Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Introduction Spring 2015

December 31, 2014

Dear Spring SCED 4200 Students:

Greetings! By way of introduction, my name is Amy Wilson. This is my tenth iteration of teaching SCED 4200 at USU, which makes me think, "When did I suddenly become so old?" I am also feeling a little elderly these days because I frequently experience exhaustion and have developed dark rings under my eyes. I call these rings "love circles" because they come from my daughter, who is about five months old, and whose days and nights are currently topsy turvy. She is our first, and all I can say is that I have such a newfound respect for all of you students who maintain a rigorous course schedule with little ones at home.

In addition to having a beautiful new daughter, some interesting facts about me and my family are that my brother is the world's tallest bagpipe player, and I have a fifteen-year-old sister who speaks Afrikaans as a first language. In terms of hobbies, well, my favorite hobby now is to sleep whenever I get the chance, which isn't as often as I would like.

In a former life, I was a middle and high school teacher in Alpine School District and Jordan School District in Utah, but I also taught briefly in a private school in Cincinnati, Ohio and Manchester, New Hampshire. I started out as a history and English teacher, but my doctoral work focused on middle school earth science and mathematics. And recently I have been working with the College of Engineering on projects involving engineering literacy. So when you ask me, "What is my discipline?," I have experience with many.

What drew me to content area literacy? Well, I found that my middle school students seemed to struggle most with understandings concepts in science and mathematics, and I wanted to learn strategies to further support them. My teaching experiences caused me to pursue a doctorate in literacy education, which I earned from the University of Georgia in 2011. Go Bulldogs! As they say, "I bleed Georgia red." And for those of you who know football, you know that the Alabama Crimson Tide is like Voldemort to us...he who must not be named. (If you want to know what football means in the South, check out this recent article, which captures my experiences at UGA perfectly: )

How do I define literacy? Aww, now that's just cheating if the teacher answers this question. Besides, I don't want my own answers to color yours. But I look forward to reading what you all have to say on the subject, and I am excited for number ten with all of y'all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Affective Dimensions

Last time in class, we talked about how culture affects literacy and learning. When I think on this, I realize that in my family, there was never any conflict between my home life and my school life. There are pictures of me sitting in front of books from the time I was one year old, and my mom tried to teach me how to write my name at that time as well. My house was filled with books.

I remember I was crazy about Davy Jones from the Monkees--I listened to their tapes so many times that the tape film grew thin and stopped working. I also watched the Monkee TV series, and my grandma taped all of their episodes and saved them for me on a VHS. Of course, that meant I read about the Monkees too, including Davy Jones trivia books, and of course, his big-time classic biography: "They Made a Monkee Out of Me." I mean, EVERYBODY has read that one, right??

So, in sum, I had lots of books and reading experiences at home, and lots of books and reading experiences at school. Because of this congruence, I did well in school, and I became a teacher.

There's a famous book by Denis Lortie, titled School Teacher, that talks about how people perpetuate the system in which they grew up. In other words, people like me who did well in school, end up liking school, graduating from school, and becoming a teacher. Very rarely do people who hated school, did poorly in school, and ended up not graduating, become a teacher.

Lortie says that the problem with this is that the system is reproduced. So instead of getting people who might diversify the system, we get people like me who maybe experience no conflict between their home life and school life, and consequently may not seek to change the system to make it more inclusive of people with different home lives.

I think it's important to recognize that students do come from multiple backgrounds and I appreciated people's suggestions for actively trying to incorporate those backgrounds into their teaching.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Writing in Middle and High School


When I reflect on my experiences in writing in middle school and high school, the memories that stand out to me the most are from my ninth-grade English class. (To protect and preserve the identity of the innocent, er, guilty, my English teacher shall remain nameless.)

Up until that point, I had tons of positive reinforcement on my writing. I remember my fifth-grade teacher praising me for "painting a picture with words," and my eighth-grade English teacher asked to use my works as models for other students. I wrote, wrote, wrote all the time: stories, poems, prayers, inspirational quotations, observations, notes to friends, you name it. My method of processing the world was through writing. 

But when I was in ninth-grade English, my view of myself as a writer changed. When my view of myself as a writer changed, my willingness to write outside of school also changed. I stopped writing, writing, writing.

What happened to cause me to lose my love of writing? I wrote what was (at least to me) a brilliant psychological thriller that had been percolating in my mind for at least a year. The story was written by somebody with a split personality disorder who did not know that she had a split personality disorder. She was actually the killer while also being afraid of the killer. I don't remember the specifics exactly, but I do remember that it was beautifully, subtly written (in my ninth-grade mind), and that the whole key to the story depended on a red handkerchief, which was the primary clue.

I remember the English teacher submitted the story back to me with nothing but a big A- on the front of it, with a comment, "So the narrator was the killer?" 

I felt justified that she at least GOT my clue, but crestfallen that the story I had worked so hard on received an A-. The teacher then went on a verbal rant to the whole class, saying that she had never read a batch of stories that was so dark and disturbing before, and she was sure that the media was ruining our young and impressionable minds. 

Okay, but in my defense, almost all of the stories I wrote were upbeat and chipper; this story was just a psychological thriller/slash/murder mystery, which is a totally valid genre. Now that I reflect back on it, I think the teacher was so worn out from reading stories that she gave me an A- in part because she was weary of violence, and not because I had written a poor story. I currently work with teachers now who admit that when they are in a bad mood, they give lower scores to essays than when they are in a good mood. 

I went home that night, threw the story away, stopped writing for pleasure...and more importantly, began to doubt my ability to write stories. 

What can be learned from this story? 

I take away a few lessons:

First, teachers should not evaluate assignments based on their personal beliefs, but rather according to specified pre-determined criteria. The teacher evaluated my story based on her personal belief that stories with murders were bad, but she never told me in advance that she did not want a murder mystery. I felt like she evaluated me based on her morals instead of on the story's literary merit.

Second, students deserve positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. If she had said something like, "I really loved the subtlety of your clues," or something like that, I probably would not have thrown the story away, even if she had still given me the A-.

Third, teachers need to remember they are working with students who internalize their teachers' opinions of them. Believe me, I know that reading essays gets very tiring, but students still deserve to know what they do well, and they deserve people who encourage them, believe in them, and make them feel like they can succeed as writers.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Introduction Fall 2014

My name is Amy Wilson, although I got married last summer, so you may be seeing my name change to Lopez soon. As I said in class, I was formerly a middle and high school English and history teacher, but my heart is in middle school. My brother is the world's tallest bagpipe player, and I have a 14-year-old sister whose first language is Afrikaans. (Just LOVE her accent....really, I wish I had a video of her speaking so you could hear it.) I also had a baby this summer and she really rocked my world. For those of you who are also parents in class, I salute you. I had no idea how much time and energy a little one would take!

Our Little "Ladybug"

What is literacy? People talk about literacy in schools all the time. 

Here is a link to a national framework for "technology and engineering literacy":

And one to national benchmarks for "science literacy":

Another one to national standards for "financial literacy":

And, lastly, a guide to "health literacy":

I could go on and on....there are documents on agricultural literacy, get the drift. 

So what is literacy? Well, when you read these documents, it seems like 'literacy' can mean pretty much anything, although generally people equate it to be knowledgeable and skilled in a certain area. 

One of my favorite articles is one from the journal SCIENCE EDUCATION in which the authors, Norris and Phillips, tackle the meaning of the term "science literacy." They argue that you can't have "science literacy" unless you have basic literacy, such as the ability to read and write. I think the same is true for all disciplines. Even in PE. Students might read a website on how to get in shape, for instance, and implement a totally unrealistic workout routine that is damaging to their bodies. In this case, they wouldn't have the literacy they needed (the ability to locate valid and helpful information) that would help them achieve the goal they wanted (fitness). 

One can't imagine somebody being literate in chemistry without the ability to READ and UNDERSTAND the Periodic Table of Elements.

One can't imagine somebody being literate in math without the ability to READ and UNDERSTAND what particular equations or graphs are saying. 

One can't imagine somebody being financially literate without the ability to READ and UNDERSTAND credit card statements (or people who want you to open a new line of credit). 

And so on and so forth. 

So literacy to me--even though it can mean a lot of things--is still tied to reading and writing. It includes the ability to comprehend and critically evaluate texts. 

It's been a long time since I've named this blog, and I was asking myself today why I called it "more than words." My answer is because I think literacy means interpreting a variety of texts and not just words (such as the Periodic Table of Elements, for instance, which includes symbols and numbers,). Also because I think literacy involves action. For instance, I don't think you could be fully literate in science unless you could engage in inquiry; I don't think you could be fully literate in sewing unless you can sew, and so forth. At the same time, although being literate involves action (to me), I also think being literate involves TEXT, such as reading and understanding a sewing pattern. 

What drew me to my content area? As I said, I do believe literacy enhances all disciplines, so I love content area literacy as my content area because it is so applicable. 

I am looking forward to reading others' definitions of literacy as well and to working with you all throughout the semester. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Power in the Classroom

Today, as we were discussing "a climate that fosters writing," a theme that stood out to me was the theme of power in the classroom. Now, bear with me for a moment as I explain the connection between power and writing instruction. I sometimes take circuitous routes in my writing and speaking, but I promise I "get there" eventually.

I know of some teachers who are absolutely power hungry. As an undergraduate, I had a history professor who stated an incorrect fact about the 60s. An older student in the class, who had lived through the 60s, corrected her. The professor's response was, "Who has the Ph.D.?" In other words, instead of admitting she was wrong, she pulled out her credentials.

As a second example, when we questioned the validity of a question on our 10th grade English teacher's exam, he said, "This is not a democracy; this is a theocracy, and I am god."

Don't get me wrong here. I am not against teachers having power. In fact, I think that institutional structures are designed to give teachers power. Teachers have the power to give you grades; the power to send you to detention; and so forth. On the flip side of the power spectrum, I have also seen teachers who act so "buddy buddy" with their students that they ignore their institutional role as teacher all together. They pretend like they have NO power; like they are just "one of the gang." However, in some ways I think this "buddy buddy" approach is dishonest: (a) because it can establish unhealthy boundaries between teachers and students; and (b) teachers have to give students grades, so they can't just pretend that they don't hold SOME power over students' futures.

I read an article once about how teachers should try to "flatten hierarchies." I agree with that. What does that mean to me? It means that teachers actively seek out students' ideas and recognize them as valid and important, even when students disagree with the teacher. It means that the teacher has a sense of humility and recognizes his or her fallibility. In other words, the humble teacher can even recognize the possibility that s/he is wrong and a student is right.

How does this topic relate to writing? In my experience, the most power-hungry teachers are the worst graders. They think that their opinion is the ultimate authority, without recognizing that writing is always a subjective act, and without recognizing that another teacher who graded the same paper might give it a higher grade. I think power-hungry teachers are also the worst to write for because they might not consider alternative opinions or paper formats to be "right" if it doesn't fit THEIR views.

In all, then, I guess my message is that any teacher holds power in his/her classroom. Teachers have to be careful how they use that power, and not be punitive, because how they wield power influences whether or not students are motivated to write for them.

I will also conclude with Foucault's comment that "power circulates." That teachers who misuse power often have students who defy that power. For instance, I worked with a math teacher who was truly mean to his students (I heard him talk to them before). In retaliation, one time, his students planned to all drop their textbooks right at the same moment on the clock. As this example illustrates, when teachers misuse power, students often resist. Teachers' use of power probably influences every aspect of the classroom, from classroom management to writing instruction.

Monday, January 6, 2014

SCED 4200 Spring 2014: Course Introduction

Greetings, and welcome to a new year and a new course! 

A little bit about me: I grew up in Murray, Utah, and was a fourth-generation Spartan from Murray High School. Great school, awful school colors. Orange and black? Really? After graduating from Westminster College with a double major in English and history, I taught high school English in Alpine School District and middle school reading in Jordan School District. Somewhere along the way, the "travel bug" bit me and I ended up teaching middle school in Cincinnati, Ohio and Manchester, New Hampshire. I also taught abused children who were awaiting placement in foster homes as part of a special program run through Granite School District.

Then, the travel bug bit me again--or perhaps, said more accurately, I felt compelled to seek out a bigger adventure--so I moved to Athens, Georgia to pursue my doctorate in literacy education with a specialty in earth science and mathematics. Athens truly got into my blood, and I am proud to say I am full-bred Georgia Bulldog. Red and THOSE are school colors! Here are a few pictures of some of my favorite places in Athens:

Jittery Joe's

Ramsey Center

For the past several years, I have been working with the College of Engineering on a grant funded by the National Science Foundation, which studies the literacy demands of high school engineering courses.

So, my background is in English, history, math, science, and engineering: I guess you could say I  am a jack of all trades, master of none. Nonetheless, this diverse background makes me a good candidate for teaching this course. I have taught it about 7 times now, and so I have also learned a lot from my previous students in other content areas, such as music and PE, who have shared with me the ways they see literacy applying to their content areas.

What is literacy to me? To me, it is about providing students with tools for building richer understandings of content. I'll stop there, though, because I don't want to prejudice others' opinions on literacy. :)

I look forward to working with you throughout the semester and reading others' opinions and experiences regarding literacy in their disciplines as well.