What I Read: ‘You Are What You Speak’ by Robert Lane Greene

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One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don’t find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don’t let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different global perspectives of the book.
From a historical understanding of the resurrection of Hebrew to the formation of modern Turkish (an subsequent distance from pre-1930 Turkish texts), I’m walking away from this book with much richer and deeper understanding of language and it’s formation around the world.
Perhaps most helpful for me was Greene’s clear love of language. If there were any impediment created by his lack of training as a linguist, his love of language makes up for it handily.
Reading about language from the perspective of one who is so clearly curious and in love with language shapes the book as a tool for infectious love of language.
If you’re curious about language, read this. If you’re passionate about language, read this. If you are hungry for a appropriately-dense text acting as a primer to understanding linguistics, read this. It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s definitely a book for those who love and are fascinated by language.

cross-posted at http://goodreads.com/mrchase

Things I Know 354 of 365: I’m still a reader

Every “You should read X” sentence over the last few months was met with some off-the-cuff, “Sure, when I get to decide what I’m reading again.”

Graduate school has just as much reading as undergrad and then some. Think of it as all the reading you were pretending to do for your bachelor’s, plus 50%. Add to that the fact I was picking up ancilary reading left and right, and I’m surprised my eyes didn’t start bleeding by the end of the semester as some sort of academic stigmata.

Secretly, each time I added a book to the When I Get to Read What I Choose pile, I also remembered a secret worry – What if I didn’t want to read anymore?

For the first few weeks of break, it seemed true. I caught up on and re-watched favorite trash television before I considered picking up a book. I was worried this would be the default for my trip home. I imagine all addicts feel that way during detox.

Then, a few days ago, I picked up Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. My sister Rachel brought it home for me from school on a friend’s recommendation when the friend learned of my appreciation for Doctor Who.

After I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

Yesterday, I started and finished Jeanne Darst’s Fiction Ruined My Family. I’d picked it up on a Barnes & Noble splurge fueled by the gift cards due as patronage for any family of an English major.

Today is a writing day.

Otherwise, I’d be delving deeply into Catching Fire (the second volume of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series) with World War Z fast on its heels.

It turns out, yes, I am still a reader. I am still one who finds comfort in the words of others after they’ve been knitted together from a single narrative strand to wrap myself in, and take comfort in worlds just out of focus from my own.

Things I Know 346 of 365: Gaiman had me at pg. 7

I’m on page 111 now, but it was much earlier, when I read the passage below, that I knew it was literary love.

There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hang out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.

– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Things I Know 317 of 365: Tomorrow, I read for me

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.

– Angela Carter

Just because I’m not in classes at the moment doesn’t mean I’m not reading. It does mean I’m not reading anything that anyone has assigned to me.

It also means I’m sneaking some fiction into my brain. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Some of my favorite students gushed over the book, but I never took the time to read it while I was in the classroom. Somehow, picking it up without the title of “Teacher” attached to my actions makes the reading seem more pure. I’m not reading it to teach in the next few months. No unit or lesson plans will rely on what I get from the experience. I’m reading it to be entertained.

One of the more frequent state standards (and now a Common Core standard) is identifying author’s purpose. (There’s a whole philosophical argument I could make against this, but that’s another post.)

As I anticipate delving into Card’s imagined dystopia tomorrow, I’ve started to think about the importance of asking students to identify reader’s purpose.

If a student is reading a non-fiction text in class, the answer to the question should be, “Because I’m curious,” or “Because it’s interesting.” Some off shoot thereof makes the most sense.

Reader’s purpose in school is most often, “I’m reading this because my teacher said,” or “It was assigned.”

That shifts the experience considerably. I’m looking forward to losing myself in the imagination of tomorrow’s reading, to meeting new characters and trying to figure out how pieces of the narrative puzzle fit together.

Most importantly, I’ll be shifting my purpose from word to word, chapter to chapter. The journey through the book will inform what I want out of it and what I expect.

Were I reading for someone else because the book had been assigned me, the journey would be emptier. I’d be reading to run someone else’s literary errands, hoping to keep the change when all was said and done.

A balanced reading diet is important. Compelling others to read what they are told is forcing them to eat their vegetables. It’s a great way to get people to hate their vegetables.

Things I Know 308 of 365: I’ve got your must-read list right here

The smarter the journalists are, the better off society is. [For] to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves-and the better the teacher, the better the student body.

– Warren Buffett

I’ve mentioned longform.org, a site my friend Max and his friend Aaron started April 2010. From an education standpoint, though they didn’t start the site for education, longform is perfect for schools wondering how they can find and incorporate extended, high-interest quality non-fiction reading into their curricula.

But this post isn’t about the classroom.

Longform has curated it’s Top 10 (or 20) best pieces of long-form journalism of 2011. With the list’s publication, my reading list for the next few weeks has been set. I also subscribe to the site’s spin-off, sendmeastory.com, which does what the name implies each weekend. Two weeks ago, I got this story from Esquire about Michael May a man who had been blind his entire life and his struggle over whether to undergo surgery that could give him sight.

I cried.

That’s not an infrequent occurrence as I read stories from longform. The site does the work of collecting the most interesting and impactful stories being told and putting them in one place. What’s more, they’ve fully integrated Readability, Instapaper, Read It Later and Kindle queueing so I’m not tied to the computer screen when I want to read.

While I still think longform is the unintentional answer to the wants of many a curriculum designer, I know it’s the intentional answer to the wants of anyone in search of a well-crafted piece of journalism.

Things I Know 294 of 365: Students are rich in Funds of Knowledge

…children in the households are not passive bystanders, as they seem in the classrooms…

– Luis Moll et al.

One of my favorite texts this semester is a reading from Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez entitled “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms.” It’s better than it sounds. Let me distill:

“Our claim is that by capitalizing on household and other community resources, we can organize classroom instruction that far exceeds in quality the rote-like instructions these children [from working-class Mexican communities in Tucson, AZ] commonly encounter in schools.”

“We use the term ‘funds of knowledge’ to refer to these historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.”

“[Home] networks are flexible adaptive, and active, and may involve multiple persons from outside the homes; in our terms, they are ‘thick’ and ‘multi-stranded,’ meaning that one may have multiple relationships with the same person or with various persons.”

“When funds of knowledge are not readily available within households, relationships with individuals outside the households are activated to meet either household or individual needs. In classrooms, however, teachers rarely draw on the resources of the ‘funds of knowledge’ of the child’s world outside the context of the classroom.”

“[Fund of knowledge] is more precise for our purposes because of its emphasis on strategic knowledge and related activities essential in households’ functioning, development, and well-being. It is specific funds of knowledge pertaining to the social, economic, and productive activities of people in a local region, not ‘culture’ in its broader, anthropological sense, that we seek to incorporate strategically into classrooms.”

I’ve been in many a conversation that came close to these ideas, but Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez put it in simply relatable terms and their full work is worth your time. Here’s the citation:

Moll, Luis et al. (Spring 1992). “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms,” in Theory Into Practice, XXXI(2), 132-141.

Things I Know: 173 of 365: What books I would make me read

Laura asked last night at dinner, “What’s is a book that has impacted you?” She was looking for a book that shaped who we are. She was looking for a book that we needed to read for us to have continued on the course to who we are.

I loved the question.

I loved it even more when Christian re-imagined it.

“If you met you, what book would you make sure you read?”

The discussion deck was stacked as three of those around the table were English teachers.

The list, as much of it as I was able to copy down, is below. It’s given me much to add to the Kindle for the summer. And I will be adding as many of these books as I can.

I’m not adding them because the plots sounded interesting (though they did). I’m certainly not at a loss for additions to my reading list. I’m adding these books to the to-read list because they were the answer to a question of what thoughts and ideas people I find interesting and thoughtful consider to be formative and critical to their foundations of self.

I like understanding (or at least working toward understanding) how people come to their ideas and beliefs.

Packing to move, I’ve been sorting through the books on my shelves, the books others bought for me because they thought they were the right fit. Many of them have been a good fit. Many of them have brought me good stories. Still, I am mindful as I read these books that I want to like them because I want those who know me to be right.

The question of what you would make sure you read works better for me. Another person’s assumption of what I’ll like is not nearly as interesting to me as learning what they’ve liked. I read those books with a different eye. I read those books to get to know the person and to get to know the book.

So, here’s the list. Maybe some of these titles will make their way onto your summer reading list. If you’ve got the time, share the book that you would make sure you read.

(I’ve been expanding the list as I collect titles from those I run into at ISTE. I should probably stop before the list becomes too unwieldy. Then again, I’m still curious.)

The Gangster We’re All Looking For by Thi Diem Thuy Le (from John Spencer)

The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler (from Chris Alfano)

Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (from Chris Alfano

Final Rounds: A Father, A Son, The Golf Journey of a Lifetime by James Dodson (from Dean Shareski)

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (from Bud Hunt)

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (read all four books) (from Bud Hunt)

A New Culture of Learning – by Douglas Thomas (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century – by G. Pascal Zachary (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (from Christian Long)

Griffith and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock (from Christian Long)

Trinity by Leon Uris (from Laura Deisley)

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Laura Deisley)

The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson (from me)

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (from me)

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (from me)

I’ll say it again. What book would you make sure you read?

Things I Know 128 of 365: Pooh is my favorite

– A.A. Milne

In second grade, toward this time of the school year, my mom came to class for the day. We were completing our “My Book About Me,” a project I remember my mom organizing.

We were each given a Duo-Tang folder with copied pages for us to fill in blanks about our interests and favorites.

We worked to write down the superlatives of our 7-year-old lives with pencils and crayons. I vividly remember a few of the pages.

One had a box in the middle of it above the words, “This is a picture of me.” I had just started drawing necks, so I’m fairly certain I looked to be part giraffe.

I also remember writing The Dick Van Dike Show as my favorite television show. It was tough call. My other favorite show was All In the Family. Not yet old enough to understand the nuance of All In The Family, I went with Dick Van Dike because his show made me laugh the most.

The last piece I remember from my book about me was what I listed as my favorite book, The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I did and still do love that book.

I also remember my classmates mocking me for my choice.

They alerted me to its standing as a baby book and I’m sure called it stupid.

We were 7, after all. I’m not sure what was cool at the time, but it certainly had nothing to do with A.A. Milne.

It wasn’t until a few years ago while home at my mom’s that I picked up our old copy of The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and started reading.

I was immersed.

“Mom,” I would call from the couch, “This is smart and funny!”

“I know,” she would call back.

“Mom,” I called a few moments later, “This isn’t just a book for kids. Adults should read this book too.”

“I know.”

And, of course she did. She knew then as she had known when I told her about the kids in my second-grade class that Pooh was a beautifully intricate narrative full of semantic and linguistic acrobatics that could not help but invite its readers’ imaginations out to play.

When I talk about wanting my students to fall in love with reading, its the world I found in Milne’s creations that I’m hoping they will find in whatever texts capture their imaginations.

I want them to be intoxicated with story. When Pooh stops short in the story and starts conversing with the narrator, I cannot help by giggle. He’s breaking the rules and inviting his readers along.

I get that in a way I never get when reading Joyce or Faulkner. Both of them broke rules, but seemed to spite the reader, not to entice him.

Should Duo-Tang folders show up in my classroom tomorrow, Dick Van Dike might have to step to the side, but Winnie the Pooh would still hold a place of honor.

Things I Know 122 of 365: I avoided the educational flea market

You can tell a lot about a person by what they sell at their garage sale. What kind of books they read, what kind of music they listen to …

– Wynetta Wilson

People are selling their old junk across the street from my coffee shop. Twice a year, whatever secret society organizes flea markets brings 100+ stalls to set up shop around Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary. I’ve walked the stalls a few times in years past, careful each time to leave my money at home.

I don’t need more junk.

In fact, I need less junk. My impending move to Cambridge is helping to hammer this point home.

As is usually the way with my brain, home-thinking has seeped into school-thinking.

At the beginning of the year, I told my G11 students we’d be conducting an experiment with our class reading for the year. Rather than whole-class text studies, students would have the choice of reading whatever they wanted.

As an experiment, I explained, this approach would be subject to refinement.

That’s how teachers collect junk. We try new things. They don’t work. We try all new new things. Rinse. Repeat.

The reading of books of choice was a bit rocky.

My initial plan was to have students meet in small groups with other students who were reading texts of the same genres.

They would do this once a week and report out on what they heard.

I hadn’t planned for just how many genres and shades of genres exist.

Coordinating genre groups each week as students of various reading speeds moved from one text to another proved a logistical nightmare.

I was making work for little return.

I could have given up, but instead decided to revise.

Students would meet in small groups once a week, but group composition would vary from teacher-organized to student-organized to random.

It worked much better.

As an unintended consequence, the depth of discussions was improved as well. Students were working to make connections across texts and challenging the assertions of those connections.

Experiment = Success.

Not so much.

By the end of the second quarter, I needed more information and evidence of student learning. The summaries of small group conversations were helpful in highlighting the ideas that came up in organic conversation, but I had no record of other key concepts that simply didn’t get discussed.

It certainly would have been easy at that point to junk the experiment and try something new. That would have disrupted class and meant adopting wholly new structures and procedures. Instead I sat down with my G11 counterpart and our two literacy interns from UPenn.

I explained the problem and we collaborated to find a solution.

Using Google Docs, we would create a template spreadsheet that each student would access and create a copy of. Each column of the spreadsheet would be headed by a pertinent piece of literacy knowledge: theme, symbolism, point of view, setting, etc.

Once per week, the class would fill in a new row of their spreadsheets based on the reading they’d done since the previous week. Five categories were identified as needing to be filled in each week. For the remaining columns, students could choose three each week without doubling up on a category until they’d contributed to each one. By the end of the cycle, I’d have evidence of students’ learning across each assessment anchor identified by the PA state assessment.

These self reflections would be completed in addition to the small group summaries.

I needed a third component as well.

Asking students to reflect on their reading through writing alone wouldn’t give me a clear enough picture of what they were learning and experiencing as they read. Similarly, passive reflection wouldn’t push them to think more deeply the next time they picked up their books.

Back to Google Docs, we created another template spreadsheet.

This one included the standard identification number, the text of the standard and a series of discussion questions about each standard respectively.

My intern, my student assistant teacher and I split the class into three groups and planned to sit down one-on-one with the students in our groups to discuss whatever they were reading. We’d focus on a few discussion questions during each meeting and record their answers and our notes in successive columns headed by the date of our discussions.

These one-on-one conversations helped to model what it looks like when we talk about reading, and also gave us the chance to push students’ thinking on the topics being discussed. If a student offered only a description of the physical space within a plot when discussing setting, we could probe more deeply to generate a better understanding of how readers can think about plot.

The small group summaries, individual reflection logs and one-on-one discussions helped to identify the junk already present in the experiment – the empty space. Rather than calling the approach to reading instruction a failure because of all the things I hadn’t thought to think about, I stopped, sought help from my peers and adjusted course.

As we head to the end of the year, more needs to be adjusted. Implementing such systematic structures in the classroom requires a greater element of planning on my part. In the next version of this approach, I would set a schedule for one-on-one conversations. In the busyness of teaching, they were often the first piece to be pushed off until later.

I’d also do a better job of using the student reading reflection logs to guide instruction. After the first few weeks, it became clear where students were lacking the language to speak richly about some literary concepts. In the next version, I would plan holes in the teaching calendar for drop-in lessons designed to provide remediation as it became necessary.

The approach, unlike much of what is in my basement, wasn’t junk.

Like the stuff in my basement, the difficulty and work inherent in refining this choice-based approach to reading could have meant its discarding at several steps along the way in favor of something newer or shinier.

I’m glad I stayed with it rather than becoming the educational equivalent of the throngs of people picking over junk at the flea market hoping to find that one thing that will make their lives complete.

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.