Things I Know 352 of 365: I support the National Writing Project, and you should too

Every day, in every state, we make a difference in the lives of students of all ages — breaking new ground and preparing students for success in school, college, the workplace, and in life.

– National Writing Project

As I’ve written before, the national education budget was extremely shortsighted and ended direct federal funding for the National Writing Project and programs like it. This was despite the fact the NWP continually met or exceeded federal benchmarks for program success in improving writing and writing instruction in classrooms around the country.

Proving ever-nimble and adaptive, the NWP is not going gently into that good night. In fact, it has no plans of leaving. As of this Fall, the NWP has begun a capital campaign to shore up support for the NWP and its regional sites around the country.

Contributions to local sites will be used to help fund the sites while contributions to the NWP “will be used for areas of greatest need, infrastructure, research and cross-site programs, and new sites,” according to the NWP.

I made room in my budget to make a small donation a few moments ago. You should too.

Once grad school’s behind me and I’m back among the land of the employed I plan on contributing to the NWP the way some people contribute to their alma maters. That’s how much I believe in the work they do.

Please, do the same.

When completing my donation, I was given the choice of donating in honor of someone. I chose Dr. Justice, one of my mentor professors in undergrad. The effects of her tutelage on living and breathing the written word have had innumerable echoes in my life as a writer and teacher.

When you donate, I encourage you to think about the writer or writing teacher in your life who inspired your voice and donate in their honor or memory.

While I’m saddened that the NWP has been forced to dedicated resources to fundraising that could otherwise be turned to improving teaching and learning, I’m happy to know it is an organization of impassioned professionals dedicated to continuing their mission, no matter the obstacles.

Please, help.

Things I Know 251 of 365: Writing differently lets the words say more

Our research suggests that the lack of education related to literacy is problematic, and the situation is exacerbated in the field of education.

– Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan

My last post was a bit of an experiment.

I had an idea of what I wanted to say. When I’d written out the text, though, it didn’t say enough.

I tried adding more words, but that turned out making the text say less.

I tried changing the words, but it turned out they were working pretty hard to say what I wanted them to say.

It occurred to me that pictures might help. From time to time, images have helped communicate what I’m trying to say in a post.

I looked around Creative Commons, but couldn’t quite find what I needed.

This led me to the drawing option in Google Apps. I was able to create rudimentary versions of the images my words couldn’t stretch themselves to cover.

When I tried to embed the images, they didn’t quite fit. The post still seemed flat. I wanted it to say more.

I needed to write in video. I needed image, sound and words to work together to say more than what I was able to say in text alone.

This has me thinking about the kind of message creation called for in classrooms. The as I’ve been thinking about recently, the essay is the coin of the realm. Should it be?

In attempting to make images, texts and audio work together, I needed to pull together understandings of message and meaning well beyond putting sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into some sort of cogent narrative.

What’s more, I still needed that narrative to make it all work. I still wrote the post. Even more importantly, what I put together wasn’t very good. It did what I asked it to do, but it could be so much better. The room for revision in fifty different directions makes me want to jump back in and try. When I was in my online program last year, I couldn’t figure out why this kind of composition wasn’t a part of the courses. We were people learning together who would never be in the same physical space. The easiest thing to do would be to construct an environment that allowed us to be people with each other and build learning artifacts that actually spoke to who we were.

This is the type of writing we should be teaching. Not forsaking traditional texts, but folding them, extending them, and reconnoitering them into what they can be.

Students’ writings want to say more. We should let them.

Things I Know 124 of 365: Literacy brings democracy

I read this piece aloud to one of my G11 classes this afternoon.

We all sat in a sort of oval on the floor and I read it from start to finish. The students had only one direction: Mark anything you have a question about.

In case you didn’t click the link, some things you should know: the article was about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Russian literature, Russia’s role in the Russo-Turkish War and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s disagreement over whether or not Russia should have stepped in. Oh, also, it is about Libya and the possible negative economic consequences of American participation in the military humanitarian aid mission in Libya.

A little light reading.

My interest in examining the article wasn’t that my students have a deep understanding of the Russo-Turkish War, nor was I particularly worried they did or did not see its relevance to contemporary history.

I wanted my students to see the text because it was dense and difficult. In two sentences, we saw three words that had appeared on our vocabulary quizzes during the year.

In a moment of frustration, one student commented she thought the article was “the stupidest thing ever.”

I replied she should research Crystal Clear Pepsi before she made that statement, and asked her why she thought what she thought.

“He just writes it so it’s too hard and boring to understand.”

James Warner does some interesting and slippery things in his writing of the piece. These are techniques of linguistic subterfuge that disguise some of his deeper points and play off of the psychology of his readers.

In a text inspired by and commenting on US intervention in Libya, Warner mentions the country only once and never brings up President Obama. Warner does reference the Iraq War twice and directly refers to President Bush once.

“What kind of connections is he drawing by bringing up Libya, Iraq and President Bush, but leaving out President Obama?” I asked.

A few students’ faces flashed with the “hmmmmmm” moment.

I asked how many students had seen any James Bond movies. Several hands went up. “Where are Bond villains often from?” I asked.

“Russia!” they answered.

“So what’s the implication of saying the United States is acting like Russia?”

More “hmmmmmm” moments.

They might not know about the Cold War, but 007 has taught them Russia’s not to be trusted.

For those of my students who struggle the most with reading, my job is to help them read the lines on the page and to find more pages with more lines they might be interested in reading when they believe the world doesn’t have any of those.

For all of my students, my job is to help them detect semantic snake oil salesmen and read between the lines on the page. They are growing up in a world of The Magic Bullet, FOX News, challenges to collective bargaining, and Michael Moore. They need to read smarter.

One student commented the article sounded intelligent because of all the expensive vocabulary.


I want to help each of them build the linguistic haggling skills to determine if the price of understanding is equal to the value of what is being said.

Each time they step up to a piece of writing unprepared to read it, they’re left out of the democratic process a little more.

Things I Know 103 of 365: Students should teach one another

The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.

– Thomas Stallkamp

Matt and I looked at each other halfway through the class period and asked each other why we hadn’t tried this until the end of the third quarter.

In the last class of the last day before Spring Break, our students were working together, collaborating and mentoring one another all the way to the end of the period.

My original plan had been for my G11 students to visit Matt’s G9 class and share the vignettes they’d crafted and then discuss their writing process. I saw it as a chance for the upperclassmen to mentor the freshmen in reading and writing.

Surely, the younger students would be enamored of stories from their elder peers’ lives as readers. Well, probably not, now that I type that. The point is, we’ll never know.

As in the best learning experiences, very little went as planned.

Matt’s class had been disrupted earlier in the week by a field trip that had only taken a portion of the kids our of the room. Some students were working on making up the day, others were revising their own memoir projects and still more were working on a smothering of other smaller assignments.

As shocking as it was, I came to terms with the fact that these kids weren’t clamoring to hear vignettes detailing my students’ lives as readers.

Instead, we did something much less contrived. We had the older students pair up and work with the younger students.

They sat around Matt’s room. They occupied tables in the hall. They migrated to my room for more space.

The conversations were real and earnest.

“Mr. Chase,” one student said, “I don’t know who needs help.”

“Walk around and introduce yourself. Then, ask how you can help,” I told him.

He did.

I looked to one side of Matt’s room and saw one of my students who is most frequently off-task completely focused on helping one of Matt’s students improve his writing.

I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been struggling daily to find ways to motivate this student to engage in class. Turns out she wasn’t waiting for my help, she was waiting to help.

After I’d heard a student advise, “You’ve got the outline of a paper here; now you need to fill it with what you want to say,” another one of my students approached me asking what he should do now that he’d helped two students with their papers.

“Go back to the one you helped first,” I said, “And see if she’s made any progress. It’s something I do as a teacher all the time to help students focus.”

He looked at me as though I’d just given him secret teacher knowledge.

In reality, the whole process was a reminder of my general lack of teacher knowledge.

While I’m keen to point out teaching’s general lack of willingness to utilize the wisdom of the elders of the profession, I should also be looking to the wisdom of our older students.

My students have walked this way before. They’ve known what it is to stare confoundedly at a laptop screen trying to piece an argument together. They’ve also felt alone in the effort to be better writers.

Every one of my students, no matter their level of proficiency, was an expert today to someone who benefited from that expertise.

I can and should attempt this type of cross-pollination more frequently. Failing to do so ignores the resources of the school and reinforces the artificial boundaries adolescence creates in the presence of a difference of two years.

Sidenote: Published with Diana Laufenberg in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy

I suppose the title of the post says it all. Diana Laufenberg and I wrote column published in the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy about the inherent squishiness of digital literacy. Here’s the abstract:

The thing about digital literacy is its inherent squishiness. Educators argue whether the tool or the purpose matters most. They debate whether something being “electronic” constitutes “digital.” Does it need a screen? A keyboard? More than that, teachers must decide what it means to read and write digitally and how to assess those skills. Just as teachers were working to conclusively define literacy, digital literacy arrived on the scene and the discussion started again. In fact, the most solid of ground to be found in the debate surrounding digital literacy is the agreement that, whatever it is, it is important to the success of our students. Even then, not everyone is in agreement.

Abstract from Chase, Z., & Laufenberg, D. (2011, April). Embracing the Squishiness of Digital Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(7), 535–537. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.54.7.7

Classy: Modeling Marking Texts

As the Grade 11 students are reading books of choice for the most part this year, I’ve been working to incorporate types of texts outside of novels into our reading. This has taken the form of long form journalism pieces, op-eds, short stories or anything else. Part of what we’re working toward is endurance in reading. Part of what we’re working toward is reading as a social experience.

I’ve known about the Think Aloud as a reading strategy for a few years. I’ve tried to stay away from it for the sheer boredom of it. It doesn’t ask much of my strongest readers and can feel as though I’m patronizing those students reading at lower levels.

I decided to take my voice out of it. Here’s how it worked:

  1. I posted the link to this article on moodle along with four questions:
    1. What is the purpose of this article?
    2. What is the evidence the author uses to support his claims?
    3. What do you think the future of paper as a medium for transmitting writing is?
    4. How does this article shape your understanding of the world?
  2. Students had time in class to begin reading and thinking. What they didn’t finish became homework.
  3. When they entered class the next day, I handed them printed copies of the piece with the notes that came to mind as I was reading.
  4. The students had approximately 7 minutes to mark up the text with any thinking they had and wanted to add to my notes.
  5. We gathered in a circle where I set ground rules such as, “If we get off topic, ask a question,” “Tie it to the text,” and “Challenge thoughts you don’t understand or agree with.”
  6. Conversation began with each speaker calling on the next.

What happened was a great reminder of the kind of conversation our students are capable of. It’s what they were hoping for when we went to the Town Hall Meeting. At one point, it occurred to me we could benefit from adding our school librarian’s voice to the mix. I called and invited him.

Matt, a grad student completing some observations in our class, commented afterward on how the students had kept the conversation moving even when I was on the phone. I’m hoping it’s because they owned the conversation and I didn’t. In fact, the rules within discussion are that I too must raise my hand and wait to be called on when I want to contribute.

That was classy. What do you think?

Blame “Rock of Love” on English teachers

The Gist:

  • We’re dedicated to teaching the whole book, but not the whole video.
  • This does a disservice to our kids.
  • They don’t know how to read NBC.

The Whole Story:

I’ve been using Ma Vie en Rose as we examine childhood and narrative in Sexuality and Society in Literature. It’s accompanying our reading of Peter Pan.

In Shakespeare, we’re looking at Elizabeth.

In Grade 11, the kids watched pieces of The Taming of the Shrew and Deliver Us from Eva in their study of the print version of The Taming of the Shrew.

As such, I’ve been looking for resources.

I found this.

It says loads of things, but this is what got me thinking:

There is no rule that says a video must be shown from start to finish. While some films have valuable content throughout and are good to show completely, sometimes individual scenes are all that are needed to achieve the goal.

Take out “video” and “shown” and all the rest and make it apply to books.

My students are reading / assigned to read each of the book-based texts in their entirety. We look at arc, language, character change, etc. The temptation, though is to watch clips of the films as though they are lacking for arc, language and character change.

Over the last few weeks, students have asked if we’re going to finish the films. They’ve never asked the same of books. Now, this might be because they’ve conditioned into believing they will always read a book from cover to cover. I’d argue they don’t care as much.

For Ma Vie en Rose and Elizabeth, I’ve decided to show the full films. Grade 11 is on a new unit and so Shrew won’t fit.

My great-aunt Barbara recently commented that it wasn’t until recently that she realized she didn’t need to finish every book she started. She’s in her 70s and has decided she’s not wasting any more time on books she doesn’t like. She got that belief in finishing every book from somewhere. If they’d had video to use in her classroom when she was little, I don’t imagine she’d have gotten the same message.

This all leads to the bigger point. We’re doing our students a disservice when we don’t teach them how to watch movies. We’re doing them a disservice when we don’t teach them how to watch TV.

Books are the coin of the realm, for now. That is only because of who is governing the realm.

You want to get a room of adults interested in education on your side? Stand in front of them and bemoan the prevalence of television and hulu and youtube and all other video mediums. Complain about how kids aren’t reading books, but Hollywood is making millions.

I guarantee nodding heads – television’s the devil.

No one taught them how to watch television – certainly not in the same way they were taught to read. Television and movies, for the vast majority, don’t exist as rich, valid texts.

I’ve friends who proudly proclaim they have no television in their house. Oftentimes, these proclamations are met with, “I wish I had that kind of self-control.” Why?

We would be a little weirded out if someone declared they had no books in their house.

Yes, video and the printed word are different and ask the brain to do different things. That’s not a statement of worth. There are good books and bad books. There is good video and bad video. The difference is we spend years teaching students how to refine their tastes and understanding of what are good books and almost no time on video.

Perhaps teachers a few generations decided to take the “ignore it and it will go away” tack in response to the advent of video. It hasn’t worked.