction that Works. Johnston goes on to talk about the power of metaphor because it allows one to take what is known and stretch to what is unknown. I have clearly not thought enough about how and why to use metaphor in my classroom.

Chapter six, Knowing, struck me as being essentially about creating an atmosphere and community in a classroom that makes taking risks doable for everyone. Johnston starts off with language that offers the students some control and ownership of the learning and conversation. He continues with language that clearly sets the teacher with the students, such as “Thanks for straightening me out.” Showing students that we make mistakes or that we don’t always know the answer sets up an environment in which they are willing to do the same.

I think my favorite bit is on page 60:

Never believe everything I say. Never believe everything any adult says.

I firmly believe that as a teacher and as a parent one of my jobs is to help my kids question things, not accept things at face value. Actually saying something as explicitly as this has never occurred to me however.

Building a community that allows students the opportunity to grow requires that they feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. It is no surprise to me that my language impacts that but Johnston’s ideas are helping me identify areas in which my language is weak in regards to this goal.

SNAP Challenge

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

I’ve got a ridiculous number of tabs open, many because I wanted to do some more thinking about them or share them. Of course, sharing them requires that I stop to reread and think about them. Hence the still open tabs.

One is Joshua Malina’s tumblr. A couple of weeks ago he took the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Challenge. For one week he ate on the average food stamp budget of $31.50 per person per week and wrote about the experience. His family did not join him, although they seem to have been quite supportive. Personally I can’t imagine eating for an entire week on so little money.

From this experience he seems to have found that on such a budget fruits and vegetables were unlikely to be affordable, water was about all he drank, and he didn’t have dessert. I would guess he also dealt with being hungry more often than normal.

Sadly, that is normal for a lot of people. I have a lot of respect for Joshua Malina for trying this because I can’t do it. Instead I’m doing the least possible and spreading the word.

Choice Words: Chapters Three and Four

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

These two chapters focus on Identity and Agency. It doesn’t surprise me that language can impact both of these things, but the extent to which the most basic phrases can make a difference is astounding.

Johnston makes a brief reference in chapter three to the importance of the relationship between student and teacher on language (page 24). He writes of it regarding language about behavior but it seems to me that the relationship is a factor in how everything a teacher says is heard.

My take-away from chapter three on identity is nothing major (although there is plenty of major stuff to get from this chapter). Speaking to students and labeling them as readers, writers, researchers, thinkers, however we want them see themselves does make a difference. That’s small and huge at the same time.

In my copy of Choice Words, chapter four, on agency, has a ridiculous number of post-it note flags. The first is on page 30, marking this passage:

To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves. For example, I expect that a child who has a history of telling himself stories about being a failure in writing is unlikely to face a new writing challenge with, “Yes, I imagine I can do this.” Similarly, just as we can put ourselves into stories in which we are the protagonists, the ones with agency, we can plot ourselves in the same story and attribute the agency to another, as in, “The reason my poem was good is that the teacher helped me.” Telling such stories in which we relegate ourselves to a passive role is the inverse of agency.

The language around agency should push students to reflect on how they have been successful and plans to continue that way. Not to say that there should never be discussions of things that didn’t go well because that is necessary as well. In addition, students should be pushed to think about problems they faced and how they  can tackle problems in the future.

My last post-it note flag in this chapter is on page 39:

Drawing their attention to their effort (“You worked really hard at that”) or their intellect (“You are so smart”) will not generate sufficiently useful narratives.

I have been fascinated by Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, and this pushes it farther. For some time now I have been conscious of my language in the hopes of using phrases that emphasize effort over intelligence. Now I am going to have to work harder to use language that is more specific about their effort to build agency.

Any thoughts? Am I off base on any of this?

Thoughts on chapters one and two

State of the Profession as Seen by NVWP Teachers

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

We are now a third of the way through the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) and I have not blogged about it at all. I’ve done a ton of writing, of course, but not here. One of my goals on the very first day was to blog about it twice a week. I set that goal to help myself reflect. So far I have failed. All I can do now is to give it my best from here on out.

Yesterday we did a round robin State of the Profession. We moved all the tables back to sit in a circle (more like a really big oval, there are thirty of us) and each person shared their greatest concern or challenge. It could be focused on their school, their district, or even broader. Whatever is speaking most strongly to them.

We’re teachers from first grade through university, private/independent schools and public ones, teaching students from all socio-economic levels, countries of the world, and colors of the rainbow. In spite of all our differences we felt great connections around the group.

Here are some of the comments that struck me most strongly (in the order shared):

  • fragmentation – lack of ongoing conversations between colleagues and across age levels
  • negativity – we need to focus on solutions and positive thinking
  • lack of control professionally and the sense that we’ve relinquished that control
  • inability to focus on teaching because of the myriad other demands on teachers
  • need for community in a school, ownership and vision
  • too much emphasis on grades
  • inequity for students
  • national perception of our profession
  • need for teachers to model life as learners
  • culture of complaint – complaining about the teachers who taught our students before us
  • need for meaningful collaboration
  • need for classroom to be a safe place for students – physically, emotionally, and intellectually
  • parental expectations for students and for teachers
  • narrow definition of success in our society
  • teacher exhaustion
  • goals constantly changing from administration at various levels
  • need to support children in our society – food, safety, support in all ways
  • need to question more, to ask why we do things
  • student proactivity vs. parent control – students do not take action due to parents doing so for them
It was a powerful time. Everyone listened in silence to everyone else. In spite of the focus on concerns and challenges it was not whiny. In fact, many people included things for which they are grateful about their school or district. I feel blessed to be spending four weeks learning with these amazing teachers. I firmly believe that our profession would be in a much better place if every teacher had the opportunity to engage in this sort of collaborative learning experience with dedicated colleagues. 
How about you? What is (are) the greatest challenge(s) facing you as a teacher?

ds106 Audio Assignments

Monday, July 16th, 2012

I spent a good portion of one day working on ds106 assignments, just sitting at my computer, thinking, planning, searching, recording, rejecting, and trying again. Somehow, just sitting in that way was rough on my back and by dinner I could barely walk. (I’ve had lower back problems in the past, but usually for more justified reasons.)

That evening I created a ds106 radio bumper and focused on pain, not shockingly. I opened with an odd monster sound, just because it seemed like an interesting opening and it showed up when I searched for pain. Then I used a sound that was created to simulate someone falling down the stairs. I think, in context, it sounds more like a door opening. Finally, I ended with some maniacal laughter.

Another audio assignment I attempted was the One-Man Play. This was one of the first to catch my attention and I knew immediately what part of which play I wanted to use: the opening moments of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. It may not be a play many folks know, but it is one I love, especially the opening. Stoppard writes brilliant dialogue. The down side to that is I am no actress so I do not do justice to the words. I did have fun trying to make myself sound like both a 13 year old girl and a 22 year old man.

I didn’t add much beyond my voice. The scene takes place in Thomasina’s home, during a lesson with her tutor. I added a bit of pages turning as the two were working and some pen writing.

I’m still working on the Suess It assignment but Audacity and I are not getting along well at the moment. I’m trying to copy and paste some sounds but when I paste, nothing seems to happen. It thinks it did, because I can ‘undo paste’ but that’s not impressive when the sound isn’t there. I haven’t given up yet but at the moment Audacity is winning.

Conversations in the Bloggers’ Cafe at ISTE12

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Conferences frequently remind me of how lucky I am and how much I have to be thankful for. I talked with a number of people in the bloggers’ café at ISTE about their schools, districts, and states, and was quite grateful for mine. Teachers shared situations in which they have to write up scripted lesson plans for the week, page after page of what they will say when and what the students will do. They talked about having to post “I Can” statements on their walls, keeping them constantly updated throughout the year, ready for random checks by administration. This was even true in kindergarten classrooms where the students couldn’t yet read the statements! Strict pacing was another issue faced by some teachers. If it’s October 4th then here is exactly what should be taught in each subject that day.
None of those things takes into account the humanness of students or others in a school. 
I think it’s human nature to find the flaws and negatives in any situation. However, I’m always grateful for the reminder of how wonderful my school and my colleagues are.
I’ve also been reading a couple of books that have reinforced this: A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Jacobs spends time focusing on how thankful he is for even the smallest things and finds it to be quite a joyful experience. Hillenbrand’s book is about a POW in Japan during WWII and his strength and faith through trauma and chaos were powerful reminders of all I have. Both books are fabulous.

Image from Sue Waters’ flickr.

Jay Mathews’ Best Teaching Strategies Contest

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

This piece by Jay Mathews is a week old, but the writing project summer institute has kept me so busy I haven’t had brain space for anything else. Not sure I really do now, but I’m not going to let that hold me back.

A while ago Mathews decided to host a contest to find the best teaching strategies. The reasoning here is quite sound, he wanted to highlight specific positive things happening rather than just vague educational ideas.

The winner with the best teaching strategy is an eighth grade teacher at a private school.

Here’s how her immigration project works: Her students are grouped into make-believe families. They pretend they are immigrating here in about 1900. In language arts, they blog about the experience. In science, they study the diseases that afflicted immigrants. In social studies, they analyze immigration laws. In foreign language, they take a look at countries that provided the most immigrants.

I love this project. It is engaging, builds connections, and allows for student choice. I would love to see projects like this happening all over the place.

I have two problems however. The standards that policy makers love keep this from happening in our public schools. If the project was planned around social studies standards on immigration and teachers tried to include diseases in science class there wouldn’t be enough time to teach the required science standards. The way our standards are designed completely roadblocks making meaningful connections in this way.

My second issue is more nit-picky. This isn’t a teaching strategy. This is a project. It is an awesome one that I would love to participate in but it isn’t a strategy. Highlighting effective, interesting teaching strategies is worth Jay Mathews’ time still.

Mathews’ posts typically have dozens of comments. This one has only five. What does that mean? Does that suggest that people aren’t interested in this topic?