Archive for November, 2006


Nov 30 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

A simple way to introduce HTML, and
Concisely play with language
Related to a topic,
Or even just a word, that
Take an
Interest in – a form of

Acrostics are apparently an ancient form. They’re also a new way to deliver a punch line, or an epithet.

One response so far

On Anonymous Student Blogging

Nov 29 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Jeff Utecht needs a little help understanding the difference between using a pseudonym on a blog and being deceptive. He asks

What is the difference between us telling a student to use a fake name on their blog or on the web and a 13 year old pretending to be 18 on myspace? We teach them to be safe on the web, to hide their identity to basically "˜lie"™ about who they are.

Since I’ve chosen the pseudonymous path with my group, I have something to say about this. First of all, a pen name is not “basically a lie.” It is not meant to deceive. A pseudonym is simply a cover or shield, and not an impersonation. Many authors – Mark Twain, Dr. Seuss, Lemony Snicket, Lewis Caroll, to name a few, and countless rappers have used pseudonyms. Kids are not confused by this.

There is much more to a person’s identity than his name. Our voices, interests, our associations with other people and places, all speak to who we are. People can reveal a lot about themselves without using a real name, or a full name, and the use of any particular name doesn’t imply the construction of a false identity. Prinicples of ethics and safety apply regardless of what we name ourselves.

Identity construction is a personal matter, and something that teachers should be conscious of with students – especially young students who are still quite naive about personal disclosures. I don’t think this is as much about safety or honesty, as about respect for privacy as students learn what it means to create an online presence. The power relationship between teacher and student could compromise our sudents’ desires for privacy if they feel compelled to reveal their names (even just their first names) to support the teacher’s beliefs about being forthright. What choices do they have left in school, after all, when even simple attendance is compulsory? Using pen names may be a conservative approach, but it’s not necessarily dishonest or deceptive.

When I opted to use my own name on my blog, in the beginning, it was a conscious decision that I made freely, weighing the implications of a choice that I barely understood at the time. I think my students should have the benefit of some experience and time to grow before they make their own choices. There’s a difference, we all recognize, between lying and keeping some things private.

5 responses so far

Google Reader

Nov 28 2006 Published by under borderland,technology

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been messing with Google Reader as an alternative to my Bloglines feed aggregator.

Though it was simple to export and upload the Bloglines feeds, it was a day or so before I located the [mark all as read] button, in plain sight, and I could stop deleting the old stuff I didn’t want to read again. Simple.

I’m a little blind sometimes, so I needed Tom Hoffman’s post to point out the Shared Items feature that allowed me to generate a feed of things I’ve read and chosen to share, but that I may, or may not, want to comment on. I subscribed to Tom’s Shared Items because he reads a mix of stuff that will no doubt prove interesting. It’s a little bit like the where you can sift through the gems (and the junk) that other people unearth.

There’s also a feature available from the top of the Your Shared Items Page that you can use to “share your Google Reader items with readers of your website.” There was even a style (khaki) that kind of works with my color scheme.

I like when these things talk to each other. Now I have a new little gimmick running in the sidebar.

2 responses so far

Dismantle NCLB

Nov 23 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

From Susan Ohanian:

The Educator Roundtable: Ending NCLB is a grassroots movement of educators, parents, and concerned citizens who have signed a petition, rejecting the misnamed No Child Left Behind Act and calling for legislators to vote against its reauthorization. We do so not because we resist accountability, but because the law’s simplistic approach to education reform wastes student potential, undermines public education, and threatens the future of our democracy.

Jonathan Kozol, who spoke here recently, called NCLB a public shaming ritual to punish the public schools and to pave the way for vouchers. Since it’s inception, I’ve said that this law was never about improving public education. It’s emphasis on high-stakes testing is driving us toward mediocrity, and not excellence. Indeed, the achievement gap is not closing.

Testing is not teaching. Sign the petition here.

6 responses so far

For the Gift of Work

Nov 21 2006 Published by under borderland

Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier than Students of Zen

In the high seat, before-dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging on Poorman creek.
Thirty miles of dust.

There is no other life.

Gary Snyder

2 responses so far

Time on Task

Nov 20 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Accounting for knowledge gained is a stumbling block we face in education, as well as in real life, which we all recognize as being separate from one another. Learning is so incremental that it usually doesn’t show up on the books, as it were, until there’s been a sizable accumulation, or until some contingency demands an application of it that we hadn’t thought possible.

I’m thinking now, about what I should look for in my students’ writing that shows they are getting it as writers. In my previous post I said that I wanted them to engage in conversations that matter. More specifically, I’d like to see them responding to conversations, events, books, movies, web pages, or ideas from wherever they find them, rather than simply Expressing Themselves, which is how their writing looks to me, since it never references any context.

This leads me to my next puzzle, which is to figure out how to help students become New Media Virtuosos in the space and time we have available during the school day with the resources that we have on hand, and the personnel I’ve been assigned. Already we are strapped for time to perform all our normal curricular duties. Some might suggest the solution lies in longer school days, year ’round school, or some other official manipulation of the schedule. Others might lobby for more access to resources. Others, more cynical than I, might suggest I try different students. I don’t see it that way, as a rule. Fewer, or different curricular duties, however, is a consideration.

Teachers won’t go for for more hours of school unless there’s more pay. And since paying teachers to teach longer will cost a heap of money, as will buying everyone computers, the school administration helps us stay on top of the workload by producing Time Management Guidelines and Pacing Guides. They spell out how long each thing we have to teach should take so we can do what we need to be doing, for the right amount of time.

To the teacher who points out some of the practical difficulties of cramming the required information into the heads of kids who won’t listen, who have to go to the bathroom or get a drink, or who want to know if it’s snack time, the curriculum coordinators recommend “cross-curricular” lessons. We should apply multiple objectives to a lesson, and thereby “cover” all the curriculum goals, they say.

This always sounds like encouragement to do a little creative bookkeeping. In the real world, it makes me think about what what would happen if I tried to pack more things into my vacation luggage than it would hold. My solution, if I thought I needed all of it, would be to see how many clothes I could wear at once. I might look a bit odd and overstuffed getting onto the plane. I might also be rather uncomfortable, and although I wouldn’t be outfitted to do anything useful, I could still say, “Hey, I made it all fit!”

Still, even without cross-curricular lessons, we have to be mindful of what’s actually happening. Much of the school day is frittered away on non-curricular activities like Going to the Bathroom, Sharpening Pencils, Lining Up, and my favorite – Making People Listen. I agree with the belt-tighteners and the budget streamliners who say that eliminating waste pays dividends, so I regularly campaign for more rigorous classroom norms. I tighten up on discipline. I emphasize getting things done. I clamp down on unnecessary talk. I refine routines. I strive for efficiency, which lasts for about 15 minutes, after each of my spirited 5 minute speeches.

The crux of the matter is one and the same as what politicians and policy makers bent on reform face every day. I have to distinguish the necessary from the extraneous, which is really a question of values. I’m thinking about the allocation of time for various kinds of talk, which is a kind of resource. What talk, I wonder, should be encouraged as necessary and vital for my students’ development as writers and readers and thinkers, and what should be discouraged as superfluous and trivial?

For students to participate in conversations that matter, they need to (a) say things that are important to them, which are (b) also recognizable as academic speech. This doesn’t have so much to do with technology as it does with norms for the oral text of the classroom. And how does that happen? How can classroom discourse be engineered so that it (c) produces the kinds of talk we want to hear, from the kinds of people we work with, who will do the kinds of things we want them to do, and learn the things we value? Scripted curricula are a top-down solution to this problem in many elementary schools, and the tasks they define do (d) None of the Above.

I find myself doing a little back and forth shuffle with the classroom writing project. It’s not exactly process writing, but there’s a process that wobbles back and forth between the skills and self-expression, as I look for the balance point in teaching kids to think creatively, strategically, and still to become fluent in the academic disciplines, which require structured knowledge. Marco Polo, who teaches in Japan, is wrestling with this question. What interested me is that he cited James Herndon, whose work I’ve also been reading.

Marco referenced Lisa Delpit, as well. Her book, Other People’s Children, criticized certain interpretations of process writing as disadvantaging for black students. Delpit wasn’t critical of process writing per se. She attempted to make her position clear by saying

I certainly do not suggest that the writing process to literacy development is wrong or that a completely skills-oriented program is right. I suggest, instead, that there is much to be gained from the interaction the of the two orientations and that advocates of both approaches have something to say to each other.

In my searching for James Herndon references, I found this 1972 excerpt from a book by Jonathan Kozol in which he shares a similar insight about literacy instruction for minority students.

It is not necessary, in speaking about reading, to adhere to either of two irresponsible positions. It is as much an error to say that learning is never the consequence of conscious teaching as it is to imagine that it always is.

It comes down to the fact that kids need to be taught the skills they need to join the conversations that matter. Some of those skills are practical, and some are more indefinite. The teacher has to lead the way in this effort. We can tinker with time and pace, but task is the real issue. Controlling the pace does nothing to alter the course. When students appropriate literacy practices, it’s their choice as to how and when. That’s what appropriation means. The teacher has to show them how to use the tools, and also familiarize them with the discourse.

We need to invite more talk, more stories about more things that matter, into the classroom, because talk is the text that all academic discourse springs from. Conversations with kids begin in the classroom, in face-to-face dialog, and they spiral out from there. These days they can circle the globe in an instant.

I talk about talk every day. The kids learn what is mine, what is theirs, and what is coming from somewhere else. We should make time for all of it. It’s a task that is constantly at hand.

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Models of Writing Development

Nov 17 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

Yes, students should learn to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, as it says in our writing standards, but the options for various audiences at school have always been limited by the social environment. Ah, but we have the internet now, and I’m thinking about how my students’ development as writers can be nurtured when ‘audience’ has so many new possibilities, and when topics aren’t constrained by traditional authority structures.

In order to reach an understanding of writing for a digital age, it may help to look at the traditional models of writing development in order to gain a historical perspective. Alternative Models of Writing Development, by Arthur N. Applebee from Perspectives on Writing (Roselmina Indrisano and James R. Squire, editors) offers a good overview of the traditional approaches to writing instruction.

Applebee found that conventional writing development involves a combination of four different instructional strands:

  • purposes for writing,
  • fluency and writing conventions,
  • the structure of the final product,
  • strategic knowledge.

When looking at purposes for writing, we need to recognize that school writing has traditionally included both literary and expository texts, each of which leads to different ways of making meaning. Expository writing begins for children at an early age with their natural expressive language, and becomes increasingly formalized as they get older, when writing is used to satisfy curricular goals.

Fluency, regardless of purpose, is another common instructional focus for writing in school. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are all components of written language that fall into this category.

Emphasis on structural patterns have guided writing instruction as well, and have addressed various forms such as compare/contrast, comment and elaboration, the five paragraph essay, and genre studies. Applebee mentioned Australian Genre Theory in this context. Explicit instruction in text genres has been linked to concerns for social justice, and democratizing pedagogy, under the assumption that the explication of various genres is key to success in schooling, since it might enable writers from disadvantaged cultural backgrounds to master written forms that are considered requisite for attaining positions of power in society.

Strategic writing, the subject of my previous post, is sometimes known as process writing. Instruction in “the writing process” commonly emphasizes the various steps toward a final product that a writer might use, which typically (from an instructional standpoint) include prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. There are also meaning and decision-making strategies that include more than just writing, and which were the subject of my earlier thinking about the kinds of knowledge writers use.

In general, getting students to use strategies for any official purpose has been problematic, since it requires unconventional assignments to stimulate creative decision making. Applebee speculated that ordinary tasks, such as those required on school assessments, don’t present students with challenges that are compelling enough to induce them to use composing strategies. In my experience, students don’t use these writing strategies voluntarily because they don’t see them as strategies, but as hoops to jump through to satisfy the teacher and complete an assignment.

A limitation common to all of the traditional instructional models, according to Applebee, is that they are implemented outside of an authentic context. He proposes an alternative model for writing instruction situated in social action which may prove fruitful in guiding us toward an instructional stance which is relevant to contemporary needs. He summarizes this position as a matter of learning how to take action within a domain:

Taking action within a domain involves learning the genres that structure it as well as all of the kinds of knowledge previously discussed"”fluency, appropriate uses of language, structural knowledge, and strategic processes. It also requires, however, knowledge of content and procedures appropriate to the domain"”that is, knowledge of what is interesting and important and relevant in order to partake in the ongoing conversation about significant ideas….If we want students to participate in important conversations, then we must help them write in ways appropriate to those conversations. And we must judge their development as writers in terms of their ability to participate with increasing effectiveness in an increasingly wide array of culturally significant domains for conversation (Applebee, 1996).

So, the challenge is to develop and maintain conventional writing skills, and to help students understand how to “write in ways that are appropriate to those conversations” that we want them to join. Those conversations are to be found in the traditional disciplines of academia, but they are also to be found in the transit of cultures that the internet so effortlessly allows. Our job as teachers has never been more richly promising, because we’ve gained the capability to effortlessly bridge both time and distance.

Our job as teachers has also never been more frustratingly confounding because students will have to be freed – at least occasionally – from their role as students, and learn to assume other points of view. They can also be citizens sending emails to politicians, as product reviewers, as movie critics, as screenplay writers, as comedians, as historians, or as social activists for their pet causes. To understand the relevant conversations, students are going to need to both read and write as they monitor a variety of information sources, to listen and speak, to plan and report in ways that encourage independent thinking.

What are the literacy practices that make sense for students now? I’m looking for the most basic basics. They will emerge, first and foremost, out of the oral text that is the core of all learning, the discourse of the classroom. Tom Hoffman’s suggestion for a theoretical model is appealing because it’s language-based, rather than method, or technology dependent, and I believe that writing grows out of our natural expressive language. Honest purposeful expression is always a form of social action.

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Writing about Thinking about Writing

Nov 12 2006 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

We may hear that students are motivated to write, or that their writing is more “authentic,” when they have a real purpose. We may observe that when students publish their work online, they enjoy getting comments from their classmates, teachers, family members, and even strangers who read their work, and they become more interested in writing. But I wonder about the students’ perception of audience, and how much thought they put into the needs and expectations of their readers.

Since the read/write web has interactive potential, I believe that online publishing gives teachers a powerful opportunity to help students think about their audience. From what I see, though, the writing that my students now choose to publish online is much the same as writing that they’ve always done. I’d like to see them demonstrate some awareness of their audience by clarifying the context for what they’ve chosen to write, and to make revisions on their own.

A chapter called Becoming Strategic [pdf] from the book, Strategic Writing by Deborah Dean, has me thinking about how to help my students become more thoughtful writers. Dean outlined 3 kinds of knowledge that are important for writers:

  • Declarative knowledge – knowing about something; writers need to know the difference between nouns and verbs, what adjectives are for, and what a paragraph is, among many other things. Writers must also know something about their subject matter.
  • Procedural knowledge – knowing how to do something; writers must know they should begin sentences with capital letters, how to use topic sentences, and how to summarize their ideas, etc.
  • Conditional knowledge – knowing when; writers have to make decisions about word choice, and the expectations of their readers, given the context for any given piece of writing. They have to think about the effect that whatever they write may have upon their imagined audience.

After I read this, I thought about my own writing, and I realized that I’ve given little direct instruction to my students in thinking about issues that will help them to become strategic writers, themselves.

Dean said that

Just doing something doesn"™t automatically make us better at it, especially if we do whatever it is under duress or unwillingly or without concern for effectiveness, the way too many students approach writing….Repetition combined with instruction or direction or modeling or scaffolding can help, though. And that"™s what teaching strategic writing should encourage"”not just assigning writing but practicing it with strategies and then considering the effectiveness of those strategies. It means teaching writing rather than simply causing it.

And I was reminded of Bill Kerr’s recent blog post, immersion plus, in which he made a case for effortful study.

I just said, immersion works. But immersion doesn’t always work. I’ve spent time working in factories and knew workers there who had lived in Australia for 20 years and who still spoke poor English…. Just putting in more hours (immersion) is not the same as effortful study with clear goals to improve one’s understanding.

The goal of strategic literacy learning is to help students develop an understanding of how texts work, and to learn to produce a variety of text forms for different audiences and purposes. Dean offered specific ideas for helping students to become reflective writers. Summarizing her list of techniques, these are a few of the several she offered:

  • Using a metaphor to develop an idea
  • Using art to generate ideas
  • Using drawing to clarify or organize ideas
  • Using questioning to develop ideas
  • Talking to develop an idea
  • Researching to develop content
  • Imitating a model"™s voice and word choice
  • Using sentence types to establish a tone
  • Developing vocabulary skills
  • Practicing sentence-level skills: combining, moving, adding

Many of these are ideas that I’ve used with students all along, but without the conscious intent of helping them to gain more control over their writing or to deepen their own thinking about their decision making as they write. I’ve mostly focused on teaching about declarative and procedural knowledge, and overlooked the conditional. School writing has traditionally been for the teacher alone, as a demonstration of learning, and it hasn’t demanded that students develop strategic knowledge. But publishing on the web makes this type of knowledge something to consider in writing lessons.

I believe the evidence for this kind of thinking would be most observable in the students’ willingness to revise, and in the questions they spontaneously ask themselves, or me, or their peers about their own work. I see little evidence of that in their writing now.

To develop these critical habits of mind in my young students, I’m going to try an analog technology – Response Journals (spiral notebooks) – an idea that came out of my parent conferences last week. Students, interested parents, and I will do some regular note-passing with journals that students keep on their desks all day. We’ll all write in them, and they’ll be a direct communication link between home and school.

These journals will give me a place to prompt students to think about the specific needs of a known audience – the parent – who may need help understanding the context of what they report. Comments from parents and prompts from the teacher may help them learn to become mindful of the effectiveness of their written work.

If they develop a strategic stance toward their writing, I expect to see students make spontaneous revisions in their written work, and to explain why they’re doing them. It’s a new teacher research project for me.

4 responses so far at work

Nov 05 2006 Published by under borderland,education,technology

A few weeks ago my principal asked me to talk about my students’ web page to the staff at one of our regular meetings. He sees that my students are interested in writing now because they are big time WWW authors.

I told the teachers that the web is a two-way medium, which was a new idea for some of them, and I showed them the work my students are publishing there. Some of the kids are coming in to school now with hand written stories that they want to type and publish. What teacher wouldn’t like that? I had their attention.

I also showed the teachers a flickr page I made for our school, and a wiki that I set up by taking advantage of the wikispaces for educators offer. None of that is especially interesting yet, since it’s all in a germinal stage. I showed them a page that I set up for the school, and I finished with Karl Fisch’s, “Did You Know?” which was a complete hit!

On the final slide of the powerpoint, there was spontaneous and enthusiastic applause. It wasn’t just people being polite. I told the group that I’d be happy to help anyone who wanted to work on a project using the internet. Someone said, “Can we take a class?” This was perfect, because I’d discussed that ahead of time with my principal – me teaching a course for a credit or two after school, and helping folks put classroom projects together – so now I get to develop a course outline. There were about a dozen people interested. Over the next few days I heard from several people about how they liked what I showed them.

In the meantime, the librarian really liked the idea, and she did another presentation at a staff meeting this week that featured it, and now we have about 5 of us bookmarking links, building a resource. It isn’t a big thing, but it’s something, and it’s a new thing. It’s fun seeing how and what other people are tagging.

One of the teachers with a laptop bookmarked her favorite pet supply and information site while the meeting was wrapping up. She’s a dog-lover. I noticed that she did that, and suggested to the group that maybe we’d want to limit our contributions for the school bookmarks to school-related items. Several people agreed, and I mentioned that anyone could open their own personal account. I showed a couple of teachers sitting near me in the meeting that I have a account of my own that is networked to the school’s, and that I use the for:denali.elem tag to forward links to the school account without having to log in to it.

Two or three of my female teacher pals started looking at the 3500+ links that I’ve saved over the last two years, and some eyebrows raised. I was talking to someone else when they called me over for some friendly abuse. The teasing was mainly good-natured male bashing by a bunch of working moms who said things like “I wonder who does the laundry and the dishes at your house,” meaning of course that I spend too much time poking around the internet, and that I must be like their own lazy husbands, or that I must not be like their otherwise generally useful husbands.

See, there’s a prejudice against computers and the internet. If I watched TV or fixed up old cars, or trained for marathons, they wouldn’t say anything. We traded insults and defended ourselves, with me telling them that I do my share at home, and that they were really talking about their own worthless husbands, and them asking me if I ever see my kids, and insisting they were only joking. We’re friends. But I got the drift.

Good thing I didn’t tell them about RSS and blog readers or they’d have had some serious doubts about me.

Based on this recent experience, it seems unlikely that any sudden mass migration of elementary teachers to web-based professional networking will happen unless it gets the laundry done, the dishes washed, or the kids driven to their dance lessons.

5 responses so far