Archive for December, 2006

My Trail of Breadcrumbs

Dec 28 2006 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

Graham’s post about e-portfolios for teachers kicked off this rumination. He’s thinking about a research question regarding the sustainability and motivation for teachers to invest their energy into the development of an online presence. Stimulated by this question – I’ve taken it up myself. But not as a research project. Just a thought. What purpose is served by keeping this blog? A little midwinter reflection.

I followed Graham’s link to Hellen Barrett’s site to check whether I even know what an e-portfolio is. Helen Barrett used to be the staff development coordinator for my school district. Small world. I don’t see a simple definition anywhere on her main page. From her FAQ page I learn that a portfolio could be used either for presentation or as a digital archive. As I thought.

More interestingly, I checked Barrett’s Metaphors for Portfolios page. There I learned that portfolios can be compared with mirrors, maps, sonnets, journeys, stories, campfires, toothbrushes (huh?), caterpillars… The digital portfolio itself is a metaphor. Paired with a computer, it’s an e-metaphor, like e-mail, e-commerce, e-learning, and such. It’s an e-archive.

Why bother? Graham’s question again. I didn’t have much of a purpose when I started here. Over time, themes developed as I began to reflect more on my thinking about teaching, and the other blogs I read. I began to recognize some value in keeping track of my intellectual rambles, if only to note a sense of growth or change. But the public nature of the process allows others to contribute and add substance to the stew. Maybe a stewpot would be a good metaphor for those who enjoy cooking?

Rather than cooking something, I see this as an intellectual history made public. It’s an undisciplined journey marked by a trail of bread crumbs, navigational aids famously used by Hansel and Gretel in their futile bid to find their way out of the forest. The value in keeping track is essentially one of noting trends and patterns, differences and inconsistencies, improvements and degradations. These notes and links are reference points. It’s a rough self assessment tool, not a formal inquiry. The bits and pieces don’t exactly line up or point the way to anywhere, and they merely suggest possibilities for action.

Still stumbling on the ‘why‘ question. But this is where the magic kicks in. Process and product are joined here. The unquantifiable attains value. How small we’d be if every significant thing about us could be counted! My purpose here is to document a journey through a maze of ideas. It’s an unpacking, an extended exploration of disorder and contradiction. When I sit down to write, I don’t ever quite know what to expect. That’s my reason. No path.

9 responses so far

Reading to Write

Dec 23 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

Paul Allision, on Teachers Teaching Teachers, posed a key question about what blogs can do, and what we want them to do for our students. The question is whether blogging is a means to achieve skill or content goals in school, or… “Does blogging have a set of intellectual habits and skills that are worth learning for themselves?” Tom Hoffman says that “Both” is the obvious answer. And he goes on to suggest that blogging is closely related to “reader response with an emphasis on intertextuality manifested as hyperlinking.” Tom’s analysis of blogging practices as a form of intertextual reader response is right on the mark with a thought that I’ve had brewing.

An intertextual stance – linking texts to experience, and to other texts, is the mark of a proficient reader. Conventional reading lessons involve comprehension of single text passages, whereas strategy approaches to reading instruction advocate, among other things, teaching kids to make intertextual links. But how do we teach someone to think this way? The process of making text-to-text connections requires us to first select and organize content from a variety of sources before creating new meanings. It’s a purpose-driven process that follows from a person’s participation in a discourse. Helping kids learn how to be responsive readers is the key here.

I’m wondering if making hyperlinks might encourage my students to adopt an intertextual stance toward their reading and writing on the web. I showed them how to do that the other day by asking them to read another student’s post and comment in one of their own. I figured that keeping the exercise “in house” would ensure that the content they had to work with was on-level for them, and not require them to find and process information they weren’t familiar with. My instinct there was correct, because this was a leap.

Our classroom site doesn’t give them a user-friendly wysiwyg editor to help them link with the click of a button. I taught them a little bit of HTML, and left the instructions on the site. That was the technical part, and relatively simple. Even still, not everyone was happy doing it.

There are a lot of other problems for them to overcome to make this work, and it’s going to be interesting. They had a hard time figuring out the “why” of this assignment. One obvious thing that I could do is to blog on the site myself, and demonstrate what I want the kids to do. I haven’t done much of that, though, and I didn’t want to point to a single example of mine and simply tell them to do the same. I need to start writing about their writing – for them. A New Year’s resolution.

Beach’s model for defining the phases of making intertextual links helps to understand the complexity of this process.

Beach, Appleman, & Dorsey’s model for defining intertextual links, p. 702.

Most of the comments the kids made were not elaborated. But on the whole, they did a pretty good job, considering. There were a few that seemed to ‘get it.’

One student evaluated a story and predicted we’d see more like it.

Someone made a personal connection with a story about losing a pet, and another about sibling rivalry.

There was a text-to-game connection.

There’s a bit of criticism. And a bit more. And there’s even some commentary about the whole class.

My personal favorite doesn’t have any hyperlinks. But it clearly references outside sources. Government cover-ups, anyone?

Still, this was only an assigned exercise. I’ll know that it’s really happening when I see them start to link on their own. Until then, it may just be business as usual.

Beach, R., Appleman, D., & Dorsey, S. (1994). Adolescents’ Uses of Intertextual Links to Understand Literature. In R.B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 695-714). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

2 responses so far

5 things

Dec 22 2006 Published by under borderland

Susan, a recent blogging acquaintance, tagged me with a meme post. Thanks, Susan, and because it’s Christmas, here’s 5 things you might not (care to?) know ’bout me:

  1. I’m left handed. (I’ve been wondering how I was ever going to work this into a blog post.) Somehow – and maybe only other southpaws would know what I’m talking about – I believe we think differently from everyone else. At the moment, my left hand is broken and in a cast (until mid January) from a fall on the ice in front of my house. I am milking the situation to avoid as many responsibilities as I can.
  2. The only other time my left arm has been out of commission was 14 years ago when I crashed my bicycle to avoid hitting a black bear that walked onto the trail in front of me. I had two sled dogs harnessed to the bike, pulling me downhill. I remember lying on the ground in a helpless heap, trying to keep the dogs away from the bear by holding the bike with my unhurt arm. The bear crashed off through the brush. Turns out I separated my shoulder. I was a celebrity in the ER that morning.
  3. Speaking of celebrity, my grandfather, Curt Coleman, played baseball for the New York Highlanders in 1912. I used to play with his glove when I was a kid. Too bad nobody kept track of it.
  4. I’ve read – consulted – I Ching on an off for the last 30 years. Ever think about how useful it might be to have access to an oracle? Not very, it turns out, but it’s something to think about.
  5. I learn by doing – I figured out how to build a house by reading a book until I got to the roof, and needed a real carpenter; I learned to use a sewing machine by making a parka and anorak to wear winter mountaineering; I decided to become a blogger so that I could better understand how to use the internet with students.

tagging: Artichoke, Graham, Brian, Mark, Sarah

Merry Christmas. And a warm winter solstice to all. It’s -10 degreesF here today. We get 3 hours, 41 minutes and 30 seconds of official daylight.

11 responses so far

The Pendulum

Dec 19 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

Time’s How to Bring our Schools Out of the 20th Century article referred to a “high-powered, bipartisan assembly of Education Secretaries, business leaders and a former Governor,” aka The New Commission on Skills for the American Workforce, who released “a blueprint for rethinking American education.” This is not a document that inspires giddy optimism for me. I agree that schools need rethinking, but this isn’t the grassroots movement that Will Richardson envisions.

“Without these changes, the Commission said, the American standard of living will be in serious jeopardy.”

Wait! It’s dejas vu all over again. Calling on James Herndon, from 20 years ago:

Hold it, citizens! Before we collapse into terror and do something we wouldn’t otherwise dream of doing, let’s remember that we have been to school and therefore are not in the grasp of ignorance or superstition. We’ll examine the pendulum, as Poe did, and get out of this.

At the poles of the pendulum are words, written as if on dungeon walls, luminous, perhaps, so that the captive may never overlook them. On one end the words will be, oh, achievement, the intellect, effort, authority, the future. On the other, socialization, democracy, the senses, freedom, the present. The captive sees the pendulum at one pole, hovering, and reads the luminous words and thinks, Right! Now it will stop! The pendulum has already begun its return swing. The captive, mesmerized, awaits the momentary rest at the other end, then reads again and is, for a split second, sure that the ordeal is over.

In Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann has the Devil describe Hell as consisting of two vast rooms, one hot enough to melt granite, and the other of a most intolerable cold, between which the inhabitants rush continually, for as soon as they are in the one, the other seems to be a heavenly bower. A wonderful description, one to excite the senses quite a bit and, if a bit harsher in consequence, quite in line with our pendulum. Back and forth; as soon as we are in one place, we must head, shrieking, for the other.

-James Herndon. (from “The Pendulum,” Notes From A Schoolteacher)

Gerald Bracey said that “The latest of these scare tactics, Tough Choices or Tough Times, might be the dumbest, least democratic, least reality-based of them all.”

Our modern crusaders are talking about money – who gets to have it, and who gets to keep it. According to the Commission’s staff director, Marc Tucker, we risk “a declining standard of living, probably not for everybody, but for most people, that could create a kind of social instability that could be the undoing of the United States."

Watch out for that social instability. It’s bad for the bottom line. There’s a problem here, though. The “deep vein of creativity” always rubs against the “self-disciplined and organized” part of the system. That’s the “core problem,” and it doesn’t have anything to do with high skills.

Susan Ohanian pointed to Marc Tucker’s Hillary Letter, where we can see that the sweep of the pendulum, this time, follows a political arc that has been over a decade in the making. This is not a grassroots initiative.

NCLB is tearing the system apart. Tough Choices or Tough Times is the blueprint proposed for its replacement. Searching the blueprint turns up numerous references to skill, achievement, economy, competition, and future. The words freedom, democracy, and happiness are not mentioned.

To see what the other pole of the pendulum’s swing looks like, read Walter C. Parker’s Teaching Against Idiocy:

Compared to home life, schools are like village squares, cities, crossroads, meeting places, community centers, marketplaces. When aimed at democratic ends and supported by the proper democratic conditions, the interaction in schools can help children enter the social consciousness of puberty and develop the habits of thinking and caring necessary for public life. They can learn the tolerance, the respect, the sense of justice, and the knack for forging public policy with others whether one likes them or not. If the right social and psychological conditions are present and are mobilized, students might even give birth to critical consciousness. This is the kind of thinking that enables them to cut through conventional wisdom and see a better way.

What are all the values of public education?

We have been to school. We are not in the grasp of ignorance or superstition…. Remember?

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Reading Fluency Thermometers

Dec 13 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

I was in the doctor’s office a couple of days ago with a broken hand (from a fall while walking our dogs on an icy road). The nurse put a thermometer in my mouth. I told her I wasn’t sick. She said, I know, but if I don’t do this the doctor will want to know why I didn’t. As a general indicator of well-being the thermometer seems to the instrument of choice. I’m thinking about thermometers now since there’s been some discussion about using “thermometers” for monitoring reading fluency in the comments on this blog. I was curious to find out more about what seems to be a fluency movement (a bit of a pun there), so I did this little research project. For readers not involved with US elementary schools, you may read this as an example of our fascination with labels and measurement.

DIBELS, in a minute
I do think that test data should inform instruction – if you have good test data. And with the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a test that claims to measure the National Reading Panel’s 5 Big Ideas in Beginning Reading, (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), we don’t have good data. My fourth graders get screened for “Oral Reading Fluency” with the (DORF), which tells us…what? The number of words a student reads aloud in one minute.

According to Roxanne Hudson, (and my blog commenter) it’s just a quick little assessment, a simple “thermometer” which “tells you if you have a fever, but not what the cause of the fever is or what the treatment should be.” As a measurement tool, DIBELS announces loudly and clearly how the tester defines reading. It tells us, and the kids who get their reading clocked, that the people in charge equate reading fluency with rate, more than any other variable.

Fluency and comprehension
The National Reading Panel noted a correlation between fluency and comprehenson (Put Reading First, p. 23)[download the pdf], but there is no indication of causality. We don’t know if comprehension causes fluency, or whether fluency contributes to comprehension. Word-level fluency is believed to “free up cognitive capacity” and allow the reader to focus on meaning (Pressley, p. 47).

Fluency is only a piece of what an accomplished reader does. Michael Pressley’s Instruction and Development of Reading Fluency in Struggling Readers offers a broad list of what we want good readers to do in addition to accurate and expressive reading. We want readers to:

  • read words fast and accurately and with expression (i.e., read prosodically)
  • to read with high comprehension;
  • overview text and scan it;
  • relate their prior knowledge to ideas in the text;
  • notice when they are confused or need to reread;
  • construct images in their mind"™s eye reflecting the content ofthe text;
  • summarize, and interpret;
  • understand, appreciate, and think about the ideas in text;
  • think hard about what they are reading;
  • know when to slow down and employ the comprehension strategies previously described.

Predictive validity
Some screening tools are better than others. So we should use several. Since when do you go to the doctor and only have your temperature taken? Most of the time when I go, they weigh me, and take my blood pressure. The doctor pokes around, listens to my heart and lungs, and asks me questions. All of those things together suggest whether I get to go home right away. If any of those little indicators is far out of order, off I go to the lab for blood work or other invasions.

DIBELS is supposed to have “predictive validity,” which means it can tell us which kids are at risk of not passing the state benchmarks. Let’s take a look at how well it identified reading troubles in my classroom this year. Using the unscientific but personally meaningful sample of the scores of my students,

  • 3 of the 11 students who tested as Advanced on the State Benchmarks for reading were identified by DIBELS as needing “intensive intervention.”


  • 6 more whose state scores were Proficient were identified as needing “strategic intervention.”

Oops again. Maybe they’re slow talkers, too.

  • It did accurately identify the 3 neediest in the group.

But anyone who heard them read would know that. So much for predictive utility. Why do I need such a crude test? Why bother with it at all when better alternatives, like running records, or simply listening to a kid read, are just as easily available – for free?

In the foreward to The Truth About DIBELS, P. David Pearson described reading skills in terms of their being either constrained or unconstrained, meaning that some skills are mastered to gain control over a limited and relatively simple (constrained) domain. These might include letter naming and letter sounds, for instance. Unconstrained skills, on the other hand, are by definition not subject to mastery, and represent the capacity for life-long growth. These would be things like comprehension strategies, word knowledge, and critical thinking, which Pearson calls “the real stuff of literacy – the important things that we go on to” after we’ve mastered the basics. Pearson pointed out that DIBELS monitors the more basic word-level skills which, when they become the focus of instruction, limit the literacy horizons for students (p. xii).

Robert J. Tierney, in Is DIBELS Leading Us Down the Wrong Path?, pointed to the consequences of embracing narrow, easily measured definitions of literacy. Maybe the thermometer isn’t as benign as some would have us think.

DIBELS may be perpetuating the literacy gap it has promised to eliminate. By closely subscribing to only those five components defined as essential by the NRP and assessed by DIBELS, the definition of "œliteracy" has been narrowed for the most vulnerable students. For those school/districts who are not high poverty nor low performing, children are less likely to be held to this narrow view of literacy. These children have a more balanced literacy environment that includes viewing, writing, and other critical literacies. Those children in schools receiving funding from Reading First are more likely to be restricted to the five major components of reading as defined by NRP and tested by DIBELS.

I shared this article with my principal and some teachers I work with. They found it worthwhile, but DIBELS continues down the hall. Note that Roxanne Hudson’s well-documented opposing viewpoint, Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What? why? and how? cites only correlational “linkage” to support explicit instruction in what amounts to a rather narrow instructional reading regimen.

In How Will Literacy Be Assessed in the Next Millennium, Robert Tierney shares a more expansive vision of assessment – one that more closely resembles a conversation than a medical procedure.

I would encourage educators to look for approaches to assessment that are both just and empowering and that assess the literacies of learners richly and in all their complexities, without fear of what is not quantifiable or uniform. I look for assessments that consider the quality and usefulness of information that is gleaned for teachers and learners"”descriptions and possibilities versus numbers and crude labels. Mostly, I look for a future that views evidence from assessments as conversation starters that engage the learners as decision makers with the support of teachers, parents, and others.

As for me, I prefer to take temperatures informally, by putting a hand to the forehead. With reading, that amounts to saying, Would you mind reading some of this to me? And then I ask a few questions. I take notes. I can tell whether the problems are decoding or vocabulary-related. I can hear whether the kid pays attention to punctuation, and uses an expressive tone of voice. I get a good idea of the types of books that are appropriate for him/her to read.

Of course, nobody makes any money off of that.

Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2003) Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. Developed by the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA), retrieved Dec. 2006.

Hudson, R. (2006) Oral Reading Fluency Assessment and Instruction. 2006 International Reading Association Conference

Hudson, R.F., Lane, H.B., & Pullen, P.C. (2005) Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What? why? and how? The Reading Teacher, 58(8), 702-713

Pressley, M., Gaskins, I.W., & Fingeret, L. (2006) Instruction and Development of Reading Fluency in Struggling Readers. In What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction, Samuels, S.J. (Ed.) (47-69). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pearson, P. D. (2006). Foreward. in K. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS: what it is, what it does (v-xix). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Tierney, R.J (2000) How Will Literacy Be Assessed in the Next Millenium? Reading Research Quarterly; 35(2), 244"“245

Tierney, R.J. & Thome, C. (2006). Is DIBELS Leading Us Down the Wrong Path? in K. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS: what it is, what it does (50-59). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

3 responses so far

The Bracey Blog

Dec 11 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

The Huffington Post has a new education blogger on board – Gerald Bracey. According to his announcement, Ariana asked him to step up so they could provide an Ed policy section. Here’s the link to Bracey’s blog. There’s a feed for all the Huffington Post bloggers, but I don’t see one for just the “education section” on the list.

Bracey’s first post is called Things Fall Apart: No Child Left Behind Self Destructs. He writes:

But as the law enters its fifth year, even its supporters can no longer ignore that the law is imploding. On November 30, Frederick Hess, Education Director for the American Enterprise Institute and Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation convened a conference, “Fixing Failing Schools: Are the Tools in the NCLB Toolkit Working?” I attended.

After the first four presentations, moderator Finn declared that instead of providing sweet cakes and coffee, “I should be handing out mood altering pharmaceuticals, those that deal with depression.” No later presentations offered anything to elevate Finn’s mood as one scholar after another delivered evidence on this failed provision or that failed provision and the law’s failure to accomplish its stated goal: to elevate the achievement of poor children and minorities.

Charged with summarizing the day, former assistant secretary of education for Bush I, Diane Ravitch, declared that the answer to the conference title’s question was clearly, “No!”

The post has 35 comments.

One response so far

Working with Sled Dogs

Dec 10 2006 Published by under borderland,education

I occasionally think about how managing a classroom is similar to running sled dogs. When the dogs see the harnesses and the sled come out, the howling, the jumping, and mayhem sets in. It’s amazing how many tangles, chewed lines, and dog fights you can end up with while you’re hooking up 8 or 9 excited dogs – trying not to let the whole gang run off before you have a chance to grab the sled. On a good day, when things go smoothly you have a clean run with no tangles.

Lining the team out was intimidating in the beginning. But you learn to work with this chaos, anticipating the difficult individuals, knowing who to place next to who, and which order to line them out in. It really helps to have a good leader who will stand out in front and not run back to ball up the whole string. You most especially want to secure the sled to something that doesn’t move. With a strong rope. They only have to run off without you once to demonstrate for you that, as the “driver,” your place in the outfit is entirely optional for all they care.

Some days my crew in the classroom resembles a string of sled dogs, where avoiding snarls requires a delicate balance of bully and buddy from the teacher. I don’t want to come on too strong and bum them out, but I have to keep their enthusiasm focused on the project at hand if I expect to get anything done. Day to day, my role as teacher is as much about suppression and showmanship as it’s about guidance and instruction. On a good day, things go relatively smoothly…

I mention this with regards to my classroom after having a sub last Thursday, which meant that Friday I expected to hear about a day with a few rough spots. I don’t blame the substitute for the trouble she had. My class this year is a spirited group, and they require a special kind of control that I constantly talk about. With them. Sometimes emphatically. I get sick of hearing myself and I know they do, too. We’re working this karma out with each other. I can’t quite figure out what the lesson is for me, though. More tolerance, or more authority? Maybe neither, and that’s an interesting possibility.

I like how the first sentence of the note I got from the sub is contradicted by everything that comes after.

Well the day went okay. After their snack break the class began to bicker with each other. The arguing started when the students began telling me how the day was supposed to go. It escalated to: “we hate him/her; she/he is a liar; this is so stupid. At that point I took recess away from the class & told them they could earn it back by working quietly. Then recess became an argument with the class – the students who were acting up said it was not fair to the good students to keep them in. I told them they were a class and needed to work together. [anonymous] blurted out “If you hate kids so much, why are you a teacher?” I got stern with her and told her to sit at the back table. The class got quiet after that…

Their rest of the day was little different, but I don’t need to go there. I’ll need a special list of threats for the next time I have to be out.

Students all came in Friday and went quietly to work. Their heads were down. There was none of the usual chatter. They knew I knew. I let them stew while I enjoyed the peace. I didn’t yell. I wasn’t mad, and they were surprised. Most of them lost recess, and some won’t see daylight for a few days yet.

Someone said, My mom just smacks me in the mouth when I talk to her like that. Hmm…I’ve often wondered how that would work. Probably doesn’t.

I have to dominate them all the time – Sit up straight….feet on the floor….petty little things. I hate myself for doing it. Wish I could just let them be. But if I leave them alone, they horse around and make trouble, and then I have to problem-solve. I hate that, too. How do I teach them to make good decisions when I have to sit on them all day?

When I mentioned this to one of my go-to colleagues, she said, You have to take them from where they are.

Yeah, I think, or “the howling and jumping, and general chaos starts, and it’s amazing how many tangles, chewed lines, and dog fights you can end up with…”

With sled dogs, when you have individuals who won’t run with the team, you leave them home. That clearly won’t work in public school. The only other thing I can think of now won’t work, either. And that’s to have a class about half the size of the one that I’m working with.

6 responses so far

Me, A Nominee?

Dec 08 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Looks like some fans of the Borderland blog want to push me into the center of things. Josie Fraser emailed me this morning to say that Borderland made the shortlist of best teacher blogs for the 2006 Edublog Awards. Fun stuff!

Been thinking about what I might say here to acknowledge this honor and I can’t think of a thing, except that I’m very flattered. The poll is open until Dec. 16 – eight days from now.

Josie asked me to supply a biographical statement about the whys and wherefores of this blog. This is what I sent to the award site:

Borderland is a place where I can explore the contradictions I find working with kids in an institutional setting, helping them develop an awareness of who they are in a world that is changing more rapidly than anyone can understand. The name for the blog was inspired by my interest in the notion of peripheral participation and situated learning. I teach at Denali Elementary, a school in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is pretty far out on the global periphery. If the world has edges, we’re on one. Our school has a racially diverse student population of about 400 kids. I work with 9 and 10 year-old students, and my primary focus is on language and literacy. We’ve been publishing student writing in a classroom writing project called Tell the Raven for nearly a year. My blogging manifesto may provide more of an idea of what the Borderland blog is about.

Thanks for that pat on the back.

10 responses so far

Finding Their Voices

Dec 05 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

A student helped me write this post. I’ve been trying to get a grip on some new (for me) ideas about teaching fourth graders about writing with weblogs.

I told my students last week that they could look up information about the historical periods the fictional Time Warp Trio kids traveled to in the books they’re reading. Cool! They were off, using their spare time to “research.” Right away I noticed some glitches. Like, someone typed “time warp trio” into the browser’s URL field – as if the computer was going to magically take them just where they wanted to go, like the kids in the book.

Well, I thought, no harm. It was more of a suggestion than an assignment anyway, and they need to experiment with the researching business. One kid asked me, Can we look things up at home? Uhhh…Yeah. Sure, I said.

Today, though, a little girl brought me a report she’d written at home about the Chisholm Trail. Her Time Warp book goes back to the American frontier in the 19th century. In time-honored tradition, she did an admirable job of copying an article that she knew very little about. She wrote, …With the end of the war, cattlemen needed a new route to market their cattle. Joseph McCoy, an enterprising promoter, was the first to see promise in a shorter, more direct route through Indian Territory to the new railheads slowly moving west through Kansas Territory… I got a little bit worried because I don’t want students making a big effort to regurgitate meaningless information, thinking it will please me.

In the spirit of teaching them about what they use, but confuse, I can see that it’s time to address research skills.

Like I said, my student helped me write this post. I’ve been thinking about how to guide students to become strategic writers, and her problem is a common one for students – how to honestly and coherently express complex new ideas. The 6-Traits Model describes Voice as the quality of writing in which a writer speaks

…directly to the reader in a way that is individual, compelling, and engaging. The writer crafts the writing with an awareness and respect for the audience and the purpose for writing.

This, I think, is at the heart of the issue here. Kids in school are often asked, or think they’re being asked, to subordinate their own knowledge in favor of more authoritative voices. They do this when they write from too great a distance, at too high a level of abstraction, or about things that are too remote from their own experience.

How often do I ask my students to do this? I wonder. What do they think I want them to say? How do they come to know what I value in their work? What did this student think I would like about her report? Why doesn’t she know how I’d feel about this after working with me for so many months? I am not feeling especially clever this year. I should have some success stories to point to. I do, in fact. But they aren’t as interesting to me at the moment.

My thinking on this matter of authentic voice in student writing was rekindled recently when I read an article by Denise Maltese in Voices from the Middle, “Out of the Narrow Tunnel and into the Universe of Discourse” (temporarily available for download from NCTE), in which she explored the impact that James Moffett’s work had on what she called her instructional stance. I like that phrase, instructional stance, for the way that it separates teachers from their methods. Maybe it isn’t what we do, so much as how we do it that makes a difference for kids. Eh?

Though Moffett published some important books for teachers in the late 1960′s, I hadn’t heard of him until very recently. Applebee cited Moffett in his book chapter Alternative Models of Writing Development, where he described a conceptual scheme Moffett developed that associated audience with discourse modes and levels of abstraction for writers.

Denise Maltese supplied additional detail about this model in her article.

Moffett’s schema for teaching the universe of discourse

Maltese pointed out that students need to become aware of their distance from an audience, and from their subject, and to consider the choices for speaking and writing that are available to them. She observed that we can easily push students into working at too abstract a level, which Moffett called “working from scarcity:”

That sort of wrong-headed strategy comes from working too deductively, starting students at high-level abstract topics, or generalities, and then asking them to go down. It puts us in the position of being professional naggers. We are nagging for details, nagging for evidence, nagging for support . . . . It comes from wanting to control the subject matter of student writing and from riding herd on essay before honoring other kinds of writing. (p. 183)

Moffett’s model of the Universe of Discourse shows how abstraction and audience are related to mode of discourse, and it suggests that there is a rich supply of material for writing to be found very near the writer’s own experience.

Personal writing does not preclude us from generalizing or abstracting. With this post, for example, I’m attempting to keep things relevant to my classroom experience, while at the same time making – or trying to, anyway – a larger point about how writing instruction might help students develop an authorial voice as they explore new realms of thought.

Reading about James Moffett sparked my curiosity, and sent me to the university library, where I found a dusty old 1968 edition of Teaching the Universe of Discourse. My quick look-through of the book turned up an interesting section called Abstraction and Curriculum (p. 23-32) in which Moffett explored why schools are problematic learning environments. He advised that students would learn more if we focused on their reasoning processes instead of subject content.

Ideally, a student would spend his time in a language course of study abstracting a large amount of raw material into categories of experience and then into propositions which finally he would combine so as to arrive at new propositions not evident at any of the lower stages. By discussing his productions in a workshop class, he could profit from other points of view, discover what part of his abstracting is peculiar to him and what he shares with a public, and see how the worth of his higher abstractions is determined by the worth of his lower ones. Generally, a student should learn to play the whole symbolic scale, and to know where he is on it at a given moment.

Woah! There it is. …abstracting a large amount of raw material into categories of experience and then into propositions…

Blogging with students in school can help them find a place for their own intellectual activity within a larger social sphere, connecting and synthesizing, reporting and generalizing, corresponding and reflecting for a variety of audiences. In any case, we need to help students see the power of making intertextual links – links between the world of their experience and the world of ideas they encounter, so that these worlds begin to collide. The power of blogging is the power that all discourse offers, the power of self-discovery, which is the proper goal of education.


Applebee, A.N. (2000). Alternative Models of Writing Development. In R. Indrisano, & J.R. Squire (Eds.), Perspectives on Writing (pp. 90-110). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Brewbaker, James (2001) “Words on World: Defining English as an Interdisciplinary Subject” The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 3, p. 27.

Maltese, D. (2006) Out of the Narrow Tunnel and into the Universe of Discourse. Voices from the Middle, 14(2), 47-56

Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1968.

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