Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How I Feel about Writing

Writing and Me

While I was the University of Georgia, I had one professor who had a whole bookshelf of journals and books that were just his own writings. I remember sitting in his office and being impressed--and probably a little overwhelmed--that he had published so much. I wondered how many thousands of pages that was...how many words? 

As for me...well...you know, sometimes people talk about "books in heaven." This is not a religious posting at all, but if there was somebody keeping track of everything we've done and we get to see it after we die, then I would really like to see how much I've written. You know, like in "stack format." And if I think of writing that way, then truly I have written bookshelves upon bookshelves upon bookshelves of stuff.  Probably miles high.

I spend a lot of time writing comments on my students' papers...that is one form of writing that is quite significant for me. I spend a lot of time writing emails, writing interview protocols, writing summaries of articles I read, and summaries of data I have collected. I write lists everyday. I write agendas and powerpoints.  I sometimes write out exercise routines.  I'm also a big "cards" person; I love sending cards to my family. For a while, I was the "card specialist" for my church due to my love of writing cards.

And yes, as a gal on the tenure-track, I write a lot of articles, articles, articles. My personal strategy, which I just developed over this last year, is to name each document by the day. So, for instance, I might have "Gestures Article 10-29." And then I never save over it...the next day I just title it "Gestures Article 10-30." So that way, if I decide that I liked something that I had deleted, I can just go back to a previous version and find it again. This method of keeping track of my writing has almost changed my professional life. I make it a goal to write for publication (or for a grant submission) for at least two hours per day.

Some people might think academic writing is boring, and I get their point. I like to joke that my content literacy book will be the next "Harry Potter." Yeah, right. But this focus on academic/anlytical/informational writing hasn't always been the case in my life. When I was in the fourth grade, I remember writing pages upon pages upon pages of poems and stories. I remember that, during all of my eighth grade year, I spent time thinking of a story that I was really passionate about...it was a psychological thriller where the author had a split personality but didn't know it. I spent a long time working on it and crafting it, and I submitted it to my ninth grade Honors English teacher, who gave it an A- with no explanation. And then she gave the class a big long lecture about how she had never received such a dark and disturbing batch of short stories throughout her entire 30-year teaching career. 

That experience was actually pretty devastating to me, and took the wind out of my sails for writing fiction. But I still received good grades on my analytical essays and academic writing, and so now I guess I've channeled all of my writing energy into the academic route. 

What are the implications for my own teaching? For one, I think it's important for people to explain grades to people rather than giving them grades with no explanation. Second, I think that teachers have to realize that--right or wrong--their words carry authority for young students who are still forming their identities. So it's important that we use that authority carefully.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oral Langauge in the Classroom

Musings about Oral Language

As a teacher of teachers, I feel like it's my job to model the types of teaching practices that I would like for pre-service teachers to use with their own middle school and high school students. But I don't always know if I am the best model, especially when it comes to my use of oral language in the classroom. 

I think I am good at giving students structured opportunities to talk with each other in partners and small groups, but I am not sure about my use of oral language in whole-class settings. 

To be honest, a lot of times I feel a little guilty if I talk for more than 5 minutes straight, because I think to myself that I am modeling teacher-centered learning--that old adage of being "the sage on the stage" instead of the "guide on the side." For instance, today I began the class by talking about the six traits for about 10 minutes; then students worked in small groups to evaluate writing; and then I talked for another 10 minutes on what research says makes good writing instruction. 

I know there are some professors who lecture the whole time for every class period, which is something I definitely don't do, but then there are teachers like Jim Cangelosi who ask their students to lead every class, which is something I don't do, either. 

I wonder if and when teacher lecture is ever a positive thing. Does the answer have to do with teacher personality? That is, to some extent, should teachers teach in the way that feels best to them and fits their own skin and personalities? For some teachers, that might mean talking a little more, and for others, it might mean talking a little less.

I think that sometimes in education we go to the extremes. There are extreme models of learning on both sides of the teacher-centered and student-centered continuum. In some models of learning, students get to choose everything they study. For instance, I could say I liked horses, and then it would be my teachers' job to design a curriculum around that (e.g., I could learn about ratios through calculating feeds). On the other extreme, there are teachers who do not deviate from their planned calendars for the whole year, and they don't account for students' interests or their pace of learning at all. To me, realistic education and quality education is somewhere in between. 

Perhaps the same is true for oral language. For me, depending on the topic that is covered and depending on the constraints of the class, it is unrealistic to have whole-class discussions where the teacher rarely talks. But it is also boring to have the teacher talk the whole time. So maybe for most of us the answer will be somewhere in between.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Introduction Fall 2013

Greetings! I am happy to start another semester with a new set of disciplinary majors. What is my discipline to me? My discipline is unique...it's "content area literacy instruction." I define my discipline as being like salt. Your primary discipline (family finance, physical education, algebra) is the main course, but literacy instruction is like the salt (or sugar, or other ingredient of your choice) that makes it better. Er...maybe this is a limited metaphor, but hopefully you get the picture. The point is that I see content area literacy as something that enhances and enriches teaching.

I was initially drawn to this discipline because, as a teacher of history, I knew that my students struggled with content area texts such as difficult primary source documents, but I didn't know how I could support them in really understanding and engaging deeply in those texts. Consequently, I pursued a Masters and Doctoral degree in content area literacy so I could find out how I could help students understand those texts.

I started my doctoral program in 2006 at the University of Georgia. (Go bulldogs! I bleed Georgia red. Insert other UGA cheers here.) My, how time flies. I feel like I chose the right field because just as I was finishing my degree, the national Common Core State Standards were published, which require content area teachers, and not just English/language arts teachers, to incorporate literacy instruction into their regular teaching. If and when national standards come out, they will test students on their ability to interpret and produce a variety of complex disciplinary texts.

What are some interesting facts about me? I was just married last week. I'm old for marriage by national and state standards, but better late than never, I guess. :) My 13-year-old Afrikaans sister flew in from South Africa to be the Maid of Honor at the wedding. She read during the ceremony and has the greatest accent ever. (Picture Matt Damon in "Invictus." Yep, that's what her accent sounds like.) As I shared in class, my brother is the world's tallest bagpipe player. He wrote to the Guiness Book of World Records to be included, but they said that category was not valid. He just had a darling son, my nephew and a light in my life, who is also in the 99% percentile of height.

Every semester in this course is a very different experience for me because of how the majors shift. This semester I have 17 FACS majors, for instance, whereas last semester I only had one. These changes keep teaching fresh and interesting for me. I look forward to our conversations this semester!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Final Blog

What aspects of language, literacy, and learning did I come away with from this course? First, comprehension: regardless of whether you're reading a few paragraphs in a beginning French course, or listening to a math lecture, comprehension instruction can include something prior to reading/listening in order to "prime the pump" for students. I think that, for me, as I reflect on how to change the course in future semesters, it will be important for me to make sure that I model "before" reading activities on the course readings.

A second aspect of the semester that stood out to me is related to the affective dimensions of literacy, or ways to get student buy-in and interest into your discipline. I think that teaching is such a humbling profession because even when you work very hard, try to build positive relationships, try to incorporate elements of student choice (e.g., self-selected projects and self-selected readings), differentiate instruction, and otherwise establish a positive classroom environment, there is never a guarantee that people will actually "buy in" or be interested. So I think that affective dimensions of literacy should also include we as teachers attending to our own emotional lives...in Voltaire's terms, cultivating our own gardens. I think sometimes it is easy to let others hold us "emotionally hostage"--whether the end-of-year test does it, or our students do it, or our colleagues do it. In other words, we let those things kind of"run us or "hold us hostage" in the sense that negative comments or negative results can make us feel bad about ourselves. I think that emotional health for teachers has to include the skill of letting go, of not letting these things eat up our energy. In turn, I think improved emotional health for teachers will lead to improved interactions in the classroom.

Finally, I think one thing that was important to me this semester was the idea of representational competence, or the ability to produce and evaluate representations. I think that each discipline has its own unique set of representations: For instance, producing a digital narrative in English is very different from producing an explanation of a phenomenon in chemistry. Both require different forms of representation :probably  music, words, and personal photographs in the first, with chemical diagrams and numeric equations in the other. But teaching students how to produce multiple representations within any discipline can increase their understanding of what it is they are trying to communicate.

Thanks for the semester. I enjoyed working with you. :)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Classroom Discussion and the Organization of Physical Space

A few weeks ago, a member of my Tenure and Promotion Committee observed and evaluated my SCED 4200 class during a period when we used small-group discussion structures to talk about whole-class discussion structures. At the beginning of the lesson, I asked my students to do a quick write about excellent discussions they'd observed in the past, and I wrote their insights about the discussions on the whiteboard. The observer's critique was that the students were talking to me and were making eye contact with me, rather than with each other.

This observation made me think about how teachers use classroom space. If you, as the teacher, stand in front of the room, then you may direct students' attention toward yourself rather than toward each other. I was also directing students' attention toward the information on the whiteboard. 

My evaluator's comments reminded me of an article I read by Lim and colleagues. (If you just skim it to look at the images, the analysis of classroom space is pretty neat.)


The article mentions how authoritative teachers tend to spend most of their time in front of the class, with desks faced toward them, whereas less authoritative teachers tend to move around the classroom more, at times standing in the back or to the side of their students, making the 'flow' of the class seem less rigid and directed toward the teacher.

I actually really try to think about the use of space in most of my lessons. Personally, I am not opposed to standing in front of the classroom. I think it is unrealistic to say that, as a teacher, you will never use verbal speech to provide information to your students. (Or maybe I just have not evolved to that point in my teaching career...who knows?) At the same time, however, I think that variation is important. Sometimes I will be standing in front with desks facing toward me, sometimes I will be standing in back so students cannot easily look at me but have to look at each other. When we have lengthy discussions about substantive issues, I move the desks facing toward each other in a single large circle, but when the focus is on group work sometimes I have students' desk facing toward each other. In all, the take-home message is this: the organization of classroom space matters. The spatial position of the teacher matters. Through our spatial position and organization of physical objects, we communicate to our students where and how we want them to direct their attention. I think we as teachers can be more conscious about physical space as a form of 'preparation' for partner, whole-class, or small-group discussions.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding the Balance in Writing Instruction

This week, I read a passage from a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, including her chapter on the meaning of discipline. She writes: "Without discipline, we simply don't have the support we need to evolve...The discipline is to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose--between not too laid back and not too rigid. Within this structure, we proceed with compassion."

What does this have to do with writing instruction, you ask? Well, a few days ago, I emailed one of my former professors who is famous in the field of writing research, and I  asked him if there was any evidence for the "natural process" approach to writing. This approach asserts that students should write about what they want, and teachers will conference with them about what they have written. Many advocates of this approach, such as Donald Murray (1980) have asserted that teachers should not explicitly teach students the 'rules' of writing, such as organizational patterns or ways to combine sentences, because this approach can stifle the natural process of writing.

My professor told me that there was no research suggesting that this more 'open' approach to writing produced positive results. In his words: "The research basis supporting writing workshops is anecdotal, selective, and highly dubious." 

At the same time, however, I have also worked in a middle school in which teachers were required to adhere to the "Jane Schaffer" model of writing, in which almost every sentence is prescribed in the famous (or should I say "infamous") five-paragraph essay. For example, every introductory paragraph needs a thesis, then every following paragraph should include a topic sentence, with evidence, followed by explanations of how that evidence supports the topic sentence, which supports the thesis. This approach, too, failed miserably in the middle school I observed, which had the one of the lowest writing exam scores in the district. The students hated it and felt it stifled their expression.

Which brings me to my original quotation from Pema Chodron. She says that in life, having discipline means establishing structures for ourselves, but not clinging to these structures too loosely or too tightly. By analogy, the same is true for writing instruction. Research has shown that students benefit from some structure, but too much structure can become formulaic and can shut down ideas.

Where is the line? I think that it depends on the class, the teacher, and the writing assignment. I think as human beings, we tend to want answers, such as "just give me the method that works." But, in my personal philosophy, life is more contextual and shifting than that. Consequently, reflective teachers have to walk the path of "not too loose and not too tight" for each writing assignment, identifying how they can provide structure for their students while still giving them a degree of freedom. Lastly, don't forget: proceed with compassion.

P. S. As a teacher, I want to add a disclaimer that I don't intend for this posting to be an endorsement of Buddhism, nor am I against Buddhism. I said in an earlier posting that I was a wanderer, which means I read works from different world philosophies. It just so happens that Pema's quote hit me this week as I was thinking about writing instruction. :)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Introduction to SCED 4200, Spring 2013

New semester, new introduction. I actually kind of like the opportunity to blog along with each new class because I get to check in with myself and see how the ways I define myself change over time.

Two semesters ago, I taught a health major who introduced me to the book "What Happy People Know." I read it, and the author talked about how it's important to define yourself along many different dimensions. Too much faith in one dimension can lead to psychological trauma. For instance, if you ONLY define yourself as a wife, then if you get divorced you will have an especially hard time. That's why it's important to have your identity eggs in many different baskets, so to speak.

So what are the dimensions along which I define myself? I am a yogi and a continual searcher. I am a writer, a data analyst, a scholar. I am an assistant professor trying to get tenure, and gaining confidence with each new publication. I am a teacher. I am a sister, a daughter, a neighbor, a friend, an aunt, and--for the first time in my 30-some-odd-year-old life--a sweetheart. I am a Georgia bulldog, through and through, as well as a Teavana Junkie.

What is literacy to me? Literacy is dialogue. Literacy is not something that happens in an individual mind, but rather it always happens in and through dialogue. This dialogue includes inner dialogues with our past experiences, external dialogues with others, as well as dialogues with the texts we are reading. These dialogues don't work when they feel like monologues. For instance, they don't work when it feels like reading and learning is a one-way street that moves only from the teacher to the student. Instead, literacy and learning work best when many different voices are at the table, with each visibly acknowledged, addressed, and valued.