Archive | June, 2013

Confessions of a Plot Junkie

25 Jun


The green glow of my extra-large clock radio is competing with the glow from my iPad at 11:30pm.  My eyes keep drooping downward, sometimes closing briefly–five minutes or so–before they snap open again.  I know I should put the book away, should turn over and bury my head in the pillow and sleep, but I can’t.  I need to know why Christine, the main character, can’t remember anything.  I need to know if her husband is as creepy as he seems, or if it’s the too-solicitous psychiatrist who is actually hiding something.  I need to know if the best friend was lying when she said she was there to help.

I need to know what happens.

In class, I exhort my speedy readers to slow down and enjoy their stories, to savor the language and think about the meaning.  Too bad I can’t take my own advice.  The drive of curiosity, the frustration of not knowing what comes next,  is overwhelming.  Maybe I’ll go back later, I think, and reread the especially important parts.  Maybe I’ll be able to slow down once I know the ending and really appreciate the writing.

Too bad I almost never reread.

Last week I finally learned how to use the highlight and annotate function on the iPad to mark down places of interest in my novels.  So far, the thrill of highlighting without actually defacing a book (a practice I’ve never grown comfortable with), and then being able to go back and remember all of those key sections, has given me some motivation to slow down.  You have to pause, at least momentarily, to drag your finger across the screen and save those juicy sentences.  My newfound ability to annotate drove me back to a book I had read before, Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human, to capture some of the most salient passages.  Maybe this will be the change that finally gets me to slow down, to think more deeply as I read?

Back in bed at night, I watch the percentage reader on the iPad slowly tick up.  34%.  42%.  51%.

I can do this, I think, all pretense of slowing down to savor the book disappearing.  I can finish the book this evening and I’ll know if Christine was crazy, or if something is really not-quite-right in her world.

Just a few more pages.

Teaching and Writing from the World

23 Jun

Teaching writing craft can be challenging for a lot of reasons.

  • we need to know what craft will make a difference in children’s writing
  • we need to find accessible mentors that they can learn from
  • we need students to practice it, repeatedly, in context, and in multiple form

Luckily, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel all by ourselves, some great teachers have led the way.  Jeff Anderson has published several texts to help with crafting sentences, and Everyday Editing includes loads of examples from books that students can mentor off of.


Maggie and Kate Roberts, staff developers at TCRWP,  just posted thoughts about how to help kids use the world around them to be inspired to write or read more.  And of course, there are the zillions of sites devoted to spelling and punctuation mishaps in the world.  These “errors in real life” are not only fun for kids to analyze and edit, but really emphasize the need for editing in all contexts…nothing like a 500 dollar sign with “there” spelled “their” to prove that point.  I experienced this first hand last year, on my first anniversary.  I had spent days constructing a memory book about all the things I loved about my husband, and I was quite pleased with my creativity.  Until the book arrived, and I realized I had forgotten to proof read the title.


I didn’t notice the verb change when I switched the subhead from “Dan” to “you.”  Sigh.  Lesson learned.

Fun as it is to collect and correct errors found in the world, we can also collect craft examples.  Wandering down Haight street in SF, I saw this great example.  I could use it to teach starting sentences with verbs, starting with “and”, using a repeated phrase, or using short sentences followed by a longer line for emphasis.  Of course, it’s not entirely kid-friendly so I’d probably have to modify it a bit…


Sometimes these short snippets of text we see around us are actually easier to teach from than larger chunks we have to modify down to digestible bits.

A Smatter of Links

21 Jun

Some thoughtful and fun videos and articles have popped up this week.

Not entirely appropriate for elementary school, this song about analyzing the validity of opinion articles made me smile…and it’s not bad advice either!

Stephen Colbert’s mother died this week, and he gives a moving tribute to her life.  It reminds me of the importance of telling stories about our lives and families.

How Self Expression Damaged my Students is an interesting critique of where the idea of writing workshop has been, and where it needs to go.

Kate Messner (author of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z) has a useful slideshare on revision.  She has some great trips for how to revise, as well as some inspirational pictures and words for young authors (or old!) who may be not-so-into revision.

I recently heard about Kidz Bop on NPR and I’m a big fan already.  They take current pop songs (AKA Thrift Shop) and redo them with kid-friendly lyrics.  Now you can feel free to blast the most recent Rihanna or Jay-Z without fear of angry parents breaking down your door.

Is Blended Learning the Magic Bullet?

14 Jun

The title is facetious, but I’m afraid the sentiment can be found throughout the US now.  Blended learning refers to using a mix of face-to-face instructional methods with computer-mediated learning, such as a mix of teacher instruction and computer learning programs, or the “flipped” classroom.  The primacy of technology in our everyday lives, combined with the rise of charter schools that use “individual learning modules” (i.e. children sitting at computers working on reading or math skills at different rates) has created a sentiment in some circles that if we just had KhanAcademy/Gigi math/RAZ-Kids etc in our classrooms (programs that target reading or math instruction to a student’s particular area of need and let him or her practice independently) we would see a meteoric rise in skills.

The problem is that this sentiment just isn’t true.  The New York Times published a review of a NAEP study that shows that not only is the case for blended learning questionable, but we see the same gap in instructional methods for low-income students vs. other students that we do in other areas of schooling.  Low-income students were more likely to use computers for basic drill activities, vs. more cognitively rich activities that other students engaged in.  Is blended learning just a new way to reinforce an old status quo?

Don’t get me wrong–I love computers, I love technology, and I love using both in the classroom.  I taught student to use animoto to create slideshows about themselves and then the Native Americans.  We use ALEKS to help remediate/reinforce/extend math skills for students at my school.  We introduced Tynker at the end of the year to help students learn basic coding skills.  My school recently received a class set of chromebooks through a grant that are in constant use (side plug for chromebooks: I have yet to experience a better bang for my buck than a $199 chromebook to help students learning typing, research skills, presentation skills, and use online apps.  They’re amazing.  If you have money, get them!)  My colleague, Jenny Maehara, has done some truly amazing things with google docs and google presentation, providing every student with an account and teaching them cloud-based skills and typing skills throughout the year.

My beef with blended learning is the idea that it’s an easy, people-proof way to improve student learning.  I don’t know who actually works with students who thinks we can plunk them in front of computers and have them magically overcome all obstacles.  We still need collaboration and instruction, especially to help students with something they are struggling with.  And we need to rethink how technology can help engage and illuminate, as opposed to just provide practice.  Every post by Dan Meyer is worth reading, but here’s one about What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again.  I’ll pair that with a way technology can engage and provide deeper levels of thinking: these 3-act problems (also by Meyers) such as this one on bubble wrap.



I hope we use technology more and more in the future.  Education needs a real change-up in the way we deliver instruction and experience learning, and technology can be part of that.  But I’m skeptical that individualized cubicles with students clicking answers to questions on their own is really the way we’re going to revolutionize the learning process.  Those programs have their part to play (practice is important!) but they’re far from the whole story.

Practice What You Preach: Adult Reading With an Eye Towards the Common Core

11 Jun

For a week this summer, a group of teachers from my district are coming together as a literacy leadership team to study the common core, work on nonfiction units, and plan professional development for the district for the school year.  Today we were reading a section from Pathways to the Common Core, the text Lucy Calkins Co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman about the new standards.


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We read a section about Nonfiction reading, and then broke up into small groups and did a protocol called “The Final Word.”  Text-Based protocols like this one help to facilitate a conversation that stays more targeted and equitable than you sometimes get when you have an unstructured conversation.

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The small, focused reading selection, combined with the protocol, helped me to cement what the text was saying.  I read Pathways last year when it came out (free gift from the summer reading institute at TC!), but while I enjoyed the text, I couldn’t absorb it fully with one reading.  The writing is so clear, you can mistake it for light reading.  It’s actually quite dense, and the kind of information you need to read multiple times, probably in small chunks.  I was happy to have the opportunity to read it again.

Reading the chapter reminded me of a few key ideas:

Before you teach your students, first practice out what you want them to be able to do as an adult reader or writer.

The first time I saw this idea was in Mosaic of Thought, by Keene and Zimmerman.  They wrote about trying to grasp a dense piece of poetry as adults, and then thinking about what strategies they used to comprehend the piece and teaching those strategies to children.  Pathways also uses this strategy, working through a model text, Killer, from The New Yorker, as a way to show educators what the Common Core Standards look like in practice.

Nonfiction standards mirror the fiction standards.

It’s really kind of beautiful.  The headings are actually the same:

Key Ideas and Details

Craft and Structure

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Range of Reading Levels and Text Complexity

Within the headings, the standards are often identical as well.

Informational reading standard 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Literature reading standard 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

The same is true for the majority of the standards.  The idea that the strategies a reader / writer uses for literature are often transferrable to informational texts allows us to be much more coherent in our teaching across the year.  It doesn’t have to be a total switch in our style of teaching and tasks when we move from literature to informational.  It will look different with the different texts, but we can be explicit with students how they’re taking skills they’ve already learned and using them on a new type of reading / writing.

Reading with a purpose and talk support comprehension

I had read this text before today, but reading it again, with the idea that we were then going to discuss quotes that stood out, gave me a new purpose with reading.  I read more closely and carefully than when I’m reading on my own.  The resulting discussion with the protocol made me slow down even more, and consider the quotes that everyone shared more carefully.  And it was fun!  It was another reminder of how important it is for our students to know why they’re reading, to be able to talk to support their comprehension, and to have that talk be supported with structures (such as protocols, sentence stems, or procedures for contributing and sharing the floor.)


Calkins also mentions a companion video that readers could look at along with the Killers article called The Great Office War to help compare and contrast.  It’s pretty awesome, and a reminder that all of this work can be extremely engaging and fun with the right texts.



How do You Get Up in the Morning?

11 Jun

Education is a morning-person’s game.  My literacy professor in college actually used to say the reason she left teaching and got her PhD was because she couldn’t get up that early in the day.  I always feel better after waking up early and getting a good start to the day, but that initial wake up can be painful.

Google announced a product called “warmly” which purports to wake you up in a kinder way, by gradually increasing the volume of the alarm, which will be preset to a sound that motivates you (coffee brewing, news, etc.)


I love the idea of something as simple as a better alarm clock could make that early-morning moment less painful, but I’m skeptical of the reality.  I had big plans for the alarm that gently brightened the room to wake you up, until I realized that’s exactly what the sun does when I mistakenly leave my blinds open :).


The Endless Struggle

10 Jun

Larry Cuban posted a thoughtful article today on the endless struggle that is the fight to improve education.  He links to Jonathan Franzen’s commencement speech, where the author writes about his need to fight for the environment, a topic that also seems destined to feel doomed.  Cuban shares four lessons he’s learned from years of working in education, research, and reform:

  • it is essential to distinguish between reform talk, adoption of reform-driven policies, and putting reforms into practice
  • reform talk and policy action in the purposes, curriculum, instruction and organization of schools often occur in cycles but putting reforms into practice is slow, incremental, and erratic.
  • turning to public schools as a solution for larger economic, social, and political problems has become a national tic, a peculiar habit, that U.S. reformers have
  • both continuity and change mark the path of public schools over the past two centuries

Cuban then says  graduate students, passionate about reforming and improving education, generally feel powerless and hopeless after hearing about the unending cycles of <generally> fruitless attempts to change.

He ends by saying you have to keep climbing the mountain even if the goal seems ever-farther away.  Reforming education feels like a Sisyphean task, but the alternative to fighting is giving up.

It’s also a reminder to focus on what we can do, to remember to celebrate the small victories, even as we strive for the big.  And to remember the things that make us happy in life…Like How I Met Your Mother, which besides being hilarious, gives some down-to-Earth advice on how to avoid being bogged down by it all.



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