Monday, August 15, 2011


After nearly 20 years teaching science in middle and high school, then 20 years teaching content area reading at Clemson, I find myself beginning a new position at the University of Wyoming. I guess you could call this Act III - I'll be working with graduate students [doctoral students this semester] as well as teachers seeking endorsements in reading. Its a new system, new location, new almost everything - but I'm excited!

I am teaching a theories and practices course this fall, and have been working on a syllabus for a while now. I had a chance to collaborate with Linda Gambrell, who is teaching a similar course at Clemson this fall. It was fun to discuss possible assignments, activities, and goals for the course with someone of Linda's experience and brilliance. So now, I need to decide which of the ideas I'll use for this semester. Can't do it all, that's for sure. Working with other teachers as you develop lessons and ideas is something I've always done; sure makes the work easier - and more productive. No one person has a corner on all the good ideas - and collaboration helps everyone to learn and grow professionally.

So, in this my first post of the 2011-2012 academic year, I guess I'm saying that collaboration has been an important part of my professional life - and that as I begin another professional phase I continue to rely on collaboration. Here's to a great 2011!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some days are diamonds - some days not so much!

I'm composing this after class, and maybe should wait until I've had time to really think about class. I [finally] taught the Ordeal by Cheque lesson - my favorite lesson of all the example lessons I teach - and it felt a little flat - off somehow. For the first time ever this lesson seemed less than motivating. Maybe it was just so late, and once again I tried to do too much. Maybe it was me - was I too tired? Maybe I feel this way because the reflection on the lesson was rushed, and instead of just stopping [like I've done several times this semester] I had to give an example of what NOT to do - again. Yes, maybe that's it. I packed too much into the lesson [four reflective activities?? What was I thinking!!]. OK, so here is what I WISH I had done.

I wish I had done the Literary Report Card and ended the lesson. Then I could have unpacked the lesson and provided examples of the other reflective strategies as a set of possibilities. The Polar Opposites would still have been a good example of a way for ELA teachers to enrich vocabulary and have students reflect on the story. The character map could have been compared to semantic maps, synonym maps, and concept maps. Finally, the diamante could have been another example of a way to use poetry to help students reflect on their learning. Maybe next week I'll get the students into content partners and have them create some of these - and discuss ways to adapt these strategies for other content areas.

So, here's what I've learned and what I need to remember [again]: when I try to do too much, I end up watering down the lesson - because students don't take away from the lesson what I really want them to see.

I wonder how many times I will have to mess up this way before I don't ever do this again??! I'm sure my students tonight wish I had learned the lesson for good and all. Just goes to show - sometimes even those of us who have done this for a loooong time mess up!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Difference between "doing the work" and learning

I'm not sure how to help these students in the Bookend view the "work" in the Middle School reading class as something other than just another "to do" item on their already too long list of things they have to complete. They are all so stressed as it is - and keep asking what the due dates are for all the different assignments, as in "if I can just finish all these @#$#@ tasks, then I'll be done with class." In reality, they'll never be done in the true sense of the word; teaching is a process of learning how forever. It's like their own students who view each assignment as a task to finish rather than a vehicle through which they can learn something. And how do I convince them that there IS something to learn from the assessment assignment, or the book club discussion, or the instructional reflection? Maybe the question I need to ask is "Is there something to learn from each of these?" Truth be told, I eliminated a couple of assignments from the ones I usually use in this class - what would they do if I hadn't? Maybe, in the end, it will take getting finished with this semester and having the luxury of time to reflect on our work together - but maybe not.

I started class tonight with Q & A about the assessment assignment and the learning cycle class they had with Leigh and Jamie. The discussion about the assessment assignment took so much longer than I had expected - I wonder if they recognize the irony of my frustration with questions asked that had been answered earlier in the semester -- better yet, do I recognize the irony of their frustration with me? By the time we began the vocabulary topic, half the class was almost asleep and the other half just wanted to "get it over." I hate having class so late in the day when they've already put in a full day and are so bone weary they could fall asleep at the drop of a hat.

I used to think that the READ 867 [middle school reading] class was the perfect class to take along with student teaching, but I'm not sure anymore. READ gets kind of lost among all the flotsam and jetsam of student teaching, observations, and other courses. And, of course, there is that old notion that whatever I'm teaching is more important than anything else they have to do. The truth is, though, that the one thing my MAT was missing was a literacy course. So, how could I decrease the stress on the students in 867, but maintain a level of engagement that would ensure that they learn? Maybe if I had NOT done Book Clubs - I actually debated on that, and decided that reading and discussing a professional book was something they needed to do - and the books they've chosen are great books [they stand in for a textbook, and are much more interesting to read than a textbook]. Maybe it's just the time of the semester that has us all freaking out.

We are so far behind - because of the stupid weather! But I can't try to make it all up during "call back" days - I'll just have to decide what to eliminate, and every night the list to eliminate grows exponentially -- Well, it's late and I'm still tired from the red-eye flight home. Think I'll pack it in and try again tomorrow to think through this.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Responding to student input - an important lesson for me!

Sitting in the airport, waiting on the flight to DC - it will be a long day. Last night's class was, in a word, fabulous - and due solely to the students! They are amazing - sharp, thoughtful, curious. Just what we need in our classrooms. They ask wonderful questions - necessary questions. I hope they learn half as much from me as I learn from them. Here's an example:

Last night, I taught a model lesson [the Columbus lesson, one I've taught all over the world, including Guatemala and Latvia] and as we were discussing the "Forced Choices" each small group of students had made with respect to the most important item exchanged between the Old World and the New when Columbus made his "discovery", a student asked about the validity of the conclusions that were being drawn. The first group had replied with a choice that was in actuality a result of one of the items exchanged [food]. I bungled the response to the group. I accepted what they said and moved on. I could have inadvertently left the class with inaccurate information - but due to the question, we stopped and discussed the issue, exploring in depth the issue of how and why slavery was brought to the New World. A fascinating discussion, and one we needed to have - I can only hope the students understood my explanation of what I did, why I had done it, and what I should have done. What I should have done was to push the reporting group of students to identify to initial item exchanged [food], making sure that they understood that we were considering only items exchanged during the "Colombian Exchange" [a term used in the standard, and one I had usually not included in the lesson] then talk about the ramifications - some of which happened hundreds of years later. I needed to help students get a sense of the time frame we were talking about - and perhaps a timeline would have helped all of us -- in fact, as I type this, I'm thinking that I might need to add that little scaffolding to the lesson. Use a timeline to graphically display the time we are talking about - that would also serve to illustrate the items that made such an impact that we still feel the effects today in our own world. The Response Heuristic is organized sort of that way [Item exchanged / immediate effect / long term effect], but it needs to be more overt - and a time line would help tremendously. Voila! I've re-visioned the lesson now, and it will be much better the next time I use it. What a great learning experience for all of us - but especially for me.

I have been grading their Literacy and Learning Autobiographies, and they are really good. It's taking much longer than normal because they are such a pleasure to read, I find myself reading them twice - and reading them for pleasure rather than to actually grade them. If only I could just provide some feedback and not have to grade anyone. This particular class is one that I look forward to every week. Remarkable - I have a renewed sense of hope for our schools.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Teaching vs. learning

Wednesday evening's class seemed a bit off to me, and I'm not sure why except that it was definitely me and not the students. The Moje article might have been too much of a stretch, or I didn't prepare them sufficiently to read it with a clear understanding, or perhaps it just was not a good idea to have them read that particular article so early in the semester. The students didn't seem to understand the part of the article that differentiated the various disciplines [English, math, science, social studies] in the way I wanted them to [and how could they understand it like I did - I've got 35 years of prior knowledge to filter the ideas through], and my worst behavior as a teacher reared its ugly head, and I tried to tell them the important ideas - what a fiasco that part of class turned out to be. They did a great job with the ideas related to the first part of the article about the barriers to infusing literacy into content area classrooms, and maybe that's the only part of the article that I should be concerned with right now. It might have been a simple as my not giving them a break after we had discussed the first two parts of the article - maybe it was, in the end, just timing that was so off that it impacted student learning.

We will return to the differences in the disciplines [content areas] several times during the semester through modeled lessons and other articles and readings from the textbook, and I need to keep that in mind - these understandings are complicated, and take time to construct. So maybe the worst part of the class was that students didn't feel as successful as I had wanted them to feel. I can see already that part of the difficulty is the discourse disconnect. That is, I am definitely a member of the educational discourse community but they are just being introduced to that community, even those students who have had several education courses. I use terms from education in my comments and lectures, many of which they are not familiar with -- I have to remember to explain those terms. I need to remember to use the students in class who have already had several education courses [the four reading masters students and the MAT student who majored in secondary English education] as a valuable resource. That might also help to model how classroom teachers might tap into students' capabilities and experiences in their own classrooms.

I think another problem on Wednesday was that I had too much planned for the evening and I couldn't seem to stop myself from trying to "cover" everything. Once again, I got ambushed by my past. The secondary teacher in me was so intent on "covering all the topics" for the night, that I didn't stop to remind myself that just because you "cover" a topic doesn't mean students learn the material. The old teaching vs. learning thing. So, I have to decide what is absolutely crucial for the students to take away from this course and what I can leave out - this is always the decision I have to make for every class I teach. Maybe I'm not willing to let go of activities and ideas I've used successfully in the past to make room for the "new" stuff. Because of the current cutting edge ideas in disciplinary literacy, there is a lot of new stuff. As I type this, it occurs to me that so far I've given them a perfect example of a curriculum that is a "mile wide and an inch deep" in this course - horrors!

I can only hope that my explanation of the YALIT project helped them to see that project more clearly. I'll go back to that this next week, too, to make sure they understand it. Speaking of projects, it always happens this way, but after giving up on the Blogging project with the middle school students, we heard from the teacher today - he really wants to continue the project. So now, I'm sure my students are wondering what the blazes is going on - and I hate to jerk them around. My first instinct was to just say to the teacher, "sorry - you should have been more attentive to the frantic e-mails we were sending you." But several of my students really wanted to do the Blog project. Well, as I told the students on Wednesday, you'll make lots of decisions in teaching and they can't all be right. I'll see if enough of them are still willing to do the Blog project and we'll go from there.

I still have to finish revising the schedule, since we missed the first day of class and I'll be away for two weeks - but that's something I need to be doing now, instead of thinking about last Wednesday. Oh well, it will all work out in the end.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Snow, Ice, and a new granddaughter - complications not foreseen

I'm prepping for a class I haven't seen all together since January 7th, and wondering how I'm going to pull off a visit to my new granddaughter in Denver, who will be a week old tomorrow. Thank goodness for doctoral students who are fabulous teachers. I have the Bookend class arranged for - Jamie [social studies] and Leigh [math] are going to teach the class on Feb. 15th, and do a better job than I could do because they will be teaching actual lessons from their own experience, then unpacking them. I know they can do this because I've seen them do just this on several occasions, so I'm not worried at all about Bookend. I had planned to ask them to come teach the class before Nora [the new granddaughter] was born, so this isn't something new. The "regular" section, though, is a bit more difficult because Leigh is taking a class on Wednesday evenings [when the "regular" class meets] and can't come in February. Maybe Jamie can come and do just her lesson - that in combination with online work [both synchronous and asynchronous?] will be fine - they [online classes] just take twice as much time to plan.

Because we [the "regular" class] missed the very first class of the semester due to the snow/ice, we are a week behind the schedule I had originally come up with - and since we meet every week, I will miss two class meetings with these students, not just one. Synchronous work is what I prefer, but I'm worried about the time difference - and frankly, worried about everyone's Internet connections as well - add to that the class size [nearly 30; really big to be online all at one time] and you have a recipe for disaster. I think maybe I'll come up with an online interactive lecture they can watch and interact with at their leisure and react to online, and some readings they have to reflect on and respond to at least one other class member. Then we can talk about differences in face2face and asynchronous classes and how those differences play out and impact learning. That might work, actually. Whatever I decide to do, it cannot negatively impact their experience of this course - or their learning in the course. I know that every professor believes his/her course is the most important one in a program, but because I also hold an MAT and my program lacked a literacy course of any kind - I know first hand how crucial this course is [whether anyone else shares that view or not!!]. So, I'd best get busy and get the interactive lectures done!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

WOW! This just gets better and better

I need to do this before heading home tonight - I'll probably add to it when I arrive there, but lack of sleep might catch up with me.

I am in awe of these MAT students - this class is, well, WOW! Great thinkers, wonderful discussions, insightful questions; a joy to teach. I didn't even mind having to teach tonight after being up nearly all night waiting on my first granddaughter to make her grand entrance into the world.

I have always thought that this class [middle school reading] should be taught at the end of the program, but after two classes with these wonderful pre-service teachers I'm beginning to see that perhaps taking the course early on might be a better idea. I am so enjoying this group - and learning so much from them. Their questions and comments are right on target and help me [and hopefully everyone in the class] to clarify my thinking.

How can it be that after 42 years in this business, I'm still as enthusiastic as I was on my very first day of teaching? I leave class less tired than I arrive - amazing. It's like the CEALL workshops were; I'd arrive on Friday nights dragging, but by Saturday afternoon at 5PM, I was rejuvenated - I feel the same energy at the end of this class every Wednesday night. I just need to remember to begin closure a bit earlier because it seems we always run over about 5-10 minutes. Just because I could stay another hour or so doesn't mean they can or even want to!! Well, enough tonight - I'm headed home. A great day all the way around.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Flying without technology

Finally, the first class of this semester with the "regular" section of middle school reading - we missed last week because of the ice and snow and are now playing catch up. I felt that class went well in spite of a few glitches and technology problems [once again -- is this something to do with me? I've had tech problems for the past two beginning classes]. It's always something! But it could have been better so I need to think about what happened, how things worked and didn't work based on the evidence at hand, what I might have done instead - and how this will influence what we do next week.

I arrived at UCG well ahead of time to make sure I had everything I needed for class and decided [thank goodness] to duplicate my power point slides in a handout. That turned out to be fortuitous because when I was preparing my laptop to interface with the projector, the bulb blew. I did not have a spare projector [but I'll be sure to bring one and keep it at UCG from now on!]. It was 5 pm, and although there were tech people available, David couldn't do anything about replacing the bulb and all the other rooms were just too small for the nearly 30 students I had in class. Oh well, a chance to model how teachers must roll with the punches - if you aren't flexible, you'd better not choose teaching as a career!

Anyway, in spite of the blown projector bulb we went right on with class, but I couldn't show students blackboard or my Blog, or the Wiki - so I'm sure those who are not tech savvy are wondering what level of Dante's hell they've entered. It has been five years since I taught this particular section of middle school reading, another thing that I should have thought more about in terms of what we did in class. For five years I've dealt exclusively with inservice teachers, senior undergraduates, doctoral candidates, and graduating MAT students - all of whom have lots of prior knowledge and experience with educational jargon, text, philosophy, and theory. The majority of these students are in their first semester of the MAT program, and several have returned to graduate studies after ten or more years out in what people like to call the "real world." Translation: I probably put them all in shock because I did a lot of assumptive teaching last night - not good. Goodness only knows how many jargon words and phrases I used that left them completely in the dark - my only hope is that I will be able to remedy this as the semester progresses.

We did get to almost all the activities I had planned and the eliminated activity is one that will probably work better later in the semester, given the experience level of this group of students. I think students experienced the power of small group discussions, and several commented on that very thing in their exit slips, which I am very glad I did even though it kept them past the 7:45 target end of class. These are really sharp folks and their exit slips evidenced their powerful thinking and will help me to shape a more effective class for next week, I hope. I think my "think aloud" strategy of stopping the lesson and doing a little bit of thinking aloud about my decision making process as a teacher helped them see what it's like inside the head of a teacher.

Speaking of exit slips, they really were eye opening. I felt better about class after reading through them last night - students did understand the big ideas I was trying to get across to them. I am also pleased that I provided sufficient scaffolding for them with respect to the readings for next week. I gave a map for the Moje (2000) article and had them do 2-column notes for the first part of chapter 1. Next week I can go back and point out how that particular scaffolding worked to make the readings easier to comprehend, and talk about gradual release of responsibility. The 2-column note making was actually a spur of the moment decision in class - I was just going to have them read the text, but as I listened to their discussions about the position papers and paid attention to the kinds of questions they asked in class, I realized that I had not factored in their lack of prior knowledge - they are just beginning in the education field and many of them are coming from business or manufacturing backgrounds - the kind of reading that Moje requires I knew to prepare them for, but they also needed some scaffolding for the chapter reading as well.

So what worked last night included having the power point notes for them to see what I was talking about and to hold their thinking, the thinking aloud that I did throughout class, the small group discussions, and the People Search. I have to create a collaborative learning community out of this group of folks who don't know each other. When I teach the Bookend class of MAT students who have been together in classes for a year, I inherit a collaborative caring community of educators. This go round I have to create that -- so the power of the strategies I use to establish this trust and collaboration will be evident. In the Bookend class I often feel we are wasting time doing the get-to-know-you strategies since I am the only stranger in the group there - but even the Bookend students need to experience strategies they can use in class to create their own communities of learners. So, a lot did work, and I think my decision to eliminate the paired reading was a good one - there were more important things to accomplish and there is time later in the semester to model that. The assessment activity likewise will wait and will probably be more effective if we complete it when we are discussing the topic of assessment. So even though students are feeling a bit confused, class as a whole wasn't a disaster - just the technology part!

So, next week we need to discuss the Moje and the first part of Chapter 1 - and then I can have them develop their list of "Fabulous Five" or whatever I end up calling the principles and guidelines to keep in mind when they are teaching. Actually, as I think about this right now, I realize that without reading chapter 1 and Moje, these students are probably totally unprepared to come up with instructional ideas on their own, just based on the position papers. DUH!! Another instance of my not taking into account just where these students are in their journey in the MAT program. So, it was a good thing that we ran short of time and that I decided to skip the culminating activity associated with their small group discussion. Well, well . . . I finally got something right for a change!! After 100 years of teaching, it's about time.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

This is retirement????

Retirement doesn’t feel much different than working so far! Two days into the semester and I'm working just as hard as I always do - even though I've taught this course for years and years. Of course, the first day was a total technological meltdown [couldn't go smoothly, could it?]. First, I couldn’t get the podium screen to respond – had to call a technical person to come help – but at least I had an opportunity to model what you do when technology doesn’t work. Then, my computer went completely black screen – nothing. Idiot that I am, I called the tech guy again – only to discover that I had plugged into a “plug with no electricity so my battery was dead. DUH! So, at last we got the computer plugged in and the projector going, and class went along pretty well – had to jettison the last activity, but that’s not too bad. I won’t do it right now [reading and discussing the information about struggling readers in the syllabus] but might return to it if I can remember later in the semester.

Today, technology worked fine . . . BUT - I had left my iPhone at home [felt absolutely naked without it!], so I didn’t have my trusty timer with me [thank goodness there was one in the classroom] AND I forgot my watch. Must be senility – I remember thinking clearly “I feel like I’m forgetting something this morning” as I pulled out of the driveway, but it was just a brief thought that didn’t stay long enough to be examined to any degree and off I drove sans iPhone and watch. In any case, students were pretty good about keeping me on track with time, and I did have the other timer.Last night, I didn't get home until nearly 7pm, and I was so tired that I just chose not to do any more work on today's lesson. I guess it's really true that the mind continues to work while you sleep, because I tried all yesterday afternoon to figure out how to present the assessment data from PASS, NAEP, and PISA. It would have taken HOURS to construct graphs and charts to represent the data and convey to the students my summary of what is going on with it . . . when I woke up this morning, I realized that rather than boiling the data down for students, I might be better off giving them print outs of data summaries and have them discuss and analyze the data themselves. Worked much better than I could have predicted, and was less time consuming for me. Once again, less is more!

Miracle of miracles, we got everything done in class today, even though I added a couple of reflection pieces focused on the strategies we were using [the first group work activity, having Book Clubs create a Coat of Arms for themselves, and QQTT for the position statements].One of the [perceptive] students mentioned how dated the position statements are, making the point that we've focused on adolescent literacy for over a decade with little to show for it. Now we are primed and ready for a discussion about disciplinary literacy, which comes tomorrow! So, my original goals, set mentally for this semester, of emphasizing the essential questions considered in each class session and increasing the time spend on reflection about strategy use [thus putting more emphasis on self-evaluation] have been met – so far so good. I just hope I don’t let them wane as the semester moves forward.

While I’m thinking along these lines, what are my goals – the changes I want to make – for this semester? Here goes:
1. Be more overt about essential questions guiding our work each class session
2. Do more with less: that is, throw fewer strategies at the students but spend more time on the practices and strategies we do focus on
3. Increase the emphasis on reflection on strategies and practices
4. Use a Capacity Matrix more consistently.
It’s the last one I am struggling with right now. Well, I have one ready for the topics of assessment and vocabulary, but haven’t developed one for all the other ideas – so I’d better get busy. Speaking of busy, I have to decide how I’m going to run the other section of Middle School Reading – the French students have recently posted more information on the Wiki, so I think I’ll employ a Wiki project, but perhaps I need to make that an option – so I need to figure out what other options might “go with” this sort of Web 2.0 project.