22 July 2015

Reflections on Writing with Deanna Mascle

Reflections on teaching writing, and when it goes right or wrong, a collaborative effort with Deanna Mascle. Our collaboration was guided by Christopher Bronke of the National Blogging Collaborative. 

This year my two sons (ages 12 & 14)  wrote more papers than they ever have in their young lives, and this writing consisted primarily of five-paragraph essays in each and every subject (including mathematics). It was painful for them and for me. Yet, at times we have to do things we don’t want to do, so I kept a positive attitude and persisted with helping them complete the formulaic essays (most of which also included the three points they were to discuss in their body paragraphs).

While both boys have become rather proficient with this format, the whole experience left me wondering what they would say when asked their opinion about those essays now that school’s out and they’ve moved on to playing freely and imaginatively each summer day. I decided to ask them separately and at different times, so they wouldn’t influence each other in a response. Both typical kids gave boring one-word responses at first, and then I pressed a little harder to learn what they really think.
“Hey–what did you think of all those five-paragraph essays you wrote this year?”
Son one: “Stupid.”
Son two: “Stupid.”
“Really, you had to learn something from all that writing though. Please tell me more.” Son one: Well, I did take the five-paragraph essay on stem-cells I wrote for science class and turn it into a persuasive speech and that was cool.”
The creativity required for writing and delivering his speech on a topic he cares about made all the difference. The formulaic five paragraph approach helped him develop reasons to support his claims about why we should allow more stem cell research.  But it was when the format and audience shifted that he began to care about his writing. He knew he would deliver the speech to his classmates, and he believes stem cell research improves people’s lives, so he wanted to convince his fellow classmates that they, too, should care about stem cell research.

My 14-year-old reported that he did a lot of writing this year, too. He said he wrote 2-3 times a week and at least once or twice a semester in all his core classes. His description of all that writing could also be summed up with one word: “boring.” When I asked him about the impact of all that writing, he admitted that it prepared him pretty well for the test. When I pressed him about the impact on his writing ability, he replied: “It made me worse, because it was always writing to a formula and there was no room to expand on my ideas and if I tried to diverge or experiment I was told to stop it.” Essentially, he was told that any divergence from the formula meant he would not get a “4” which would lead to various punishments such as loss of rewards or being placed in a lower-level class. I am not sure that he was actually told this cause-effect relationship or just something he construed.

Three disturbing facts came to light from this conversation. First, this idea that all this writing made him a worse writer. This goes against my experience as well as the research. We know that regular writing practice improves writing. However, none of that research (or my own experience as a writing teacher) mirrors this practice of repetitive formulaic writing. Second, and this worries me greatly as a parent and college writing instructor, was his worry that this type of writing has left him unprepared for the type of writing he will need to do in high school and college. He has learned the fine art of the bullshit essay, but not how to frame and support a good argument. Finally, there is his one-word indictment that writing is boring. I wish he had some experience like the stem cell speech, but there were only on-demand essays.

As a parent who loves words and writing and remembers the little boy who eagerly wrote poems and stories and web essays during summer writing camp, I am disappointed and angry that this focus on formulaic writing has made my son loathe writing and feel his ability is diminished. I understand why so much of his year was focused on preparing for on-demand and open response writing, but I can’t help thinking that all that time and effort could have been used so much more productively and still prepared him for the “test.” As a National Writing Project teacher and as a trained rhetorician, I am horrified at this practice. There are so many ways that teachers can give their students regular writing practice and prepare them for both standardized writing situations and the more complex writing tasks awaiting them in the future. And, I know, that there are so many ways to overcome the boredom and dislike this practice has manifested in our boys.

My students write a lot — in every class and between classes as well. I often kick classes off with some sort of prompt to help students gather their thoughts about the topic we will address that day and then use that writing to jumpstart in-class discussion and activities which will then lead into a reflective blog post (written outside of class) to connect the ideas they brought with them, that I shared, and that they heard and/or developed during the class discussion. This sort of purposeful low-stakes writing is great for supporting mindful learning and provides a solid foundation for later high-stakes assignments. By the time I give a major writing assignment my students are ready and raring to go with hundreds of words already drafted on the topic. This type of structure also gives students lots of writing practice in general — which would certainly support test preparation. Do you have any alternatives to suggest?

In addition to having students write a lot, I think it’s important for students to talk frequently. Typically, my students engage in Socratic seminar several times a semester. The critical thinking required in a seminar helps students learn to articulate ideas so others can understand their thinking which translates well to more coherent writing. Seminar also helps students learn to make logical points that support their arguments. In five-paragraph essay writing, we emphasize three main points, and often this formulaic approach translates into rote methods lacking depth of thought. By taking time to discuss their ideas before writing, students build stronger ideas and become more sophisticated in their writing. And really, isn’t moving beyond the five-paragraph essay about becoming more sophisticated?  We must believe students are capable of doing more and then show them how. Again, opportunities to talk help move students into more sophisticated writing because they learn to consider multiple perspectives. They also consider their own biases and they synthesize the ideas they hear from others into their own thinking. Taking time to ask students to write silently before and after a Socratic seminar provides them an opportunity to flesh out their thinking about what they’ve been reading and provides them an opportunity to build context needed for richer writing.

You are right. Talk, especially dialogue, is so important. I am always amazed at how ideas grow out of these conversations. The questions we raise lead to future discussions, research, and writing, and sometimes the ideas take us places we (not even I) expected or planned. That is why I like to pair the low-stakes writing of bellringers with reflective blog posts. The bellringers are intended to be conversation starters, but I believe it is important to follow-up those conversations with some reflection (which often generates a different conversation via blog comments). I think these three offer crucial preparations for learning.

An assignment that I like to use to prepare my students for more formal, high-stakes writing is something I call the Paper Trail assignment. Students develop argument topics out of our class and blog discussions, but before they can begin writing a formal argument paper they must review the texts we have discussion in class for appropriate sources and locate additional sources to support their work. The Paper Trail is a combination of the annotated bibliography with a research reflection introduction. In this introduction, students explore their research process and the primary focus of each text then explores the connections the writer found among these texts and helps the student focus their argument.

While I’ve never used The Paper Trail assignment with my students, I have used other inquiry-based culminating assignments students work toward completing throughout a series of weeks. Mostly, though, my solution for avoiding formulaic approaches rests in the idea of teaching writers through a workshop approach and through established classroom routines. My students have always enjoyed writing freely and in response to various stimuli, but we’re always writing daily, even if it’s a quick write warm-up. Wonderopolis and National Geographic provide terrific photos and videos as stimuli to get students thinking during daily quick-writes.

I think you touch on an important idea here that we should really emphasize. There isn’t one simple assignment or approach that is going to engage students and improve their writing. As part of my participation in the 2015 CLMOOC, I was thinking about systems which led me to think about the system I use to teach writing. This blog post, “A Systems Approach To Teaching,” is the result. I use a process- or workshop-based approach to teach writing with the intent to teach my students not only how to successfully complete the task at hand but to tackle future projects both in school and beyond.

As we have worked with pre-service teachers and other new and veteran teachers, we’re continuously asked about alternatives to formulaic approaches or about our favorite resources. 

A few favorite resources include:
Resources for discussion to enrich thinking and writing
Resources for digital writing
Resources for stimuli for daily quick-writes

What alternatives to formulaic writing practice do you employ to create writers in your classroom?

09 July 2015

What Connected Educators Do Differently Describes My Own Connected Journey

How well do you remember your very first tweet? Was it original? A retweet? Did you share an article or an idea? Did you connect with other educators?

It just so happens that I remember my first tweet very well, and it was a retweet of an article shared by an esteemed educator and leader with whom I was working at the time--the very same person who encouraged me to get connected via Twitter. I remember well Dr. Jeffery Zoul encouraging me to connect on Twitter since I was already connected in some of the typical ways via email, conferences, listservs, Facebook, etc.

Since becoming more connected via Twitter and through my blog in late fall of 2011, my learning professionally and personally has grown exponentially as I've been a giver, a taker, a learner, and a leader focused on not only learning but on building relationships with others from around the country and the world.

Though the authors of What Connected Educators Do Differently don't know my personal story of becoming a connected educator, I feel as though they described my journey in their book published by Routledge.  Jeffery Zoul, Todd Whitaker, and Jimmy Casas created a 134 page resource for educators on every end of the connected spectrum.

The book starts with an introductory chapter which explains what it means to be connected and why it matters. Even if you're already connected, this chapter provides you more specific background of what to expect throughout the book. I enjoyed the conversational tone and the anecdotal stories, especially those describing scenarios of isolation because there's no longer reason to feel isolated now that we have so many ways to connect virtually (and in person).

What Connected Educators Do Differently is divided into eight chapters with each chapter being a Key Connector. The eight Key Connectors explain what connected educators do differently and why it matters. You'll have to read the book yourself or visit the blog by Jimmy Casas to learn about all eight, but I will tell you about one of my favorites.

Key Connector 5: Strive to Be Tomorrow...Today. This one is my favorite because I believe it drives the very reason I blog, the very reason I passionately persist in public education, the very reason I work on re-imagining public education. This chapter is about seeking the power of a positive voice, bringing our best everyday, and striving to make an impact. If you've been reading my blog regularly, you'll know how much I value these ideas. While I was reading the book, I did what other readers often do and took notes in the margin.  At one point in this chapter,  I wrote "yes! This is why I blog..."

The authors share specific examples of well known change agents such as Scott Mcleod, Jerry Bluemengarten, and Kristen Swanson (Glad they included at least one woman in this section! Though, I wish they had included more). These individuals, described as change agents, are known "risk-takers... people with a consistent and clear purpose, a vision of the footprint they want to leave on the world in which they live." And, yes. That's exactly why I started this blog shortly after becoming connected on Twitter.

If you're not already, you can become connected, too. Pick up a copy of the book and learn not only about the Key Connectors, but enjoy learning about resources and other connected educators. At the end of each chapter, you'll learn about 5 connected educators to follow, 5 resources to find, and 5 action steps to take. I personally appreciate how the action steps grow more advanced as the book progresses, with the earlier action steps being about creating your PLN and the later action steps including ideas such as modeling risk-taking, using Maker Spaces, or implementing Genius Hour.

As we strive to be our best every day, let's remember we have one another for support and if we stay positive, we can indeed make an impact. I am determined to use my voice and connectivity to influence change on a greater scale. How about you? Are you committed to being connected and impacting change? I hope so, and I hope you will join me.

**All opinions expressed here are my own but special thanks to Routledge for a copy of the book**

05 July 2015

Women in Wyoming Equality State

A red-haired retiree (Liz) from Oregon greeted us when we began our guided tour of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historical Site. We learned Liz and her husband travel around the USA volunteering at various historical sites. When we met them at the end of June, they had been in Laramie, Wyoming only since May. Lucky for us, our guide's love of history made for an interesting tour of the facility and grounds.
Wyoming Territorial Prison

One of my favorite parts about our visit included learning about women in Wyoming, including these interesting facts shared with us by our guide as I asked her questions about women's rights in the state.
  •  In 1869 Women in Wyoming were granted the right to vote, and Eliza Swain of Laramie cast the first vote.
  • Nationwide the first female Justice of the Peace was in Wyoming.
  • Wyoming elected the first female governor in our country in 1924.
  • Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cody Stanton traveled to "the land of freedom" in 1871 via the Transcontinental Railroad.
While there were some female prisoners housed among infamous outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, the woman who captured my attention on our visit was May Preston Slosson, who was one of the few women granted the right to purse a PhD at Cornell University before the twentieth century. She served as Chaplain at the prison from 1899-1903. She was also an advocate of the women's suffrage movement.
Replica of wagon used to transport the prisoners

Slosson gave many speeches about her time as a female chaplain in Wyoming--The Equality State and proclaimed "a woman's rights to absolute equality with a man, in education, financial independence, social and political opportunities." She eventually moved to New York City with her husband and there remained a strong advocate for brining a better world for women, even marching in the 1917 Women's Suffrage Parade.
Slosson was a painter, poet, teacher, speaker, and advocate for women
Other reasons to appreciate Slosson include the facts that she was an artist and had a love of learning and knowledge.  She "cherished books, especially literature and poetry." She at one point taught at at Hastings College in Nebraska and believed that her one gift, one thing she could do--"I could sway an audience."

We spent only 24 hours of our vacation in Wyoming, but I must say it was an experience not to forget, with the massive amounts of open land and the history represented in Laramie. 
Wide open land in Wyoming
I'll leave you with a photo of a beautiful sunset from our one night in Wyoming and a quote from May Slosson "Literature has been the passion of my life, my chief recreation and a resource when in trouble. A long walk under the open sky is reading's only rival."

Sunset in Laramie, Wyoming

25 June 2015

Hiking Upper Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs Colorado

Fish Creek Falls
Amazing sites and a steep hike topped our day yesterday as we hiked Upper Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Our hike started off easy with a 1/4 mile hike to an overlook for viewing the beautiful Fish Creek Falls where we snapped photos and stood in awe of the 300 foot waterfall. Refreshed, happy, and at ease with the start of our hike, five of us continued on with the next section of the hike to the first bridge about a 1/2 mile in on a gravel trail. We stopped to look at signs about the various trails and determined that we would hike above the falls, taking us slightly closer to the Continental Divide Trail (since reading about people thru-hiking the trail last year, I've been curious about how close we could get when we ventured to Colorado).

This also provided an opportune learning time for my sons to ask about the Continental Divide. What better way to learn this aspect of geography than hiking within miles of the Great Divide of North America?

From there we began our hike upward on a moderate to difficult hike slowly and steadily gaining elevation. After another 1/2 mile, two members of our group of five decided to turn back because the incline takes a toll on unacclimated lungs. My sons, however, were determined to move forward, and I, too, wanted to challenge myself with a more rigorous heart pumping hike, so we pressed onward with the climb. After approximately 2 more miles of hiking up, we came to another bridge with more incredible views of the water and forest.
Rocky path near the top

From the second bridge we had about another 1/2 mile traverse of rocks to make it to the top of Upper Fish Creek Falls. At times, we climbed using our hands to keep us steady. Making it to the top with my sons was exhilarating (and exhausting). We spent only 10 minutes at the top before climbing back down the rocks and heading the path to the bridge and foot path to the bottom of the falls.
Climbing with our hands
The hike down took us much less time, and my oldest son, a cross-country runner, enjoyed taking the lead and hiking solo to the bottom to meet my husband and his brother who awaited us. Ever the runner and lover of outdoors, he made it to the bottom and came back up to find my younger son and me carefully working our way down the rocky pathway. Seeing him made us smile, knowing we were that much closer to the finish.
The cross-country runner taking a break to wait for us
We experienced feelings of joy, happiness, and accomplishment upon making it back to the first bridge and the bottom of the falls. Elated for the heart pumping and view inspiring experience with my sons, we walked the 1/2 mile back up hill to the parking lot. 3 1/2 hours start to finish. Total elevation 8,770 feet.
Three of us at the top

At the top

23 June 2015

Re-Imagining Public Education: Thoughts on Creative Schools

Nearly three and a half years ago I began this blog with an intense passion about re-imagining public education. During this time, I have continued to learn, encourage, advocate, and speak out about ideas for making school a more enjoyable place for students to learn.

Early posts included Stop Squashing Creativity in Education, written after I saw Sir Ken Robinson speak at NCTE and after I viewed his TED Talk. I offered five ideas for intentional teaching and many of my other posts elaborated on these ideas.

After finishing Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education, Sir Ken Robinson's newest book, I find myself hopeful and eager to continue the conversations about schooling and transforming the system. While many would say the whole system needs an overhaul, I am interested in Robinson's statement that "it's also essential to make changes within the system as it is." An idea like this means we can begin now, wherever we are.

We can begin changing the conversations, practices, and emphasis we place on test-preparation as a primary means of teaching. We can begin (or continue) listening to students and empowering them to own their learning by providing them choices in what and how they learn. We can involve families and communities in making decisions in our schools to ensure the goals in the schools represent the goals of the larger community. We can redesign school schedules to allow teachers time to collaborate, plan, and create learning experiences for students.

Three of my favorite quotes from the book 

"The fundamental work of schools is not to increase test results but to facilitate learning."
"To transform any situation you need three forms of understanding: a critique of the way things are, a vision of how they should be, and a theory of change for how to move from one to the other."
"Making education personal has implications for the curriculum, for teaching, and for assessment. It involves a transformation in the culture of schools. What does that look like in practice?"
I selected these three quotes to share here because they are the three ideas I've been exploring through blogging for the past several years. 

Since I prefer to be solutions oriented, I suggested that we read up, team up, and speak up. In another post, I suggested that we change the conversation and work toward making schools intellectually engaging and curiosity promoting places where students want to be. Most heart-wrenching in my posts about testing was this post written when my youngest son finished his first year of required state testing and asked me if he could chicken out of testing.

My promise is threefold. I will continue offering a critique of the parts of the public education system not working well for all children. I will continue sharing my vision for change, and I will think more throughly about my theory of change. 

     Whether you've read Creative Schools or not, how do you imagine public education changing? What critique do you offer? What is your vision for change? Your theory of change?


My friend, 
Gwyn, also writes and speaks about creativity in schools. After she read my Stop Squashing Creativity post, we exchanged emails and determined that we share many ideas about the education all students deserve, so I asked Gwyn to guest blog. Her two part post continues to be one of the most read posts at Learning to Muse. Read her two part post here and here


07 June 2015

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online May 2015

Another busy month, but I've also been taking more weekend time to relax and enjoy my family, so my blogging has fallen slightly behind. Anyway, here's some of what I read online in May.


Margaret Hamilton, The Engineer Who Took Apollo to the Moon serves as a reminder of women in STEM.

With so much of the tech world focused on men, a fun and important post to read is Women of Silicon Valley is an Even Cooler 'Humans of New York'

Women in Leadership: Gender Bias and the Confidence Gap by Jennifer Abrams on Peter DeWitt's blog featuring 18 women all K-12 educators should know.

50 Motivational Quotes from Disruptive, Trailblazing, Inspiring Women Leaders

Working with people most interested in preserving the status quo? If so, check out this article titled Thinking Big from Cake & Whiskey's Sip & Slice blog.


Jessica Lahey continues to be one of my favorite authors writing about parenting issues. Check out her post titled: For a Child With Learning Differences, Making Home a Safe Harbor.

Shared with me by my 14-year old son, this video argues video games improve your reaction time.

Reading is Fundamental Combats Summer Slide, another article by Jessica Lahey. This one is relevant to me as a mom and an educator. Plus, I have two friends from the eastern part of our state who both maintain the Book Mobile turned them into readers.

School's Out Forever, a father writes about his views on public education. Worth reading, for sure.

A totally relatable article 40 Things You Should Never Ever Say to Your Teen.

What's Your Teenager Doing This Summer? In Defense of Doing Nothing.

Books and Reading

My book review at Cake & Whiskey. A review of Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis.

Top Favorites by progressive educator, Nicolas Meier, offers suggestions of professional books to read and includes a few of my own favorites.

47 Books Every College Grad Should Read on Buzzfeed Books offers a few titles you may or may not have on your won reading list.

Ali Smith wins Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction for the book titled How to Be Both. Sounds like an interesting read worth adding to my book a week reading list.

Re-imagining school

When magazines such as Wired begin featuring articles about education, you know we've reached a new era in public education. Check out the article Inside the School Silicon Valley Thinks Will Save  Education.

Common Assignment: An Opportunity to Learn From Collaboration and Researched Practice by Brison Harvey explores what happens when teachers are provided time and resources needed to collaborate in designing lessons for students.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you won't be surprised that this article made my list. Prioritizing the Arts Over Test Prep.

How Not to Get Fired Implementing Next Gen Learning by Tom Vander Ark is well worth your time if you are interested in new ways of teaching and learning.

Students Need Social Studies Now More Than Ever  by Brison Harvey is one of a few social studies posts I read this month, and I'm still working to curate a few since one of the recent #kyedchat conversations focused on social studies.

The CEO of the organization where I work wrote a blog post in honor and appreciation of teachers during teacher appreciation week. Working with someone who values effective teachers is a bonus in my world.

The Kentucky state education commissioner wrote a letter warning my district of state action if they don't improve assistance to low-performing schools, including the school where I used to teach. I'm still working on a blog post on this article because I'm fearful of the actions the district will take as a reaction to the letter.

177 Days encapsulates the reflection and thinking of a thoughtful mathematics teacher, Brooke Powers.

In Big New Idea: Next Generation Instructional Design, Susan Weston shares her thoughts on the newest project I'm leading.

Politicizing AP US History by Daisy Martin argues in favor of comprehensive social studies instruction to continue the importance of helping students know and understand why we should be involved citizens and why we should learn from the past.


Kindergarten Can Wait. Meet Buddy Backpacker the five-year old Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.

Dean Potter Lived Life on the Edge was a never before published article about the late hiker and climber who inspired many before losing his life this spring.

What to do if you see a bear (not really).

Scott Jurek is attempting to beat the current record for the fastest thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.


NC Bill Could Send Teachers to Jail for Wearing a Red Shirt.

Chinese Billionaire takes 6,400 staff on holiday to Paris.

The Top 25 Hedge Fund Managers Earn More than All the Kindergarten Teachers in the United States.

An Eleven Year Old Graduated from College with Three Different Degrees.

Authorities File Charges Against Family Members Over Loud Cheering at Mississippi Graduation.

16 May 2015

My Favorite Books of All Time

What's your favorite book? Often a dreaded question because, as an avid reader, I think it's difficult to narrow it to just one. Narrowing it to ten isn't much easier. However, in the spirit of The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, I'm sharing my favorite books of all time.

Don't think I've taken this list lightly. In fact, I've been creating the list, refining it, revisiting it, and starting all over again for the past seven years. Seven years ago, a student and her mom gave me a book edited by J. Peder Zane The Top Ten. Zane continues working to curate top tens lists and to interview authors, so visit the site to learn more from some of your favorite authors.

At the end of last year, I shared my top 14 reads from 2014, and I suspect I'll share my 2015 list from my book a week reading in late December or January. Until then, my top ten of all time goes back many years. When I finally selected my favorites, I made my decision based on books I return to, books I recommend to others, and books that for one reason or another I haven't been able to get out of my mind.

My top ten (in no particular order)

1. Othello by William Shakespeare
2. The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
5. The poems of Pablo Neruda
6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
7. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
8. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
9. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
10. Night by Elie Wisel

What's on your top ten list?  Please share below.
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