Archive for February, 2006

The Literacy Club

Feb 22 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

From the title you might expect that this piece will be about a group of people meeting to talk about books, but I have a different story to tell.

It’s Black History month, and I saved the Martin Luther King birthday issue of Time for Kids. This marks a departure from their usual self-selected “chapter book” reading. Asking them to read this article and answer questions about it is outright schoolwork, and I am a brute!

We’re in school, after all, and we’re here to find out a thing or two about the world. It’s the informational part of the institutional mission. So how do I get a bunch of fourth-graders who are reading Lemony Snicket, and Little House on the Prairie, and the Babysitters Club, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School to wrap their minds around what is in that article? I bully them with a set of questions and blank spaces, of course. I’m not proud of myself, but that’s how it’s done. Right?

The article wasn’t much, since it chopped out all of the drama, all of the pain and anguish. The picture of people marching, and the story about Dr. King’s assassination are incomprehensible without a lot of background – which is most of the difficulty we have teaching from written texts. To read that short article, the kids had to know the meaning of segregation, prejudice, civil rights, boycott, and a few other things that were altogether outside their conceptual universe. And I had them look up the words in dictionaries.

But wait, it wasn’t that bad. First they looked through the magazine at all of the more light-hearted stuff. Then they shared in groups of 3 what they had seen or looked at. THEN we worked our way through the article, pausing to discuss key concepts. This is called scaffolding in research journals, but I call it helping in the classroom.

Thinking that we weren’t done, and that these children needed more institutional whiplash, exposure to our culture’s bleak and tortured history, and so that they could be properly acculturated to the ways of the academy should they ever hope to pursue such a path, I handed them two-column note paper with the headings “I Learned” and “I wonder.” Not leaving anything to chance, I told them that ‘learned’ was a euphemism for “It says in the article” and “I wonder” means that you need to find at least 5 gnarly words (I really did say that) having to do with civil rights. And Oh! You have to read the article. A few laughed.

I put them in teams of three and had them scatter about the room. I explained that there was another paper, one with questions on it, that they would need the notes for later. The rest of the afternoon was a mess. Finding words in dictionaries, rephrasing definitions, negotiating turn-taking to read the article, everything took a long long time. I was comfortable and satisfied because it’s what I expected. I know that dictionaries are lousy sources for word learning. I know that questions after the reading are terrible ways to “assess” comprehension.

My questions were simple, though. “What is meant by civil rights? What was Martin Luther King’s dream? What is a boycott? What is segregation? Tell one more thing about Martin Luther King that is mentioned in the article.

Slowly, slowly, they worked through this stringy academic meal. These kinds of lessons fool kids into thinking that they know something about school. These exercises induce sweat, self-pity, and uncertainty in even the most smug and self-confident. But I don’t think they learned very much about Dr. King. What I think they learned is that he had something to do with a bunch of unhappiness in our history, and that reading Time for Kids is not very much fun.

Here’s the part about the literacy club. While I was surveying this forced march through a magazine article, I thought about how useful these kinds of tasks are for keeping kids busy. Now that they know how to read well enough to look things up, reading can become an end in itself. I could do this continually if I wanted to. What a terrific club literacy is for subjugating and controlling people in school, I thought. It keeps them docile, and allows me to force them look for meanings that I have determined ahead of time. They learn compliance and accountability. Literacy is a useful tool for creating a passive public. Neal Postman said that what is public about school is not that we serve the public, but that we create a public through schooling.

Of course, not everyone moves smoothly through the system, and for some literacy in school is seen for what it is – drudgery. In these cases, the club leaves no socially redeeming marks.

To let myself off the hook just a bit for this infraction, this lapse into conventionalism, I should say that I think it is worthwhile to introduce topics of cultural consequence to kids, and to show them how to work through difficult material. I also believe that we need to expose kids to dry and inconsiderate texts. We need to do it, though, in ways that help the kids process what they are doing. The dictionary, however, is a miserable way to generalize a concept for a word, and is not recommended. It is an expedient, and I use it mainly to teach kids how to use it – an antiquated technology.

Tomorrow, we can search Google images for the words segregation and civil rights, and see if the idea takes on a little bit more meaning. The trick to making the literacy club a source of power rather than an object of dread is to show the kids how to use it for their own purposes. This little exercise with the magazine was just an opener. Now it’s time to let them hammer with it for a while and see what they construct.

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Loose Change

Feb 17 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting at work with a pile (no, it’s bit bigger than that) of things to plow through, that promise little satisfaction other than moving them off of my desk. I have a kid to pick up in a couple of hours, so I’m finding things to do to keep me otherwise busy. I will get to those papers.

Subscribers may have noticed a post that keeps refreshing. I’ve been trying to clean up a tiny problem (actually a couple of them) with that post, and I may have it done now. I was trying to get a graphic to display, and also to deal with some nit-picky spelling/formatting problems. I should have waited to press the ‘publish’ button for a day or so, I guess. Sorry. I might have put the graphic up on my flickr page, and linked from there, but the new community guidelines discourage us from doing that anymore. As far as that all goes, I’m wondering if they want for us to include a text link with any photos we blog, or will the linked image itself qualify as a link back. I’m not pleased – I wonder if anyone cares.

That last post – the one about math and vocabulary learning – wasn’t actually a blog post. It was a piece of my MEd project that I tried to scrub for blogging. No matter how much I edited it, I know it still smells like a research paper. I posted it because I’m having some ‘discussions’ with other teachers who see things a bit differently than I. Nobody wants to listen to another point of view – me included. So this was a bit of an effort to revisit an important connection that I made and make it public. I tripped over a little gem when I was looking back through the paper that’s relevant to this recent theme in my thinking about how we present math and reading to kids formulaically.

Alan Schoenfeld
explained breakdowns in comprehension in classroom mathematics activities as he observed the function of both deduction and empiricism in the development of mathematical understanding. He saw a relationship between the emphasis on form as opposed to meaning, mathematical problems versus exercises, and passive versus active learning. With respect to the roles of deduction and empiricism Schoenfeld argued that students often failed to recognize the value of deductive reasoning and instead resorted to empirical methods of reaching a solution. In a case he cited involving a 10th grade geometry class, students ignored a previously developed proof in favor of a laborious procedure that involved straightedge and compass. I’ve observed a similar phenomenon in elementary school arithmetic when students will count fingers or objects to calculate 8 + 4 = 12, for example, and then use objects the next moment to calculate 8 + 5 = 13. Instead of reasoning that 8 + 5 must be one more than the known 8 + 4, they begin "˜from scratch"™ each time. Schoenfeld referred to this phenomenon as "œnaive empiricism," and characterized deduction as a mathematically useful "œtool of discovery" (1985, p.173). He contrasted the "œnaive empirical" approach to mathematics with the approach taken by professional mathematicians. He accounted for the development of an appreciation for the value of argumentation as a matter of experience in the discipline.

This is all well and good, and as Schoenfeld noticed, when we are working outside of our comfort zone in deep and uncharted water, we depend on empircal methods. A dip of my toe into PHP and MySQL databases [Follow that link to a solid introductory resource that Chris has put together.] gave me a feel for what it’s like to be in over my head, and helped me to develop a fairly strong empathy for my kids who are a bit slow to pick some things up. Sometimes the empirical methods are needed to keep the ball rolling. The problem for teaching and learning occurs when we don’t move beyond that, and never bother to remove the props.

The reason I care about this at all, aside from the fact that I teach reading and math to little kids, is that when I went back to get the reading specialist ticket I decided to test out comprehension theory in the context of mathematics instruction. I gave myself a double dose in a lot of ways. Because my degree was in language and literacy, I looked at the NCTM Communication Standards and found my lit review reading list in the bibliography for that document. My whole project revolved around the way we talk about math with kids. Vocabulary was a big part of it, and so was classroom participation structure, communities of practice, shared cognition, epistemology, and God only knows anymore. I get a little bit worked up when it is suggested that I should just “show them how” and not confuse them with a bunch of reasoning. No more groaning on my part, I promise.

I think that as a profession, and as a nation, we are being driven in (at least) two directions simultaneously. It’s a conflict between conformity and creativity; between accommodation and rigor; between convergence and divergence; between authority and autonomy; between performance and understanding; between doubt and trust. It’s making me crazy, but I can’t quit because I sense that I’m sitting on top of a huge pile of junk that’s almost ready to implode. I want to be here when it happens.

Besides, I can’t afford to stay in Alaska if I quit my job now, and there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be, even if I do still have to use dial-up at home and can’t watch the Olympics on television. Can you believe it?

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1985). Mathematical Problem Solving. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, Inc.

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Draw a Scientist

Feb 16 2006 Published by under borderland,education,science

This summer in the science workshop I attended one of the exercises we did was to draw a scientist. Sometimes these types of exercises turn out surprisingly interesting and I take them with me to my classroom to use. This one, though, didn’t do much for me. I suppose the reason it didn’t is that I know several people who could be fairly classified as scientists, and I simply drew what I imagine them doing.

Via Pharyngula, I ran across a post called Who’s Dorky?, where there was a link to a page called Who’s the Scientist? which displays drawings and written statements about scientists made by a group of seventh graders before and after a visit to Fermilab. It’s a great example of stereotyping and the power of personal experience to overcome stereotypical impressions.

Pat’s construction of a typical scientist went through a dramatic transformation. Eric got the point about stereotyping and asking questions.

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The Problem in Vocabulary Instruction

Feb 16 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

Common sense tells us that reading vocabulary and comprehension are linked. Using word definitions, though, doesn’t work as an instructional approach for improving reading comprehension. Effective vocabulary instruction should include metacognitive reading strategies such as determining the significance of particular words to the overall meaning of the text, assessing prior knowledge about a word and the concept it represents, considering various meanings of a word, relating the significance of a given concept to the subject matter, locating context clues, and recognizing the need for repeated exposures to the target words. You can think about vocabulary acquistion much as you would think about solving problems because word learning and problem solving, it turns out, are similar processes.

Martha Rapp Ruddell recognized four possible approaches to word learning:

  • The aptitude position proposes that we have an innate mental mechanism responsible for general verbal ability;
  • The instrumentalist position emphasizes knowing individual word meanings;
  • The access position includes using context, structural analysis, dictionary definitions, word mapping, mnemonic devices, semantic featural analysis, and semantic mapping;
  • The knowledge position credits background knowledge as the essential element in comprehension. Words, according to this view, represent the tip of the conceptual iceberg since knowing a word implies that one knows many related words and that these words serve as markers for a broad conceptual base.

Ruddell linked these perspectives as a set of complementary elements under the umbrella concept of "˜knowledge."™ Ruddell looked at each of them as characteristic of either declarative, procedural, or conditional knowledge. Additionally, she proposed that the stance of the learner toward the text in which the words are encountered plays a significant part in vocabulary acquisition and assimilation.

Schoenfeld"™s model for mathematical problem solving is remarkably similar to Ruddell’s perspectives on vocabulary and comprehension discussed above. Schoenfeld argued that problem solving skill is not necessarily indicative of mathematical understanding since problems can be solved by exploiting superficial procedural knowledge. As a result, in order to better understand effective mathematical thinking, he identified four different types of knowledge and behavior that characterize successful mathematical problem solving performance.

  • Declarative knowledge is an element in problem solving: facts, algorithmic procedures, and informal knowledge about the problem belong to the category of resources.
  • Heuristic knowledge is vital to problem solving since it provides the mathematician with a framework that suggests various approaches which could be taken to reach a solution to a problem. Schoenfeld mentioned the use of heuristic devices such as drawing diagrams, making connections with related problems, and working backwards from the solution. The heuristic knowledge that Schoenfeld sees as a necessary component of mathematical understanding is recognized as procedural knowledge by Ruddell. Schoenfeld recognized that the major limitation of heuristic strategies is their dependence on both background knowledge and decision-making ability.
  • Control is also a factor in successful problem solving . Within this category are what have been generally described as metacognitive strategies. This aspect of problem solving involves planning, monitoring, and the assessment of the problem solving effort itself – including time management. The aptitude perspective on vocabulary knowledge, Ruddell"™s conditional knowledge, is similar to Schoenfeld"™s control category for effective problem solving behaviors since they both involve resource allocation and executive functions of self-monitoring that determine how a particular performance is evaluated by the individual learner.
  • Belief systems have an effect on an individual"™s mathematical performance, according to Schoenfeld, and occupy a "œprecarious middle ground between primarily cognitive and primarily affective determinants of mathematical behavior" (1985, p. 154). He cited research on the "œcontextually bound nature of thought processes" in everyday cognition that account for failures to use available knowledge. These accounts of "œinadequate model building" (1985, p. 151) in the construction of solutions to problems are examples of beliefs at work on the cognitive level.

Schoenfeld"™s belief systems and Ruddell"™s reader stance are in close alignment insofar as they recognize that interpretation of problems and unfamiliar words is influenced by the learner’s background and the context in which the problem has been posed.


The similarities between these two comprehension models is striking. It appears that mathematics and vocabulary comprehension processes are parallel. Meaningful word learning is in many respects a problem which can be approached similar to the way a mathematician solves a problem.

Recognizing that the same dynamics are at work with vocabulary acquisition as with solving mathematics problems indicates that mathematics learning, like language learning, must be linked to meaningful communication and not simply limited to procedural or syntactic manipulations. Vocabulary learning should likewise not depend on simple procedures like looking for dictionary definitions and using new words in sentences. Instead we should include vocabulary learning as part of an overall set of comprehension strategies.


Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. York, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ruddell, M. R. (1994). Vocabulary knowledge and comprehension: A comprehension-process view of complex literacy relationships. In R. B. Rudell & M. R. Rudell & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (pp. 414-447). Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1985). Mathematical Problem Solving. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press, Inc.

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Professionally Developed

Feb 10 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy

I spent the last two days in mandatory district sponsored professional development workshops. The 32nd Annual Bilingual Multicultural Education Equity Conference was in town and teachers from all over the state showed up. Typical of most large conferences I’ve been to, I had options throughout the day to attend various sectionals. I was able to find interesting sessions to attend, which isn’t always the case at these local events.

One of today’s highlights was a session called Freewriting offered by a local poet/teacher who writes literary nonfiction, and is published here and elsewhere. After talking about the need to teach process (Planning, Translating, Reviewing) as well as product (grammar), and sharing some print resources with us, we did some freewriting ourselves. Freewriting is simply a warmup exercise, an exploratory private form that can help writers when they need to get started. The normal constraints about staying on topic don’t apply.

The “rules” for freewriting were taken from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind (1990):

  1. Keep your hand moving.
  2. Lose control.
  3. Be specific
  4. Don’t think.
  5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
  6. Feel free to write the worst junk in the world.
  7. Go for the jugular.

I think I knew about most of these guidelines already. But it didn’t hurt to hear them again. I must have been feeling energized because before we were even given the writing prompt, I was getting revved.

This is what I put in the notebook while I was listening to instructions for the freewrite:

Thinking about personal trajectories – about becoming – I’m thinking about who we are and how we know who to become. I suppose I’m thinking about that because this is a professional development day and I’m here as a “Teacher in Development” like a foreign country, or an urban renewal project.

I’m being cultivated to a purpose. Whose purpose? To become what?

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Worked for Me

Feb 08 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Is self-directed professional development possible? This is the story of how I got pulled into Borderland. Maybe Graham can use some of this as validation of his plan.

In January of 2003, I saw a flyer for a course, "œMultimedia for Teachers." I was nervous about signing up for it because I didn’t know anything about computers. Only 5 people enrolled in the course. The instructor had us look at the syllabus, and then he told us to tear it up. Then I knew this was going to be interesting.

We talked about what we wanted to learn. We agreed that making digital video would be a good starting point. We made slideshows with music and voice to create a mood. We walked around the building where the class met and shot video that we learned to edit. We messed around with these things for a couple of weeks and then our instructor introduced us to the idea of creating a vehicle that we could use to publish a multimedia project. He asked us to begin thinking about a larger project that would be multidimensional, and that would integrate audio, graphics, and text. I had no clear ideas for what I might do since I didn"™t know what alternatives were available. During the first few weeks the instructor introduced us to different software applications, but in the end we were free to choose which we wanted and how to use them.

I made a movie about a field trip my class made to the central kitchen where all of the school lunches are prepared. The kids were invited to work on the conveyor belt where the lunches are packaged. They loved seeing themselves in the movie. I edited it in class during their lunch period and projected it on the LCD projector while I worked, and the kids began to watch the film very closely. They noticed several inconsistencies. Notably, they saw that the lunches they were eating in the classroom were not the lunches we helped to make. I explained that I filmed the last half of the film before the first half.

"œEditing the film makes it easy to lie about what really happened," I told them. "œWe aren"™t showing what actually happened. We"™re telling a new story."

I began to think about this. Our film was not a reconstruction of our trip. It was an entirely new text. I was impressed by that because I learned how easy it is to lie with a video camera. Sequences of events can be manipulated. Audio tracks can be edited so that words can literally be put into people"™s mouths. Because people are so willing to accept what they see and hear, a person with a video camera can create a reality that never actually existed. I had no idea how easy it is to do that before making that video. After I finished making the video I began to explore ways of distributing video projects. The Hot Lunch story was off-limits for public distribution. The project began as a learning exercise for me, so I didn"™t take the time to plan what I might ultimately do with it. I didn"™t consider the copyright issues involved in using a commercial CD soundtrack, and I didn"™t get permissions from all of the students"™ parents to put them in a video.

I knew then, though, that video is a powerful medium for storytelling. I wanted to make movies with students that more people could see. The part of my multimedia class that required me to package multimedia projects led me to begin thinking about the internet as a vehicle. One of our class meetings introduced us to Macromedia"™s Dreamweaver and Fireworks. The programs were more complicated than iMovie. I found it difficult to simply open them up and begin creating things. So I went down to the University of Alaska"™s technology store and bought the Macromedia Studio MX software package. It came with Dreamweaver and Fireworks, and it also had Flash. My idea was that I would begin to work at home with these programs so that I could develop a web based project that would include short videos. [Still working on that!]

Each person in the class had a different idea. One woman made an iMovie of her wedding. Someone else made a website for her neighborhood. An art teacher built an art history presentation using Power Point. The remarkable thing about the class was that we became a mutual support group. I’ve never been in a class where there was more cheering! It was the most fun course I’ve ever attended. I worked hard at home. I learned to solve problems on my own. I came to class with questions about things I couldn’t figure out. I began reading computer manuals! The instructor moved around the room answering questions and helping to solve problems.

Graham, it sounds a lot like what you proposed. It worked for me, and for the other people in the group. I know that a more directed syllabus, the one we tore up and lost, would have been a drag.

From that class I developed interests in learning more about tools that I saw might be valuable to me. One thing led to another: Flash, Dreamweaver, PHP, Blogs and Wikis. Each thing came to seem important as I became more aware of a bigger range of possibilities. A lot of what I attempted was because I slowly began to see myself as capable of doing more. Now I’m just messin’ with the ultimate educational technology – curriculum – using a bigger toolbox than I used to have.

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Ohanian’s Outrages

Feb 07 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

Susan Ohanian has an article called The achievement gap between poor and middle-class black and white children, by Richard Rothstein, who is is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. This is a reasoned analysis of The Achievement Gap, and the logic behind it’s existence. Rothstein says

It seems plausible that if some children can defy the demographic odds, all children can, but that belief reflects a reasoning whose naiveté we easily recognize in other policy areas. In human affairs where multiple causation is typical, causes are not disproved by exceptions….Yet despite such understanding, quite sophisticated people often proclaim that the success of some poor children proves that social disadvantage does not cause low achievement. Partly, our confusion stems from failing to examine the concrete ways that social class actually affects learning.

In turn, Rothstein addresses gaps or differences in reading, conversation, role modelling, health, and housing as factors contributing to school failure for socially disadvantaged populations. Rothstein doesn’t settle for mere critique, though. He offers a sensible suggestion for reform

… a focus on school reform alone is bound to be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. To work, school improvement must combine with policies that narrow the social and economic differences between children. Where these differences cannot easily be narrowed, school should be redefined to cover more of the early childhood, after-school, and summer times, when the disparate influences of families and communities are now most powerful.

The improvement of instructional practices piece is important for all students, and teachers need to figure out how to best go about it. Hint: Forget about research-based bullshit. Screw the programs! Watch the kids. Let them read and write, and draw, sing, dance, and build. They’ll let you know if you’re on the right track. Make time each day to have friendly conversations with them at close range.

The social work needs to be done at a policy level and not left to the teacher.

Subscribe to Susan Ohanian’s newsletter, or simply check out her list of Outrages.

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We Don’t

Feb 04 2006 Published by under borderland

We Don't

More convinced than ever, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

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Feb 02 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

As soon as this semester is over, I’m going back to studying important subjects like grains and yeasts, one of the more useful things I’ve ever learned about. When I started on my scholarly jag in 2000 to get a MEd+36 credits, I didn’t expect much out of it besides money-advancement on the salary schedule. Before going back to school I’d been busy building a house, mushing dogs, and ice climbing…also managed to help make 3 babies in the space of 34 months. I’m on my last lap, almost done, finishing up the final four credits. The University’s Reading Endorsement Program for k-12 teachers came along at the perfect time for me. I got wrapped up in a lot of thinking about definitions of reading, the meaning of comprehension (Is there one?), epistemology, etc., and I’m thoroughly twisted now. Maybe after several kegs of “research” I’ll know what the hell I’m doing again. I used to believe I understood my job, but the more I’ve thought about it, the harder it’s gotten.

I started my students on a research project of their own a couple of weeks ago. I figured we might be able to study science and social studies at the same time, as well as use reading, writing and art – a messy multidisciplinary sort of effort. So far so good. I set up a web space for them to write to, and most of them are going strong with it. We’ve learned a little bit of basic fourth-grader economic theory, like what are resources, and how limited supplies creates the need to make choices. The kids are working their way through books about salmon, and now this week, they’re studying a bit about Alaska’s geographical regions. All the while, they’ve been publishing to our web space in any form they choose. Mostly fiction. I’ve been teaching them to take notes, but I haven’t told them what a research report looks like. Yesterday one of the boys told me that he wanted to write some salmon facts on our class site, Tell the Raven.

I told him, “Go ahead, but don’t write a bunch of separate things in a list because nobody will enjoy reading that.” I’m not sure if I said that he should try to make it a story. He sat down and wrote A Little Salmon Goes a Long Way. It’s a masterpiece. I’m impressed. I couldn’t have taught him to do this if I tried.

There is a cross-genre writing strategy called RAFT (Role of the writer, Audience, Format, Topic), which is really just an exercise in doing what all writers do; it can mix fiction and nonfiction, autobiography or speech-making as a way of making research reports more fun and interesting. I wanted to teach the kids to do this once they got some material together. But there’s nothing like having a good example on hand when you need one! I projected the story up on the screen in front of the class and we read it aloud. We discussed all of the good information that was so seamlessly integrated into the story. I did NOT tell anyone else to write one. I can’t wait to see all of the salmon stories they now want to write.

This job is fun when things seem to work.

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