Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Once again - less is more

Class [Center of Excellence for Adolescent Literacy and Learning] for October 19th was focused on the topic of vocabulary. I had intended to provide participants with a lesson in which they would experience vocabulary instruction embedded in the lesson, and also provide information about different types of vocabulary terms [particularly polysemous terms, which are most problematic for students] and explain different levels of vocabulary knowledge – and relate these to comprehension levels. I wanted to focus on three vocabulary strategies that are particularly helpful to facilitate students’ learning the meaning of vocabulary terms and with which our Teaching Consultants have had excellent success [Four Square, Frayer Model, and Concept of Definition Word Maps]. Finally, I intended to embed vocabulary instruction in the overarching Learning Cycle that we have been working with in CEALL. Hopefully, I will see evidence of attention to vocabulary in their lessons. Well, as they say – all good plans of mice and men . . .

The lesson began pretty well, with participants understanding my emphasis on vocabulary as an important part of instruction. I’m not sure the math teachers understood that mathematics involves not just English terms, but symbols and numbers as well – but that can be made clearer later.I realized pretty quickly that I should have done the lesson – that is, just taught the lesson top to bottom, with out the introduction to vocabulary and the interruption of the explanation of vocabulary selection – rather than getting bogged down in what turned out to be a very fractured lesson that kept going back and forth between a “lesson on photosynthesis” and information on teaching vocabulary. Instead, I stopped the lesson on photosynthesis and showed 4-square, Frayer, and CD Word Map, which I think just confused the issue. In the end, I should have taught the lesson, then gone back and summarized the strategies on a chart [we still need to create a chart that summarizes all the strategies we’ve experienced].

When I stopped the lesson and started giving examples of vocabulary strategies, I lost the participants – folks were nodding off and it was my fault! Because I interrupted the flow of the lesson, participants did not see the flow of vocabulary instruction integrated into a lesson . . . and the lesson ceased to be meaningful; thus, I lost the participants attention. When the focus of the lesson became muddled [in reality I had two objectives that were just not compatible], the lesson fell apart. Oh how I wish I had done the lesson, including having students create the 4-square, Frayer, and CD Maps using the photosynthesis terms, so that participants could “see” how the vocabulary strategies were part of the lesson. I could then have unpacked the lesson and summarized the strategies, and have participants complete some of the strategies using their own disciplinary vocabulary. Why did I make the disastrous choices I did? I think it was time – we had talked a bit about the assessment project at the beginning of class, and about the required lesson reflections, and I had about an hour left to do what would take an hour and a half. As I was planning the evening, when I added the discussion on the assessment project I realized that time would be very short and I decided to break up the lesson in order to “cover more content.”

What did participants learn? I’m not really sure! I had hoped they would learn that vocabulary is important, and that when you teach vocabulary you teach your content; that different disciplines have different vocabulary characteristics; that vocabulary instruction can be integrated into lessons easily, using strategies that take very little teacher preparation time. What they actually learned, though, might be vastly different: that the topic of vocabulary is so confusing that it is one they will avoid at all costs! Maybe if I unpack last week’s disaster, they can learn from my mistakes. I sure hope so.

When will I ever learn????? Invariably, when I try to do too much, I end up just confusing things. So, what will I take from this experience? First, I need to teach an illustrative lesson OR focus on the ideas in CEALL outside the context of a lesson, but it doesn’t work to mix these two purposes. From here on, I’ll need to select lessons [or parts of a lesson] that take no more than 45 minutes so I have time to both teach the lesson and unpack it the topic OR I’ll need to engage the participants in an interactive lecture during which time they create models /examples of the ideas and strategies we are discussing. I suppose it all comes down to the old adage “less is more.”

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Motivation, American hegemony, and other random thoughts

Well, well, well. I can hardly believe it but I am caught up - even though we spent a week longer than I had planned on assessment issues. I am hoping that the SCLA assignment will reflect that attention - I'm confident that everyone can do an excellent job [and fervently hope you do, as that makes grading so much easier and faster!].

I am reading research with my doctoral level class that has been niggling at my conscience for a few days now. I have rehersed this posting in my head, and it's time to actually record my thoughts. The research is on motivation, and one of the statements, loosely paraphrased, is a lament that we teachers focus on teaching strategies to students but don't pay sufficient attention to the will to use them. That is, we ignore the essential element in motivation: valuing the task assigned. I wonder if I have been guilty of focusing so much time on conveying a variety of strategies to my students that they will come away from class thinking that disciplinary literacy is just a bunch of strategies that have to be chosen carefully. Sort of like science students who leave a biology class thinking that biology [or any science] is just a bunch of facts that have to be memorized. Without the will to learn no strategy is going to produce students who are self-reliant, resilient, and life-long learners. Likewise, no collection of teaching strategies will produce self-reliant, resilient teachers who view themselves as students and their students as teachers. So, I need to carve out some time to explore these issues in class - to think deeply with my students about the valuing aspect of motivation and how to engender this in their own students.

On another note, morbid I'm afraid, I noticed the press getting focused on education again - and of course, laying the problem at the feet of teachers - because of the heart breaking death of an honors student in Chicago, which was caught on video as he was beaten to death. Americans in general don't value education [at least that's my impression] and any geek who has survived the painful experience we call high school can attest to this. Girls in particular learn early on not to appear too smart, but boys are also victims of this cultural aversion to the educated. We don't value education, but we want to be #1 in the world on all the international tests. That we are not first [actually, we are near the top in the fourth grade comparisons, but in the middle at the 8th grade and second from last at the high school level] rankles those with power - and they lay all that at the feet of teachers and expect them to solve the problem by themselves [by imposing lots of punitive measures]; but they don't consider that the countries that are tops in the international comparisons have a culture that values education and families - and are very socialistic.

For a long time, America has maintained scientific and technological superiority because of all the immigrants who were educated here and chose to stay in the States. Now, however, there are positions for them in their own countries, and the brain drain we are experiencing will only get worse. Just attend a university graduation - how many Americans, male or female, are majoring in science, math, or engineering? As the government wakes up to this coming crisis, they will probably focus on classrooms and teachers [blame first, then impose a remedy they come up with] but won't consider the sociocultural aspects that mediate this situation. And nothing they come up with will make the slightest difference, at least not in the way they think it should. NCLB was supposed to have every child in America on level in reading and math by third grade, but the unintended consequences of that ill-conceived program is that we have prepared a generation of children for the world of 1950. Unfortunately for them and us, that world is long gone, and the "basic skills" so important in all the assessments forced on children these days will do them little good. Barbara Tuchman, in what has been described as the best written non-fiction paragraph ever [The Guns of August] when describing the funeral of King Edward VII of England, said, ". . .but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again." I feel that way exactly - on history's clock, it is sunset for the American century.

OK, not sure where all that came from - but I can't bring myself to take any of it back.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Technology: A double-edged sword

Well, I now have a half dozen places in cyberspace I have to check, upload to, or otherwise keep track of - this is nuts! I went to the Pearson MyEdLab site and took a look at the students' [ok, two students'] responses to the video for chapter 3 - they were good! But now I want everyone to be able to see what their peers say - so I think I'll have them view the video at the MyEdLab site but post their comments on the Ning.

That means I'll need to set up some discussion boards on the Ning [or does Ning call them Forums?] and remember that they appear in the reverse order [which means you have to enter them backwards - all very confusing]. That way, all of us can see posts made related to the videos connected to the various chapters. My only misgiving is the possibility that some students might shortcut the assignments and merely read their peers' comments, then bs their way through the assignments. But I am not a policewoman - and the only person who loses in that sort of scenario is the person who is copying others' ideas. It might not make a difference in the immediate context, but if students have not had practice drawing inferences, making connections, and thinking through the videos when they get to student teaching, they will be less well prepared than if they had done the thinking necessary to process the videos.

Meanwhile, I'm anxious to see how Twitter would work for exit slips - the math section is using them, and I think they would work for us in science. We'll see - time to get some sleep. Tomorrow is another day . . .

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Forty-one years and counting

I am beginning my 41st year teaching this semester, and you'd think I'd get tired of this. Fortunately, I am still excited about teaching [which is a good thing since I'll probably never be able to retire due to the recession/depression we are in now].

I've been so absorbed in trying to get ready for the new doctoral class that I've sort of put READ 498 on autopilot - after teaching the class regularly since 1974 [whoa - that's scary] I ought to be able to do that. Of course, I arrived in class today sans folder for the class -- good thing I had done this so many times -- and as usual I didn't get finished with everything. I really need 90 minutes for class . . . but students reading this right now are probably freaking out at the thought.

I want to remember to do less this semester, but in more depth - I always begin with that in mind, and then I don't know what happens - I sort of morph into this fire-hose wielding lunatic with all the information. It's just that I know how much they will need to know in student teaching and in that first year - but I have to remember that I didn't know any of it when I began so maybe it's enough to do a less is more kind of semester. Maybe.

Well, I just remembered I need to upload some stuff to Blackboard and then figure out this Ning - why do I always think I need to learn something new each semester? I must be nuts.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Next time . . .

May 1st - May Day. I feel as thought I've been set free - everything is graded, grades are posted. An admission here: I sent out the message to my middle school reading class that I had completed logging in all the Diligence and Responsibility points and that grades posted to Blackboard were final. I've given them a day to get back to me about any discrepancies . . . except that today I realized I had not penalized students for absences. Oh well, I just didn't have to energy to go back and do the grades again, and when I played around with them, it was apparent that very few would have been affected. So, next time - maybe I'll remember. But this time, well, I am ready to get on with the next thing - and ready to be finished with spring classes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

When students "get it" -- fabulous!

I have been grading non stop for hours. The great thing about this is that I've been grading Book Club papers. Students self-selected into "book clubs" to read professional books and discuss them in small groups. I suggested about four to five titles for students to choose from; they discussed the book on their own schedule, group members posted reflections of the discussions during the semester, then everyone wrote a reflective paper on the experience. This is the pay off - students are making connections between class activities and discussions and the books they read; they are making connections to their own student teaching experiences. These have been the best papers I've gotten on this assignment in a number of semesters.

I don't know whether students are just giving me what they think I want or whether their connections, inferences, and assertions truly represent their views. The optimist in me chooses to believe that they do - that the assignment has made a difference for them. I hope so. We need every good teacher we can get in middle school classrooms.

Truly, it was a pleasure to read the papers I graded tonight - makes grading them easy!

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I watched a video on YouTube today - I've watched it five times and am still hitting replay - the URL is -- it is the most inspiring performance I've ever heard. I just wish I could download the audio to my iPod.

Here is this dowdy, older, graying woman - unemployed 47, and never been kissed -- everyone was judging her by her appearance, expecting little. She began to sing and the audience [and the judges] were on their feet, applauding. How unbelievable that someone so unassuming could take that song - I Dreamed a Dream - and knock everybody's socks off!

It makes me think of all the students that are judged unfairly because they are unkept, unwashed and/or untutored. We overlook their needs and we overlook them, sitting in our classes among smartly dressed, smartly turned out kids who have had all the advantages. So often all it would take is a kind word, a little positive attention. What is it about human beings that makes us overlook what people have inside them and focus only on the surface?

I remember a student I taught 25 years ago. She was a student in what was then [and remains] perhaps the worst class I've ever had to teach - mostly kids from the "wrong side of the tracks" - many could barely read, and they had been passed on from grade to grade up through the years with little expected from them, until they landed in my 9th grade "basic physical science" class. I kept Chris after school during the first week of class because she had not done her homework. Immediately, she had a hundred reasons including that she had 13 sibblings that she had to take care of when she got home from school - getting supper for them, getting them ready for bed [which they all shared] - it was intolerable that children should live in those conditions, and unimaginable that a 14 year old would have those responsibilities. But I made her stay until her bus came - that day and every day after. She stayed in my room instead of going to her "bus room" and did her homework, not only mine but for all her classes.

Fast forward five or six years. One day I got a letter with a return address that said "from the last person on earth you ever thought you'd hear from." In the enclosed letter, Chris apologized for the class - she knew they had really tried my patience -- but she also said thanks; I was the first teacher who had ever made her do her homework, the first teacher who believed she could do her homework. Because I believed in her, she said, she could believe in herself. She went on to say that she had gotten involved in the Salvation Army and had continued to do her homework and study - and that she was at Belmont Abbey College on a Salvation Army scholarship, studying to be a psychologist. Had I not paid attention to her, and made her do her homework, she might well have simply slipped through the cracks as so many students do.

And I wonder how many other students didn't make my radar - that I didn't do what was needed for them. What happened to them?

In spite of the regrets for students I perhaps did not reach, I have to say - this is the paycheck, folks - one letter in 40 years of teaching. But it is worth it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Life in a movie

I watched a movie the other day – Lions for Lambs – a film by Robert Redford with three story lines that were connected, but in the beginning you couldn’t tell how. Essentially, the movie was about engagement. It was one of those movies that, after it was over, you wanted to discuss with someone – it left so many ideas swimming around in your head – the movie itself was engaging.

And I started thinking about what passes for education in so many of our classrooms today and the most common complaint I hear from teachers: apathetic students – students who are not engaged, who are physically present but mentally absent without leave. Students who complain about mindless “busy work” assignments that are unrelated to anything they know about [or so they think]. Students who are bored and restless. Teachers who are tired and frustrated. And who can blame either students or teachers? Teachers who feel they are at the mercy of the almighty End of Course tests, High School Assessment Program, and the PASS [replacement for the PACT]. Students served a steady diet of worksheets, “answer the questions at the end of the section,” or “look up the words and write a definition” – and the miracle is that anyone ever does any of that mind-scalding stuff.  Sometimes I wonder – if the tables were turned, and teachers had to complete the homework they assigned, would they?

How is it that we have so many interesting things going on in the world – and all those interesting things are at our fingertips via the Internet – and yet so little of it makes its way into a classroom? 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And the mistakes just keep on coming

Spring break is over. What a depressing thought! Now, we all just have to endure until the end of the semester – and these MAT students are weeks away from graduation, so I suppose its natural for them to have “senioritis” of a sorts. They are exhausted from student teaching and to make matters worse, I’ve pushed them ever closer to the proverbial edge in READ 867. I sure hope they learn from my mistakes, because I’ve made a ton of them this semester, each one seems to be worse than the first.

During spring break, I got several e-mails from students asking about what was a rather vexing assignment they had been given in the last class. In addition to preparing for the struggling learner jigsaw, I had directed them to read Chapter 10 and to choose two strategies they might use instructionally: one informal grouping strategy and one for cooperative learning groups. Sounds simple enough, right? Except that in my haste to get the assignment pulled together, I had a typo – it was chapter 9 that focused on grouping strategies. Chapter 10 focused on struggling learners. I don’t know whether it was fortunate that the two topics are so interrelated in my Jigsaw or whether that just confused students more. My intention had been to prepare them to read chapter 10 through the struggling adolescent learner Jigsaw. Oh well, the best laid plans of mice and men as they say. What a mess!

So I’ll have to somehow use this mistake to their advantage – and fortunately, after teaching a hundred years, I can figure out a way to do that. Students will share whatever strategies they chose from each of the chapters – then read the alternate chapter for next class. Seems easy, but I feel an ambush coming on. Discussions are richer when students have read different articles or information on similar topics, and that’s what I’m counting on . . . but it feels a bit uneasy to have this almost too-easy solution pop up so quickly, and seem so perfect. Nothing is, of course – but we’ll see.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Irony at work

The other day, I was checking the page proofs of a chapter I wrote with four of our Teaching Consultants from the Center of Excellence - the chapter is to be published soon and I have to get the page proofs back to the publisher asap. Anyway, the chapter focuses on assessment for and as learning - assessment that helps students grow as independent learners.

While I was proofing the chapter, I kept getting e-mails from graduate students in my middle school reading class - with questions about the assessment project that they are currently working on. I had intended to create the scoring guides with the students but decided to ditch that when I ran out of time during two consecutive classes. Looking back, perhaps I should have eliminated something else. In any case, the irony of my authoring a chapter that addressed creating scoring guides with students and simultaneously handling so many questions about an assignment because I had chosen not to involve students in creating the scoring guide for the assignment was not lost on me. Once again, I have not modeled behaviors I want to promote in my own students.

The least I could have done was to have the scoring guides ready at the beginning of the semester, but I didn't even have my act that together! I'm hoping that students in class will see how frustrating this has been for them and intuit that creating criteria with students or providing the criteria when an assignment is made will save their own students from just such frustration. Wish I could say I had done it on purpose to make a point with them - but I just goofed!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

ADEPT Police????

Several students have used the term "ADEPT Police" either in class or in replies to this Blog - and it brings to light something I believe in: by changing our attitudes, we can change how things affect us. Looking at ADEPT [the assessment system for teachers in South Carolina] as something enforced by "police" it makes the program into an enemy, which casts the assessment into a role it was truly not intended to have. ADEPT replaced the APT [assessment of professional teaching, I think] which was much more formulaic in approach - I remember using the APT assessment instrument where you had to have humor in your lesson. Now, that's not a bad thing, but it can be misused. Imagine that a teacher is conducting a lesson on the Civil Rights movement - does the teacher tell a joke about THAT?? Clearly not. When I used the APT instrument, I gave credit if the teacher smiled! But I know that others interpreted that item differently. I also remember sitting through lessons that scored very high on the APT scale, but that were really really boring. 

At least with ADEPT three lessons are observed and de-briefed - in the old APT days it was just the observation, a number score and out the door. With the de-briefing, teachers can provide a rationale for any changes made in the lessons, or reflect on something that didn't quite work the way it might have worked earlier in the day or perhaps reflect on something that worked much better than expected. There is a conversation about the lesson -- and the standards for ADEPT are nothing more than just good teaching. The crux of the problem is how ADEPT is used, and how observers use the guidelines. As usual, the devil is in the details.

On another note, I'm planning class for next Tuesday evening and hoping that I can provide an experience in which students grow as professionals and leave class refreshed and inspired rather than more tired than they arrived. We'll see . . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Drinking from a Firehose

I guess sometimes I forget that as hard as teaching every day is for me, it is also hard on students, who are on information overload. I could see it today - that sort of glazed look. We need to stop for a minute and take stock of everything we've experienced - in content focused parlance everything I've "covered" -- and I need to stop pushing so hard!

I wonder how many times in this Blog I've mentioned covering less information in more time . . . hmmmmm

Thursday, January 08, 2009

How lucky can I get??

Every now and again, I get lucky with little or no effort on my part. Tonight as I was planning for tomorrow's class, I was getting ready to save the power point file as a PDF handout . . . and remembered I had assigned students to create a personal Biopoem as a get-to-know-you activity but had not planned to use it in class -- big mistake [lucky I caught it]. At almost the same time, I remembered the Book Clubs. I need to get students together in their book clubs for at least a few minutes - students need to know which book to order and they need to decide how they will "meet" for their discussions. Voila! I can have students get into Book Club groups and share their Biopoems. Then it occurred to me that it would be great to have them create a coat of arms for their book club groups because it would provide a venue through which students can get to know each other and at the same time will show MAT students yet another way to begin to create a  supportive classroom environment. Of course, this will take time - so I had to carve off a couple of topics I had planned to discuss in class - but the trade off is worth it, I think. I sure have a packed three hours planned for tomorrow. Here's hoping it all works!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ready, Set, GO!

The beginning of another semester - and for once, I think I'm organized and ready. I say I think because there is always something that crops up unexpectedly. Like today -- I forgot to make sure my USB gadget that advances my power point slides was packed, likewise my timer. I never realized how much I relied on the USB gadget or that timer! I’ll not forget them for the next class, that’s for sure.

Students are taking a Strategic Content Literacy Assessment right now, so I have some time to do this - I'm hoping that by taking the assessment themselves, they will better understand the assignment they are required to complete - assess one class, analyze the data, and reflect on what this tells them with respect to learners in that particular class. Anyway, as I listen to the rain pounding on the roof of the University Center [or is that the air conditioner?], and watch these students concentrate on their reading and responding to the text, I realize just how much I love teaching this course. This group of students seems far different from the last group, which was sort of a mixed bag. With three or four exceptions, students last spring were serious about teaching and will be excellent additions to any middle school; but those three or four . . . well, I hope they either learn fast and become good teachers or move on to another career. I’m looking forward to a semester in which we all become a community of learners. Last spring, a small group of math students formed a Wiki and it’s still going strong – so maybe we’ll do something like that this go ‘round.

This morning, I got a late start from home and therefore did not have enough time to go by Starbucks, which I greatly regret right now; I could use a shot of caffeine – better yet, an intravenous shot of the legal addictive stimulant. I grabbed a regular cup of coffee at the little cafĂ© here at the University Center, but it just isn’t the same. Oh well, tomorrow is another day!

Once again, I’ve over planned – I have about 4 hours worth of stuff I’d like to get done, and less than an hour left in the three hour class period and haven't gotten to everything [big surprise]. I’ve never tried this – having students complete an SCLA themselves, and I’m not sure whether this will work or not – but they’ll learn something, I hope. The reading I'm using is one I want them to read anyway, so at least that's a positive outcome. I should walk around and see how far they’ve gotten with the SCLA, maybe we can squeeze in just one more thing into this class . . . but then again, I often make the mistake of trying to do too much in one class period. We’ll see . . .

LATER- after walking around and collecting a few of the papers

Reading through a few of the initial responses [quite a few students have finished already – in only 20 minutes when I allotted 30 minutes for the task – a conundrum all teachers face – what to do with “early finishers”] will help me see their initial ideas about literacy, which will be a good thing to know, but I’m realizing now that this also means that I will have to actually grade all these things now, too. There’s always a down side, isn’t there? I’ve inadvertently given myself homework on the very first day of class – was I completely insane???


Home again, home again – after a stop to get a Starbucks [I feel alive again] and a trip to the bookstore. I should be shot – I picked up Twilight [I dare not begin reading it until after next week is over] AND found another historical novel on the sixth wife of Henry VIII – which I could not resist and now can see a whole lot of procrastination coming on. Will I ever learn??? I have four books going now – I’m listening to a non-fiction book about the US and the Middle East [Power, Faith, and Fantasy] as I drive back and forth to Greenville, reading Thomas Jefferson: American Sphinx, and listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the sixth time as I get read for work each morning, plus the additional book about Katherine Parr I bought today and couldn’t resist beginning. I’m in some serious trouble here.