24 December 2012

One School's New Focus on Literacy

On December 14th I was looking forward to the weekend and the opportunity to write about my full week of literacy team planning with one of our middle schools in the district, but in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy my reflections on our literacy work didn't matter that weekend.   More pressing issues were on the minds of everyone.  Several education bloggers I follow posted thoughtful responses and reflections.

In a twitter exchange, one teacher shared  with me that he processes through writing, and so do I, usually.  For the past two weeks my thoughts have come in fragments typed into my phone or on my iPad, whichever I had available at the moment the thoughts arrived.  Two weeks is longer than I've ever waited to pull those fragments together into one cohesive unit for a blog post.

While adults across the United States argue about much needed gun control, I am hopeful for the kids at the middle school where I worked the week of December 14th because their new literacy leadership team is celebrating the work ahead with reading, writing, discussing, learning new vocabulary, and creating remixed poems.  In a thank you email, the principal of the school where I spent my week leading to December 14th, sent a modified version of 'twas the night before Christmas.  She and her staff (known as staffulty) wrote it and read it to students on the last day of the semester before they left for winter break.

The best part about my time spent in this school is that under new leadership they are focused on literacy and student success not just band-aid fixes to improve test scores.  They are changing their culture and making it cool to read and succeed.  Check out a few lines from their poem--

He was dressed in maroon, and white you can see.
With this LMS attire, a Charger he must be.

A bundle of books he had pulled from his case.
He handed them out and picked up his pace.

His eyes
how serious, His demeanor, how humble
His expression had everyone ready to crumble.

He started his speech about vocabulary and reading,
Things Chargers must do, to be succeeding.

...and a few of my favorite lines are here--

Specifically he spoke about the reading left to do,
By everyone there
students, staffulty, and administrators too.

The reading and vocabulary I will definitely support,
And I will see great results as I analyze reports.
To hear these sweet words, how they caused such delight.
LMS  students read and achieve, with all of their might!

But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight.
Merry Christmas to all and read every night!

What a fabulous way the leaders of this middle school ended the semester--reminding everyone to read over winter break.


09 December 2012

Wonderwork Replaces Homework

As I approach the one year anniversary of my blog, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve grown as a learner and leader over the past year.  The very idea that I will continue to learn and reflect on education practices, reform, literacy, and the arts is nestled in my blog title—Learning to Muse. 

My second blog post, 3 Meaningful Homework Practices, developed the way many of my posts develop—after conversations face-to-face and virtually with friends, family and colleagues or after reading various articles, novels, and nonfiction books.  Interestingly, this post on homework brought only one comment on my blog, but it also brought a comment via twitter, and this comment has had me thinking and reflecting  all year on the purpose and value of homework.  Who would have known last January that I would one day, in the same year, begin working side by side with the very person who has caused me to reflect in 2012 on the value of homework?
As a result of all this reflection and reading on the purpose and value of homework, I entered last week’s twitter #wonderchat already wondering about how we can provide more interesting and meaningful opportunities for children and teens when they are at home.  The site Wonderopolis offers a wealth of possibilities as do many other engaging sites for children and teens.  To my delight, a twitter friend—Paul Hankins— suggested the possibility of wonderwork to replace homework.  Check out some of our conversation on this topic last Monday night.

What will it take?  How can we get the idea of wonderwork to replace homework?  I'm not completely sure but I’m going to start by signing off to help my sixth grader finish his wonderwork right now.  He’s working on a science fair project where he’s wondering which hand soap will be most effective with eliminating bacteria.  Stay tuned this week as he collects and analyzes his data.

Feel free to share your own ideas for wonderwork in the comments below.

08 December 2012

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (for vocabulary instruction)

Vocabulary instruction has been on my mind for a few months, so I decided to spend two weeks listening carefully to conversations (both face-to-face and virtually) among family, friends, and colleagues.  Below are the results of what I’ve heard and seen in the past two weeks.

Examples of worst practice shared with me by family, and colleagues friends from across the country

·         A high school student was asked to define 130 words before reading a short story in English class.

·         A group of middle school students were asked to copy dictionary definitions from the teacher’s powerpoint.

·         A middle schooler was still (it’s December) on the letter A for lists of words to define (using the dictionary) and take rote memory vocab tests over every Friday.

·         An elementary student was provided a list of definitions to accompany spelling words.  The definition provided for the word enclosure = the art of enclosing.

·         A middle school student was given a crossword puzzle worksheet and asked to define words.

·         A class of middle school students watched (while doing nothing) a video with kids talking about definitions for a paper topic.

·         A class was assigned a list of words for each chapter of a novel--words to be defined and memorized.

·         A science class was asked to define all the bold words in chapter of science textbook.  Memorize definitions & be prepared for a quiz on Friday. 

Examples of best practice as experienced by family, friends, and colleagues
from across the country

·         Teachers implementing Marzano’s strategies in a middle school classroom

·         Teachers facilitating class discussion of words in context from novel being read

·         Teachers modeling academic vocabulary when explaining directions and conducting think-alouds

·         Teachers demonstrating word analysis during study of Greek & Latin root words

As schools acknowledge the instructional shifts for literacy required in America’s schools because of the Common Core State Standards, we are seeing a need for an increased emphasis on vocabulary instruction.  With all the research and access to information via the World Wide Web, I find myself wondering why I continue to see and hear worst practice in vocabulary instruction.  Why is my list of examples of worst practice longer than my list of examples best practice?  Maybe two weeks wasn’t long enough for me to listen and record what I was seeing and hearing about vocabulary instruction?

01 December 2012

Thoughts on Being an Educator and a Mom

 Since before he could read fluently, my now nine year old son, Isaac, has been interested in writing.  He keeps journals, writes lists, creates stories with his Lego characters, and creates scenarios to share with me in conversation.
Unfortunately, with increasing pressure for students to perform well on standardized assessments, and with Kentucky’s abolishment of writing portfolios as part of the assessment and accountability system, writing is often demoted to worksheets, quizzes on the computer during writing time, practice for the state’s On-Demand Writing assessment, contrived personal narratives, and writing sentences for each spelling word.   
Experiences for our children can be much more than this though, if we are thoughtful with our approaches and we continue to use our voices to emphasize the importance of creativity in education.  At the 2012 National Council for Teachers of English Annual Convention, I had the joy of hearing Sir Ken Robinson speak on the importance of creativity.  He went as far to say “creativity is as important as literacy.”  I believe this statement and think we should use our voices as parents and as educators to remind our community members and policymakers that we need to promote creativity by letting students study and explore topics that interest them.  We need to allow more time for creating, performing, dreaming, and thinking.
Thankfully, Isaac has a teacher this year who is interested in helping students develop as better writers and thinkers.  It’s a hard job as a public school teacher, and I speak from experience, but I also know the importance of encouraging students to write about topics which interest them.   To encourage this interest, I recently arranged for Isaac’s class to Skype with a nine year old author (Eva) from Bismarck, North Dakota.  

Below is a video clip from Isaac’s experience Skyping with Eva.  In the interest of my personal blog showing only my own child and Eva, the video has been edited.  We enter the video after Eva asked the class if there were any writers, artists, or dancers in the class.  (Side note--I love her focus on the arts as a whole—fits perfectly with promoting the importance of kids performing, creating, and dreaming)   Isaac is answering her question by describing the way he creates stories with his Lego characters.  Eva confidently affirms his approach to writing and proceeds to answer questions from Isaac and his classmates. 

It’s my hope that creative experiences such as this will become more a regular part of all classes, not just for my own children but for all children.  Eva's mom, Gwyn Ridenhour, has this same hope, and she uses her expertise and experience to promote more creative opportunities for children in North Dakota.  By collaborating with others, listening to children, and using our voices, our hope will be realized.

25 November 2012

NCTE 2012 Allowed Me to Dream and Connect

Becoming a Connected Educator

Late last fall just before NCTE 2011, I was working on a project with an educator who was then working for SREB. This man is a dynamic leader who is very active on twitter. He encouraged me to join twitter and create my own professional learning network. I have to admit I was skeptical at first because I was concerned about the time involved. However, because I respected this education leader and because I was on my way to Chicago for NCTE, I acquiesced. My first tweet included a NCTE hashtag. Because I was just getting started, I messed up the hashtag, including 20 in front of the 11 instead of just #NCTE11. I didn't realize my error until after I left Chicago and the convention. Typical of my personality, I persisted in my pursuit of learning and networking online, and I became a more connected educator.  Being more connected at NCTE 2012 in Las Vegas allowed me to experience the energy and excitement of more sessions than there was time to attend because we could follow the events and quotes happening all around the convention center. It was invigorating to follow but also to be retweeted or to have my tweets favorited a time or two.  Connected.

Dreaming about a Focus on Creativity

Connection and collaboration are increasingly important in our education world today. As I've blogged about previously, we have to team up and use our voices to stop the crushing focus on standardized testing.   Sir Ken Robinson's opening session on Friday morning was a highlight for me.  Hearing him speak was energizing and invigorating, a perfect lead into a session I presented with another colleague. Our session"My Administrator won't Let Me" Media Literacy and Core Standards was inspired by a Kentucky teacher who was fighting the good fight toward teaching students some of the skills that receive less emphasis in the common core, but he was not feeling supported by his administrators.  Unfortunately, our session had small turn out, but we enjoyed sharing our inspired session with the educators who attended and have made plans to present a similar session at our Kentucky Council of Teachers of English conference in the winter.  Naturally, we'll tweak our presentation based on feedback from participants and based on other things we learned at NCTE.

While at NCTE 2012  one of my biggest claims about the teaching of writing was supported in a round table session with Jim Burke who stated--"If kids show up to college only knowing the 5 paragraph essay, they will be inadequately prepared."  In the district where I work, this is a hot topic which doesn't yet have many believers.  By learning Jim Burke's approach,  I'm hoping I can share his well received advice with teachers who are more likely to believe an expert such as Jim Burke.  In fact, I don't think it's that they don't want to believe me, I think it's that they don't feel there are other options.  I'm hoping to show them other options do exist.

National Writing Project sessions were another hit for me.  In one session from the Bay Area Writing Project in California, we learned from three practicing teachers the ways they are meeting the needs of English Language Learners in their schools.  ELL students are another growing population in our district as schools continue to enroll refugees and immigrants due to Lexington being a refugee resettlement center.  We are all learning and growing together as we determine the best ways to meet the needs of all students in our district.  Thankfully, this session provided some practical tips and resources for me to consider as I work with teachers and students.

One of the Ignite sessions I attended was especially exciting.  Sara Brown Wessling opened the session and included artwork to talk about ways teachers can be uncommon in an era of common core.  She effectively set the stage for the speakers who followed with their 20 slides in 15 seconds.  Each speaker made my eyes sparkle a little more and my smile widen because I felt connected to other educators who also believe we need to cultivate creativity and innovation in our schools, classrooms, and districts.

I can't possibly write about every session I attended and have any hope of this blog post being a reasonable length, so I'll end by mentioning the connection I experienced when I attended the reception hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and organized by Sandy Hayes.  Sandy's focus on continued collaboration between NCTE and NBPTS sings my song of collaboration.  Before I even left Vegas, I was dreaming of a creative year and planning my proposal for NCTE 2013.

15 November 2012

Ready for NCTE 2012

The final week of preparations before NCTE 2012 brought a flurry of activity in an already busy season of the election, upcoming holidays and near end to fall semester. Only about twelve hours ago the reality of the fact that I’m heading to Las Vegas today hit me. I do not take the opportunity to participate in the National Council for Teachers of English Annual Convention lightly. As thousands of literacy educators join forces over the next few days, even thousands more will continue the important work in schools.

One such school includes my son's elementary school in Lexington Kentucky. Before I left town I arranged for my son's class to Skype with 9 year old author, Eva Ridenhour, who lives in Bismarck, North Dakota. I'll write more about this exciting learning experience in a future post. At this very moment, he's having this experience while I sit at the airport writing this post from my phone and waiting for my flight. Without the educators who are still at school today, this experience would not be happening. The teacher learned how to use Skype this week. The librarian and principal supported the teacher's willingness to learn and to try something new for the kids. My dedicated colleague agreed to visit the school and capture photos for our adolescent literacy blog.

In addition to all the prep work for my presentation at NCTE and my husband's continued work on his dissertation, he and I worked tirelessly each evening to help our son draft his first research paper. We met with his teachers yesterday to confirm our happiness with his success in middle school so far. At that middle school in Lexington, my 11 year old son is today handing in his first ever research paper because a dedicated science teacher understands the importance of having kids write in science class too.

Let's just say the past ten days in our household have been extra busy. In addition to my duties as a mom, I was extra busy on the job, too. I coordinated and facilitated three days of Literacy Design Collaborative Training for science, social studies, and English teachers, most of whom are in their schools today carrying on with the important work of providing an education for students in Lexington. Amazing teachers and a colleague co-facilitated the training days. So, no. I cannot take the luxury of leaving for NCTE today for granted.

I am grateful.
I am excited!
I am ready to learn, share, and collaborate at NCTE 2012.

06 November 2012

Teaching My Children about the Importance of Voting

Since my two boys were very young they have joined me at the polls each election.  I believe it’s important for me to model the responsibilities of being a citizen in our country.  This year they selected to stay home and play soccer (the 9 year old) or Minecraft  (the 11 year old) rather than join me at the polls, but their education around voting has not gone awry.  In fact my 6th grader followed the presidential debates with me, and he had his own opportunity to vote at his middle school’s mock election.  The results of Beaumont Middle School’s election will be announced tomorrow after the results of the real election are finalized.

This year I volunteered to help man the polls at the mock election and it was exciting to see all 6th-8th graders with smiling faces exercise their right to vote in the mock election.  Many students voted a straight ticket and others scrolled through the list of candidates, carefully making each selection.  It was rewarding to greet a handful of the sixth graders I knew by name, to explain the voting instructions to everyone, and to hand each adolescent a sticker, thanking him/her for voting.

Obviously, since I work for the school system, we are not permitted to promote any particular candidate while on school time or property because the goal is to teach children to make informed and responsible decisions.  Since they are too young to vote in the real election, mock elections are a great way to teach students about their rights and responsibilities.  It’s also another great opportunity to teach them higher order thinking (H.O.T) skills that will help them throughout their lives.  Making a choice about a candidate requires us to think carefully and consider all the evidence for our decisions.
My fourth grader has also been involved this year because he has participated in household discussions about the election and our favorite candidate.   He stopped playing soccer with the neighborhood friend long enough to inquire about where I was going and to ask upon my return if he could see my “I Voted” sticker.  This led to another discussion with my 9 year old and his neighborhood friend about keeping our fingers crossed today for our favorite candidate to win.  Most of all, I can relax knowing I did my part, and I modeled for my children the importance of voting.

28 October 2012

Here Come the Test Scores--My Hopes and Fears

In my state people are awaiting the public release of standardized test scores this week; students in Kentucky were the first to be tested over the Common Core State Standards last spring. Officials across the state have been warning the public of the potential results because the tests were new, not comparable to previous tests, and based on much more rigorous college and career ready standards.

If you’ve been reading my blog since its creation ten months ago, you likely remember my previous posts on the topic of standardized testing. If you haven’t been reading, you can read those posts here, here, and here.

I have a fear, a fear that the shock of the test results will move people to even more drastic measures and more harmful test preparation as the primary means of teaching students during the school day. We have much to lose if educators resort to more test prep and skill/drill approaches to instruction. We risk higher drop out rates because we are likely to find students disengaged, uninterested, and fed-up with school. We risk the loss of effective arts programs, healthy habits of mind, and understandings of success. In short, we risk the opportunity to prepare students for the life which awaits them beyond K-12 schooling. Sure that’s the intention of the CCR skills—to prepare students for life beyond high school—but the CCR skills leave out creativity and innovation, for the most part.

Being a generally optimistic individual, I also have hope—hope that we will remember the importance of creativity, collaboration, and innovation this week when the standardized test scores for students in Kentucky are released. I hope we facilitate learning opportunities and provide personalized learning based on students’ interests and passions. I hope we continue to promote the arts embedded into problem solving and project based learning. I hope that we will encourage creativity, not squash it.

Ironically, I presented at an assessment conference this week and upon my return home, my 9 year old reminded me that book character dress up day at his elementary school was the next day.   We had discussed this event previously, so I knew he was interested in dressing up like Hiccup in How to Train a Dragon.  However, at 7:00 pm the night before the event, we needed a burst of creativity to make his plan a reality.  The whole family contributed to this creative endeavor.   My older son offered his advice for making the horns from aluminum foil, while my husband searched for an old black tee shirt we could cut up for a tunic.  When it was all said and done, the whole family felt a sense of togetherness and a sense of accomplishment—collaboration and creativity!  Keep it coming.

19 October 2012


Today I am writing, thinking, talking, collaborating, networking and spending National Day on Writing at the Kentucky Reading Association Annual Conference with literacy educators from across the state and country.

Last night Laura Robb opened the conference by having us write about the texts we read. Tomorrow afternoon as the conference concludes, Doug Buehl will lead us in a session on academic discipline literacy, and right now I am taking a few minutes to reflect on what...

…I write

My blog

Personal journals

Reading journals

Annotations in the texts I read

Notes at every convening

Comments in my sons’ planners

Articles for professional journals

Professional learning resource materials

Conversations in online discussion groups

Conference proposals

Grant proposals

Feedback in the margins of my husband’s dissertation

Status updates on Facebook for family and friends who live far and near

Comments on blogs I read

Lists of anything I fear forgetting

Letters of recommendation

Notes at conferences and in meetings

Tweets related to teaching and learning, the humanities, education reform,

Emails to colleagues, other educators, organizations, researchers, friends and family

Text messages to my 11 year old

Notes to my 9 year old (in his lunch box and for the mailbox affixed to wall outside his bedroom)


I.write.every.day.of.my.life. because it’s important to me.

13 October 2012

Introducing Principals to the Literacy Design Collaborative

This week I had my first opportunity to meet all the middle and high school principals in our district.  As the primary point of contact for a major literacy grant, it was important for these administrators to know who I am, and more importantly, to know about the ongoing professional learning experiences we are facilitating for their teachers.  Since we believe in modeling best practice, my colleagues and I decided to stage an argument about the content the principals would learn (In this situation, the content happened to be writing instruction and impact of writing programs in schools).  The argument was designed to set the context and engage the learners/readers in two articles with opposing view-points.  

I’m really happy to be back in the district working closely with teachers and schools, and for the most part it’s going well.  However, I do have one little issue.  My colleague and I don’t agree on the appropriate approach for writing instruction, so we need your help.  We are going to give you two different articles and ask you to help us decide an answer to this question—is it necessary to omit personal connection to produce good writing?  I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, but my colleague does.  Will you help us settle this argument by gleaning evidence from two texts?

My science colleague distributed The Writing Revolution, and I distributed In Defense of Freedom Writers but only after I talked about the power Manuel Scott’s presentation had on me a couple of weeks ago.   Then we gave each administrator a few text dependent questions to accompany both articles, set a timer for 20 minutes and then paced, re-read and watched as a room full of principals and associate principals read the two articles with their pens in hand.  Following the reading of the two articles, our social studies colleague continued the staged argument by telling the principals she didn’t agree with either of us—she was in the middle.  She then facilitated a fish bowl discussion to engage the principals in conversation around the two points of view conveyed in the two articles.  She charted ideas and the principals on the outside of the fishbowl recorded additional thoughts on sticky notes when it wasn’t their turn to talk.  A few struggled to keep quiet when they were on the outside of the fish bowl because they felt so strongly about what they had read.

These are the same conditions teachers are creating as they introduce a Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) task to students in science, social studies and English Language Arts.   Before we went into the rest of our presentation on LDC, we told the principals the argument had been staged, and they got it.  They understood we had set the context for learning more about the content.  Teachers in our district, across many districts in Kentucky, and in several other states in the United States are utilizing the LDC tools to implement the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical subjects.

We are using LDC because we see the importance of engaging students in meaningful and authentic reading and writing opportunities in every discipline.  Think about the response above--A few struggled to keep quiet when they were on the outside of the fish bowl because they felt so strongly about what they had read.   Exactly.  Imagine this happening in classrooms full of excited and engaged adolescents!
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you will know this is exactly why I left the state department to be closer to schools, closer to the teaching and learning that will make a difference in the lives of students.

07 October 2012

Close Reading, Text Dependent Questions, & Academic Writiing = Nothing New

...or Considering a Balanced Approach to Literacy Instruction

As a teacher who was educated at a liberal arts college, close reading, text dependent questions and academic writing have been part of my educator tool box since I began teaching in 1998.  Now, however, these practices are seeing a resurgence of emphasis because of the Common Core State Standards. 

This was one of the ways I introduced my students to what it means to be a good reader. 
We would discuss which four were accurate according to Nabokov.
Some of my most vivid college memories include my English professors asking us to defend our readings of various poems, stories and novels with evidence from the text.  We read the works of Keats, Kipling, Yeats, Shakespeare, Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, O’Connor and more.   Most of my professors didn’t lecture; they taught us to read closely and defend our responses.  We discussed great literary texts and were encouraged to leave our personal responses behind.  In fact, I often say I never really learned to read critically until my first poetry class with Dr. Whited in 1994.

In my junior year of college a new, dynamic, and cutting-edge thinker joined the English faculty, and she believed we should be taught multiple ways of reading and interpreting text.  She challenged our formalist readings and asked us to consider the ideas of Foucault and Barthes.  While I considered the idea of authorship coming from outside the text, read the theories, and practiced them in this professor’s course, I had a difficult time thinking an approach to reading a text other than the New Critic approach would lead to an accurate reading of a text.  I successfully argued my point in my final Master’s Capstone Presentation and went on to teach high school English for the next seven years, utilizing primarily a formal close reading of text to teach my students to read and comprehend. My formalist teaching style worked effectively on the Cherokee Indian Reservation where my students’ performance in writing and reading improved each year I was at the school.

Flash forward seven years from my master’s capstone presentation.  I was in a new state with a new curriculum and a new, more diverse population of students and was working toward my National Board Certification.  A major part of working on National Boards is the intense analysis and reflection required.  I was also mentoring student teachers from the University of Kentucky.  One student teacher, in particular, challenged my thinking with her dynamic approach and different ways of considering text.  She reminded me of my college professor.  She understood the ideas of Foucault and Barthes to be relevant to our classroom and she considered poetry beyond the traditional cannon I so loved and faithfully taught, even as I paired literature with non-fiction texts.  Accordingly, I acquiesced to the importance of a balanced approach in my high school English classroom and sent an email to my college professor telling her I should have listened sooner.

So when The Atlantic published Peg Tyre’s article and Applebee’s response, I decided to reply with my own thoughts on the importance of academic writing in our classrooms today.  Two days after I blogged about Tyre’s article, I had the opportunity to hear Manuel Scott speak to my district about his personal experiences in public education.  He shared the story we all saw in the movie Freedom Writers and shared that his story most resembled that of Manny, a character created by combining multiple individuals from the original group of Freedom Writers.

Mr. Scott shared the story of his teacher, Erin Gruwell, and her persistence, patience, and passion for helping her students learn.  She started the year with “dead white guys in tights” and ultimately combined the beauty of Shakespeare with lyrics by people like Tupac to make learning more relevant and meaningful to her students.  As Mr. Scott shared, his teacher didn’t stop teaching Shakespeare and the power of words to tell a personal story—she just hooked the kids with Tupac.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Erin Gruwell’s interview with The Atlantic and her defense of teaching students memoir writing.  In our rush to improve public education, I hope we all remember to keep a balanced approach to literacy instruction because it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario.  We can teach academic writing and memoir writing, and we can teach the Cannon paired with other non-traditional texts, both fiction and non-fiction. 

My favorite resources for close reading and text dependent questions in order of  personal preference.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them  by Francine Prose

 Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w9v6-zUg3Y

Douglas Fisher: Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhGI5zdjpvc
Text Dependent Questions & the Common Core http://www.achievethecore.org/steal-these-tools/text-dependent-questions


06 October 2012

Wearing My Parent (not my educator) Hat for the PTA

From a parent and educator’s point of view…

Since very early drafts of the Common Core State Standards, I have been involved with reviewing, presenting, and helping educate others on the Common Core.    Most of my work was done as a consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education, where we provided feedback to early drafts, brought teachers together to provide feedback, presented to various audiences at local, state and national conferences, deconstructed the standards, created learning plans and units for the standards, and created assessments for the standards.  Basically, I spent the past three years of my life immersed in work related to these standards. 

Consequently, when I was asked by a teacher and parent liaison at my son’s elementary school to provide an overview for parents at the next PTA/curriculum night, I jumped at the opportunity and quickly spouted out three or four ideas I could use based on all my previous presentations.  This very kind and calm teacher and parent liaison gently reminded me that my audience would be different because it would not consist entirely of educators but of normal parents who just wanted to know what their children would be learning in the next few years. 


This changed everything.  Although I had been involved with the PTA off and on over the years and had spent many hours volunteering at the elementary school, I realized the need to think carefully about my audience for this presentation.  In the weeks leading to PTA night, I spent hours retooling powerpoint slides I had created for previous regional, state and national presentations.  My three younger adult sisters kept popping into my head, and they became my goal post for considering my audience.  After learning we would have a translator present on PTA night, my audience goal post expanded, and I grew more excited with the challenge of helping fellow parents understand what our children would learn in the coming months and years.

My foray into helping parents understand the Common Core was not only exciting but also enlightening because I reconsidered the responsibility I have as an educator to make sure my colleagues in education understand the standards alone will not make a difference.  Effective teaching and learning practices will make the difference in knowing our children are ready for the world which awaits them beyond their K-12 schooling experience and we don’t have to wait to show our children this world. 


30 September 2012

Fired up about the Idea of a Writing Revolution

Peg Tyre’s article captured my interest when I saw The Atlantic link in my twitter feed.  I read it quickly, feeling fired up and knowing it would lead to a blog post later when I had some time.  Coincidentally, within a few days, seven different friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from various walks of my life sent the link to me and asked for my thoughts. 
If you’ve read Tyre’s article, you will know that she argues for a return to writing instruction circa 1950.  My first reaction was one of alarm because all I could think of was moving backward at the same time we are trying to propel literacy instruction forward for the next generation of students.  But as I continued to read and continued to receive the link in my inbox, on my Facebook page, and again in my twitter feed, I began to consider more carefully exactly what Tyre suggests—teaching the fundamentals. 
And then, Arthur Applebee published a response that read like some of the thoughts which had been floating in my mind.  On most accounts, I agree with Applebee, so here I will provide the link to both pieces and share some thoughts about how, pragmatically speaking, a writing revolution could happen in classrooms and schools if we remember a few important points.
Although the fundamentals may need to be reintroduced or reemphasized, they also need to be updated to meet the demands of communications in the 21st century and beyond.  So instead of bringing back the 1950s with its “rigid unswerving formula” we should think about what we can learn from the 50s—good analytic writing, drawing evidence from text, being able to think critically and express that thinking in lucid thought.  It’s not about a secret recipe, but it is about effective tools to provide the explicit instruction and layered skills instruction our students need.
It’s about balance, not rigid formulas memorized for the sake of formula.  For example, my son was taught the basic five paragraph essay in the fourth grade, perhaps appropriate given his general lack of interest in writing.  In fifth grade he again wrote a basic five paragraph essay over a trite topic.  However, now (in 6th grade) that he’s mastered this formula, he should be taught to move beyond the basic five paragraphs and encouraged to explore his real interests in understanding how the world works, the scientific process and ancient history.  A discovery approach like this makes more sense than requiring him write yet another five paragraph essay convincing us we should buy him a dog or arguing that dogs in the city should be kept on leashes.   Consider Applebee’s fourth point in his essay about what effective writing programs do/provide—“there was a recognition that writing is tied closely to thinking about new material, and requires tools and strategies that can and should be taught…"
While the Common Core does require more expository and argumentative texts be written, we should balance our explicit instruction of writing skills within the context of the ideas being explored.  To do this requires a delicate balance by thoughtful and reflective teachers who are themselves consistently honing their own skills.   My eleven years in the classroom affirms my understanding of the importance of the right tools balanced carefully with the right approach to writing instruction. 
We need to remember
  •  to convey purpose in instruction
  • to utilize essential questions that make students think
  • to teach students to ask questions
  • to encourage students to discuss and explore topics which interest them
  • to teach writing skills, not just assign writing via a prompt
  • to study language with our students
  • to utilize writing as a way to improve reading comprehension
  • to make writing an important  focus of instruction throughout our schools
Befittingly, I’ll end with my favorite quote from Applebee—“ the most effective writing programs are able to embed what is required by high stakes tests and then move beyond to a much richer vision of curriculum and instruction.”

18 September 2012

Thinking about Academic Knowledge and Discipline Literacy

I am currently participating in a preview to the Kentucky Reading Association Annual Conference through an online book discussion group using the Thinkfinity platform.  Our discussion facilitator posts thoughts and questions for each chapter of Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines by Doug Buehl, and each of the book discussion group participants responds to the chapter.  Since our discussion facilitator also happens to be the state literacy coordinator, she presented us each with a challenge, of sorts, as we read this week's chapter stating “the examples Buehl gives in the rest of the chapter, organized by content areas…we just need to get the information into the right hands. I hope each of you will be the vehicle for that!”

 I take this challenge seriously because it speaks to my interests and goals in my new position. After spending six of my first eleven days on the new job with teachers, I must say I am very pleased with my decision to accept this district level position.   I’m now serving at the Secondary English/Language Arts Specialist for the second largest district in Kentucky.  The title is slightly erroneous, given that I am doing more work of literacy specialist than just English/language arts, but I don’t care about the title as much as I care about the work I’m doing and the challenge ahead for helping discipline area literacy be a focus for improving student achievement in Lexington’s schools.

 While I’ll do my part, I can’t do this work alone, so I’m thankful for a team of colleagues who are also committed to discipline area literacy.  Yesterday, several of these colleagues witnessed my passion for literacy & education for the first time.  I was heated up as I talked with them about Buehl’s book and my online discussion group.  We are planning ways to bring the contents of this book into regular conversations with educators around the district whenever we are able.  Meetings with principals?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with teachers?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with instructional coaches?  Discuss discipline literacy.  What will we share?  We will always share the impact discipline literacy has on student achievement and the importance of bridging the academic gap, but other specifics will vary depending upon our audience.  Thankfully, Buehl offers many specifics in his book, providing us research, theories, and practical examples which often speak to educators.

 Two of my favorite quotes so far come from chapter three about bridging academic knowledge gaps.  This very rich chapter has thus far brought the most in-depth conversation in our online discussion, too.   Buehl writes about disciplinary learning and students’ lives and worlds, stating— “students will be at risk for feeling marginalized, becoming disconnected from academic tasks and texts, and be resistant to developing identities that area compatible with reading, writing, and thinking through different disciplinary lenses… the persistence of achievement gaps is one result (p.91).”

My second favorite quote so far became my favorite as another discussion ensued among my new colleagues.  Our boss sent us a link to a story by USA today and commented that the approach hi to teaching history  highlighted in the story might be more relevant for students.  He then asked us what we thought.  Well, since I was already fired up from my online discussion with the KRA preview group and had already shared my excitement with others in the content specialists’ office, I decided to send my favorite quotes from Buehl’s book to our department and our boss to encourage everyone to join me in reading the book. 

 “A major issue of teaching social science is generational knowledge, in which our students are immersed and which is highly motivational, can be hooked into the specific disciplinary goals for the social studies curriculum  (p.93).”    Buehl goes on to discuss the need to narrow history curriculum to get at the most important parts of history by using events of today to connect to the past and to make it relevant for students who are likely asking—“so what?”  

05 September 2012

Curiosity, Moths, and Moving Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

Tonight I should be working on final preparations for a workshop with English teachers tomorrow, but instead, I’m researching moths.   I can’t say I’ve ever had much interest in moths before, but I also have never before seen one like the one I saw today.  Today’s experience was even more sweet, given that I was with 35 middle and high school science teachers who regularly utilize literacy strategies to teach their content.

In between the sharing of strategies like word sort and concept ladders, someone from the facility came in the room to ask if there were any moth experts available.  Half a dozen science teachers rushed outside to see a moth.   My curiosity caught the best of me.  We called for a break and went outside to inspect this moth. 
Our best thoughts right now are that we saw a Pandora Sphinx Moth.  I tweeted a picture of the moth and received a reply from a friend and former colleague who reminded me “form matches function at every level.”  She, as she usually does, provided me more to consider in my musings, but I’ll have to get back to musing on moths later because right now I need to gather my wits for talks tomorrow about why we need to teach students to move beyond the five paragraph essay in English class.

Form does match function at every level.  

27 August 2012

Why I'd Rather be a Leader than a Boss

Having the last name Boss brings a fair share of name jokes about who’s the boss.  I take it all in stride because it just comes with the name, but when it comes to thinking about what a boss does and what a leader does, I’d rather be considered a leader than a boss.
Today was my last day with the state department of education, and when I blogged about my final thoughts of working at the DOE, I neglected to reference my most recent work as the academic core branch manager.   It was not a complete oversight nor did I plan not to mention it; I just wasn’t ready to put my thoughts about that experience in writing.  The people in this incredible branch are well-rounded, intelligent, and hardworking individuals, and I am thankful for the opportunity to work with them and to learn from them over the past year.  My knowledge of standards, instruction, and assessment for mathematics, social studies, science, world language, and arts & humanities increased enormously because of conversations, shared readings, and shared experiences. 

Our vision for the academic core was that we become a cohesive unit, working across disciplines on projects and models that would help educators in the field see the same possibilities.  We made progress on this work, but still had room to grow, and I hope my colleagues will carry on with this vision so examples of best practice for integrated learning can be shared with teachers in the field and students can experience learning in more authentic and engaging ways.

Tonight as I reflect on the day and the gifts bestowed upon me by the members of our branch, I am thinking about what a privilege it was to serve as the leader.  I specifically mention leader here, not boss, because I think I’m better at being a leader than I am at being a boss.  I’m capable of and have done both (in this job and in jobs while I was in college), but I am most happy when I’m the visionary, encourager, learner, and colleague, not when I’m the task master approving leave, signing paperwork, and conducting performance evaluations.   It’s not that I mind doing those things and they came with my job, but it’s just not what I prefer.  When you work in middle management for state government, you’re more a task master just because of the bureaucratic nature of the system.
Lest this post become a negative diatribe about bureaucracies, let me share some of the reasons I see myself as a leader and not a boss.   

·          Leaders see colleagues as professionals

·         Leaders establish a team approach with everyone working alongside one another

·         Leaders admit mistakes and admit to not knowing everything

·         Leaders listen first and talk last

·         Leaders give advice rather than offer criticism

·         Leaders earn respect by giving respect

·         Leaders are teachers not assignment givers
I worked with other leaders who were also former teachers.  Any one of my colleagues could have served as our branch manager because they are all leaders and they all have my utmost respect.