snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that should we be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

Let Them Make T-Charts!

January 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Pity the copier.

Stuck in the windowless corner of the teacher’s room, churning out page after page of quizzes, newsletters, and course descriptions. Probed and shoved and slammed, the oft maligned copier needs a break.

What could teachers do to lessen the toll that results in the overheated roller or stapler malfunction?

Stop the madness….there is no reason to copy a graphic organizer!

The graphic organizer is meant to help students prepare for another activity…a discussion, a quiz, or an essay. Graphic organizers can be used at any grade level. Graphic organizers can be used in any subject. But, teachers, please…. most graphic organizers do not need to employ a copier.

t-chart image

Who cannot draw the T-chart?

Take the T-Chart here at left. The T-Chart consists of two lines, a long horizontal line that is bisected by a vertical line. Why does this need to be prepared and run through a copier? Students can draw a T-Chart easily, or fold a paper “hot-dog style” to get the same result. What part of the T-Chart necessitates the use of expensive toner?

Venn

Venn Diagram-Perfect circles can be problematic

Consider next, the popular Venn Diagram used for compare and contrast exercises. Of all the organizers, this is one that may require students to have little practice to get perfect, however, is the symmetry of shape what teachers want students to notice about the Venn Diagram? That there are two perfect circles overlapping with a shared oval in the center? The problem with two perfect circles of equal size and shape is the implication that when an object or topic is compared and contrasted, the information is also equitable. On a prepared Venn Diagram, there is exactly the same amount of space on each side for the purpose of contrast, but there is a smaller, cramped center for comparable attributes. Perhaps a student can practice some freehand circle creation, find out how to use a protractor, or use some object -a water bottle? cup? paper plate?-to trace a circle. What students should not fret about is how to draw two perfect circles, because the Venn Diagram functions as an organizer even with lopsided ellipses.

KWL imageThen, there is the popular K-W-L chart, where students list what they know, what they want to know, and what they learned. This graphic organizer is much like the T-Chart, and even the youngest student can draw vertical two lines on a page. Folding a paper into thirds is also an effective way to achieve a K-W-L organizer without have to wait for the teacher in front of you to finish copying next month’s math worksheets. Having students write the headings for this chart can reinforce the purpose of the organizer as well.

plot mountain

Plot Mountain diagram

Next, the “plot mountain” diagram is a staple in English Language Arts classrooms, but as a universal tool in deconstructing literature, the organizer has its flaws, so much so that the replication could make its use damaging. Some plots have long expositions (Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy comes to mind); some have short expositions (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet‘s opening sonnet). One of arguably several climaxes for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the courtroom scene which is followed by a long falling action (four  chapters)  before Bob Ewell’s climatic attack on Scout. There is no falling action in The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe which ends at the climax. These few examples demonstrate that each story has its own construction, its own mountain; plot is not a one size fits all, as this organizer would seem to claim. For this reason, teachers should allow students to sketch their own version of a story’s plot mountain, featuring all the little crags and mini-climax moments in rising and in falling.  Teachers should save the plot mountain as a flexible concept, one that is not enhanced by standardized reproduction.

foursquare imageFinally, there is the “four-square” organizer, used to provide attributes  on a topic that is printed in the center. The object is to think of details that fit specific categories or boxes in each of the paper’s four quadrants. Think of a big cross in the center of the paper, or a paper folded in half vertically, and then folded again horizontally. This organizer is often used in word study, as in the Frayer model, with a word in the center and each box used for a specific purpose: an illustration, an example, a definition,or an antonyms are all possible categories for this organizer.

Guru_Mindmap

Guru Mind Map on Wikipedia

Using the copier to create these organizers not only is expensive in toner ink and valuable teacher time (spent trying to get that last crinkled bit of paper out of the feed drawer!), but these organizers limit critical thinking for some students.

Students should be given the opportunity to organize their ideas the way that best helps them understand a concept. They should be cognitively and kinesthetically active in creating and completing an organizer of their own design

Mind maps, for example, are original creations that are centered on a concept that is drawn or written on the center of a blank landscape or page. From this central concept or word, an individual can branch out on the page by adding using words or pictures that show other connections. No two mind maps are the same, and their use in improving student understanding is well documented. My favorite mind-mapping website is Daniel Weinstein’s The Creativity Core with variations on mind-mapping activities for his students.

So, teachers, step away from the overheated copying machine, and get out blank paper and markers. Let the students fold their paper to make graphic organizers,  trace shapes, or choose other patterns to list information.  Bring out the rolls of butcher block paper and let students try and map out their ideas. Let them pencil their thoughts in wobbly circles and uneven lines, because the use of the graphic organizer is not about the shape for the information, but the information that is organized in the shape.

And leave that copier for the more important duties….those field trip permission slips!

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

I have seen how the monthly Scholastic Publishing Company book flyer can set student readers’ hearts aflutter. scholastic-flyersScholastic’s marketing through classroom book clubs gives them direct access to all levels of student readers, and when a school hosts a Scholastic book fair, students can browse books or products with book title tie-ins. Moreover, Scholastic offers resources to teachers including lesson plans, discussion guides, and leveled reading programs.

So when Scholastic releases a report titled Kids and Family Reading Report, they speak with authority.

The Fall 2014 report was based on a survey given in conjunction with the UK international marketing firm YouGov. The objective was to “explore family attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun.”

The key findings of this research, were based on a nationally representative sample of 2,558 parents and children including 1,026 parents of children ages 6–17.

In this survey, there were questions about parental reading habits, ages for reading aloud, and the use of e-readers.

Given my interest in providing time in school for reading, I was particularly interested in what the survey had to say about dedicated time and developing readers.

There were three key finding about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

Scheduling time for independent reading is important, but making sure that time is sacrosanct conveys to students the critical importance of reading.  Making sure independent reading time is respected also demonstrates that schools value the ninety-one percent of children ages 6–17 in the survey who stated that “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

The 52% is a combined percentage of boys and girls, with 61% of girls agreeing in contrast to the lower percentage of 41% of boys agreeing (see data below). However, it is distressing to see a drop of 9% in reading for fun since 2010.

Screenshot 2015-01-11 20.39.11

 

#3 School plays a bigger role in reading books for fun among children in lower-income homes. 61% percent of children ages 6–17 from the lowest-income homes say they read for fun mostly in school or equally at school and at home, while 32% of kids ages 6–17 from the highest-income homes say the same.

There was no one reason for the difference why twice as many low-income students read for fun during dedicated time in school, however, time and access to books are the most obvious possibilities.  How students have access to independent books was factored into this survey with libraries as being the most important resource. Although Scholastic was not directly named, school book fairs, book clubs, and bookstores were judged to be among the leading sources for children ages 6–17 to find books to read for fun.

Finally, the survey suggests the most important allies schools have in promoting reading are parents who want their children to choose books:

  • Three-quarters of parents with children ages 6–17 (75%) agree “I wish my child would read more books for fun.”

So while this Scholastic survey could be considered self-serving, (after all, they are interested in selling more books) the data does support the importance of time for independent choice reading in schools. The survey highlights the power of enlisting parents in putting independent reading programs in place in school. Ultimately, the results of Scholastic’s survey supports those classroom teachers who recognize the value of independent choice and inviolable time to read.

So, pass out those book flyers, browse the book sale, get those students to the library, and put up the sign:

“We Have Time to Read for Fun!”

This four-year-old blog has had a slight makeover in appearance. I removed the header photo
montage of used books on the classroom shelves and in the back of my car:Light background_edited-3

 

Used books istuffed n the back of my car

Used books stuffed into the back of my car

This purpose of this blog, however, will not change. There still will be posts dedicated to how I am putting books in the hands of students. There will be posts about instructional strategies that work in classrooms. There will be posts about issues in education.

In other words, this blog will continue offering the same old messages in a new wrapping.

Of course, educators regularly refurbish old ideas with new wrappings.  Take for example, the literature circle. The literature circle has been in education since 1982 when, according to Wikipedia, fifth grade students in Karen Smith’s class, organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss individual novels.

 Smith was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, they had no outside help or instruction from their teacher (Daniels, 1994). From here literature circles evolved into reading, study and discussion groups based around different groupings of students reading a variety of different novels.

In contrast to the the classroom where a whole class novel is taught by the teacher,literature circles have provided students the chance to participate in self-directed discussions in by taking on different roles and responsibilities.

I am a big fan of literature circles as a way to encourage critical thinking, student choice, and independence in students. I have been promoting the incorporation of literature circles at multiple grade levels. Most recently, several of the 7th and 8th grade classes in my district have been using the literature circles in their new block schedule with some success. The teachers in these classes began by using the traditional roles for students: discussion director, connector, illustrator, vocabulary enricher, text locator, and researcher. The transition was smooth since students were already familiar with these roles from literature circles in elementary school.

Last month, I began offering teachers suggestions on how to offer some “new wrappings” for these old roles. Using a list of writing genres, I suggested that the teachers could offer roles for students in the literature circles and also include authentic writing prompts.circle green

In these new wrappings, each student’s role could center on one of the following writing genres:

  • Write a Personal Letter from one character to another;
  • Prepare a Greeting Card to or from a character;
  • Develop a Things to Do List for a character;
  • Write Classified or Personal Ads that connect to a chapter;
  • Prepare a mix tape for a character and explain the choices;
  • Draft a resume for a character;
  • Compose a TV script from a chapter with notes for stage directions;
  • Script a Talk Show Interview or Panel with characters;
  • Record a recipe that is associated with the book;
  • Organize an Infographic using facts from the story;
  • Create and organize Receipts, Applications, Deeds, Budgets from the story
  • Obituary, Eulogy or Tribute for a character 

These roles could rotate the way the traditional roles rotate in a literature circle, or the roles could be added as special collaborative writing activities.

The incorporation of technology to literature circles expands the opportunity to “wrap” the old roles in new digital covers. In a literature circle of four or five students, the major platforms for social media can be used as a way to have students interact with a text. With (or without) technology, students can rotate roles where they could:circle blue

  1. Tweet a summary
  2. Design a Facebook Page for a character or event;
  3. Suggest “pins” for a character as on Pinterest;
  4. Write e-mail correspondences between characters;
  5. Plan Instagram messages.

I also encouraged  teachers to number the seats in the literature circles, and then assign roles based on the number of the seat a student selected. Another strategy would be to offer a “surprise” role that rotates to a different numbered chair every meeting.

Like so much in education, old strategies can be made new.
Old literature circle roles can be made new with genre writing and/or with social media.

2015 New Year means a new wrapping for this old blog, but there will always be used books for classrooms in the back of my car!

I just completed attending the ICT Language Learning Conference for Learning Language where ICT stands for “information communication technologies,” a term that encompasses both methods and technology resources. Here in the United States, the most appropriate synonym would be what we refer to as”IT” or information technology. (So, if you are in the US and see “ICT”, please read “IT”)

Florence side 3

The winding streets of Florence, Italy

This international conference was held in Florence, Italy, a city of amazing architecture, museums crammed with magnificent art, winding streets and incredibly narrow sidewalks. Finding the right path through the city maze was challenging.

While I was at the conference, I had an opportunity to compare my understanding of the education systems in the United States with several educational systems in other 54 countries. I was fortunate to share a presentation created with fellow educator Amy Nocton, a world language teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut. Our session (Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate)  highlighted how we use blogging in our instruction in grades 6-12.

Because of my own interests, I attended sessions that featured integrating technology in instruction. After a dozen sessions, I came to three important takeaways:

1. Students at every grade level are more motivated when content is integrated with ICTs;

2. Measuring the effectiveness of ICTs poses a challenge for all stakeholders;

3. Educators have limitations in integrating ICTs.

The issues in these three takeaways are the same issues that I see in the education systems in the United States. We educators know that the students enjoy using technology as a learning tool, but we are not sure which of these tools are the most effective in meeting the needs of students while delivering instruction. The concern of educators worldwide in accessing or “grading” students when they use ICTs is a major roadblock, a concern aggravated by individual comfort levels for educators using ICT. An individual educator’s aggravation may increase exponentially  against a rapidly changing technology landscape where platforms and devices change but educational systems and their filters and limitations appear to crawl towards the end of the 20th Century.

In short, we educators are never going to learn all this stuff.

I suppose it is comforting to see the same problems that American educators experience are playing out on a global scale. At the least, we are not alone.

On the other hand, it is frustrating to see that there are educators from other countries perseverating on the same problems. Everyone seems to recognize the excitement generated when ICTs are used in class, but there are choruses (and in many different languages at this conference), of “We still do not have access!” or “Are these ICTs really working?” or even “Many teachers do not know how to use the ICTs!”

Florence 4

When on this narrow path….

After several presentations, I also grew concerned that ICTs perceived as limited to assessment measurement.  A few presenters offered their research with highly scripted programs where students could be “interactive” by answering predictably scripted responses. While these scripted programs are a step more engaging than a curriculum prescribed textbook, they are only a small digital step above the pencil and (scantron) form type of response. Such controlled platforms are on the same path as the testing programs (SBAC, PARCC) being developed back in the United States to address the need, or the mandates, in measuring student understanding. Even at this conference, the message about the ability of ICTs to assess and grade may be drowning out the more creative possibilities that ICTs offer.

In contrast, I did hear a reference to student choice where a presenter, Feyza Nur Ekizer of Giza University, offered her students a chance to develop “knowledge envelopes” or portfolios to gather as much information on a topic so they would be prepared to answer with a written response on that topic. She gave her students choice in what they found on a broad topic (ex: love), and reported (not surprisingly) that the students wrote longer and more detailed responses than they ever had before in a response weeks later. Her use of technology was minimal, but the students had control over their paths of inquiry in gathering information for their “knowledge envelopes.”

Florence side 2

…or on this narrow path…

At this time in digital history, there are many platforms available for student to choose how and what to gather for information in authentic inquiry research.The presenters at this conference had done a great deal of work, and they shared their learning on the platforms they had chosen for their own inquiry. We were, as are our students, the passive recipients of information; we were on each presenter’s narrowed path.

Worldwide, our students (K-12) are far more comfortable working across platforms in gathering information (from websites, social media, blogs, and other visual/audio media) than their educators. Why would we want them to step backwards and use only what we require to prove their understanding? We should not limit the use of ICTs to assessment delivery systems when students can use ICT to create their own multi-media texts individually and collaboratively if they are given the opportunity.

...there may be little choice.

…there may be little choice.

In addition, students (worldwide!) should not have to wait for educators to become experts with ICTs when platforms are growing exponentially. Instead of trying to master the expanding field of ICTs, educators must see how the expertise they already have in a content area should be used to guide students through choice.

The role of teacher should shift to guiding students in developing content and understanding. Teachers who are skilled in a discipline’s content can help students determine the accuracy, relevancy, and legitimacy of information in developing student inquiry on topics.

ICTs must not be the exclusive means of measuring understanding, instead ICTs should be included in how students develop their understanding of content.

For students, there are many different paths (or platforms) to choose in learning content and there are certainly more paths to come. ICT should not be used exclusively to restrict students to the narrow paths of measurement alone. Based on my discussions with other attendees, there may be other educators from the conference who recognize how much this ICT path of student choice and inquiry may be narrowing unless we act to change it.

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

Students will encounter challenges in choosing ways to use ICTs as I did walking the narrow pathways on city streets of Florence witnessing amazing and magnificent sites. Through student choice in ICTs coupled with teacher guidance, students will also gain the freedom to explore those amazing and magnificent topics that interest them.

Not sure how November became so loaded with conventions, but Thanksgiving holiday plans have taken a side seat to presentations. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to present at International Conference ICT for Language Learning in Florence, Italy, (11/9-14) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) section (11/23-25) of the National Conference of English Teachers in Washington, D.C.

These opportunities to present nationally and internationally have come as a result of this blog and connections I have made with other educators who use social media to connect and to collaborate. So, it is not surprising that the first session I will be presenting in Florence with world languages teacher Amy Nocton is titled “Blogging to Share, Exchange and Collaborate”. I met Amy through her husband, Jason Courtmanche Director of Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. She is a world language teacher (Spanish and Italian) at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut, and she needed help setting up her classroom blog, Perdidos en sus pensamientos. Her success with this technology in offering students an opportunity to choose topics as part of  is best summed up by the sentiments of one of her students who began posting more than a year ago. Her student Annie Maclachlan noted:

Screenshot 2014-11-12 04.44.15

Presenting on 11/13/14 “Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate”; student quote from the  on the right

“Instead of writing to a rubric, I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted. I wrote about what interested me, because I firmly believed that whoever took the time to go on the blog would love hearing what I had to say. And this was a good feeling. It was a feeling of complete intellectual freedom, a feeling that I believe everyone should experience at least once.”

Like Amy’s student, my students also enjoyed the freedom to explore a topic and publish for a world audience. Sharing how our students can connect with readers from all over the globe at a conference with teachers from all over the globe has an internal reverberation. We have the chance to see how others are guiding students so we can better prepare them to share their ideas and understandings with local and global audiences.

This opportunity has also given me the chance to visit the city of Florence with its amazing architecture and even more wonderful art collections.  To say that my jaw has dropped on more than one occasion is an understatement.

After this cultural saturation, I return home only to head out to the National Conference of English Teachers Conference in D.C. There I will be presenting “It’s Not the Math in the Literacy Standards; It’s the Literacy in the Math Standards” at the Council for English Leadership section of the program. I will be presenting with my former colleague Stephanie Pixley, from Wamogo High School in Litchfield, Connecticut.

I have already written about the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards (English/Language Arts Can Persevere with Math Practice Standard #1and Author’s Craft Revealed Through Mathematical Practice Standard #7 ) on this blog, and this presentation will feature many of the ideas I outlined in these posts.

Screenshot 2014-11-13 01.57.03The NCTE Conference is usually so jammed packed full of sessions that my heads spins. I do not think I will be afforded any museum time there as I want to see many of the sessions. I especially want to see sessions offered by other bloggers who I have met socially and virtually, including one offered by Fran McVeigh, Vicki Vinton, and Mary Lee Hahn“It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.”

Needless to say, I have not thought about turkey, stuffing, or any other side dish, but I am confident after these next two weeks that I will have plenty of photos to share and things to talk about and add to the conversation at the holiday table.

On the 87th Saturday Reunion at Teacher’s College, the author David Booth stood at the podium of NYC’s  Riverside Church admiring the mosaic of teacher faces staring back at him. It was 9:00 in the morning, and we numbered in the thousands.

David Booth“Look at you,” he softly intoned.
We quieted down.
“You look wonderful!” he continued.
We leaned in.
“I have a story to share,” his voice growing more audible as we settled in the echoing cathedral.
We leaned in closer, and his voice became clearer.
“I want to share a story that generated a thousand responses….the story of the Selkie.”

His Keynote Address was titled, “How One Story Can Generate One Thousand Responses” and on this Saturday morning, Booth was recounting to thousands of teachers how he had shared multiple versions of the Selkie with thousands of students in different countries from Kindergarten to grade 12.

Selkies are mythological creatures who live as seals in the sea, but who shed their skin to become human on land.  They are found in in Scottish, Irish folklore, and some Icelandic traditions.

Selkies can also be found in classrooms, according to Booth, who described the teacher who cheerfully greeted him in a “sealskin” of paper, replete with flippers.
“Imagine having her for a teacher,” he marveled, “just imagine,” and he paused allowing us to picture the kind of teacher who would greet an author in a seal suit fashioned after the picture book Selkie woman who shed her skin in order to love a fisherman.

The legend of the Selkie offered multiple versions that Booth could share with different grades over the course of a year:  a woman whose seal skin was held hostage by smitten fishermen, seal children adopted by lonely couples, or women cry seven tears into the sea for their seal men.

“When we read each humble folk tale,” he continued, “all of us, in the same room, reading the same event, we all had different responses.” He paused again, “We were making our own stories.”

Booth shared many of these different responses, beginning with the letters imagined by 1st grade Phoebe from the fisherman husband, James, to the wife, Emily.  “My darling, I love you. Take care of of our seal-son. I love, love, you.” Booth paused before asking, “How does a 7 year old know about such love?”

He told us of the 9th grader who sat, morose and silent, throughout a discussion about the meaning of the Selkie legend before finally contributing, “It’s about forbidden love.”

Booth shared the responses of students who had the chance to answer questions about the Selkie by posting their ideas on three wall charts labeled:

  • Our fierce wonderings…
  • Our answers to our fierce wondering answered and researched…
  • Further wonderings…

And he shared the a haiku penned by a middle schooler in a response to the legend of the Selkie:

“Never marry the
first naked lady you see;
she’ll swim away.”

“We share the need to be heard; the need to be a part need to be in the circle,” he said, and he paused long enough for us to consider how much we share in storytelling in our classrooms.

“Do you have enough courage to give the time to have the children grow and change?” he said, he paused again long enough for us to appreciate his modeling of “wait time” in teaching.

“It takes a lot of slow to grow,” he noted. “Have the faith to wait and not give them the answer.”

The paused for the last time before concluding, “Weave your blanket of words to cover your children. Hurray for story! Return to your children with word blankets.”

We stopped leaning.
We stopped being quiet.
Our thousands of hands clapped for the thousand responses  for David Booth and the Selkie legend.

“So….what problems do your students have in writing?” I ask middle school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

“So….what problems do your students have writing?” I ask high school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

One might conclude that students in grades 7-12 have a thesis statement problem…or maybe not.

Maybe the problem of writing a thesis statement is that so many teachers in middle and high school expect that students must have a well-written thesis statement before they can write an essay.

Maybe the emphasis on a well-developed thesis as the start to the essay is misplaced.

After all, according to Webster’s Online Dictionary, an essay (noun) has another meaning beyond “a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject”. The word essay also means a “trial, test; an effort, attempt.” An essay is literally “an initial tentative effort; the result or product of an attempt” and a thesis statement is a student’s position in such an effort or attempt….a “test drive” of sorts.

Instead of expecting well-developed thesis statements, teachers could have student test drive a thesis statement by using one of several online tools known as “thesis generators.” These online tools are free and allow students the opportunity to practice with different ideas as they prepare to write an essay.

My favorite, and easiest to use, is the Tom March Thesis Builder 

Screenshot 2014-09-23 21.12.56This site asks students to respond to a series of questions:

  • What’s the topic you want to write about?
  • What’s your main opinion on this topic?
  • What’s the strongest argument supporting your opinion?
  • What’s a second good argument that supports your opinion?
  • What’s the main argument against your opinion?

As they use this thesis generator, students are instructed to:

  1. Answer questions in short phrases (not full sentences).
  2. Do not use periods / full stops (.) at the end or capital letters at the beginning of the phrases you write.
  3. Click the “Build a Thesis” button when you’re finished.
  4. A window will pop open with your Built Thesis.
  5. Go back and adjust your answers to smooth out the thesis until it makes sense and expresses your beliefs. Clicking on the “Build a Thesis” button again will update your thesis to show your changes.
  6. Once you’ve got a thesis statement, use the Make an Online Outline button to generate the framework for your essay.

Once students use a generator, such as the Tom March thesis generator,  they may recognize a sentence “pattern” used in creating a thesis that acknowledges a counter argument. These sentence patterns might start with a qualifier such as “even though”, “because”, “despite”.

Acknowledging the counter arguments is specifically addressed in the thesis builder on John Garvey’s Thesis Builder site. The generator on this site asks students:

  • Is what you say always true always?
  • Are there exceptions?
  • Are there good reasons why your position may have a down side?
  • How can you make your position have a reality check?
  • What general reasons why your position may have problems can you admit up front? To make absolute statements usually causes your essay’s thesis to seem foolishly simplistic.  Get real!.
  • Here’s a trick: begin your qualification with a word like “although” or “It is true that. . .” Don’t worry if it’s not a complete sentence.

Finally, the thesis builder on the Ashford University website  provides different levels of complexity as a student creates a thesis. Once a student enters information into this generator, a series of different thesis statement models on the same idea is offered for students to choose:
Model #1: Thesis Statement
Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons

There is also an outline generated on this site that can be used by students in writing the essay.

If teachers and students use these thesis generators, the emphasis on the thesis statement as a starting point might be shifted to another, often overlooked, important part of the essay…the conclusion. The conclusion is where the student’s “test drive” ends, and where the student ends up should matter even more than where the student started.

The advertisement on Book Sale Finder for the Wilton Public Library Book Sale  in Wilton, CT, read,All books on sale for this sale… not just Children and Teens.”

The reason for the clarification? This annual end of summer book sale usually offers the best selections of donated books for children and teens in the area.

This past weekend’s sale  (9/19-21) did not disappoint.

In the space of an hour, I collected over 200 books suited for students in grades 5-10. High interest titles such as Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging for the older students, selections from the Lunch Lady graphic novel series (“serving justice, and serving…..lunch!”) for the younger students. My shopping spree was fueled by the knowledge that Sunday was the 1/2 price day. Hardcovers were $1.50; paperbacks were as little as $.25. At these prices, who could resist picking up multiple copies of Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul or duplicate selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series?

All books are headed to the independent reading classroom libraries in the intermediate, middle, and high schools in West Haven. In particular, the SSR (silent sustained reading) in grades 7 & 8 is a reading initiative that is now possible because of the new 90 minute block schedule. Teachers explained the SSR program to parents during the Open House last week and encouraged attending parents to discuss reading for fun with their children.

My industrious selecting caught the attention of several of the volunteers who provided the extra bags and boxes I needed. These Friends of the Wilton Library were genuinely delighted that I was removing a large portion of their inventory.
“These books will be enjoyed again,” from one.
“You are exactly who we want to come to these sales,” from another, “these will be books for classrooms!”
“You got so many of the better titles,” from a third who seemed to know YA literature as she perused my selections.

Like good professional salespeople, they continued to affirm the choices I made as they counted….and counted, and counted. The sum total? $150.00!

This event was advertised as an “Awesome Autumn Book Sale” and yes, it was awesome! This is the first day of autumn, and this autumn I can confidently predict there will be a multiple floods…multiple classroom book floods!

Thank you, Friends of the Wilton Public Library!