Archive for April, 2006

A Year has Passed Since I Wrote My Note

Apr 30 2006 Published by under borderland,technology

Walked out this morning, don"™t believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I"™m not alone at being alone
Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home
I"™ll send an s.o.s. to the world
I"™ll send an s.o.s. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle…
(Sting & Police)

A little over a year ago while I was in my truck driving to work I had the great idea to set up a wiki for the state of Alaska. The whole state. I wrote up a proposal on a scrap of paper while I was idling at a back table during a staff meeting, and emailed it to Wikia. In less than a day I was the founder of a new wiki territory.

The Wild

The experience of starting such an ambitious project reminded me a lot of how it felt to take up residence on the property I moved onto outside of Fairbanks 18 years ago. The land was raw, without access to utilities, and I lived in a canvas wall tent from April to October while I figured out how to build what passed for a house. There was so much to do, I can’t imagine ever trying such a stunt again. Sooo… this is an update on my attempt to (virtually ) colonize a whole state.

I put out a blog post that I called Message in a Bottle that told how it felt then. I learned a few things about editing a wiki, and I think I may have also (just today) learned something about online communities. The editing for the wiki took a fair amount of time in the beginning because I wanted to establish a navigation structure. I found a couple of people to help me work on it, but I did most of the work. Over the months I worked out the category structure, and devoted some sporadic efforts to write articles for it, but the only action other than mine was reverting the edits of spammers. No community. Even the spammers seem to have been locked out. That’s good, but I’ve been wondering how I am ever going to get the thing going.

As a personality, I am not gregarious. I live happily in a world all my own out in the country, at the literal end of pavement in North America. I like to write, but normal forms of socializing (like, especially talking on the phone) I’m not especially comfortable with, unless I’m with people I know well. My hermit tendencies are not well-suited to promoting the wiki. I’ve wondered how long it would be before Wikia put the wiki up for adoption.

Fresh tracks

That may not be a problem due to some recent action that seems kind of promising. AlaskaPaul appeared out of nowhere yesterday with some fresh ideas for the site, and he’s been fearlessly making edits to it. That’s encouraging! Never mind that the tidy pages are now full of lists of places and subjects that don’t connect to anything yet. I’ll organize it. He can create all he wants. I welcome the disruption and embrace the chaos that I was looking forward to. Things were happening today. It was fun to see stuff appear there that I didn’t do.

We’ve exchanged emails, and I’m happy to see him take up the slack. He’s from a different region of the state, and that’s a good thing. Alaska is so large that there are significant differences in culture from one end to the other. I only know my own little corner, a point of view that had only limited value for anyone from a different region.

The first thing AlaskaPaul did was to find a list of every school in the state and paste their names in a list on a page called Schools. That was interesting, I thought. Why didn’t I think of it? See how having another person around stimulates an idea? So I took the list and used the wiki syntax to make each school name a link. Now I’m in the process of creating a page for every school in Alaska, and putting them each into a Schools category so that their pages will all be indexed. Making a page for each school is no big deal, other than clicking on the link and pasting the name of the school and the category tag into the page. When I’m done with that project, I’ll have made a web page for every school in Alaska!

I’m wondering what I can do to encourage people from those schools to edit their web pages. AlaskaPaul has helped me to see that I need to continue setting up infrastructure, as well as recruit people for this project. In the interest of capitalizing on this new wave of energy, I posted a announcement on the Alaska flickr group and the Alaskanbloggers frappr group, because I know those are two places where there are people who might have a clue about the internet, and who are also interested in Alaska.


These pages that are being generated in the wiki are like seeds. I’m hoping to set up enough pages that there might be resonance with some of them for a few people and prompt them to want to make it something of their own. It seems a little bit like fishing. I realize that to get this going now, I have to make it about other people and not about me, or what I’m interested in. To do that on a broad scale like for a whole state, it may be necessary to first create something that will seem a bit like a directory, or an almanac, that people will use to simply follow links to other sites of interest.

If, for instance, I made a bed and breakfast category, and made pages for all the bed and breakfast housing options there are in the state of Alaska, and notified the owners, the owners of those places might take an interest in maintaining the pages about their lodging facilities. Another idea that I floated past AlaskaPaul is that we could have a flea market where people could barter stuff. If the site supported an economy of some kind it might begin to work. In fact, that seems like a rule.

The site has to support an economy of some kind.

One of the problems I sense is that the mission is too broad to attract a coherent community of interests without breaking it down to support some practical functionality:

The Alaska Wikia features information about the physical, social, and cultural landscape of Alaska. It features information about Alaska that highlights both personal and scientific knowledge about the 49th state. The Alaska Wikia will inform visitors, researchers, and residents interested in learning more about this unique and diverse geographic region.

Nobody wants information for its own sake. It has to have a useful purpose. My neighbor who is a farmer told me that the day he could look on the internet to find out where he could get a truck load of horse manure, he’d be interested in using the internet. He’s the guy whose interests I need to target.

My real hope is for the schools pages, though. I’ve wanted all along to get kids from around the state more interested in what is going on here. My own students will be contributing more to our school page, and learning to link to projects from there. I wonder what the hook for teachers might be? I’m thinking.

Keep an eye on this project, if you’re interested in it. If anyone has any advice or commentary to offer, I’m open. Theres a lot here that I don’t yet understand. I still feel like I’m stumbling around on the beach, but I may have found a pathway in.

Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh…

3 responses so far

Effective Teaching

Apr 29 2006 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research

What is it that makes a teacher great?

An article from The Age, Learning from the Best attempts to answer that question. The article references an Australian government-funded study, In Teachers’ Hands: Effective Teaching Practices in The Early Years of Schooling (2005).

Given equal preparation and background knowledge, what are the qualities of a teacher who is able to engage students in deep and meaningful ways?

Outstanding teachers

  • draw on a wide repertoire of teaching practices;
  • explain activities more clearly,
  • have deeper subject knowledge,
  • maintain a high level of intellectual challenge for their students;
  • have fun.

From the list of great-teacher-attributes, I can see that a combination of training, high expectations, and enthusiasm seem to be the common denominators of effective teaching. The training provides the repertoire of practices and the deep subject knowledge that are necessary for a teacher to respond to a multitude of situations that require technical expertise. A high level of intellectual challenge is necessary to maintain student interest and satisfaction with the work they’re asked to do, and the ‘fun’ part…needs no justification.

William Louden, the lead researcher for In Teachers’ Hands, commented on the findings of the study.

“The most important finding of our study was that it is the teaching practices employed in the implementation of an activity, rather than the activity itself, that distinguishes between the more effective and less effective teacher.”

It is worth noting that these findings contradict efforts in the US to “teacher-proof” classroom lessons with scripted literacy programs.

Coincidentally, Wesley Fryer posted an article about a presentation by Dr. David Berliner on the effects of NCLB. I was curious to find out more about Berliner, who had so much ammunition to fire at the standardized testing movement. I found a few links to more work published by Berliner.

Developing expertise

In The Wonder of Exemplary Performances (1994), Berliner described expertise-how it develops, and what it looks like in practice.

In the domains in which they are acquiring their abilities, developing experts learn more from experience than do the rest of us….What is learned by the expert appears to be linked better to other knowledge….It also appears that such knowledge is more easily retrievable…and more transferable to new situations than is most other kinds of knowledge….In the domain in which they have acquired their unique skills, experts usually perform appropriately and effortlessly.

From studies of expertise, Berliner compiled a list of the attributes of experts, which I condense and abridge:

  1. Expertise develops over a long period of time.
  2. Development of expertise is not steady or continuous.
  3. Expert knowledge is structured for use.
  4. Experts recognize meaningful patterns.
  5. Experts are flexible.
  6. Experts are much more “top down processors.” Novices are misled by ambiguity and are more likely to be “bottom up” processors.
  7. Experts may start to solve a problem slower than a novice, but overall they are faster problem solvers.
  8. Experts develop self-regulatory processes as they engage in their activities.

Berliner noted that the research from which these propositions were derived analyzed the performance of experts in various fields, but neglected to include teachers. Berliner therefore extended the study to include the development of pedagogical knowledge, using a commonsense psychological framework that follows the development of expertise through stages of novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert levels of performance. He developed a set of propositions based on the above-mentioned general set, to describe the job performance of expert teachers.

Propositions concerning teaching and expertise

  • Expert teaching is heavily contextualized. Expert teachers depend on knowing their students, and have a thorough understanding of the subject matter being taught.
  • Expert teachers use routines to accomplish some of their teaching goals. For instance expert teachers were observed to introduce lessons in a way that was generalizable across many performances:
    1. They stated the objective of the activity.
    2. They gave clear directions about what the students would be doing.
    3. They created a positive environment, finding ways to increase student involvement.
  • Expert teachers are sensitive to task requirements and social constraints when solving problems. Expert teachers demonstrate concern for the ability, experience, and background of their students when planning their lessons, and they respond frequently to social cues provided by students during instructional periods.
  • Expert teachers are opportunistic and flexible. We’ve all heard of the “teachable moment,” and great teachers know how to seize and capitalize on those moments.
  • Experts have rich models for situations that allow them to understand problems in a more nuanced way. They describe problems creatively, and provide solutions based on sound teaching principles to problems they encounter. Expert understandings permit teachers to conduct a high quality task analysis of curricula and to estimate the difficulty of material their students are expected to learn.
  • Experts have fast and accurate pattern recognition. The ability to “read” a classroom and make appropriate inferences appears to be highly dependent on experience, which is often discounted in favor of “enthusiasm” when comparing new teachers with veterans.
  • Experts bring rich stores of knowledge to solving the problems they encounter.

Expertise in teaching can only be taught by example. Since developing expertise as a teacher is known to take about 5 years, school districts that offer mentoring and apprenticeship programs for new teachers may sooner realize the benefits to be derived from helping them to develop these skills rather than leaving them to “figure it out” on their own. We should always remember the most important “skill”…

Have fun!

“…I know the particulars of what I know only in an instrumental manner and am focally quite ignorant of them; so that I may say that I know these matters even though I cannot tell clearly, or hardly at all, what it is that I know.” (Polanyi, 1974, p. 88)

7 responses so far

Reading Wars

Apr 27 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,science

What bothers me about the Reading Wars is that they are political, not educational. Politicians empanel scientists to validate their beliefs about which methods are or are not effective, and then impose their views on teachers and students in the interests of what they claim to be a social need.

[link to Reading War article from Se Hace Camino Al Andar]

I thought we were over the discussion about whether phonics or whole language was the best way to teach reading. I thought the Republican, test-crazed, right had sealed the deal and ended the war, leaving only a few isolated pockets of the sociopsycholinguistic insurgency to support the alternative view of literacy as an active construction of meaning, as opposed to a view of knowledge as a received commodity. Check out this speech by James Boggs in 1977. An excerpt:

Every day it is becoming more painful for us to cope with the deterioration of our society because we continue to believe in concepts that were created by people at another state of history for completely different purposes – for example, in this case the concept of education to get a job which was begun in the late 19th Century as the Industrial Revolution was speeding up. Now we have come full-circle on the concept of education. Not only do we believe that education is something like money in the bank that you go to school and get, but we have lost touch with our own reality because we believe that what was true at one time in history remains true for all time…

[link to Boggs speech found a couple of links beyond a post by Brad Hoge.]

We need to keep speaking for ourselves. Somebody may eventually listen.

I should be happy that New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg mandated Balanced Literacy, because it reflects my own philosophical biases about what literacy is and must be for students to gain a critical purchase on the meanings they construct. Meaning is always constructed, whether we intend it to be or not. I think the meaning that’s in question here is the definition of reading itself. But I’m bothered that it is a political answer to a question of pedagogy.

We need to recognize that whether we like it or not, reading is political. It’s political in Australia. It’s political in the UK. It’s political in Egypt. I have to agree with Morag Fraser:

So much education policy…is driven by expediency, ideology or professional enthusiasm without empirical warrant. I don’t want to see any more accommodation of vested interest or political power games in research into teaching reading. But I do, desperately, want to know what works.

And to that I would only add that I want to know what works for me and my students. I can only know that by paying attention to what happens in my own classroom every day, and having the chance to make adjustments to what and how I teach. Resources, training, and the freedom to put them to use are the critical needs that teachers have.

18 responses so far

Who Knows Yet?

Apr 24 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy,technology

Vicki Davis has a great article about classroom blogging. She’s provided a bunch of links that I won’t have time to follow right away, and she touched on a subject that has been simmering on my back burner for a while now. As a teacher of elementary-aged students who have little experience as writers, very spotty access to computers at home, and limited access at school, I’ve been curious to learn what the kids would do with a chance to publish on the internet. I’ve had two different groups go at it, and they’ve each taken completely different directions. The first group wrote mainly personal narratives. My current crew is fascinated with fiction. I’ve tried steering them back to reality, but they are highly resistant. Both groups loved commenting on each others’ posts.

The classroom blogs have built community and reinforced a vision that the kids have of themselves as writers. As the teacher, I don’t (usually) tell them what to write, but I try to find out what they want to say, and help them do that.

I agree with Vicki’s position on what blogs and wikis are not, when she says that they are

  • NOT A place to just turn in papers – Papers are best turned in on… well, paper. You can mark up errors on paper and correct things. You don’t do that as well on blogs.
  • NOT A replacement for message boards. Message boards have their place.
  • NOT Something that will just sit there and run itself without teacher involvement. Not having to grade isn’t here.

I wonder if it isn’t a little early to make pronouncements about what blogs are, though. I think it’s good to talk about what they might be, because I’m intrigued with the idea that we might be developing an entirely new writing form.

As with everything else we do with kids in school, I think we should take a developmental approach to the kinds things students might use a blog for at their various ages and levels of ability and understanding.

I share Vicki’s preference for blog posts with links, and I’m looking for ways to help my students recognize the value of them as well. One of the problems we face with that, however, is that in the early stages of internet use (for little kids), they haven’t had a lot of experience doing anything much more than playing games online. Finding the time in school to let them explore the web is an invitation to goof off. We need to teach them how to read the web as well as write the web. It seems to me we have a long way to go before younger students begin to see the internet as an information resource, and not simply an entertainment opportunity. I’m not opposed to entertainment, but we’re talking about school now.

The problem with developing a pedagogy for the use of social software is that we don’t have a lot of examples yet because this is all relatively new. Teachers have generally not caught on, and neither have parents in my experience. The issue is compounded by the rapid pace of technological development, so that by the time we begin to get a handle on appropriate uses for the technology at different levels of schooling, we have new tools to work with.

I enjoy reading Vicki’s blog because it’s both passionate and practical (a recipe for success in any teacher). I think that she can shed some daylight (and where I live it’s coming on strong now) on the questions that I still have about how to get 10 year-olds proficiently using new technology tools for purposes of their own.

To begin with, though, I’m wondering what those authentic purposes might be? What form does responsible, but immature, participation in online conversations take? And what besides a teacher’s directive will set kids in motion? I see the need for developing a rationale as well as a method that is generally understood (nobody asks why we would use books or paper in school). There is still not consensus on why kids should be writing to the web in school. Many teachers see it, but not that many. And a lot of administrators don’t get it, which is a problem since without the endorsement of the leadership, relatively few teachers will want to explore the potential which the technology offers.

The great thing about being here early is that we get to see the whole party, and might even be able to influence the direction that things ultimately end up going.

7 responses so far

5 Essential Strategies for Reading the Web

Apr 23 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

When I started blogging about literacy education, I wasn’t focused on teaching reading with the internet. My assumption was that reading the web is essentially the same as any kind of reading. I’ve changed my mind about that. What follows is a lengthy, and perhaps overly academic analysis of reading theory applied to information and communication technologies. I’ve posted it as an attempt to catalog some practical guidelines for using digital texts in the context of reading instruction for K-8 students.

From Learning is Messy, Brian says that

What is missing are the models "“ the working, breathing, reproducible, intriguing models. We need ongoing models of all the power of what this looks like or we get nowhere.

I agree, and though we do have some good examples from K-12 teachers who write about instructional uses of blogs and wikis, we still lack a framework to guide our decision making for the use of ICTs. There is a general sense that we need to prepare kids for a networked future, which satisfies the rationale for broadening our definition of literacy, but we still haven’t (for me) adequately addressed the need for theoretical models that will provide us with general principles for the instructional use of web-based tools and information.

Will asked an important question (a few, really) about how reading is different on the internet than in conventional ink and paper texts. Among several questions that Will asked, I find these most interesting:

How is reading literacy changed by the social creation of highly distributed digital texts on the Web?….If they are reading them in the same way that they are reading a book, isn"™t that a problem?….Should they be reading to engage the ideas that are being presented?….Once we"™ve figured out how to "œread" Wikipedia and blogs and the like, how do we learn (and teach) how to write it as well?

I hear these questions as an expression of need for a theoretical model for reading instruction, as opposed to content instruction, with digital texts. An article in the latest edition of Reading Teacher addressed this question with a detailed description of the skills we need and should teach students to effectively read the web. In a study conducted from a New Literacies Perspective, Laurie Henry outlined and discussed these

strategies necessary for reading the web:

  1. identifying important questions;
  2. locating information;
  3. critically evaluating information;
  4. synthesizing information;
  5. communicating answers.

Henry focused on search strategies, but discussed the others as well. After considering what I found in the article, I’m rethinking my view of literacy instruction with ICTs. It’s time to think about the practical considerations for teachers who want to teach lessons using internet tools and resources. New literacies will require a new instructional focus. We might consider this a necessary part of David Warlick’s new story about implementation. Fundamental literacy comprehension and decoding skills remain as important as ever, and a new literacy perspective entails addition, but not replacement, of literacy skills to the reader’s toolbox. (Leu, 2004)

Laurie Henry’s article, SEARCHing for an Answer: The Critical Role of New Literacies While Reading on the Internet, is the model for this outline of strategies needed to read the web.

Identifying Important Questions

Identifying important questions involves goal-setting. A proficient researcher is someone who can effectively define the need for specific information. This should be considered the initial stage of searching. From an inquiry perspective, the questions that frame a research project are critical to the success of an investigation. Teachers can help their students with this stage by providing them with guiding questions to help them set a focus for their search.

Locating Information

Henry argued that locating information may be the most essential of all skills for students to learn since without the ability to locate suitable sources, no further progress is possible. Effective searching is a “gatekeeper skill in online reading” since other reading skills are not needed until relevant information is found (Henry, p. 616).

Strategies that are useful for guiding students toward information that suits their needs include:

  • Search engine strategies – We need to help students understand how to use search engines, and provide them with opportunities to compare results from different engines. We can use sites like Walt’s Navigating the Net Forum and NoodleTools that help us compare search engines to determine which search engine fits the needs of a particular investigation. Experimenting with different search engines and comparing results is also a worthwhile activity.
  • Activating prior knowledge – A fundamental strategy for comprehension in any context is activating schema. When we link what we already know to new information, we are more likely to understand and remember what we are learning because we have personalized the meaning. This assumption underlies constructivist learning theories. Concept (semantic) maps, KWL (what I KNOW, what I WANT to learn, what I LEARNED) charts, and think-pair-share partner discussions are techniques for activating schema.
  • Understanding the function of keywords – The activation of prior knowledge can also help generate appropriate keywords for a search. Students can learn to use keywords to search for the exact phrase they want to find, or to eliminate unnecessary keywords.

Learning to analyze the results of a search that might yield thousands of results in order to determine which links to follow, and whether the search terms they used were relevant to their goals involves:

  • Making inferences – From a list of search results, readers need to determine which of the links presented will most likely yield information relevant to the seach goals;
  • Reading URLs – URLs contain the suffixes .edu, .org, .com, .net, etc. and can provide other information about the possible contents and format of the linked file;
  • Skimming for relevant terms and their meanings – Students must learn to search by navigating back and forth from search results to the linked pages until they have the information they are searching for.

Compounding the challenge faced by readers with limited background knowledge for a given topic is a challenge posed by the internet itself, a hyperlinked network authored by millions. Readers must expect any of a limitless variety of potential text structures to present themselves at the end of any particular link. Teaching students to analyze text structures and the conventions of web page construction is therefore a useful strategy. Knowing about sidebars, navbars, headers, footers, titles, hyperlinks, and image maps as well as the features available in different browser applications are all useful understandings for students as they become proficient web readers.

Critically Evaluating Information

Because the internet permits anyone to publish information, students need to learn how to determine whether a source is reliable. In addition to assessing the relevance of any particular information source,

  • Students need to make judgments about the intended audience, whether the website is associated with a particular institution, the copyright or date of the last revision, and the expertise and point of view of the author so that they can determine the nature and validity of any claims made on the site.
  • After students become familiar with basic web page structures, a list of guiding questions can help them begin learning how to judge the quality of information they find.
  • Students can be given the chance to visit reputable websites as well as sites that are completely fallacious.

Synthesizing Information

Synthesizing information involves taking information from multiple sources and transforming it to suit specific purposes. Synthesizing information means making intertextual connections between diverse information sources and forming common threads of meaning. Proficient readers make intertextual links between ideas, events, and people, as well as social, political, and historical connections. Synthesis involves the integration of diverse texts and prior knowledge, and allows readers to extend the meanings of existing texts in the construction of new meanings (Marshall, 2000).

Communicating Answers

Readers may need to communicate the meanings they have constructed. Students should learn the procedures for citing information sources they used in the construction of written texts. They can be taught the protocols for using copyrighted material, as well as how to cite the sources used.

Putting it Together

Henry recommended using internet scavenger hunts to practice these web reading strategies in school. I saw the value in doing so, and found a hunt that is based on Alaska geography, which is a curricular focus for my fourth-graders. I posted the scavenger hunt on our classroom website, and modified the assignment to include an opportunity for the students to create questions of their own. This is a challenging assignment for my students. From my observations, there are a host of problems ranging from reading web pages to using a web browser. Another wrinkle for the kids is that the school purchased new mobile laptop carts, and students are still getting comfortable simply operating the computers. They like the assignment, though, and we may be able to spend a few weeks with it.

The reading strategies outlined here constitute an instructional agenda that would require years of effort to fully explore with students. I have, for some time now, believed that we need a developmental framework for the introduction of technology resources, both actual and virtual, for young students. One of the major problems with an outline of specific exercises for students learning to use information technologies, though, is that the technologies themselves are not static. Therefore any description of what is necessary to prepare students to develop new literacies will inevitably become obsolete. Formulating a theory of reading for the web is in every sense like aiming at a rapidly moving target. The definition of literacy itself will change as we encounter new technologies and newly imagined purposes for them (Leu, Kinzer, et al., 2004).


4 responses so far

Bearing Witness

Apr 19 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

I have an adult daughter who lives in San Francisco. She’s an actress, and she got involved with a street ministry called the Faithful Fools when she began performing a one-woman show called The Witness. I would have little understanding of what a street ministry was if she hadn’t sent me a book, Bearing Witness, by Bernie Glassman, which is about a community of social activist Zen Buddhists.

I’m proud of my kid for having the pluck and the desire to follow her instinct to learn more about herself and those who are daily shunned by the rest of us. She walked the talk by taking the courageous and deliberate step to go on a week-long street retreat in San Francisco. I’m happy to report that she is back home and thoughtfully reflecting on what I imagine would be one of the more powerful experiences an educated middle-class young woman might have. It makes professional development workshops for teachers seem kind of wimpy, when I think about it.

Glassman founded the Zen Peacemaker Order, whose basic tenets are:

  • Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about self and the universe.
  • Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world.
  • Healing self and others.

A couple of examples of their activity that I recall from the book included a journey to meditate in a Nazi death camp, and the practice of doing street retreats, in which they live among the urban homeless as a way of gaining insight into the common threads that join people.

The Faithful Fools provide a quote from a book by Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings that helps to explain the value of service to others.

"œService rests on the basic premise that the nature of life is sacred"¦Fundamentally, helping, fixing, and service are ways of seeing life. When you help you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected. All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy"¦Service goes beyond expertise. Service is another way of life. Service is a relationship between equals"¦In helping, we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving, we have an experience of gratitude"¦ When we serve, we discover that life is holy"¦Service is closer to generosity than it is to duty"¦Over the long run, fixing and helping are draining but service is renewing.”

This message is powerful to me because it emphasizes the need to maintain a positive outlook, and to nonetheless remain mindful of the suffering that we encounter each day in many of our classrooms. Sometimes the job seems overwhelming, and I ask myself how I could ever have imagined that I had anything to contribute. In the face of problems so great as those that some of my students have already experienced and continue to suffer, I wonder how I could hope to make a difference. But then I read these words from people who offer me a new way to look at what I do. New faith. New hope. New resolve.

Another example of bearing witness presented itself recently in a comment by Rachel Armour to one of my blog posts, The Achievement Gap. Rachel told an amazing tale of living in the Chicago Housing Authority and attending Chicago’s public schools. I don’t want her story to be buried in the comments, so I’m pointing to it directly. Rachel’s tale is profoundly moving, and should be read by anyone interested in education reform. She offered a bit of advice for teachers on the subject of healing.

I spent about 9 years in the Chicago Public School System and my memories are as clear as day. I remember the good teachers who encouraged me and told me "œBlack is beautiful," and to "œbe yourself." On the other hand, I remember the teacher who called nearly every child in class, "œdumb and stupid." I really needed the reassurance that my dark skin was beautiful because I was constantly taunted by other children. Of course kids will be kids, so my self-esteem was as low as sub-freezing temperatures….Making a child feel they are valued makes a huge difference in the way they view you as an educator and the way they view themselves. We should start overcompensating for what our children lack at home. It may not be in our job description as educators, but it must be in the prescription to medicate and cure our children from a plague called the achievement gap.

What kind of story am I telling on Borderland? Is it a reformer story? I suppose, yes. But I hope that it’s more than that. I want to shine a light on problems so that we can perhaps begin to understand them and grow from that knowledge. I want to discuss implementation, as well as reform because literacy is a doorway to the self. Self knowledge is what students remember us for. I firmly believe that students remember teachers mostly for how we made them feel, and not for what we tried to teach them. I want to celebrate our humanity, and to urge that we look to one another for reassurance that we’re doing what is necessary to bring the world forward out of darkness, fear, hatred, and suffering comes from forgetting who and what we are. We don’t need tests’ results to tell us that, unless the tests are the kind that can be read in the smile on a child’s face, or in the sound of laughter, or an “Aha!” moment, all of which are magical to a teacher. I’m writing to simply bear witness to my experience as a teacher, whatever that might mean.

3 responses so far

The Men That Don’t Fit In

Apr 16 2006 Published by under borderland

from The Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

3 responses so far

Democratic Tensions

Apr 16 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

I started thinking about this after I read Nani’s, Se Hace Camino Al Andar post pointing to Deborah Meier’s article, Education for What? I didn’t know anything about Deborah Meier until a week ago when I read Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, in which he mentioned Meier. I looked for more information about her, and I found that Meier’s view of testing and standards closely mirrors my own. More of her writings can be found on her website.

It's a Secret

A post on One Trick Pony pointed me to It’s a Secret, an animated political cartoon by Matt Wuerker that emphasizes the need for citizens to reclaim a voice in the public discourse. Democracy is used in very different senses by Meier and by the Bush administration, a thought that was triggered by the animation. I began to wonder about the power of a word that has become near sacred in its power to confer license on all manner of official policies.

The word democracy gets thrown around so much that its meaning has been rendered ideologically incoherent. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education has an article called education for democracy that helped me clarify this pool of muddled meaning. There are at least two ideological frames for democracy, and it’s important to understand them because they have very different implications for education and the type of society we are creating.

a dichotomy

The contemporary sense of democracy, the meaning that we typically see in official information sources and mainstream media, is that democracy is a representative system of government. This meaning of democracy comes from a belief in market economies and hierarchically-ordered power relations. From this point of view schools are sites for the transmission of information and the production of both leaders and workers who can service the needs of systems and institutions. Citizens are then taxpayers who are publicly invested. Within this frame, schools are accountable to a bottom line and human beings are thereby commodified, becoming human resources with quantifiable social and cognitive attributes.

The classical, romantic, sense of democracy

“envisages a society that itself is intrinsically educative and in which political socialization is a distinctively educative process…

in which

there is a focus on liberal education, a curriculum which fosters forms of critical and explanatory knowledge that allow people to interrogate social norms and to reflect critically on dominant institutions and practices.”


Divergent views of democracy produce starkly divergent outcomes in schools. Classical democracy encourages communication and deliberation about the values that regulate social constructions, while representative democracy channels discourse through pyramidal organizational structures. In terms of classroom pedagogy the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy is the difference between process and product-oriented instruction. Socially it is the difference between an emphasis on community as opposed to reliance on authoritarian control. Politically we see differences between regulation by distributed power, and accountability to a centralized administration.


Preparing students to participate as workers, consumers, or voters for some future need ignores the real interest they have in actively authoring identities for themselves in the present. A focus on classroom community and social literacies, such as storytelling, art, writing, and other mediated forms of personal expression encourages students to form human connections within their various communities. From this vantage they can begin to critically examine the norms that shape their world. Teachers who still retain sovereignty over their instructional decision-making can create a classroom environment that fosters a classical democratic spirit. What is necessary is a shift of emphasis away from authority, and a willingness to negotiate the sharing of power.

3 responses so far

Opening Fortune Poems

Apr 13 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

After a couple of days ripping into the newspaper, it was time for the kids to create something with the words they collected. This was a crux move, and I confess I didn’t know quite how to make it happen. Groups had envelopes marked nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other, all with at least a few words in them. As a sorting and language activity, the word-collection process was a great thing. As a meaning-making effort, I’m not sure.

I noticed yesterday that some of the groups had very few words in their envelopes. Those kids must have had as much fun reading the paper as looking for headlines. One group lost all of their adjectives. I was told that maybe they got put in the trash by accident. I asked the class if they thought they needed more time to cut out more words. A few heads nodded. I also heard a few groans. It was time to move on.

I briefly talked about discovery. Then I said that we were going to explore a way to make new meanings with the words we collected. I passed around construction paper in various colors, and the kids dumped their words into the middle of their tables and started arranging them on the paper. It was instantly fun. They seemed to get it right away. After noticing

“Great Day Begins”

Great Day

one little guy announced

“Hey, this is like a fortune cookie!”

There was a lot of exclaiming and reading aloud all around. The room was lively and conversational. It seemed like a slam dunk, but now I wonder what they learned. Most of the kids found some interesting phrases. At the same time, many of them just filled up the paper with wacky phrases until they ran out of space. A few simply glued words down without regard to what they said.

I need to ask them what they thought about this little project. Sometimes getting direct feedback is the best way to evaluate a lesson. Maybe they’ll want another try, but we’d need to cut more words out of the paper and I’m not sure anyone’s up for more of that. Maybe I could offer some incentives for high volume cutting.

What I needed was a plan for structuring the exploration process while everyone was laying out their words. To do it again, properly, I’ll do a demonstration for the whole class and construct a piece with them. Then I can ask some leading questions that might encourage the kids to explore new possibilities. Now that I think about it, this is really a form of inquiry. I didn’t know how to explain to them what they should look for. The few who understood word play seemed to recognize the good stuff when they found it. Like telling a joke, a fair amount of sophisticated background knowledge is necessary to make this activity work.

They should know about metaphor.

Found Poem

Part of the process has to be about knowing when to quit. Sometimes the kids just get carried away and any possible meaning gets lost in random abstractions, or the paper gets too busy.

Knowing when to quit applies to the teacher as well as the students. I don’t know if I’m ready to move on yet, though.

…good thing nobody’s testing me on this.

Suggestions and comments welcome.

5 responses so far

Found Headline Poems

Apr 11 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

For anyone who has done this lesson or another one like it, I’d be interested in a reaction or suggestion because this is the first time I’ve taught a lesson on found poems. It’s not revolutionary or novel, except to me. My interest in teaching poetry this year was prompted by a new understanding of transmediation, and the role that it plays in the construction of meaning. I’m curious to find out what kinds of new meanings my students will make when given the chance to “rewrite” the news.

I took a large box of old newspapers and magazines to school today for the raw material we need. I taught a quick lesson on nouns, adjectives, and verbs before I passed out envelopes to groups of 4 or 5 students. They had an envelope for each of those categories, and then one extra envelope that they could reserve for ??? (unknown) words. it really doesn’t matter if they correctly categorize the words, the envelopes just give them a felt need to think about them analytically. I overheard one littel girl say that the same word could go into different envelopes depending on how it was used. Yup! The ??? (unknown) category was there as a way of keeping the sorting process moving along by relieving the fear of making a wrong decision. Most of the kids tried hard to be correct with which envelope they filed the words into. I showed them what newpaper headlines are, and asked them to cut out as many headline words for each category as they could find.

The groups functioned perfectly. As a cooperative sorting activity for identifying parts of speech, this went great! Over and over I heard, “Is [blank] a noun?” and so on. The room buzzed with hundreds of decisions that were made over the course of about 30 minutes. If I tried this without the promise of making a poem at the end of the process, I don’t think it would have generated as much interest as it did. There won’t be enough words to make many poems when we begin tomorrow, so I expect we’ll have to cut some more before we begin composing.

The next step (after we’re done cutting the words out) will be to arrange them in phrases that are thematically related. I’ll give the kids some colorful construction paper to put the words on. Once they’re glued down, we can scan our found poems and publish them. Maybe we’ll perform them, too.

6 responses so far

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