Sunday, January 19, 2014

Moderating #TLAP chat and drafting the questions

(This is a re-post of what I just posted on my other blog.)

I just shared the questions I’ve been thinking about for tomorrow’s chat on Twitter – here’s a link to the Google Doc.  I’d like to explain my thinking about writing instruction a little bit here, as a background to the chat.  If that helps.

My goals with the questions are fairly straightforward, though that might not be clear from the questions themselves:
  • To highlight the utility of writing across the curriculum, in both content classes and English/ELA classes
  • To leverage the nature of writing as an instructional tool in as many different ways as possible
  • To focus on what makes writing engaging or worthwhile for students, and how teachers can use that to motivate
I teach 7th graders in a public, Title 1 middle school with a large Hispanic population.  I often find myself working against a few common misconceptions:
  1. Writing is “work.”  ”How many sentences does it have to be?”  ”Why do I have to use paragraphs?”  ”Is this enough?”
  2. Writing is something you do at school, a kind of game that you play to make teachers happy, and then forget after you graduate.  Anything else you do with words – writing on Facebook, text messaging, anything else, isn’t really “writing.”  Or doesn’t count.
  3. There are specific rules about writing, and those rules are rigid and unchanging for all eternity.  All teachers know them.
  4. There’s no point to revise what you write.  Why bother writing something twice?  (That’s almost as bad as reading something twice!)
This is a steep hill to climb, but I think we can climb it if we start on the first day, and keep moving forward every day.  And I think we have a ton of strategies to keep moving up that hill.  (Plus, the more teachers that work hard at changing these views, the smaller the hill gets.)
So, what are some things that I do about this?  Here’s a short version:
  • Daily Writing Notebooks or “Quickwrites.”  I have kids writing every day at the start of class.  We write for different reasons, responding to different things in different ways.  Often, the prompt is related to our objective of the day.  (We’ve been talking a lot about bias lately, so questions have included references to strong opinions and trust.)  Sometimes we write about pictures, or songs, or we just reflect on an assignment, an event, or an objective.  There are millions of ways to do this (have you ever googled “writing prompts”?), and I have books of writing prompts that I use sometimes (Unjournaling is a fun one that comes to mind).  Here’s a blog post about writing notebooks that has more about how I use these (though the recent change to 1-1 chromebooks has altered this).
  • Writing Workshop.  This is just too awesome to let go of.  When it’s going well – and I’ve had it both ways – kids are working hard on developing their texts, learning tons, and engaged.  It pays off in writing, reading, vocabulary, and any other class where they have to explain their thinking in writing.  I believe it makes them better learners, because it helps students take control of their own learning.  I think we all want that.
  • Sharing lots of (anonymous) student models, teacher models (mine and others), and thinking/revising aloud, in front of my students.  We were encouraged to use student models as texts when I taught college writing, and that practice carried over into my middle school teaching.  It’s pretty engaging for the students, and I think that incorporating student texts makes everyone feel better, not just the student whose work you use.  Of course, it takes practice to move beyond the guessing game of “whose is this,” but when you do this often enough without feeling obliged to share the author’s name, the students are better able to focus on the writing.  It can be really effective in motivating students to engage in the instruction about writing, but selecting the right kind of model helps push kids, too.  (I love it when I can find something really brilliant in student-written text and share it with the class.)  I also share my writing with students on a regular basis.  They need to see me writing, and they need to see me revising my writing – I try not to exclusively share polished, finished writing.  When time permits, I try to share multiple drafts.
  • Publishing and celebrating student writing – nothing motivates like success.  One of the best groups of writers I’ve had didn’t “feel” like a special writing group until I read two student memoirs aloud for the class.  One was a quirky dog story full of surprisingly funny details, the other a sad story about a grandmother’s passing.  Both pieces of writing were full of poignant, powerful moments, and I celebrated those moments as honestly and clearly as I could.  I didn’t cringe from the errors or the oversights, but I chose to focus on the good.  I think that celebrating the good in such a public way changed the atmosphere, and made almost everyone in that class want to work hard and do well on their writing.
  • Frequent use of writing as thinking, or writing to learn.  It can be as simple as “think-pair-share” with some kind of writing component, or just having kids write in response to a question before (or after) a discussion.  I love a good reflection – I’ve been doing it every week, with kids reflecting on objectives for the week.  It helps them stay focused on purpose and notice progress in their own learning.  And anything you do that has students revise their writing to represent changes in their thinking will help them develop their own strategies for writing-to-learn.  Graphic organizers are a really useful tool, but they can become a crutch if used too often.  They’re a useful scaffold – just make sure that students are finishing the building and pulling the scaffolding away at some point.
  • Defining “writing” as broadly and inclusively as possible.  We don’t want them to substitute “talking” for writing in all cases, but we want students to see the relationship between speaking and writing, and how they can use one to help develop the other (reading a draft aloud, or writing out a speech).  I think it’s more and more important for students to see the interrelationship between visual information and text, and how pictures convey meaning in ways that are similar to (but not the same as) writing.  The same is true, of course, of music, video, and the complex interrelationships of text, pictures, links, and audio/video on the web.  People use these media to create meaning, and pretending like it’s not part of the business of writing is getting more and more obviously false every day.  (I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t be asked to complete text-only writing tasks sometimes.  I’m saying that we can’t ONLY do that.)
  • Making revision and revision strategies a useful part of writing well, not an absolute requirement for all assignments, and not a “punishment” for being a “bad writer” the first time.  This comes from modeling, from discussing author’s craft, and from giving feedback that points to specific ways to improve a piece, as well as celebrating the good things.  Kids won’t revise a text if they see it as “garbage.”  There has to be something worth keeping, or the best you might get is a complete re-write (which might be a learning experience, and might just be a huge frustration).  I think that Writing Workshop is a great way for kids to experience a successful revision – and they won’t really see the value of revision until they’ve crafted something that they can see as really special.  I know that students need to be prepared for “on-demand” writing tasks – because of standardized tests – but that’s not the most useful or most powerful kind of learning about writing that students will do.  That can be taught as a “genre” (which is how I prefer to teach it), and students can be encouraged to see it for what it really is – a specific kind of writing that has a very limited use.
This doesn’t quite feel finished.  I think I’ll need to come back and say more about this later.  For now, this is a good introduction.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

EdCamp Home and flying blind . . .

I don't want to sound like I don't appreciate the hard work that went into this experience.  I know that many people benefited from it, and I know that it can be - and was - a great experience.  I'm telling this story because I'm hoping that it might help people think about how to prepare for new kinds of PD, and help organizers think about managing bumbling fools like me.  

So, I was pumped up about EdCamp Home this morning.  I thought I was ready.  I had the kids prepped - stay out of the camera view and keep it to a dull roar.  I had coffee and some of my breakfast left.  I was dressed semi-casually (sweatshirt and Winter Break stubble).

I found the Google Plus community, found the web page, and followed the live webcast of the organizers.  I set up a second screen (laptop), and I pulled up Twitter and started following the hashtag.  There were a bunch of questions about where to sign up for sessions.  Then, the organizers pointed out that they hadn't sent out the sign-ups yet.  They politely reminded the volunteer moderators to set up their hangouts, share links, and get ready.

Then there was a flurry of vicarious anxiety.  The organizers (I love and respect these people for making this happen - I don't want to sound like I don't appreciate what they were doing, so please don't think that) seemed to be disconcerted by the slow speed at which the moderators were claiming topics, and there was a call for more moderators.  I clicked back through the Google Plus community, looking for the place where I could sign up to be a moderator, and found a spreadsheet that I thought was right, but wasn't clearly the right place to sign up . . . so I continued waiting.  It turned out to be a good thing that I didn't attempt moderating.

Then the signup for sessions went out for participants.  We were reminded that not everyone who was watching could participate, because there might not be enough room if everyone was allowed to join sessions.  I signed up for one session - because the form made me pick one - even though I wasn't sure what all the sessions meant.  I chose GAFE in the Classroom.  I waited for something to happen after I submitted the form - but it came back "You must select an option."  I thought I had!  I looked back through my list of options again, and I found that GAFE was gone!  So, I chose something else - managing Chromebooks.

A few minutes later, I received an invitation to join a Hangout about Chromebooks.  There were other invitations that I hadn't signed up for, so I wasn't sure if it was the right invitation.  So I waited a little longer.

I didn't know who was signing up for what session.  I didn't know what some of the sessions were about - I remembered some topics from that discussion, but I wasn't sure if there was some other source that I was missing.

I was never sure if I joined the right Hangout or not, but I clicked on the invitation and spent the next 20 minutes listening to other people talk about Chromebooks and fighting with my browser.  For some reason, it kept freezing.  I dropped out of the Hangout completely at least once.

After all of that, I was disappointed.  I felt like I had a lot to say about Chromebooks, and I didn't have a chance to say it.  I was excited about the YouTube archives of the hangouts and having people able to watch (because I've watched others in the past), and I didn't really get to add anything.  Aw, man!

So, I signed up for three different topics for the second - and final - session.  I tweeted a bit while I was waiting for an invite, only to find that my tweets weren't being sent.  (Curse you, TweetChat!)  I joined the first session that sent me an invite - not knowing who was in what session - and found that I was in a hangout with one other guy from New Zealand.  I liked the topic, and I felt like we had a reasonably good conversation about how technology is affecting literacy instruction, but I was hoping for more of the give-and-take of an intelligent conversation with multiple voices and multiple perspectives.  I love that stuff - that's why I'm addicted to Twitter and to things like these - and I didn't feel like I got it.

I went back to the Google Plus community and read some posts from people who were really excited about their hangouts.  I listened to some of the details of the Slam (the big group share-out), and I was disappointed that it would be just a shared doc.

I think I have a lot to learn about Google Plus and using hangouts.  I think that it would be a good idea for me to stick to regular EdCamps for a little while - I know a little more about navigating those and getting my PD fix.

Afterward, I told my wife that I felt like a failure because of this.  She ignored my obvious cry for reassurance and told me it was time to take the kids sledding.  At last, technology I could manage - hopefully!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Goals for 2014 - So Far . . .

I'm a reflective person by nature, and I often set goals.  Unfortunately, I'm not as good at achieving goals as I am at setting them, but still . . . it's a useful process for me.  Kind of like checking out library books.  They represent goals - at least the way that I think about them.  I have about 60 books checked out right now, many more than I could ever possibly read in the time allowed.  I might read 10 or 20, and I might use five or six in some way.  The rest I may never even open.  That doesn't mean I should check out fewer books necessarily, though my wife would probably say that it does.  That just means that I like to have options, and it doesn't have to cost me extra (in terms of money, though it costs in time and energy to tote all of them home and return them on time).

So, to the business at hand.  Goals for 2014.  I set similar goals every year - health, reading, home improvement projects, learn a language, study a specific topic, etc.  I'd like to focus on the new twists for this year, while still promising myself that I will work hard on other issues that need my attention. (My health, for example, is a serious thing, even though I might seem flippant about setting that goal.)

  1. I need to blog more often.  Once a week is a reasonable goal.  More often if necessary.  I need to let go of some of the pressure.  It's nice to work hard on crafting a quality post, but it's not nice to write nothing because of the lack of time to commit to the project.  So, I need to lower my standards a little.  
  2. Publish something creative, even if it's just as an e-book on Amazon.  That's been a life goal, and I have a bunch of stuff that is almost publishable.  I'm not sitting on the great American novel, but it would be better to publish something than to continue to postpone and revise. 
  3. Network and connect with other teachers more.  I'm a strong participant in Twitter chats, and I've benefited enormously from the chance to learn from other teachers around the world.  It's an enormous blessing and a great opportunity to be as connected as I am.  I want more.  There is a growing opportunity to connect with teachers and educators on Google Plus, and I want to be part of that.  I should also be looking for "old-fashioned" opportunities - conferences, workshops, and especially EdCamps.  That was a wonderful thing.  I'd like to attend at least two, and maybe help organize another one.  
  4. Open my classroom to the world more.  Share more.  Publish more of the work that we do - my instructional strategies and materials, and my students' work.  There are good things going on.  I don't need to take credit for everything.  Actually, it would be beneficial for me and my students if I found more ways to share the credit.  The newsletter that I have shared is a great first step, but even that could be more open.  So, share!
  5. Seek out more leadership opportunities.  I'm in a position to help others with connecting, with technology, with literacy, and with writing instruction.  I would love to be useful to more people in more ways.  I think that I'm in a good place to start to reach out to leadership chances.  In my district and out.  
  6. Work harder on my personal and professional growth.  I have amassed an impressive professional library, but I haven't read and applied it all.  Not even close.  That should be the focus, instead of making it larger.  I also want to learn more about programming, web design, and ways to use technology that go beyond traditional strategies (further down the SAMR model).  That's something that will pay enormous dividends in the future, but that is also a lot of fun.  So, why not?
I think that's a good list to start with.  

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

So, it's been an up and down year.  I'm really happy about a lot of it, and I wanted to stop for a minute, before I start to make lists and goals for 2014, about what I'm thankful for.

Happiness and gratitude.  I figure, why not stop and be grateful?

There's a TED talk about this connection, if you haven't thought about it:

I was watching this with my daughter - who is 5, but who is also very thankful.  She complained that she couldn't understand his accent.

There's a lot to be thankful for, just in that statement.  We're blessed to have access to so much learning.  The Internet is full of biased, misleading garbage.  And some things that are just amazing.  It's a wonderful place for so many things.  (Don't get me started on Kid President.  I love that kid.)  But having my own wonderful children.  And my wife.  And my health.  And the chance to spend time with them, right now.  It wasn't that long ago that I was working in retail.  That's the worst place to be during the holidays.  Not only are you working during the holidays, but you're working hard, for long hours.  It's terrible.

When I'm shopping at times like these, I work hard to be extra nice to the frazzled retail employees who help.  Secretly, though, I'm infinitely grateful that I'm not in that place anymore.

This is the year that I experienced EdCamp for the first time.  That was a wonderful experience, and something that I want to experience again.  I'm excited about a chance to participate online, though my expectations have been tempered somewhat.  I prefer the face-to-face, though it's nice to be comfortable in my own home.

I've had many opportunities to develop as a leader and collaborator online and through organizations like the Illinois Writing Project.  That has been a wonderful blessing.

I've learned a great deal in 2013, and I've grown more in that year than I have in almost any other year.  I credit that to my increased participation in Twitter and Google Plus.  And I also need to thank anyone who is reading this.  It's one thing to write a blog that no one reads.  It's another to write something that people are looking at.  That's an enormous thing for me, and it has translated into some important things for me.

So, I'm thankful for many things.  I'm also thankful that I'm not done growing and learning, and that I have so many chances to continue to learn and grow.

(Now it's time to start working on 2014.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Books about Grit or Resilience

I thought it might be nice to help myself prepare for tonight's #TitleTalk book chat by posting something about books where characters show grit or resilience. 

I should begin by pointing out that this connects nicely with discussions about mindsets and the resilience that students/people need to be successful when they show the growth mindset.  I think it's also important to think about grit and learning in general.  Too many kids give up when they make mistakes, instead of adjusting and learning (and growing). 

So, this is important.  Just as some of us have discussed how wide reading helps readers develop empathy, an incredibly valuable result, we also need to think about how reading can help us develop grit. 

Books where characters show grit? 

My kids were just watching Harry Potter tonight.  I think he shows remarkable grit, especially in the last book/last two movies. 

What about Frodo Baggins?  That's a great example.  And Sam, of course. 

But also Speak and Melinda.  She kind of learns grit, doesn't she? 

There are a lot of books about bullying that include characters who show resilience/grit.  I'm a big fan of Wonder, as well as Stargirl (there's a great example of resilience!), Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities (both are great), Cinder (and the sequel, Scarlet), just about anything by Jordan Sonnenblick, and lots more. 

That's all I have time for - the chat is starting.  I'll try to come back and update this when everyone reminds me of the 97 other titles I forgot. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My personal reading challenge

So, I set a goal for each of my students for our second grading period, based on what I've learned about their reading habits and readiness.  All of them have a goal of between 3 and 40 books to read before March 1st (the end of the current grading period).  I'm planning to ask them to share what they read through some kind of written journal, and I decided that I should model what I ask of them.  So, I'm going to post what I've read here - or elsewhere - and point this out to them.

I just posted a review of Eleanor and Park.  I hope to post many more.  My goal is 45 books by March 1st.  That's a pretty ambitious goal for me, during the school year.  I'll have to work pretty hard to get there.  But I think I can.

Reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I started this book as an audiobook in the car a few weeks ago.  It started slow, and it felt like a typical high-school romance at first.  At some point it morphed into something else.  It's a little more than just a high-school love story.

I should say a few things about this book before I try to write through this inarticulate confusion.

  • The book is YA Realistic.  There's some language, and some PG-13 stuff.  It's not too graphic, in my opinion.  But it's not MG.
  • It takes place in the 80's, with lots of comments about bands, TV shows, and 80's culture - like big hair, bangs, and the walkman.  
  • It's mostly friendly to teachers.  It's not a book about how awesome teachers are.  It's also not a book about how evil they are.  There are some cool teachers, and some semi-cool teachers, but no horrible, nasty kid-torturers.  
All of this adds up to a reasonable claim that maybe the book might be YA that was written for teachers?  I'm not sure that's entirely fair.  It's a good book, and I think kids would like it.  There are several brilliant passages, and I think most kids can feel that when they read it.  But it still feels like this book would be really special for older readers, and only pretty good for younger ones.  I don't know - I might be wrong about this.  

So, what am I trying to say about this book?

I didn't really like the ending.  I don't want to spoil it, but it wasn't enough.  It didn't feel like the story was really over when it ended.  

I should also say that the audiobook was a little disappointing.  I enjoyed the audio, but when I wanted to finish the last part of the book, and I finally had access to a paper copy, I found that the printed version of the book was much better than the audio.  Rowell's written voice was much richer and fit my imagination much better than the two voices from the audio.  

The back-and-forth first-person narration of the book works well when your brain is imagining the voices, I think.  I think we can conjure an appropriate-sounding voice for Eleanor, for instance.  Then, when Park is narrating what Eleanor is saying, we can use the correct voice, not the Park narrator trying to sound like Eleanor.  

Maybe that was the problem.  The audio, with two narrators, made the characters feel inconsistent.  When the actor reading Park did his voice for Park's father, for instance, it sounded very different from when the actress playing Eleanor tried to do it.  (And when Eleanor tried to explain what Park was saying, it sounded fake, and vice versa.)

Perhaps I should re-read this, in print.  

So, what did I mean when I said this was "more than a high-school love story"?  I think the back-and-forth voices were a cool technique.  I think it made the two perspectives more distinct and the narrative richer.  I also liked that the characters weren't typical "diamond in the rough" kids - they weren't just popular kids in need of a makeover.  Park is half-Korean, and Eleanor is a "big girl."  

I also really like Park's parents.  They both make terrible, even cruel mistakes with their kids.  But then they both end up surprisingly trusting, open, and reasonable.  They aren't too good to be true - because both of them have their jerk moments - but both of them more than make up for these things. In some ways, I like Park's father more than Park.  

(This feels like a bad rough draft of a review.  I'm going to publish this anyway, as a lesson to myself and my students.  Hope you enjoyed my unfocused, disorganized, and off-topic meanderings.)