Thursday, December 31, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

It's always a dilemma how to spend New Year's Eve: which of our actions on this night are symbolic and which are not? Should we do something special, or should we welcome the new year in stride, doing the things we always do that make us happy? Is it important to stay up until the clock turns, or is it better to get a good night's sleep and greet the first day of the year well-rested?

Here are some wishes for the coming year that Neil Gaiman posted on his blog:

...I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.

I hope so, too.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cold Case

I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie a couple of days ago, and coincidentally, I recently happened to catch a few episodes of the TV show The Mentalist, as well. There is something about the deduction that these characters demonstrate that resonates with me. I have the sense that the all clues we need to decipher most situations are always there, if only we have the patience and intuition to find them, and I like it when those guys amaze us with how it can be done.

A few days before Christmas, my mother and my nephew, Richard, made a gingerbread house. With the extra dough, they cut out two gingerbread people to go with the house. One was liberally decorated with green sprinkles and the other just as festooned with red. Later that day, Richard approached my mother with concern. "Grandma," he said, "the green cookie is missing! We have to start an investigation."

Naturally my mother considered the most likely suspects. "Let's ask your mom and dad and sister," she suggested.

"I already talked to them, and they didn't do it," he assured her. "I have a clue, though. I found a little yellow feather by the gingerbread house, and I think it was a duck!"

By the time I arrived that night, there were two clues: a yellow feather and a quack that Richard heard around the time of the disappearance. Believe me when I tell you that we pursued the case of the missing cookie all weekend long. How did the duck get in? Where did it go? What had become of the cookie? And even when we were at the park, Richard questioned the geese, but they hadn't seen any yellow ducks.

In the end, we gave the cookie up for lost, ignoring the trail of green sprinkles that led to a certain four-year-old detective.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I'm a big fan of David Sedaris, mostly because he's such a master of the personal narrative. Yesterday on the plane, I finally had the chance to read his latest piece, Loggerheads, that was published in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. In particular, I admire the way he weaves seemingly disparate anecdotes together thematically to construct an integral whole. (Way to go, Dave!) On the same flight, I also read an essay about creative nonfiction by Marion Winik in the Winter 2010 edition of Teachers and Writers. I've long been a fan of hers as well; I know her from her personal commentaries on NPR. In the article, her analysis of the genre is fascinating, wide-ranging, and even forgiving of James Frey. All of this is exceptionally timely, since I plan to start on memoir with my students when we get back in January.

In the spirit of Sedaris and Winik, I like this genre because it is so accessible and yet so powerful. It validates kids by giving them a chance to tell a story that is important to them, and encourages them and their readers to find a greater meaning in the tale. Not to mention that it offers so many opportunities for writing instruction, both in craft and convention, as well. Pardon me while I rub my hands together in gleeful anticipation.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Myth of Objectivity

I had the occasion to fly today in the wake of the failed underwear bomber. It was a domestic flight, and honestly? There was no discernible difference between this trip and the one we took on December 23rd. Strange experience, then, to get home and watch the news where the lead story on at least 2 national broadcasts was how much our traveling lives will change because of this incident.

The older I get, the more critical I become of the media. There is a saying that goes something like, if when you're young you're not a liberal, then you have no heart, and if when you're old you're not a conservative, then you have no brain. I'll never agree to that, but I do believe that as we gain experience, it often becomes harder to trust people, while at the same time it's much easier to see that institutions are made up of those same people.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

This Is America, Dinosaurs

My four-year-old nephew loves The Land Before Time series of movies, and in general my sister supports his fondness for them (he owns several of them on DVD), but the dino-speak drives her crazy. For example, to dinosaurs, the moon is the night circle and snow is frozen sky water (never mind the sky puffies, pointy seeds, and sinking sands). Why can't talking dinosaurs speak regular English?

Think of the harm on impressionable children... for a while, my nephew referred to volcanoes as "smoking mountains"and earthquakes as "earth shakes." But maybe they're trying to translate real dinosaur mouth talk into something we can understand-- in that case, I guess it's just the price we have to pay for extreme prehistoric realism.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

As God Is My Witness

An amazing sunset tonight here in Atlanta: the sky flaming red and dark pink, textured by clouds like so many rags wrung and laid twisted to dry. All that was missing was Scarlett O'Hara, fist raised and vowing to never go hungry again.

Friday, December 25, 2009


My older nephews and I have been geocaching together for years, and now that my youngest nephew, Richard, is four, he wants in on the treasure hunting. It seemed like a perfect holiday afternoon activity to take a walk to the park and look for a cache that is hidden there. Over the years, we've found almost a hundred caches, and it's safe to say that we find what we're looking for more often than not, so it was a confident party of seven who set out between opening our stockings and the big holiday dinner. The cache we were after was only rated one out of five stars for challenge, and I was expecting a quick and successful initiation for Richard into this fun pastime.

Long story short, we couldn't find the treasure, and he was a little disappointed, as we all were. We promised to look again tomorrow when the light was better, but as we were walking home in the gathering darkness, Treat and Richard were ahead together on the path. "Hey guys," I heard Treat say. "I found the treasure!"

Richard stopped dead in tracks, his eyes open wide. "He's just teasing you," I told him.

"No really," Treat continued, and before I could scold him, he said, "The treasure was inside me all the time-- it was friendship!" He was kidding, but his voice was so sweet and sincere that I had to play along.

"Friendship and the love of family, right?" I asked him.

"Right," he confirmed, and we all walked on together toward the lights of home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comfort and Joy

Thirty seconds until Christmas, and I find myself furiously typing to meet a self-imposed deadline. No excuse to miss even a single day, and what a day it's been. From the first cup of coffee in my sister's kitchen this morning to the finishing touches on the easel we put together for Santa to bring to my niece in the morning, it has been a busy day spent with family preparing for the feast tomorrow, and the nicest thing about it all is that my whole family will wake under the same roof in the morning and rise to celebrate the day. We'll catch our breaths and remember that this is what all the fuss has been about.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writers Watch

The other night we were watching a re-run episode of Bones. It was a case involving a vintage arcade game and an autistic boy, and at one point, the main character, Dr. Brennan, noticed that the victim had been killed in the exact same manner as the monkey is dispatched on the final level of the game. When the plot reached its climax, and the murderer was revealed, that fact was insignificant. A red herring? Maybe, but I don't think so. Ever since I've been dabbling in writing that novel, I've found that I'm more aware, and usually more appreciative, of how writers develop their plots. It happens when I read, and when I watch TV and movies, too. It's like some kind of literary spidey sense. Anyway, regarding the Bones episode? I have a tingling that they changed the ending. The only way the detail about the killing makes sense is if the culprit was going to be the kid, but who thinks an autistic child murderer is good TV? Much better if his dad did it instead, right?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

May this Message Find You Well

A holiday card today from a former colleague-- it was one of those annual update letters. Turns out that in the last year she's started homeschooling her children. Why does this seem like the ultimate betrayal from a former public school teacher?

I know. It's complicated.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Praise of Snow Days

What a cliche to say that the holidays are hectic, and yet, although I vow every year to simplify and scale back, the logistics of coordinating with family and friends in eight states makes it tough.

The other night Ellen brought a piece about holiday shopping and materialism to our writing group, and in discussing it we agreed that even in this economic downturn all of us are lucky enough to have everything we need and most of what we want. The next day, Ellen and I were talking, and she made the point that there are very few true luxuries left. For example, shrimp used to be a big splurge when we were kids, but now aquacultural farms in Asia make it very affordable. It's a similar situation with shoes and jeans and shirts and even furniture. Like many in the American middle class, we replace things when they are out of style, or when we're tired of them, not when they wear out, and we run out and buy whatever we "need" whenever we "need" it.

What can you give the person who is fortunate enough to live with such plenty? Holiday shopping becomes a challenge, and so we exchange lists and then gifts, or cut out the first step and give gift cards. It feels like something is lost in this practical arrangement, but the alternative is to give more stuff, perhaps as unwanted as it is unneeded.

I don't know what the solution is to our stuff addiction. When I started this entry I only wanted to say what a blessing the last couple of days have been-- the weather has kept us home, slowing that seemingly inevitable hectic holiday pace, and allowing us to relax and enjoy the season.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Questions that Must Be Answered

Why won't dogs poop in the snow?

Corollary: What happens to dogs when they don't poop in the snow?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Relevant Context

Writing and posting this blog every day has taught me a lot about myself as a writer and a teacher. Apart from giving me the opportunity to examine my practice and philosophy, there has been a practical application, too.

As middle school English teachers go, I'd say I'm pretty well-educated and well-credentialed, too, but even so, sometimes questions about grammar and usage arise that I'm not sure of. Why don't I know those things? It's not that I never learned them-- I'm a product of a traditional skill and drill language arts curriculum. I learned tons of grammar, out of context, and I was darn good at those worksheets, thank you very much. No, I'm not sure of the answers to those questions for the same reason that it took me a couple minutes to remember how to help an eighth grade student the other day find the equation for the slope of a line: I haven't applied that learning in years, if ever.

As a blogger, I am both author and editor of my writing, and it's the editing that often sends me searching the grammar texts and style sheets. All of a sudden, the rules are relevant to me, because who wants to be the English teacher with all the silly mistakes in her blog?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let's Talk about the Weather

Each day my alarm wakes me to public radio (is anyone surprised?), and this morning, when still half asleep, I heard that 12 inches of snow or more was a good possibility this weekend. My eyes popped open wide, and there was definitely no more snoozing. A foot of snow around here usually means multiple days off from school. Sure, we have our false alarms, but this storm sounded pretty big even at its weakest, and I knew it was supposed to be cold next week-- so no premature melting.

I completely tuned out the latest on the senate health care drama as I brainstormed contingencies: I have the computer lab on Monday, the sixth grade ice skating trip on Tuesday, and class-meetings on Wednesday, and then it is winter break. How best to prepare for the likely disruption? I hit the ground running when I got to school: consulting, revising, and reserving, and at the end of the day, I felt ready for whatever might happen.

I love my job. Really. But the siren call of stolen days spent romping through a winter wonderland and relaxing by the fire is irresistible. Add that to the time of year, and I'll tell you what-- the first flakes have only started to fall, but ready or not, I have no plans to return to school until 2010.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gifted Is As Gifted Does

So, we're doing these gifts of writing, and since I teach five sections of English, I have to write five separate pieces, but I also get five in return. I really like writing alongside my students, though; besides being a good model, I get a lot of insight into the assignment, and I can talk honestly about the ways I worked through the challenges. Likewise, it's easy to be free with praise, especially for kids who have shown creativity, and the students accept my feedback, not just as their know-it-all teacher, but as someone who is plugging away at the same task that they are.

I think it's good for me to participate so actively in this assignment, but how hard would it be to be the kid who pulls the teacher's name? This year, the reactions of those five students has covered the range of what you might expect: one is extremely vocal about the hardship of his plight, openly begging for extra credit; two are willing, but tentative and a bit uneasy; one is trying way too hard, and the fifth has delighted me with his creativity.

This last guy is the over-achiever in my class. He always has his hand up first, always finishes every assignment ahead of the other kids, and not surprisingly, he is kind of tough on his peers, especially those who aren't as quick as he is. Not always my favorite type of kid, but what makes him different from the stereotype is that he is acting from genuine engagement. I'm convinced that he doesn't want to be the best for best's sake, but rather because he really likes what we're reading and writing and talking about.

For his gift to me he wrote a brief choose-your-own-adventure story. Written in second person, it grabs the reader immediately, and the plot has all the elements I mentioned on my questionnaire. It is clever, funny, and very well done, and I consider it one of the best gifts I've ever received. Way to go, Jake! Thank you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Nature of the Beast

I've talked to a few colleagues about my last post, and it seems like how we feel about whether or not our peers are held accountable for their breaches of rules and expectations is a litmus test of sorts. Why do we care if what they are doing doesn't impact us? If we knew they were stealing or cheating on their taxes, would it make us do that, too? For some people, the answer to that last question is, "Yes." They follow rules in order to avoid the consequences associated with breaking them.

I want to believe that I follow the rules because I think it's usually the right thing to do. Even so, when I consider my colleagues who bend the rules, for example, by taking time off without leave, I wonder if I were in a situation where I didn't have much leave, but I needed the time and my full paycheck, too, if I would be tempted to get unofficial coverage and skip out to take care of my unavoidable personal business.

I also admit that I don't adhere to every policy to the letter. I'm often late in the morning (but always there before the students), and I feel like I make up for it after school. I'm also lax with the text book expectations from central office, because I want my students to have more choice in their reading and writing. I can usually justify my infractions. I'll bet most people can.

Over the years, I've given my students a lot of writing prompts, and some of them are even relevant to this issue. There's the classic, If you could make a law what would it be and why? Another good one is, Why do we have rules? But the most revealing might be, What would you do if you knew you could get away with it?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Us and Them

Sometimes the rank and file get frustrated with the leadership at our school. We grumble because it seems like they're forever reacting to crises or last minute situations rather than planning ahead. We complain because it seems like there is never a definitive decision, or when there is, there are never any consequences for the staff members who don't do what they are supposed to.

To be honest, some of that happens as a result of our administration giving us too much credit. It's nice to be trusted to behave professionally, but it damages morale when colleagues don't act appropriately and are allowed to continue without consequence.

The issue interests me on a couple of levels. As a person who supervises lots of people every day, I am aware of the responsibilities of authority. One of my biggest complaints is teachers who misuse their authority to elevate themselves over the students, creating a top-down environment in their classrooms. These teachers seem eager to punish students for every infraction; indeed they would tell you that it is part of our job to instill a sense of responsibility in the students.

I don't think such an authoritarian approach is productive. I think students need to feel part of the classroom power structure in order to be fully engaged. So why do I object to such an approach from the administration? Why do I long to see my colleagues held accountable when they fail to meet the expectations established for them? Why did it so annoy me today when I heard an administrator say that a teacher who was clearly not doing what we all agreed must be done should be approached and asked what support she needed.

Why can't I extend the same empathy and compassion to my colleagues that I try to have for my students? Are we not all works in progress?

Monday, December 14, 2009

No Killer Instinct

I guess it's time to file the follow up report on our basketball season. Back in October, I chronicled the saga of tryouts and cutting the team in a six-part series. I wrote about our decision to leave the girl who is arguably the best player in the school off the team because she had a bad attitude and seemed unable to follow directions. I said the team was nice, and that was fine with me.

Well... we are 0 and 7. We had our last practice today, and the final game of the season is tomorrow. We are not expected to win. We lost our closest game by three, but just the other day, we were humiliated at home, 53-8. At one point in that game the score was 33-0.

Has it been a demoralizing season for the players? It's hard to say. They seem upbeat in practice, and they work hard and execute what we are teaching them. They have personally improved, but they are not a competitive team. The other teams are bigger and stronger and more talented, and in the games, our girls are timid and flat.

It's never easy to have a losing season, but this will be the first time in my years of coaching that we have been winless. Nicest team ever, worst record ever. Could there be a connection?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Maybe It's the Moon

Despite the fact that my PLC folks didn't seem to have a lot of appreciation for edublogs, I do. I'm not ashamed to admit that I find them helpful and even inspirational at times. For example, two of the bloggers I read regularly seem to be struggling with some of the same things that I am right now, and they have both defined the issues and expressed their concerns much better than I have. I invite you to take a look.

Pressing On
by Ruth at Two Writing Teachers

Stop Questioning? by Dina on Reading Free

(The second one is a really cool blog. Allow me to cite their "About Us" entry: He’s in his twenty-seventh year of teaching language arts; she’s in her third. He teaches 6th grade in a self-contained classroom in the Alaska interior; she teaches 7th grade in a rotating class middle school in an urban hub of upstate New York. What brings them together: the simultaneous launching of the workshop approach to reading and writing in their classrooms, pioneered by Nancie Atwell.

Doug Noon and Dina Strasser both blog about their teaching experiences and met through the wild and crazy interlinking of the edublogosphere. Now, they join forces to explore one of the most promising and status-quo-busting approaches to literacy available today. )

Now THAT's what I'm talking about.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Oy, My Brain

So, after I posted last night, I was brushing my teeth, thinking about what I wrote, and it occurred to me that part of the problem comes when I assign a grade to an exercise. Exercise is practice, and shouldn't we grade student work that is supposed to show mastery? Granted, the Letters About Literature assignment might have led up to mastery of certain things (thankfully, for many students, it did), but if a writer is not engaged in the topic, is it fair to expect mastery? What message does that send to a struggling writer, other than, here's another assignment you didn't like and didn't do well on, either. Research shows that it is best to teach students writing skills in a meaningful context, like when they're working on something they want to write. Given that no assignment is ever going to appeal to everyone, what's an English teacher to do? When it comes down to it, I don't care if my students can write a good Letter About Literature, I want them to be able to write a good anything.

I'll keep thinking about it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Letters About Literature

My students have participated in this contest every year for the last three. The premise is interesting: kids are supposed to write a letter to an author explaining how a particular book changed them or their view of the world. Although this task might seem deceptively simple, the sponsors of the contest, the Library of Congress and Target, take pains in their instructional materials to emphasize that students must "correspond don't compliment" and "synthesize don't summarize." These higher order thinking skills can be tough for my sixth graders, but they are by no means impossible, so the assignment turns out to be a just-right challenge-- one that can be done well with enough preparation, work, and support.

The problem lies in the fact that these letters are supposed to be authentic and heartfelt, written by the students in acknowledgment of a significant impact the author's work has had on them. Quite honestly, not every eleven year old has experienced such a profound connection with a book. What then, English teacher? Do you disparage these children as shallow and chalk it up to weak parenting, too much TV, and video games? Do you release them from even trying because they're just not feelin' it?

It's been a tough call for me, but this year I asked all my students to approach the assignment as a writing exercise-- they had to go through the steps to produce a letter, but no one was required to send it unless they wanted to. As I've written before, this year my students are awfully compliant, and so most of them humored their wacky teacher and unquestioningly went through the process: reading models, completing mini-lessons, and then composing, revising, and editing draft after draft of their letters, until today, the day before the deadline, nearly half of them decided to enter the contest. And most of the letters were pretty good, too.

So, I have a stack of letters to grade this weekend, and when I do, I'm going to take a good look at the ones that are not successful to try and figure out how and why the "writing exercise" failed for those writers, because this kind of whole class assignment is exactly the kind of thing that I think undermines my workshop, often at the expense of struggling writers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Giving Gifts

Obviously my students don't draw names for a holiday gift exchange, but last year we did gifts of writing using the Secret Santa concept. It was voluntary for students to participate, and everybody who wanted to do it filled out questionnaires with information about themselves. Then we folded those up and drew out of a bag to see who would be the recipient of our gift of writing. The parameters were broad-- it could be a piece of any genre and it could be written about the person or for the person. I thought it would be fun for the kids if I drew a name in each class, too.

It ended up being a nice activity, one that allowed the students to apply many of the writing lessons we'd learned. Most kids wrote a free verse poem about the person whose name they'd drawn, and I did, too, but some wrote letters to them and others composed pieces for them-- poems or short stories or cartoons that they hoped the person receiving the gift would enjoy. At the end, when the writing was done, we created companion wordles to give along with our gift.

I still have my five gifts of writing, and it was successful enough that I'm getting ready to do it again next week. I've struggled a little bit with the timing, though. We could do this activity any time, and it might be a good end of the year ritual, but this is a season of giving in the culture in which we all live, and I think it's okay to participate in that, too.

I think so, but I'm not sure.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seasons Greetings

When I was a little girl, every year in school we drew names for Pollyanna gifts. There was always a price limit like one or two dollars, and kids would bring the wrapped presents in and put them under the classroom tree. We opened them during the Christmas party, and I always remember being disappointed because I never, ever got a Lifesaver book. It wasn't even that I liked Lifesavers that much (with the exception of butter rum... now those were really good), but the book was so cool, and it was something my parents would never buy for me.

Remarkably, all of this took place in a public school, way before the phrase "politically correct" was ever dreamt of. Nowadays, in the diverse school I work in, some of us don't even think the secretaries in the office should construct their annual "holiday" display, even if it only consists of empty boxes wrapped in winter-themed paper surrounded by colored lights. We know what they're trying to say. And this afternoon, as I listened to the winter concert, I wondered how Santa and Silent Night could possibly be appropriate, even at this Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

For 'Cause

It's super-duper hard to hold on to a student-centered focus. That's why I moved away from the workshop back then. It takes a tough combination of confidence and humility-- it's hard to have the humility to step out of the way and let the students learn, and so any teacher who does that is constantly second-guessing herself, trying to find a balance between direct instruction and student practice. From the outside, such an approach doesn't always seem "rigorous" enough, and since many people equate rigor with value, it takes confidence to stand behind this philosophy.

For all those reasons, it can be kind of lonely, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Slippery Slope

Sixteen years and a couple of months ago, I got my first teaching job. My assignment was to teach four one-hour English classes of 25 sixth graders each. I had finished my M.Ed. the December before and had spent the spring substitute teaching. I was ready for my own class. My training, as far as teaching literacy skills, had been primarily whole language. When I took my language arts methods class in graduate school, the notion of whole language was entirely new to me. I hadn’t thought about how kids learn to read and write since I had been in elementary school 20 years before.

In my mind, the essence of whole language was that you didn’t tell the students what to do, you gave them opportunities to acquire the skills of reading and writing on their own. This was a radical concept for a product of basal readers and grammar work sheets (which I loved, by the way). But the notion of students engaged in readers and writers workshops, practicing the skills of reading and writing on books and topics of their choice was enthralling to me. The vision of a classroom that was a community of readers and writers resonated deeply, and I knew that I wanted to create such a place and spend my time there.

So I did. The first year I taught was the first year of a new basal reading program adoption. The reading specialist proudly presented me with 125 brand new textbooks that I knew I didn’t intend to use. She was visibly shaken when I told her so.

“Here are your vocabulary books,” she offered.

“I don’t need them,” I replied.

“You should probably take them anyway,” she pushed in a soft drawl that almost covered her dismay.

The next day I had a visit from the county language arts supervisor. “What is your plan for the year?” she asked. I spoke passionately and at length, describing the program I envisioned; I showed her my collection of trade books, the area I set up for journals and writing supplies, the reading log I would use, my “State of the Class” binder, my bulletin board with publication opportunities. I also mentioned the resistance I felt from the reading specialist and other experienced teachers in the building. “I think you should do it,” she said. “You can’t hurt the kids if you do what you believe is right, and you clearly believe this is right.”

I took her advice and ran my class in pure workshop form. Students read and wrote on topics and in genres entirely of their choice. I experimented with ways to keep track of their work and ways to hold them accountable for their reading and writing. Together, we published a newspaper, had a voluntary essay-writing seminar, and wrote fan letters. Individually, my students kept writers journals, and wrote poetry, fiction, letters, essays, graphic novels, and more. They were published in the newspaper; they entered and won contests, and submitted their writing to journals. I read their writing and taught mini-lessons to address their needs.

At that time we had the "Literacy Passport" exam at sixth grade which tested reading, writing, and math. 100 students took it. A third were on free and reduced lunch. A quarter spoke English as a second language. Thirty percent were white, thirty percent Black, thirty percent Latino, and ten percent Asian. Of the hundred who took it, 99 passed the writing, and 97 passed the reading. I didn't know anything about analyzing test data back then, but now, 15 years later, I understand how extraordinary those results were.

So, you would think I would continue with my program exactly as I constructed it, year after year, tweaking the paper work and the mini lessons to more accurately keep track of and assist my students’ progress, right? Wrong. Each year my writing workshop became more adulterated, literally. I moved, gradually, from a student-centered approach to an adult-directed class. My students still did a lot of writing, but I assigned much more of it. Why?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


We were at dinner at some friends' last night, and the subject of my blog came up. Our host expressed some interest in reading these "reports from the trenches" of public education. He is a parent in our district, and his wife is a teacher at my school, and as the evening went on, we touched on a wide range of education and school-related topics, for example engagement vs. rigor-- why is there a perception that they are exclusive? Another was should all administrators have a teaching license, and should they be required to teach at least one class? We also talked about heterosexual privilege, and later "liberal" white parents who won't send their children to diverse schools. Several times throughout the night, he looked at me and said, "I feel a blog post coming!" We laughed, but he was right, those are all good topics. The only problem was that we stayed up talking until 2:30 A.M. and I've spent my day foggy-headed, resting and recovering, not writing. I feel lucky that there was a blog post at all today.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Back in the Day

I have several students this year who are voracious readers. These kids read a couple of hundred pages a day and power through 4 or 5 novels a week. Do they stop to think about what they've read? Probably not very often, and so I try to engage them in conversation about their reading, even beyond our class assignments. The other day, a student was telling me about a series of books she had recently discovered and that she was enjoying very much. "You know what?" she said. "I've decided that I really like old-fashioned books."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Like books published in 1988," she explained, "there's just something quaint about them."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Life in Century 2.1

Today I reserved the laptop cart for my students to work on an assignment. Second period, three kids to a table, laptops open, room is silent, because everyone's engrossed in typing their writing piece, and one student looks up. "Wow. It's just like Panera or Starbucks in here," she notes. There are a few nods of agreement, and then everyone goes back to their own screens.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keep it Short

Sometimes I wonder if I ask too much of my students. I understand the value of high expectations, and I'm not proposing a lower bar for quality, but rather for quantity. I believe that if we shorten what we ask for, but demand that the product be well-considered, well-written, and well-edited, then we are helping the students and ourselves.

I'm still working out the details, but it all started with Nancie Atwell's proposition that examining and composing free verse poetry can teach almost any writing lesson, and as a result, over the past few years, I've developed a fondness for the "micro assignment." I've decided that I want my students to write briefly, but exquisitely. Kind of like the writing equivalent of an amuse-bouche-- in the cooking world, it's widely believed that if you can execute that one perfect bite, you're golden.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Facilitator's Blues

That writing project PLC that I'm facilitating met today. Early in the year we agreed to reflect on our teaching and write about it regularly. Way back in September, people felt like 2-3 times a week was an achievable goal. Flash forward to a rainy Wednesday in December. Three of the original participants were not able to make the meeting today, so our group was eight. Seven had writing. Most had composed what they brought specifically to have something to share with their writing group. Not quite what we had in mind, and because I'm in a group myself, it was hard to tell if people think that these meetings are time well spent.

The other part of our session was spent talking about teacher blogs. Last time, everyone agreed to read a few and write up a brief "blog talk" to guide our conversation about this relatively new publishing opportunity. How are teaching blogs valuable? would have been the guiding question had I put it on the board. There was some interesting discussion about what's out here in the blogosphere, but my impression was that not many of the teachers in the group view edublogs as either a valuable resource or a viable outlet for expression.

We don't meet again until February. When this PLC was originally proposed, I expressed my reservations about how little time was available to meet, and I still wonder what writing project objectives can be achieved in seven hours spread over eight months. Ultimately, though, I realize that my role is to provide an opportunity. What everyone does with it is up to them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo No Mo

First day free of the chains, and I've found liberation to be a little disappointing, although I am looking forward to spending a bit more time reflecting on my classroom, my students, and my teaching. (How possessive does that sound?) I've missed it.