Monday, November 24, 2008

"No Way!"

That was my students' response to the quote I shared for them from the NCTE presenter about the limits he saw with growing up in America. I already felt my students did not fit this stereotype themselves. As much as I get frustrated that they do not do as much as I know they could do, I am actually really proud of them for all they have learned so far. I have handed them their next challenge to keep them thinking -- their essay for our search for self theme. I am having them write and explore their own essential questions, and I am excited to see where our studies in class and their own minds take them.

In the end, I told them today that if they were to only do one thing as a result of our time together this year, if it were to show that as Americans they WERE engaged with culture and literature, I could not ask for anything more.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Day Two of NCTE

Today was a more directed day for me -- it seemed like all of the very specific sessions I wanted to attend were today versus more overall ones yesterday. The most direct session I attended was on Literary Worlds, what seem like effective and fun virtual worlds tied to literature. The session focused on Things Fall Apart, and I cannot wait to enter my stduents into the world. The main reason is the wealth of visuals and audio. The creator found pictures from a photographer who chronicled colonial Africa in the 1800s, and this is exactly what my students need to truly experience what Achebe hoped -- to identify with the Africans more than the white man. There are also great African songs playing in each of the rooms. By assuming one of 49 characters from the novel, the students navigate the world of Umofia. I will be sure to let you know how it goes when I try it in April. There are many other novels on the site too, so look around and see if one works for you. All you and your students need are computers and a browser. Couldn't be simpler!

I also attended the tail-end of a session on laptop schools, and it was gratifying to feel like the "old-timer" there. Schools who are considering moving in this direction were asking questions, and hearing others' answers and sharing my own reminded me how far we have come in successfully implementing our 1:1 program. Yes, we are still growing and improving everyday, but I cannot imagine teaching without laptops.

I ended my day with a tour of the Alamo -- what a beautiful place. The trees are breathtaking -- they look like the olive trees I saw all over Italy. I picked up cowboy hats for my two kids and an Alamo bandana for my husband -- I am bringing some of my Texan roots home to them.

Tomorrow morning is the Commission on Composition meeting then I head home. A fast and great conference. Next year is Philadelphia, and I think I can get at least one more teacher from my department to be able to come with me because we could maybe stay with my sister (read: free). It will be great to share this with a colleague -- twice the sessions, twice the learning, twice the growth for us as teachers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Further NCTE Reflections

Now that I am on my own laptop (and not hogging one in the NCTE store), I have time to think more about what I heard and did today.

First, I find it interesting that the fullest session BY FAR that I attended was on AP English. Their focus was how literature still matters and how the AP curriculum is one good way to keep literature at the forefront. The session was absolutely packed -- people sitting in every empty space on the floor when all of the chairs were full. It makes me wonder why. In a conference of so many new ideas, AP gets some of the biggest attention. I enjoyed the session overall, and the presenters were well-prepared and engaging. But I have to say that I did not learn strikingly new things. Instead, I enjoyed it because it confirmed the techniques I use with my AP students and younger. I wonder why others were drawn there and what they took away.

I did attend a session that was not well-prepared, and that is always frustrating. It can take a good 15 minutes to get from one end of the buildings to the other, so once I get there, I'd like to stay and gain something. I was really looking forward to the topic too, but the presenters mostly rambled and quoted a single teacher resource. This surprised me I guess because of my own personality. If I were giving a session at a national conferance, I would hyper-prepare (not a great thing either!), so I guess I expect each session to at least have a focus and forward motion.

I have the first thing that I am going to take right back to my students. This was said in a conversation about the decline of reading habits across the board in our nation. The stats are pretty sobering -- nearly half of all Americans 18-24 do not read for pleasure. The presenter then said this: "Something about growing up in America discourages cultural and literary growth." I plan to share this with my world lit students as a step in our quest to answer the essential question, "Why must we think?" I am curious if they agree with the statement, and if so, why. Or if they do not, I hope to help them come up with ways they can prove it wrong by how they live their own lives.

Finally, that session linked with another in my head about students' reading habits. I think I am fortunate that many of my school's students are active and engaged readers. Our teachers do a great job of offering choice and encouragement with personal reading, thus keeping that flame alive. I also think our students impressively give us the benefit of the doubt and are willing to try an assigned reading and actually like it. Yet, I don't want to be living in a dreamworld, so I would like to dig a little more deeply into our students' reading habits. Do they really read enough for pleasure, or are they in that other half of the statistics? The reason why I wonder this is what was shared in a session about reading stamina. First, they said the thing that prohibits most students from maintianing their reading fluency is maintaining their stamina as texts get harder. I think this might define a struggle we have been seeing from our 7th to 8th grade as we have realized that our 7th grade texts might not challenge the students as much as even the 6th grade texts do. Is their stamina back-sliding? And this leads me to their other finding -- the students in their research study, even in 6th grade, were overwhlemed by homework so they literally had no time to read well and for a duration of time. I think my school might be guilty of this too ...

Tomorrow I am facilitating a session on how high-stakes testing is affecting writing and writing instruction -- should be interesting. Then later in the day, I am really looking forward to finally having the time to stop by "Tech on the Go." I can get there when they are having a general sharing of ideas, so it will be great to hear what others have done and be able to share what I do. Oh, and of course, I am going to visit the Alamo -- I am two days behind Dana Huff as it is!

Day One of NCTE

Here are the highlights:
  • Opening Session with Marc Prensky: "With the old ways of teaching (lecturer/teacher), technology does get in the way. With the 'new' ways of teaching (guide/partner), technology is the tool." (a loose quote from memory)
  • A talk on critical theory and practice with Gerald Graff (president of the MLA): How we read and how we talk about what we read matters more than what we read.
  • A session with AP consultants sponsored by the College Board: My worlds collide when one of the presenters is someone I knew from the AP readings.
  • A session on using American lit texts to teach about prejudice and cultural understanding: I went to this one specifically to bring ideas back for our American Literature teacher Jennifer. I think I have some titles for us to consider for replacing Black Ice.
  • This afternoon is going to be all about teaching reading strategies. One session I am attending is billed as specific reading strategies tied to brain research, and the other is billed as focusing on teaching reading stamina. I am very curious about both of these because I think they can help with discussions our department has been having about challenging our students as readers without losing them.
Oh, and my hotel is literally right across the street from the Alamo. As a native-born Texan, I feel like I am home :)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coming to the end ...

My students and I have been working for the last few days on bringing together the different texts we have read for our "Search for Self" theme, and it has reminded me about the ebb and flow of a unit. As we were starting on these readings, I had a few bad days in a row, feeling like the students were not focusing how I wanted them to as they read to prepare for class, then feeling like I had to make adjustments for this lack in our classwork. I really thought they were missing things. And they were, but now that we are making connections across the texts and talking about what those connections mean, they are doing amazing things. They clearly know the texts overall, and they are very engaged in seeing how they link together.

So what does this mean? First, it reminds me of the learning proces -- learning starts out slow because those early stages can be hard. As teachers, we have a duty to try to show our students WHY they might enjoy this new learning, but I know I rarely grab every student as I try to do this. And even those who are excited have to step into new ideas and new skills. These new steps are actually better if they are slower because there is more learning going on.

This also reminds me how much we all want what we learn to make sense. My students' excitement as they begin to see for themselves (and not just hear from me) how these texts and the ideas we have been discussing fit together shows human nature. This reminds me to always move a unit to this level as best I can. In the end, I suppose getting to this level answers that old, old question, "Why are we learning this?"

Finally, I am also reminded of what it means to challenge our students to be more than they are, to push them to push themselves. When my students weren't reading well (or at all for some of them) at the opening of this unit, it wasn't just because they weren't necessarily excited. They are also humans with a lot on their plates and making choices. What I hope to impress upon them is that a choice that shortchanges your intellectual growth should not be made lightly. Yes, we all have to cut corners at times, but I hope to help them see that some corners should be more protected than others. On the practical side of this, I work hard to make sure students can't coast by without ever reading -- even if it means stopping a discussion and making them responsible on their own for the material. (I teach seniors this year and can do this much more readily then I could when I taught freshmen who were at different stages in their growth as learners.) But for the larger picture, maybe seeing how it all fits together in the end will help them want the next time to start their hard work earlier so they can get more out of their learning in the end.

And in the end, that is what matters -- that I have not only helped my students learn new things about my subject area and their worlds but also about themselves as learners.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thinking, Thinking, Thinking!

I just had to share the presentation one of my students just did about the Torah. (See post below for an explanation of these presentations.) Joe structured his whole presentation around questions he had about the Torah, and he did this beautifully. He began with the questions, told us we would return to them, walked us through all of his findings (so great because we knew we was exploring stuff that he, and therefore we, really wanted to know), then at the end he had us return to his questions and discuss in groups what we had learned. So really what he did was what I have tried to do all year -- present our studies based around essential questions, use technology to explore things we are truly intrigued about, and bring it all together to discover what we've learned and what we can do with that knowledge. I am just so proud of him.

Here is what he created: a document for us to use for notes and thinking plus a website to explore. (And if you listen to the audio file, yes, those are two of our Jewish students Joe recorded reciting a Hebrew prayer. He also brought in one of the student's actual Torah.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Do they get it?

I am finally reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody. I know, I should have read it months ago like the rest of the world, but if you haven't read it yet either, it still resonates even in this rapidly changing world. Listen to this:

"When I was a teenager, I remember reading letters to the editor in my local paper, where the grown-ups were arguing about whether to allow students to use calculators. The unspoken worry was that since calculators had appeared so suddenly, they might disappear just as suddenly. What none of the grown-ups in that conversation understood was that there would never again be a day when we needed to divide two seven-digit numbers on paper. What seemed to them like a provisional new capability was actually a deep and permanent shift, one we students recognized immediately" (Shirky 294).

Do all of your students get this today about the web and all of its possibilities? To be honest, I am not sure all of mine do, and that is why this quote makes me think so much. As a teacher, I feel so often on the back-end of the "Web 2.0" movement -- barely hanging on. Yet, for some (many?) of my students, I am pulling them along. I am showing them not only, to keep Shirky's metaphor going, why this calculator is here to stay but also why they should be recognizing this as part of THEIR worlds.

So in the end, am I in front or back?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Writing Reflection

I have been struggling lately with having time to do everything I want to do in a single class period. It is really hard to read good ideas and want to try them all -- I feel like I am doing my students a disservice if I read a great idea and can't use it. On the bright side of this dilemma, not having time to do something this week turned out for the best this time because the activity was much more effective later.

I had planned to email back a set of essays, show an example essay, then have the students set goals for themselves for future essays. On the day I was to do this all, I ended up only having time to give back the essays. Two days later, I ended up with some time, and I had them open their essays again and reread my comments. This was really effective because they already knew their grades so were now reading the comments without that pressure in their minds. We then read together an essay one student in the class had written. Since they had just looked again at their own essay, they ended up talking spontaneously about what they liked in the example essay and how they had not thought about doing that in their own essay. When I told them that I wanted them to now set goals for themselves of things they wanted to try in their writing based on my comments on their essays and/or what they saw this one student essay doing, they got down to work right away. Their goals were really thoughtful, but ultimately just reflecting on how they had written something and how someone else had tackled the same thing was a powerful moment.

I am going to work hard to remember what I learned most from this -- separating writing reflection from the grade is crucial. I try to do this by emailing back the writing with my comments before I give them the rubrics with their grades, but their minds are still on, "What did I get?" Returning to the writing after the grade has been known and passed on in their minds was an even better method that running out of time taught me.