28 March 2012

10 Thoughts on Sentences


Beautifully crafted sentences lift my spirits, and sometimes that’s what one needs on a cloudy spring day.  It’s been a slow week at Learning to Muse, but it certainly has not been a week without reflection and conversation.  I found myself coming precariously close to skipping a post this week as I longed to craft a beautiful sentence and wasn’t quite satisfied with my efforts.

So…here are my musings on sentences…

For the past year I have
  •   been especially interested in sentences
  •  followed stories on NPR about sentences
  • attended writing workshops where writers talk about the craft of sentence construction
  • deconstructed Common Core State Standards to understand what students in K-12 are supposed to learn about sentences
  •  watched an amazing teacher in the United Kingdom discuss sentences with his students and with his colleagues
  •  summed up my current  professional life in a single sentence
  •  taught my sons about crafting sentences
  • shared mad libs for academics with my husband
  • asked teachers in workshops to write one sentence summaries
  •  participated in a Facebook posting chain where I grabbed the nearest book, turned to a specific page, and recorded a sentence. 
This week I read a superb New York Times article by one of my favorite fiction writers—Jhumpa Lahiri and then I read a favorite bedtime story with my 8 year old.  

My spirits are lifted.

18 March 2012

Informational Texts and the Common Core

& the importance of literature to humanity

As you may have read in previous Learning to Muse posts, I enjoy nonfiction texts, both the reading and writing of such texts.  Reading other blogs, online community boards, and articles, I continue to find a mix of emotions about the teaching of informational texts as required in the Common Core State Standards.   Some people are freaking out because they feel it’s a new mandate that will keep them away from the literature they love; others are making learning what’s best for students and are working with the mandates rather than being used by them.

Four years ago when my then eight-year-old was struggling to read well, I had a heart wrenching conversation with his classroom teacher.  Love her heart—she was in her final year before retirement, and she pounded her small hand on her chest saying “I want him to feel literature here in his heart.”    I shared with her my background as a high school English teacher, lover of literature, and my husband’s work on a PhD in American literature.     A love of literature is not lacking in our home, that’s for sure.  In fact, I concur with a quote read in the March 17, 2012 online issue of The New York Times.

“Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings.”

Does this mean we give up nonfiction completely because literature makes us better people?  Not necessarily.  Though I agree with the opinion that literature makes us better people, I believe a balance of nonfiction and literature is what’s best for our students.  You can read more about a few of my suggestions for pairing texts here.

Long before the Common Core I was teaching informational texts, and usually that involved pairing not only non-print text with literature but also informational texts with literature.  We paired poems by Joy Harjo, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and haiku by Issa (translated by Robert Hass) with current event articles about the earth found in the local newspaper or various magazines.  One time we even explored Earth Day editions of magazine covers to learn more about audience, purpose, argument, and information. We looked at covers of TIMENewsweekVanity Fair, ElleOutsideRolling StoneThe Atlantic MonthlyBusiness Week Sports Illustrated , and Backpacker.  

A few of the questions examined in our study of informational text paired with poetry included:
  • Who would read each magazine and for what purpose?
  • How is the earth portrayed in each of these different magazines to meet the needs of the varying audiences?
  • What type of information would we find in each magazine? What information can we learn?
  • How is argument conveyed in the cover images?
  • How is argument presented in poems? 
  • How is the earth presented in poems?
Through Shared Inquiry discussions and student led presentations we enjoyed informational texts and literature together.  Since student interest was an important part of my classroom approach, I invited students to bring articles for us to read in class.  This invitation served dual purposes—it allowed students to take ownership of texts they wanted to read, and it also required them to be aware of happenings within our community, our nation, and our world.

We want students to be productive citizens in a changing world. By allowing them to read the types of texts demanded in the Common Core, we are preparing them for the increasingly complex texts demanded of them in life after high school.




P.S.  Fortunately both of my sons made it past second grade and into the hands of a fantastic third grade literacy teacher who believes in the power of matching texts to readers, and they are both enjoying life as the sons of English teachers (even if they do prefer math).

16 March 2012

Favorite Text Friday


A friend of mine who blogs about homemaking established a new series titled Favorite Things Friday; she encouraged other bloggers to run the same series.  Megan’s favorite things are beautiful and meaningful items of importance or interest to her and are presented as a way to get to know her a little better.  I decided to adapt this series to fit the topics in my blog, so readers can know me a little better.  Therefore, on Fridays at Learning to Muse, you will read about a favorite text.  How often have you been asked--“What’s your favorite book?”  Narrow it to one for all time?  No way.   One per week?  Maybe.


This week’s favorite text:  21st Century Skills:  Learning for Life in Our Times by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel was published in 2009.  Though I read it for the first time last year, I decided to feature it as a favorite this week.  Why, you may ask? 

If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you can probably tell that I am passionate about education reform.   We are undoubtedly in need of change to a system that is broken and in dire need of repair.  I attended an implementation science workshop recently where the presenter provided research suggesting 17 years as the typical time to see change from the implementation of a program not implemented well; 17 years in education would be more than the life time of schooling for a single child.  Clearly, we haven’t figured out  how to implement education reforms well.  The authors of 21st Century Skills offer practical suggestions, tips and resources for schools seeking to prepare students for the life awaiting them after high school graduation in a future still unknown in our rapidly changing world.

Trilling and Fadel remind us to consider global perspectives and understand “every country can play a part in building a global learning network (p153).” By understanding the role learning plays in our lives, we can innovate, create, problem solve and communicate across boundaries. 

Would it be cheating to offer a website as text to accompany the print text I’ve chosen for this week?  Check out:  www.p21.org

13 March 2012

5 Terrific Pairings of Print and Non-print Texts to Increase Engagement

Having always had an interest in photography, film, and non-fiction, I never had much trouble incorporating the reading of non-print texts into the classes I taught. When reading fiction, I generally paired it with non-fiction or non-print text based on a general topic or theme. Text pairing is not only an effective way to engage students; it also provides opportunity to teach students many of the important skills they need to be successful in life.

Fortunately when I entered the teaching profession well over a decade ago, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) jointly published The Standards for English Language Arts two years prior. I utilized these standards throughout my teaching career, and I still refer to them when working with teachers or when writing and researching programs and policies in my job.

Standard number one calls for students to read a variety of print and non-print texts

Some of my favorite pairings occurred in the classroom and others outside of the classroom because my young boys and I have enjoyed reading and exploring texts together.

Five of my favorite pairings over the years include…

Pairing #1 Slowly Slowly Slowly Said the Sloth by Eric Carle. Paired with YouTube clips of sloths moving slowly. It was one thing to see the pictures in the book, but curious boys were always interested in seeing video. Here’s one we watched together after reading the book. This was one of the videos we accessed online; there are many more YouTube clips on sloths now, but this one happened to capture our interest several years ago.

Pairing #2 Library Mouse by Daniel Kirk. Paired with images of various libraries and new short award winning film. The boys and I have read and re-read Library Mouse together innumerable times over the past five years. Usually we use it to launch my youngest son into his favorite journal writing activities because he enjoys writing non-fiction. Even now that they are both beyond picture books for their own reading, we still enjoy some of our favorite picture books again and again. In fact, we like Library Mouse so well, I’ve taken to using it in writing workshops with teachers as we explore critical literacies and paired texts. Most recently, I’ve paired the following print and non-print texts for workshops with teachers. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore short film (link not permitted) and Most Interesting Libraries of the World.

Since my teaching years were spent primarily in high schools, my experience with texts for middle grades is only just beginning as my fifth grader and I discuss the books he now reads. As we transition into those important middle grades years, let me share one of our favorite picture books about Henry David Thoreau.

Pairing #3 Henry Climbs a Mountain by D. B. Johnson paired with images of Walden pond and replicas of Thoreau’s cabin found online. There are actually several books by D.B. Johnson depicting various stages of Thoreau’s life, and we like them all, but our most interesting conversations between mom and sons tend to come from this particular text. Some of these similar conversations were shared with my high school students as we read Walden.

Pairing #4 Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Mexican War Lithograph. This pairing worked nicely because it brought conversations about another aspect of Thoreau’s life, and it also brought history into the classroom. Many of the students I taught in this particular English class were also students who were viewing this same lithograph in their U.S. history class, so students made connections and saw school as more than isolated courses in a school day.

Pairing #5 Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall, Newspaper clipping, and various images from the bombing. Conversations around these texts center not only around the historical event but also around the rights of people in today's society. Are we all treating others appropriately? Are we discriminating against others for any reason or using violence in an attempt to solve our problems, or are we following the lead of Thoreau who practiced civil disobedience?

05 March 2012

Preparing students for college doesn't mean turning them into snobs.


Our world keeps changing and the demands required of youth are changing as well, so it’s only right that more students need to earn postsecondary degrees of some sort to be prepared for life.   Conversations on this topic were plentiful last week at a national forum  for higher education on strategies for implementing the Common Core State Standards. 

What do we need to do?
We need to design programs that provide students opportunities, and we need to agree that students need more than cut scores on standardized tests to be ready for college degrees or certifications after high school. 


Students need to know
1)      how to manage their time, money, and resources
2)      how to take notes, study for tests, and read strategically
4)      how to learn collaboratively
5)      how to communicate with a variety of audiences
6)      how to use technology to enhance learning

We are not trying to change a culture, but we are trying to change opportunities provided to youth in a world shifting around them.  

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