Sunday, March 31, 2013

Kimberly Gutchewsky

For me, one of the biggest mysteries in education is why in so many buildings, The Faculty Lounge is where Joy Goes to Die.  I’ve learned that the last place to take my positive energy is where groups of people, often fantastic educators, hang out.

That being said, I admit I’m kind of geeked about some of the changes the Common Core might bring us.  While new standards can cause quite a lot of anxiety, the folks at the Gateway Writing Project have offered some quality professional development to let me see what the coming changes can do for kids.  In addition to seeing possibilities in a curriculum that uses uniform language across disciplines, I feel energized when I am reminded of how powerful it is to work with other professionals to sift through common goals.

My next steps, how I engage others to join me in my enthusiasm, is tricky.  I have to squash my impulse to announce at lunch, “Hey Everybody! I went to this workshop and it was soooo awesome! Everyone needs to sign up now to learn how to do things even better!”  That would send that workshop to the slaughterhouse.  My faculty isn’t unique, of course.  We are composed by the same percentages that every school faces: a percentage of “Been There Done That” cynics, a handful of Nice-Enough Isolationists, and Pollyanna Cheerleaders who face change with enthusiasm.  I’m sure I do not need to self –identify. 

The implications of this grouping for professional development purposes, though, is what concerns me.  Trying to sell people who do not naturally value PD is a poor use of resources, but to only concentrate on the Cheerleaders rarely creates the momentum needed to effect school-wide change.  One way my district has encouraged growth and collaboration is through professional development cadres.  Much like a professional learning community, this model utilizes a trained lead teacher who then trains others, who then train others, and so on.   Our first use of this model occurred when we focused on raising ACT and other test scores; improving reading instruction was noted as central to that goal, but very few of us in the high school felt competent to teach kids how to read.

That led Joanne Curran, our reading teacher at the time, to apply for a grant that allowed her to be trained in Silver Strong reading best practices.  She was trained to teach others how to use strategies across the curriculum, and she then invited a handful of interested freshman teachers to attend two summer workshops and a handful of release days during the year.   Together we discussed our practices and how we perceived the results.

The model worked.  Mostly because teachers invited to participate in the cadre had something in common:  ninth grade students who could be more successful.  And as our participation was voluntary, we allowed ourselves to feel excited, vulnerable, and at times confused, without apology or enduring eye rolls.  We did not have to wait for our district PD committee to find money for speakers or create a calendar for SMART goal alignment, etc. We owned our process, and as we made our discoveries public, we generated interest in our cadre, allowing our numbers to grow.

As we countdown to the Common Core becoming the real deal, I am hopeful that this cadre model can work for districts. If there are a handful of teachers in a building willing to attend workshops or participate in book study groups, they can carry that energy and interest to a small group of teachers willing to learn and grow together.  Anything you learn about the Common Core as applied to your district’s curriculum and students will inevitably spark attention seekers.

A grass roots approach to something as seemingly intimidating as new national standards will keep the learning curve in our hands and under our watch as we support each other.  Being reminded of Margaret Mead’s famous words, I know that a handful of dedicated people can change the world. Changing the faculty lounge culture, though, is something I’ll have to leave for others.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

John Dorroh

My Bloody Dance Shoes: The Biology Ballet

       Let’s go back, way back, before there were Promethean and smart boards, cell phones, and internet, circa 1975.  Hmmmm….dating myself, I know, but with age comes experience, right?

   I entered the hallowed halls of New Hope High School in Columbus, Mississippi (birth place of Tennessee Williams, by the way), on January 6, 1976, accompanied by a new briefcase and a bucket of enthusiasm.

   “Just wait until they hear my lectures on the life cycle of ferns!” I told myself. My intentions were honest and lofty – to change young lives by infusing excitement about the amazing world of biology.

   That first week I encountered Gloria, the alpha dog;  Ernie,  the classroom terrorist; Jon, the arsonist and kleptomaniac, and 140 others, each with his or her individual agenda.  Unfortunately, none of their agendas included wanting to learn biology.  Despite my humorous approach to lecturing on the usual topics such as mitosis and meiosis, monohybrid and dihybrid crosses, and recombinant DNA, students weren’t reacting as I had planned.  “This isn’t as easy as I thought,” I admitted.

   The next year was easier, but I knew that something was missing. I was doing all of the usual things – helping the students with note-taking, engaging them in laboratory experiences, including all the required dissections, and assigning the occasional out-of-class project for in-class presentation.  This slow dance lasted for more than a decade.

   At the point where I was going to make an exit off of the dance floor, Bob Tierney entered and invited me to stick around. It was as if he was telling me that NWP would help me find comfortable dance shoes and that I might be able to change my dance steps all together; that I probably could lead my biology students in their own dances of exhilaration and discovery.

   Bob Tierney was among the first group of Bay Area Writing Project TCs who began their own dances in the summer of 1975. Through a serendipitous series of events, I landed one of the last spots at a local writing project mini-institution, featuring Bob, who had taught high school science and coached inner city students in Fremont, California.  Working with Sherry Swain and Sandra Burkett at the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Institute, Bob shared about 20 writing-based strategies that he had tested and used extensively in his basic skills science classes.

   Bob, Sherry, and Sandra offered me new dance shoes, shoes which hurt my feet to the point where they bled. I was awkward and antsy but willing to practice my moves.

  The first strategy that I tested with my students was a version of journaling called Expressive Mode notebooks. We wrote nearly every day; I wrote with them in my own journal. (“Reflections on Expressive Writing in the Science Class,” J. Dorroh, the Quarterly, Volume 15, Number 3, 1993, p. 28-30.). The biggest challenge was developing a fair and consistent manner to evaluate their written thoughts. I became a scientist in my learning lab (classroom), manipulating as many variables as possible to find out specific cause-and-effect outcomes. Dance practice continued.

   We wrote skits about principles and concepts, embedding the science facts into the text, often reading and acting them out with props. (“How Enzymes Act: Skit Writing in Science Class,” J. Dorroh, The Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 4, 1996, p. 13-17)  Skits gave birth to Reader’s Theatre and Chorale Reading.

   There was a snowball effect. The more we used writing to learn science, the more ideas we had. I found myself stepping away from the podium and listening more to what the students had to say.  They wrote and we talked; they wrote and we danced.

    My colleagues hinted that we might be having too much fun, suggesting that I wasn’t preparing them properly for tests.  “You’re way out of the box,” said Tim, my next-door teacher friend. 

   I challenged Tim to conduct an experiment.

    “You teach biology the same way you always do,” I suggested, “and I’ll use all my writing-based strategies.” He accepted the challenge, I think to prove his point and to make me give up my “cute activities,” to accept and use the pre-determined blueprint for biology. We selected two classes, each with a similar make-up, overall class average, etc.  We chose a unit on genetics and began teaching.

   My students continued to write in their journals, create skits with talking genes and chromosomes, prepare original interview scripts for probing into the lives of Gregor Mendel and other lesser known geneticists, and take interactive notes.  We moved gracefully through the unit, a ballet as it were. Of course there were blisters and bruises, but at the end of the unit, my students expressed a sense of accomplishment, unafraid to take a test of any kind.

   I felt that the results of our experiment were significant; Tim felt otherwise.  The two class averages of the end-of-unit test were close. My students’ overall average was 85%; Tim’s was 81%. “Big deal,” he said.

   But I wasn’t finished with Tim.  I had asked him to keep up with all of the “teacher duties” by minute.  This included the preparation time for lectures, preparing all assessments, grading, returning tests, going over them with the students, filing them, etc.  I did the same.

   “What does this prove?” he asked.  “Maybe nothing,” I said. “I want us to see how much time each of us spends on all of the minutia.  Then we can look at the end-product to see if we feel that it was worth it.”

   As it tuned out, Tim spent about 40% more time on “tasking” than I did.  During the process, he experienced frustration, anger, and a sense of failure.  I, on the other hand, was content, for the most part, to see my students dance every day in Room 23 and the lab. That’s not to say that everything was perfect and that I experienced no challenges. But writing strategies had a tendency to allow students to carry the burden of learning on their own shoulders, to make discoveries and connections. I liked that!

   “Let’s carry this another step,” I suggested.

   “What now?” he begrudgingly asked.

   “Let’s give them the same test in a month without any notice and see how they do,” I said.

   “Whatever,” he said.  I could tell that Tim had lost his enthusiasm for our experiment, but he caved and we continued.

    A month later we administered – without notice—the same unit test on genetics. The students complained and ranted for a few minutes, but after I explained the purpose, they settled down and took the test.

   The results were astounding. My students’ original overall score was about 85%; their follow-up was 80%.  Tim’s students’ scores dipped from 81% into the 60s.

    “That doesn’t prove much,” he said. I agreed. It was, at best, an indicator, the beginnings of a classical research set-up. So many other variables…..need more classes from other schools….other teachers with different teaching styles, etc. But it did go to show Tim that a writing-based biology classroom can perhaps help students learn material better and…and retain it.

    In the next couple of years after the Great Challenge, I continued to break in my dance shoes.  We began using portfolios with a mantra of “collect, select, and reflect.”  All student work was housed in wildly decorated folders, and once a month, usually on a Friday, students would select one piece from their collecting file for reflection and placement into their permanent portfolios.  At year’s end, each student had in his/her possession a portfolio that contained 9-10 artifacts, which showed them behaving and thinking like “real scientists.” That helped to tear down the stereotype that “all scientists are nerds.”

    From the portfolios, we developed a system of “menu selection,” in which students were required to select a minimum of three (out of seven) modes of evaluation, most of them writing-based. (The Whole Story: Teachers Talk about Portfolios, “Evolution of a Biology Teacher,” J. Dorroh, p. 59-69, NWP). On and on.

    For the remainder of my full-time teaching career, writing became the vehicle for helping my science students become engaged, reveling in the exhilaration of discovery. It was a dance, one that might not have happened if I hadn’t accepted the change of shoes.

   (I’d like to thank Diane Scollay and Nancy Singer for graciously accepting me into the Gateway fold as a Mississippi transplant.  I continue to grow—sharing with teachers ways to find their own dance steps in classrooms all over the St. Louis area.)


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Dan Bommarito

“Working” Theories and Community Engagement: A Report from a Public Literacies
Symposium at Arizona State University, March 18-19, 2013

At a time when institutions of higher education are paying increased attention to the varied needs of local communities, it is important to consider how this shift in attention influences the ways we conceive our roles as writing teachers and advocates for the public good. This week, I have had the pleasure of participating in a Public Literacies Symposium with community literacy scholars Linda Flower, Eli Goldblatt, and Tiffany Rousculp, along with faculty, students, and administrators at my institution as we tackle questions related to this “public turn” and its transforming effects on our conceptions of writing programs as sites of instruction, inquiry, and engagement.

Linda Flower argues that “if academics wish to exchange the mantel of ‘public intellectual’ for the role of ‘community partner’ we will need to develop more grounded, working theories of deliberation in local publics—and of how to support it.” For Flower, working theories are rooted in lived experience and shaped by individuals’ dynamic accounts of that experience. Moreover, working theories develop not by bracketing and eschewing difference, but by inviting difference and using it as a resource for invention. By developing and interrogating our own working theories and putting them into conversation with others’, we set up conditions which have the potential to support deliberation that is generative and empowering rather than reductive and stifling. It is in these moments of generative deliberation that change becomes not merely a result or outcome, but, as Tiffany Rousculp argues, “the potential for people to make choices regarding
textual production within regulating environments.”

The words of Flower and Rousculp resonate with me as I reflect on the important community work pursued by UMSL, the Gateway Writing Project and, particularly, the Summer Institute.  Upon reflection of my time at the Summer Institute, what stands out is the facilitators’ insistence on firsthand experience with writing—teachers of writing are, after all, cast as writers themselves—and the importance of sharing those experiences with other real, practicing writers.  Our daily journaling, writing marathons, round-table readings and discussions, and culminating publication project are all marks of GWP’s effort to foster strong writerly relationships firmly rooted in lived experience.

Those experiences position us teachers to engage a wider public—whether that means other GWP participants, teachers and administrators at our home institutions, students, parents, or professionals at other sites of literacy development. One example is the “Teacher Demo” assignment. As attendees of the Summer Institute will no doubt recall, the Teacher Demo assignment asks that each participant deliver a presentation and workshop on a classroom practice addressing some writing-related issue. Presenters frame a problem they have encountered, address the problem somehow through classroom assignments or curriculum
design, and facilitate discussion among GWP members about the problem itself and possible resolutions. Because GWP makes a conscious attempt to invite teachers with diverse professional backgrounds and experience, Teacher Demos shed light on the richness of classroom contexts across all age levels, from elementary school on through college, as well as vexing issues found along the way. The role of discussion, then, is not to arrive at consensus and closure, but, instead, to pose open questions in light of challenges that emerge in these various contexts and to situate our own experiences alongside the firsthand accounts of others.

GWP invites us into the gritty, complex, and often messy realities of community work and literacy education. It asks us to refrain from dictating what others should or shouldn’t do by shifting the focus onto the richness of lived experience. More important than developing a universal standard of writing, it seems to say, is the need to candidly and collaboratively investigate our definitions of writing and literacy, what aspects of writing and literacy we most value in which contexts, and why. I am so grateful for my time spent at the Summer Institute and for the partnership between GWP and UMSL because they have opened up and sustained
a productive space in which to co-construct unique narratives of literacy education that seek to respond to the complex local conditions in which literacy is lived and taught.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Angie Muse

The Ass-Ass Method of Teaching Writing

Most likely, at some point in our careers, we've all been guilty of using the Ass-Ass Method of teaching writing--assigning a paper then assessing it.  Assigning and assessing, assigning and assessing, assigning and assessing.  The Ass-Ass Method.  (Thank you, Donalyn Miller, for giving this practice a name.)  In this cycle, there is no place for actually teaching students how to write.   We may tell students how we want them to write:  use details to illuminate your point, transition smoothly between ideas, using specific and vivid language.  But when--and how--do we teach this?  
This is the writing teacher’s dilemma:  HOW do we teach writing?  WHAT do we teach? Think about the full range of writing teachers out there.  Imagine the Kindergarten teacher who, by the end of this school year, has to get her students to the point that they can write a short opinion piece about a book, an informative piece about any topic, and a narrative piece with sequentially ordered events.  Kindergarteners not only have to write a piece, but they must, with adult guidance, respond to peers' questions by adding detail to their work.  
Now, go to the other end of the spectrum and consider the college level freshman composition teacher who has to help writers create meaningful work born from a wealth of reading, discussion, and life experience.  This class will most certainly run the gamut of reading, research, and writing skills, and the teacher will most likely engage students in some form of workshop where students are giving critical feedback to each others' work and revising their own pieces based on this critical feedback.  
A lot of teachers line up between the Kindergarten teacher and the Freshman Comp teacher.  If they are not deeply entrenched in the Ass-Ass Method of teaching, they are asking themselves, "What do we teach and how do we teach it?"  Where do you think the vast majority of these teachers turn to find a direction?   (If, right now, you are running through a mental list of books by writing gurus, fabulous writing conferences that you've attended, or writing communities you belong are most certainly a Writing Project teacher or something wonderfully similar.  Either way, you are a minority and you need to know the truth:  most writing teachers are not like you.) 
So, if writing teachers aren't armed with the sage advice of Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott, the engaging tools of Barry Lane, Georgia Heard, or Ralph Fletcher,  or the practical vision of Kelly Gallagher, where do they turn?   Their curriculum.  

God help us.  

Our curriculums do a much better job of helping us teach reading.  (If, right now, you are imagining your detailed curriculum that makes writing instruction crystal clear, you need to know the truth:  most writing curriculums are not even close to yours.)  If a student is struggling with reading comprehension, we can...I'm looking at my them with a few during reading strategies: making connections, visualizing, clarifying, etc.  There are tools we can use to help them do this:  think-marks and stickies to encourage active thinking while reading.  If that doesn't work, we can...looking at my students tackle the unknown words in passage.  To do this we can teach them how to use context clues.  We can also help them develop their vocabulary by using word walls or Frayer Models.  This is all in my curriculum.
If a student is struggling with writing, we can...looking at my curriculum...we can...still looking at my curriculum.... I have nothing.  From my writing curriculum, I know what to assign.  I know they need to use a writing process.  I know a few grammar issues we need to deal with.  Other than that, I have nothing that will help me teach an emerging writer how to improve.  If our curriculum doesn't help, we turn to our textbooks.  Generally these materials provide us with writing assignments and an assessment tool--usually a generalized, pre-fab scoring guide organized by traits.   No wonder the Ass-Ass Method is so prevalent.  

I am grateful for the Gateway Writing Project.  The summer institute changed me.  I read.  I discussed.  I WROTE!  I began to articulate my own understanding of what makes good writing.  I began to discover strategies that would help my student writers gain control of their work.  When that summer was over, my GWP work didn't stop, and I continued to cultivate a deeper understanding of writing and writing instruction. 

I wonder, in the busy world of a teacher, how many people read books about writing, attend writing marathons, or read a writing blog?  It is Sunday night.  There is a stack of papers waiting to be graded and a crew of kids who will cry foul if you fail to finish for a 2nd weekend in row. Digging into our practice takes time and, more importantly, passion.  If either is missing, we might fall back into old habits supported by our curriculum and text books.

The Common Core is giving us a chance to change.  Many districts are rethinking their curriculum. While the Common Core won't make it easy--they spend more time detailing WHAT we should write--there are references to writing qualities ("effective technique, relevant descriptive detail, and well structured event sequences") that, if deconstructed, could lead to powerful writing curricula.  This work could go one of two ways.  We could collectively roll up our sleeves and figure out this writing thing.  Read, write, talk to each other.  Make our writing curriculum a pathway for effective instruction.  Or there's always the Ass-Ass Method of teaching.  It's faster.  It's easier.  And grades are due.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tracy Brosch

Although I’ve been teaching for several years, I started a new adventure three years ago.  My district reorganized our ELA classes, and I was given the opportunity to plan a new curriculum for our students in grades 6-8.  I decided to use literature circles as the students’ most prominent reading experience.   My district purchased many, many books, and we all jumped in our little adventure boat.

Year one was an adventure indeed.  It was pretty exciting.  We had tons of new books and the students reacted in a positive manner.  We would create their small literature circle groups and they’d spend a large majority of class reading.  I had planned for a summative assessment where students would present their book in some creative manner.  Possibilities included:  reader’s theater, mural painting, a dinner party, etc.  For formative assessment, I just planned to meet with groups.  Chat.  That sort of thing.

That was my first pitfall.  Readers took off with this sort of freedom.  They were ready to read every new book in my library and give fantastically creative presentations.  I planned well for them.   My favorite comment of the year came when I walked by a student reading Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Meyers and he said, “I can’t believe they let us read this!” not knowing that the “they” was me.  I know I did something good for that kid.  The non-readers still skirted me though.  I found out quickly that chatting was my weakness.  My assessments were faulty.  I knew they weren't reading by the conversations we had and the presentations they gave, but I had no idea how to hold them accountable.  Until!...Linda Rief came into my life. 

I was blessed with the opportunity to see Linda Rief at Write to Learn that year, and that magnificent lady changed my life.  Find out more about Linda Rief here

During year two, great reading continued.  I added the reader’s notebook to help with my formative assessment and created a packet to accompany their presentations during summative assessments.   I had a tool to truly assess their reading!  Reading increased.  I don’t have the statistics to prove it, but I know it.  Apparently, middle school students are fueled by accountability.   Having these notebooks has given me an opportunity to really connect with readers. 

This year should be perfect, right?  I hope you’re laughing out loud as I am.  Weaknesses always seem to pop up, and we just do our best to fix them.  I still find that I am not very strong when it comes to conferencing with groups or modeling to students how to discuss in their own groups.  I’m searching for ways to improve if you have any suggestions.  Because collaboration has a strong presence in the CCSS, I’ve been thinking about ways to solve this.  Recently, I had the opportunity to see Lucy Calkins.  She showed a video where students were using their reader’s notebooks to lead their group discussions, and it hit me.  Duh!  Why am I the only one to read their reader’s notebook?  So simple, yet brilliant!  I’ve already had the opportunity to give this a try with my students and the difference in the quality of discussion was apparent.  It was much richer with the presence of the notebook.

Lucy Calkins has helped me understand what the CCSS is really asking of us.  Find out more about her here.

I am continuously thinking about reading, writing, accountability, and CCSS.  Something on twitter the other day sparked an idea about using portfolios during literature circles.  What if the students create a portfolio during the reading?   I’m picturing a place to track literature standards 1-4 & 9 (or all  for informational text) where students can actually cite textual evidence, pick out themes, think about what propels the story forward, etc. mixed with mini projects along the way instead of one final presentation.  They could present their portfolio which would include the type of thinking CCSS demands but maybe also visual pieces to present like mind maps, mini murals, or even creative writing pieces connected to the book experience like character journal entries, editorials, or a song parody.  Research shows that group writing is one of the top ten activities to improve writing.

 I guess we have a new adventure.  I’m going to try this new method for my fourth quarter this year.  This gives me another week or so to figure out what I’m going to do exactly.   I’d love to hear ideas.

More than anything, GWP has taught me to think about what I’m doing and then think about how to do it even better.  Having a network of thinkers is what helps me do this thing we call teaching even better.  Thank you!