24 May 2014

5 Reasons to Read Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind

The longer I use Twitter, the more I understand I use it because it connects me to other people, issues, ideas, and humanity.  Because I enjoy using Twitter so much, I previously read Hatching Twitter about the invention of the company.  In that book I learned about the backstabbing and behind the scenes issues the start-up endured on the way to being a successful company.  The one founder who stood out to me most in that book was Biz Stone.  I liked that he was focused on empathy, humanity, and creativity, so he's the one founder I started following on Twitter.  Thus, I learned from a Tweet that he wrote his own memoir on the founding of Twitter.  Biz Stone's Things a Little Bird Told Me:  Confessions of the Creative Mind was an excellent read, a book I recommend for educators, entrepreneurs, or anyone interested in bettering the world.

Things a Little Bird Told Me Reminds Us...

1. Technology without personal connection = pointless
This reminder is apparent in the storyline about how Twitter was originally created.  During a two-week hackathon, Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey worked on a technology that would include status updates from text messages on their phones (pre-iPhone days) to let their friends know how they were doing. The message would appear on a website. They were driven not so much by the technology itself but by the idea of people connecting with one another.

As an educator, I think we should consider this point when we use technology. We could teach the same old boring stuff by placing it in Edmodo or another platform and that would save paper, but what's the point, unless we are in some way connecting people? Instead, How can we use technology platforms to engage students in conversations about ideas, books, community service, etc.?

2. Ideas drive us.  Abandon linear ways of thinking to create good work.
Educators are sometimes known for their linear way of step-by-step thinking and rule following.  Imagine though, the freedom in abandoning those linear ways of thinking and allowing students to abandon step-by-step thinking!  Then we could be learning instead of just completing tasks. We could encourage creative thought and processing. "Plain hard word is good and important, but it is the ideas that drive us as individuals, companies, nations, and a global community.  Creativity is what makes us unique, inspired, and fulfilled (iv)."

3. We learn from failure
In Stone's chapter on the infamous Twitter Fail Whale, he writes about companies liking to put forward the persona of perfection--"we have the best rates! We do the best work! We're awesome! (89)"  We do this in our schools too.  Are we honest about failure and room for improvement? Just as we often celebrate the schools with the best test scores, we also frequently label schools as failing schools, and we don't see that as something positive from which to learn.  How can we be invested in school or education if the primary focus is on obtaining good test scores? We need creativity and authentic learning because everyone is more invested when what we do is about more than a test. “If you are not emotionally invested in what you are doing, failure is pretty much guaranteed...Success isn’t (35)."

4. Some people in the business world DO care about more than the bottom line
So often in the education world we shy away from entrepreneurship and the business world because we think it's only about making money or the bottom line. More and more I'm learning that's true for many businesses, but not for all. My first awareness of this came when I was asked to write an article for a women's business magazine--Cake & Whiskey. C&W's business was created with a manifesto that encourages the telling of stories--connecting women with one another. My belief in the possibility of business being able to do good in the world was then established. Thereafter, it wasn't  a stretch to read Biz Stone write about innovating to improve humanity and finding empathy as a core to personal and global success.

5. We don't have to have a lot of money to give
I related well to Stone's story about being a recipient of free school lunch as a child and appreciated his thoughts on not needing to have a lot of money to give money (or give time). From an early age, my parents taught me this, and I continue to believe it's true and also an important lesson for us to teach kids. Stone's story about giving to DonorsChoose.Org was one of my favorites in the book because he writes about how he and his wife logged on to the site and found a 4th grade teacher who was requesting copies of Charlotte's Web for her class. Knowing young children experienced the friendship of Charlotte and Wilbur for the first time was a personally fulfilling moment for Stone.

Things a Little Bird Told Me:  Confessions of the Creative Mind is well worth taking an afternoon to read.  It's a short 200 pages and will leave you smiling with Stone's witty sense of humor and good natured approach to living life.  


Stay tuned for another post on this book coming soon because Stone had an entire chapter devoted to his no-homework policy--there are lessons for all educators in that chapter.

17 May 2014

How I Learned about Vocab Instruction

When we were in our senior year of college and not yet married,  I recall my husband asking one of our major English professors what he should do to improve his vocabulary in preparation for taking the GRE.  This professor did not suggest a weekly vocabulary quiz or vocabulary flashcards.  No, this professor suggested my husband read even more and read widely.  So, he did.  He began reading both nonfiction and fiction with more fervor.  We married immediately after college graduation and promptly ordered subscriptions to The New Yorker and The Atlantic and took turns reading each issue. Any time I read an article after my husband, I noticed his markings in the text as he carefully read and studied language in preparation for the GRE and graduate course work that would follow.  Clearly, this strategy worked because my husband went on to earn not only a Master's degree but also a PhD in literature.

Much of what we learned from our professors, I took with me to the secondary classroom.  Fortunately, my professors valued critical thinking, close reading, and thoughtful reflection, and those were the exact practices I explicitly taught in my classroom.  I did not require weekly vocabulary lists of words committed to memory, and I did not offer weekly vocabulary tests for students to regurgitate what they had memorized.  My approach to vocabulary instruction was much more subtle and embedded within the texts we read.

After leaving the classroom, I learned more about direct vocabulary instruction and learned that I was probably right not to require dictionary definitions be memorized and recalled each week, but I was wrong not to teach strategies for learning new vocabulary. While the subtle methods of learning vocabulary in context were likely appropriate for my students who were reading on or above grade level, I should not have expected the teenagers who struggled with reading to be as savvy and devoted to learning vocabulary in context as they read without showing them how.

In the three years I worked as a literacy consultant for the state department of education, I learned new vocabulary strategies based on research; these strategies I modeled in professional development settings with teachers who then took them to their classrooms full of students.

Since I never learned many specific strategies for explicitly teaching vocabulary prior to leaving the high school classroom, I can't blame others for not knowing weekly vocabulary lists to memorize and recall on tests is an ineffective way to teach vocabulary. I've learned some schools even have policies requiring teachers to use vocab workbooks with weekly lists.  Still others are creating an entire year's worth of vocabulary lists, one for each week without ever meeting the students or knowing which words students know and don't know.  I've seen these lists on school websites.
An unidentified example of an ineffective approach to vocabulary 

The memorize and recall approach to vocabulary instruction and assessment is disheartening and ineffective for helping students improve their vocabulary for reading, writing, speaking and life.  In fact, Dr. Kimberly Tyson sites this as one of several fake vocabulary practices. Let's not fool ourselves, our students,  and our parents into thinking we are "tough" teachers because we assign "weekly vocab work."  Instead, I believe, together, we can share better strategies and help people who were like me when I was in the classroom (unaware of approaches other than frequent reading and  language study.)

Below are a few of the vocabulary resources I recommend for shaking up the weekly vocab test approach.


I've written about vocabulary previously, so you know this is a hot button topic for me.

An amazing resource is this blog by Dr. Kimberly Tyson.  Be sure to check out the awesome infographic, too.

Another great blog post titled Doing it Differently:  Tips for Teaching Vocabulary is by Rebecca Alber on Edutopia.

One of my favorite recent finds comes from the Massachusetts Reading Project.  It's titled: Research-based Practices in Vocabulary Instruction:  An Analysis of What Works in Grades PreK-12.

Find a link here to a summary of research articles where you can read the summaries or access the actual research at Reading Rockets.

Adlit.org is a site I learned about when I was working at the state department of education.

How do you teach vocabulary? What strategies can you share?


13 May 2014

Students Plan to Change the World with Real-World Project Based Learning

It started before I even walked in the building.  I began to feel the friendliness and culture difference at Eminence Independent Schools.  As I walked toward the front door of the school, Shannon Treece, high school principal, walked in the same direction fresh from a meeting with the area school councils association.  Though we had never met and her arms were full, she stopped me with a large smile on her face as our paths converged on the sidewalk.  "Are you Renee?  Nice to finally put a Twitter name with a face."  From there I was greeted and provided a printed visitor tag with my name logged into their online system for easy record keeping. While I waited to head to the classroom area, I observed multiple visitors enter the school with smiles on their faces.  The friendliness and welcoming spirit was obvious, and you could tell they really cared that people were visiting their #SchoolOnFire.  (I can tell you I've entered other schools and have not experienced quite that friendly a welcome.)

A simple Twitter exchange turned into an opportunity for me to witness the student-led Project Based Learning happening at Eminence. Principal Treece invited me to see what her students (literally, her students) were doing.  Ms. Treece facilitates the learning of this group of teenagers because they came to her asking for more service learning opportunities.  Initially, she told the students they would schedule more PBL and service learning for the fall because she needed to find someone to facilitate, get schedules rearranged, figure out what they would do, etc.,  but then the students pushed her and she decided--that's what she's there for--to facilitate the learning of students.  So, she squeezed this PBL service learning experience with teenagers into her busy day and now meets with the students regularly.

By reaching out to community members and parents and asking for help (without having all the answers, decisions, and materials ahead of time), Ms. Treece and her students were able to find Dr. and Mr. White from the Shelbyville, Kentucky area who were willing to work with them. In addition to their non-profit organization based here in Kentucky, the couple run an orphanage in Uganda, and they knew they could use some help from dedicated teenagers who were willing to serve and to learn about the culture of the Ugandan people.  A partnership was forged.

The students began meeting regularly in an old KFC building next door to the school.  The school purchased this building because they are always thinking about how to re-purpose space and resources since they are not a resource rich district.  However, they are rich with thoughts, ideas, learning, and excitement. Ms. Treece meets with the students (and Mr. White joins them often) and she says the students and have encountered obstacles already (including self-doubt).  Nevertheless, because Eminence promotes a risk-taking culture, the students are persevering in their endeavors to make their dream a reality. 

Because Principal Treece knows effective PBL is student led, she asked the students to figure out what they would do, and with careful questioning, brainstorming, researching, and collaborating, the students decided they will create a self-sustaining community in Uganda to serve the children in the orphanage. They were clear about this dream becoming action.  They learned about the 72 school-aged children in the Ugandan orphanage and wanted to find a way for those students to live and to learn how to support themselves.

To practice their public speaking skills and to become more articulate with pitching their project, Ms. Treece invited me to listen to students present their work, and what a privilege it was to hear them talk about the project. They talked me through the 5Ws and their mission statement in a pre-planned format complete with effective powerpoint use.  (They obviously know the intention of Powerpoint isn't to read slides to people, so they placed one word per slide in large block letters.  Each word was the signal for the next speaker to talk about the dream, the future, and the plan.)

Working together, this group of approximately 15 students created a name and a wrote a mission statement that they shared with me today.  #Unlock is a student led organization which exists to empower, educate, and equip children in an impoverished area by creating a self-sustaining community.

Who:  high school students partnering with businesses and faith-based organizations
What: creating a self-sustaining community in Uganda for students who are former street children from the slums
Where: Eminence, Kentucky and Uganda, Africa
How: by learning about the culture and people and by researching and designing the community
When: ongoing project starting now & lasting several years
Why: "because doing something to impact the world is more important than sitting in classes for 6 hours a day to make a project you will throw away."

Toward the end of their presentation, I began asking them questions about the project. One student stated it well for the group "we want to help the world for real--by solving real problems."  Another chimed in "any kid can do this--kids want to change the world and they can with teachers, students, and community working with one another."

Their work has only just begun.  This summer the students will present at a few conferences to raise awareness for their project and to seek sponsorships, and in the fall they will continue their research and design and will begin participating in Google Hangouts with the Ugandan students.  In preparation for meeting the Ugandan students virtually, the Eminence students are reading and discussing two texts, Kisses for Katie and The Queen of Katwe:  A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster.  The students take their work seriously and say "with this--you have to care--we're talking about people's lives."

11 May 2014

March & April Reads 2014

 Since I wrote blog posts about the majority of the books I read the past two months, I decided to combine my March and April 2014 reads into a single post. In March I read all nonfiction because nonfiction continues to be my favorite, and it worked out well for two of four books to be in e-book format for ease with work travel.  The only book I didn't blog about was probably my favorite from March.  Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo had been on my want to read list for well over a year.  I knew it would be powerful, but I didn't expect it to be so powerful that it would leave me without words.  April brought several volunteer experiences and events with my children, and two of the texts I read connected in some way to those events.  Again, I wrote about all but one of my April reads, but I didn't write about We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen because the content was too familiar to the way I was raised, and it brought flashbacks to a childhood filled with financial struggle and fundamentalist Christianity.

This #bookaweek goal is taking me to the library more frequently and also stretching my experiences of e-reading more than ever.

I selected to read Thinking in NumbersOn Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet after seeing it on the shelf at a local bookstore while I was browsing one afternoon.  Since it was available only in hardback and I didn't want to spend money on it, I borrowed it from the library. The connection between math and poetry, language, and art attracted me to this book and opened my mind to the bigger picture of math.

 As an introvert, I enjoyed Cain's book and used it to help me think about my indivdual growth plan for work.  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Won't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (read e-book).

How to Blog for Profit (Without Selling Your Soul) by Ruth Soukup. Always trying to improve my blog, I attended a blogging training in March and also read this e-book about blogging.  Though I have no intention of trying to make a profit from my blog, the tips offered in Soukup's book were relevant to improving the way I write and promote my work.

Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer Prize for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.  This nonfiction book about residents of a present day slum neighborhood in India takes us into the culture of the people of Annawadi and tells their individual stories with compassion and honesty.  The juxtaposition of the slum against the luxury hotels is Mumbai is a startling reminder of the disparity and inequity in our world.

As a mom, I'm always looking for ways to continue teaching my sons about art, literature, poetry, history, global issues, music, science and technology, and I prefer to teach them through experiences.  Since April brought two big school projects for my youngest son, we explored through books and events.  We dug in deep to learn about the Battle of Perryville for his history day project.  This historical event happened not too far from where we live, so we were excited to find books specifically about the battle. We borrowed  Perryville Under Fire:  The Aftermath of Kentucky's Largest Civil War Battle by Stuart Sanders from the Lexington Public Library.  We borrowed other books as well, but this was the only one I read from cover to cover as I sought to understand Kentucky's history in the Civil War.  I needed to understand the battle and significance of Kentucky in the war if I was going to help my ten-year old son with his project.

Shortly after the history day event, I accompanied my son on his fifth grade field trip to Mammoth Cave, and since we had been there previously and learned about a book of Mammoth Cave poetry  I decided to find the book and read it.  Sharing poetry with my child was a highlight of national poetry month for me. We found Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs at the public library and spent the week before our trip reading poems each night. With the events, reading, and blogging I started to fall behind my book a week goal toward the end of the April, but it didn't take me long to catch up again because I downloaded the e-book version of A Sliver of Light:  Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, and Sarah Shourd and read the book in just a couple of days.

On Easter Sunday, I was reading The New York Times and came across an archived excerpt of the book We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen.  Since I enjoyed the excerpt, I decided to download the complete e-book version for my final book of the month.  This was also my opportunity to try reading fiction in e-book format again since previously I've only been able to read nonfiction electronically. As I mentioned above, I haven't managed to write a full post about the book because the content was too familiar.

I think what I'm enjoying most about my book a week goal is the chance to read and become part of different worlds with each text.  This is probably the same reason I read so often as a child--it was a chance to experience to a new place, meet new people (characters) and explore new ideas. 

10 May 2014

Reading A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran

In the summer of 2009 I remember hearing news about the three Americans hiking in Iraq who ended up being arrested and imprisoned in Iran's notorious Evin prison. Early on, I remember listening and watching for updates, always curious about the story and the people involved.  Hearing Sarah was an English teacher drew me into the story even more since I, too, was an English teacher. At some point, I happened upon the Free the Hikers website and then I made a point of following the story by watching for updates there. I wanted to know more about Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal. I wanted to know who they were and what they were doing in the Middle East, and I wanted to know why they were political prisoners. Their recently released memoir A Sliver of Light:  Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran answered many of my questions and let me learn about what they experienced as prisoners. By interweaving their individual perspectives, they share with us a true story of espionage accusations, interrogations, days (410 for Sarah) in solitary confinement, and year(s) of imprisonment in Iran.

The story begins with a morning hike in the mountainous Kurdistan region where Sarah, Shane, and Josh were vacationing.  A fourth friend, Shon, vacationed with them but stayed behind at a hotel when the other three set out for an overnight hike.  In the first few chapters, the writers take turns narrating the morning hike, describing the beautiful region, sharing the apprehensiveness Sarah felt the longer they hiked up the mountain, and finally detailing how they were waved forward on the trail by a soldier. Only when they near an outpost building do they notice the solider is actually wearing an Iranian flag on his uniform.  From there, they are taken captive with a brief moment to make a phone call (to their friend Shon whom they asked to call the Embassy in Baghdad).

The phone call to Shon is the last time any of them speak with someone on the outside for many months. The remainder of the book provides details of months and years of confinement including stories of connections they make to other prisoners and the strains on mental and physical well-being. The extensive solitary confinement Sarah endures is especially difficult to read because of the psychological torture depicted in the details of her 23 hours a day of solitude (she had only one hour per day with Shane and Josh). When Sarah is finally freed after 410 days of solitary confinement, she works tirelessly through  political channels to free her fiancé Shane and friend Josh.

Knowing these young Americans were political prisoners and held captive because of political issues between Iran and America expanded my perspective on issues in the Middle East and caused me to ask many questions about political issues and about the conditions of people held in solitary confinement in any prison.

Long drawn to humanitarian issues and issues of injustice, I always feel compelled to do something. Usually my doing involves learning and/or educating myself and others. I believe we should pay attention to our larger world and not just what's happening in our own families, cities, states, and countries.

05 May 2014

#teachingis the chance to never stop learning

In my senior year of college, I began my psychology internship at a home for adults with special needs.  The experience confirmed my desire to help others and to make a difference in the world, but it did not confirm a future career.  For my second semester internship I was placed in a learning center for high school students who were taking psychology electives. It was in this small rural learning center that I learned my true calling as a teacher. Together, my students and I explored topics of behavior, attitudes, and career possibilities. A large part of the curriculum included working with the teens on their outlook in life.  Vividly I recall conversations about making the most of less than desirable situations, and in these conversations, I realized I was learning, too. You see, as a college student I struggled with keeping a positive outlook on life, and often fell prey to circumstances in which I would play the victim, often blaming my life circumstances on being a first generation college graduate or coming from a family who struggled financially. A former college roommate even told me once (after tiring of my whining) that I was the one who could determine my life outlook and I could make a decision about whether I wanted to be happy or not (maybe I had been reading too much Sylvia Plath).
This card was sent to me by someone who knows me now.

The teens at that rural learning center taught me about my future career, so I finished my psychology degree and promptly enrolled in a Masters program to become a teacher.  Here's where all my reading of poetry paid off because I was offered a chance to choose whether I wanted to become a teacher of social studies or a teacher of English. What I knew was that I wanted to teach teenagers, and because a poetry class as an undergraduate was where I learned to read critically, I determined that I would teach English, so I could teach teenagers how to read critically. The experience with the teenagers at the learning center also taught me that I wanted to teach teenagers so that I could have the chance to...
  • never stop learning
  • encourage curiosity & creativity
  • listen
  • refine questioning techniques
  • discuss ideas
  • explore concepts
  • be flexible & open-minded
  • connect with other people
  • make a difference in the world 
This academic year, I've thought about teaching as I've taught future teachers at a local university, and I recognize that teaching is dynamic and ever changing.  I'm blogging today in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week and the Center for Teaching Quality's #teachingis campaign.  Five and a half years ago I left the high school classroom in search of leadership opportunities and a change, but I did not stop learning, nor did I really stop teaching.  Teaching is in my blood, a part of who I am and who I always will be.