29 July 2012

Why I Struggled to Write About My Visit to the Bread Loaf School ofEnglish

Relaxing in an Adirondack chair outside the distinctive yellow buildings at the Bread Loaf School of English, I soaked in the atmosphere of my surroundings while contemplating the excellent blog posts I would write following my visit to Vermont.   I returned home over a week ago and--Nope, nada, nothing.   My weekly blog post didn’t happen.  A number of excuses could be to blame, but ultimately, I just wasn’t satisfied with my attempts to write about my amazing experience.  Since I didn’t want to let the occasion slide without noting it as part of my own learning (to muse) experience, I decided to share pictures and a few anecdotes.

When my invitation to spend three days at the Bread Loaf School of English arrived in my inbox, I immediately grew excited knowing the opportunity would allow me a chance to renew, refresh, and relax.  This is one of those times when I felt proud to represent my state in conversations about teachers and professional learning.  The Bread Loaf Teacher Network arranged for me to stay in Maple during my three day visit.

Since I thrive on conversations, my appointment with the directors was a highlight for me.  Strategizing about how we can create more opportunities for Kentucky teachers to be involved with Bread Loaf was thrilling because I know this means more teachers will have the opportunity to learn from distinguished professors, to hone their own close reading skills, to create digital literacy projects, and to participate in collaborative exchanges with fellow educators from around the nation and around the world.

Knowing my interest in English academics and digital literacies, Kentucky’s coordinator of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN) worked with the director of the Bread Loaf School of English and the Director of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network to design an energizing itinerary for me.  We practiced our own close reading skills in a modern British and American poetry class where we discussed poems by Robert Lowell and Geoffrey Hill.  I heard presentations by BLTN teachers during a network meeting--these presentations focused on how youth in English classrooms link literature to current events and public service using the digital literacies they bring to school.

At Bread Loaf there is a literal breaking of bread and connecting with others around meals served by Bread Loaf students in the Bread Loaf dining hall.  My hosts arranged for me to dine the first night with BL faculty and to enjoy other meals with groups of students who are English teachers during the school year.  The conversations were an excellent way for me to learn more about the potential for leveraging the voice of Bread Loaf teachers (who see themselves as agents of change) in our state.

I’m grateful for my three day retreat to the Bread Loaf School of English nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  I feel rejuvenated, relaxed, and reconnected.

17 July 2012

The Week I Spent Analyzing Exclamation Points

What do you think when you receive correspondence liberally strewn with exclamation points? Do you think you are reading something from an elementary aged student?  a teenager?  Though the overuse and abuse of exclamation marks had crossed my mind previously, I hadn’t really thought too much about it until a recent hike with my family.   While on vacation visiting extended family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, we hiked a few trails, including three trails at Chimney Rock.
  We started with The Outcroppings moderate to strenuous trail that involved taking a network of stairs and boardwalks (approximately 615 steps).  We looked out over Lake Lure and enjoyed the stunning scenery; we were not at “the rock” (elevation 2280) long before my eleven year old son started asking about the next trail to Exclamation Point.  My younger son and husband decided they did not wish to continue hiking up; they were saving their energy for the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to see the waterfall. Thinking it couldn’t require much energy to hike another couple hundred feet up, I quickly told the eleven year old that I would make the hike with him while the other two family members rested at the Sky Lounge.

Ascending stairways we were surprised by the switchbacks but observed interesting geological formations and noticed we encountered fewer people (good thing since the path was narrow now) than we had on our previous climb with the family.  Up, up, up we climbed with my eleven year old in the lead turning and stopping often to offer words of encouragement that we were “almost there.”  That’s the tricky thing about this switchback climb—we thought we were almost there the whole time. I began to ponder the name Exclamation Point and the fact that I should have known the hike would be steep, with such a name.

Alas, we made it to the top and my eleven year old agreed to have his picture made with me—saying it was worth it since I hiked all the way up with him. 

Let’s think about exclamation points.   Generally we use them as punctuation to emphasize a point or to command something, and we are taught to use them sparingly in writing.  So, what’s been happening in electronic communications?  Some contend we utilize exclamation points to soften our writing and convey a more friendly tone.  Does it work?  Maybe.  Does it impress the reader?  That depends upon what or who we are trying to impress.  If I am trying to convey a professional tone, I would argue that it doesn’t actually impress anyone to see an abuse of exclamation marks.  When we overuse them, it takes away the power of using them for emphasis.  However, if I am emailing or using social media informally, exclamation points can be an efficient way to soften the tone or convey excitement. Though, I still try to monitor my use of them.

Following the hike with my family, I decided to take it upon my nerdy self to ask around and to analyze punctuation use and/or abuse for a week.  Here’s what I did.
    1)      I posted this statement to friends on Facebook:  friends, especially writer and reader friends, please share your thoughts on exclamation points.  What you see below is what a few of my Facebook friends, names removed, shared. 

THEY MAKE THE UNIVERSE GO ROUND JUST LIKE CAPSLOCK ENTHUSIASM!!!!! No, but seriously. No one ever needs more than one at a time, and they should be used sparingly. (And never in conjunction with a question mark.) There are other ways to write in a way which creates a feeling or voice of excitement or enthusiasm. Also, if you are writing something at a professional level, you'd do better to leave them off (unless it's fiction dialogue). I think, though, in emails and social media someone's constant use of !!! can be overlooked as just a part of their way of writing.

Exclamation points will be my downfall, I'm afraid. When corresponding by email or text, I know the reader cannot see me to observe how excited or passionate I am about my subject. I add exclamation points to try to convey my emotions, but find that too many of my sentences end with them.

They should be used very sparingly. In fiction, only in dialogue. In non-fiction, almost never. There is no situation in any writing where more than one should be used. If you need them often, you should work on being a better writer.
We tend to use them too much.

If a person lives through a heart attack the worst kind and it is a true story is that good enough? (This one is from my mom who is writing about a recent “widow maker” heart attack she miraculously survived).

 An indication of passion about a situation or topic. Tend to be overused! Lol :)

          Love them!!!

2)      I analyzed exclamation point use in my recent copy of The New Republic magazine, July 12, 2012.  It was the perfect issue to conduct this little analysis because an entire article was devoted to language use and technology.   In How Technology Remakes Language by John McWhorter, there are 5 exclamation points in a one page article.  Those exclamation points worked without lessening the quality of writing because the subject matter of the article was informal and the author made a valid point about the trends in language that come and go just as he urged uptight readers to “hashtag chill out."

3)      I wrote one paragraph of this blog post utilizing some of what I learned during two activities stated above.  You can see it here-- same words, different punctuation.  Which version of the paragraph version do you prefer—the one above or the one here?

Ascending stairways we were SURPRISED by the switchbacks but observed interesting geological formations and noticed we encountered fewer people (GOOD thing since the path was narrow now) than we had on our previous climb with the family!  Up, up, up we climbed with my eleven year old in the lead turning and stopping often to offer words of encouragement that we were “ALMOST there!”  That’s the TRICKY thing about this switchback climb—we thought we were ALMOST there the whole time. I began to ponder the name Exclamation Point and the fact that I SHOULD have known the hike would be STEEP, with such a name!!!

So, readers, what do YOU [sic] think? 

10 July 2012

Reflecting On My First Six Months Blogging

 Reflection has always been an integral part of my practice as an educator, and it was certainly one of the most important skills I taught my students because it was a skill they could use throughout their lives.  At the end of every class day, my students reflected on their learning for the day.   I called this a reflection slip for most of my career, and then the language of “exit slip” started appearing, and straightaway, every teacher was required to have an exit slip.  The problem with the implementation of the exit slip school-wide was that many teachers were just complying with a mandate from the administrators and were not thinking about the purpose of an exit slip (to know if students mastered the learning objective for the day).  Some teachers were even known to throw the exit slips in the trash as the students exited the room.

Not only did we reflect at the end of each day, we also wrote reflections at the end of each unit and at the end of each year.  The students wrote reflections on what they learned, and I wrote reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of each unit as well as the skills I saw students mastering and those that would need re-teaching, depending upon the individual class and/or student(s). 

To get my students started for an end of the year reflection, I utilized the following quote often attributed to Albert Camus:  Life is a journey not a destination—as long as you continue on that journey you will always be a success.  Students then wrote about each of the units we studied, applying the quote to each unit as well as applying the quote to their growth in class.  We thought about where we were going with our learning, where we were at the moment and how we would meet our goals.

However this post isn’t intended to be about exit or reflection slips.  This post is my six month reflection on blogging at Learning to Muse.  I started this blog on 2 January 2012 as a way to encapsulate my musings, readings, and conversations about teaching and learning. 

What I’ve learned
·          As an over analyzer, it’s important for me not to overanalyze everything I blog because otherwise I would never post.  Just as I mentioned in that first post—learning is a journey.
·         As an educator, it’s essential for me to follow other educators to be connected and to continue learning. 
·         As a reader, it’s vital for me to keep reading anything I’m in the mood for—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, videos, images, anything that catches my interest each week.
·         As a mom and wife, it’s fun to reflect on family life and how it helps me maintain balance in my life but also how it connects to my education musings.
·         As a writer, it’s necessary for me to journal, to blog, to create, to read, to explore, and to listen.  Listening and exploring inform many of my musings here.
·         As a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), it’s crucial for me to reflect, to learn, to analyze results and outcomes—this informs decisions I make.
·         As a blogger, I need to link to other people, blogs, websites, resources, organizations, anything that connects to the content and livens up the text.

My favorite parts of blogging so far
·          Noticing that people from all around the world have read my blog (See image above)
·         Sharing my musings with as many or as few people who read
·         Establishing my digital footprint
·         Reading comments from readers (There haven’t been many so far, but the ones I’ve read have been meaningful to me)
·         Sharing two posts with guest blogger, Gwyn Ridenhour, who is fabulous and passionate about education
·         Watching one of my former students who is now a friend, Amanda Riley, soar as a blogger
·         Keeping my personal commitment to blog weekly
·         Seeing a link to my blog in an Edweek blog

My blogging goals for July-December
·          Continue posting at least once per week
·         Redesign the background template to something more interesting
·         Learn how to add video clips
·         Invite guest bloggers
·         Explore ways to connect more with other bloggers 
·         Peruse websites and blogs of others to learn from them about design & content in the online world

~~Thanks for reading~~

02 July 2012

Narrative and Informational Texts & the Common Core

“There’s my nonfiction loving friend”— my friend announced to me not long ago when we ran into one another on the soccer field where our sons were playing.  Indeed, I enjoy reading nonfiction, as I’ve blogged about previously, but I love a good novel, short story or collection of poems, too.  One of my favorite aspects of the nonfiction book I just finished was the narrative embedded throughout.   While reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Sloot, I experienced a biology refresher without having to read an informational textbook like text.  I’ll spare you my version of a summary or book review because the New York Times did a better job than I will, and I’d rather write about the topic of teaching narrative and informational text to K-12 students, especially given the dictates of the common core standards which call for greater emphasis on informational text.  

This demand has caused a wide range of feelings and reactions from educators across the United States.  Some embrace the idea; others are outraged.  Most teachers with whom I have spoken plan to do what needs to be done to meet the needs of their students.  In a PBS Newshour report from May 14, 2012, John Marrow stated befittingly “savvy teachers do what works best.”  The report included interviews with teachers and administrators implementing a variety of reading programs for elementary aged students, and it questioned whether the common core standards will pay off.

As you will likely have noticed in the Newshour report, I’m not alone in thinking we don’t actually have to give up narrative completely.   Savvy teachers will do what works best when teaching students to read, write, speak, and listen and to be intelligent citizens in a global society.  Let’s consider Thomas Newkirk’s argument “Narrative is the deep structure of all good writing.  All good writing.  We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information because we are given no frame for comprehension.”   Acting on this proposition, we need to help students analyze text when they read and teach them to employ similar structures when they write.

Others have also written about not giving up narrative completely and with good reason; we can learn about various topics by reading narrative.  Take for example the way I experienced a biology refresher when reading Rebecca Skloot’s book.  I guarantee I would not have cared as much about DNA, cells and chromosomes had no narrative context been provided for me.  Skloot drew me into the story by telling me about the life of an African American woman from poverty whose cells were taken from her without permission and then used in research allowing scientists and researchers to profit.

Consider this explanation of cells and DNA from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
“Everybody always talking about cells and DNA,”  Deborah said at one point, “but I don’t understand what’s DNA and what’s in her cells.”  “Ah!”  Christoph said, excited, “DNA is what’s inside the cell! Inside each nucleus, if we could zoom in closer, you’d see a piece of DNA that looked like this.”  He drew a long squiggly line. “There’s forty-six of those pieces of DNA in every human nucleus.  We call those chromosomes—those are the things that were colored bright in that picture I gave you.”

Told within the context of narrative the explanation makes sense and serves as a nice biology refresher for me.  Would this explanation work in a biology classroom?  What if a teacher paired this explanation with other print and non-print texts to help students comprehend?  By providing students opportunities to read and to write interesting and complex texts we prepare them for life and the experiences that await them.

Thomas Newkirk.  “How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction.” Educational Leadership.  March 2012.
Rebecca Skloot.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  New York, Crown Publishers, 2010.

For elementary: 
For secondary: