Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Resource Book Review: A Writer Teaches Writing

A Writer Teaches Writing: A Complete RevisionA Writer Teaches Writing: A Complete Revision by Donald Morison Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When immersed in reading about writing and the teaching of writing, the real McCoy stands out prominently. This book, clear about its focus from the beginning, is page after page after page of how anyone can transform their classroom into a writing classroom: activities, lessons, adjustments in classroom expectations or procedures, and even how to assess and comment. This is the book where you can access something easily and know that it is steeped in research and practice.

The meaty final few chapters may be of particular interest to you as they address three universal circumstances: problem writers, answers to questions you may ask yourself, and answers to questions others may ask you.

Some of the issues Murray addresses in these chapters are: the student who doesn't care; the student who can't spell, punctuate and aint got not grammar;the student who demands the formula; the student who simply loves to write--and write and write;should I accept papers from other courses; should I share my writing with my students; when do you teach grammar; what is the relationship between reading and writing; and does this work only in a creative writing course? And there are many more.

In addition to answering many of the questions teachers have, Murray also provides a very strong chapter on conference techniques for the teacher. This is worth the price of the book itself.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Resource Book Review: Rethinking Rubrics

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing AssessmentRethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to know about Maja Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics during an exchange on the English Companion Ning. Wilson replied to some of my discussion topics about assessment and the use of portfolios. Her thoughtful and balanced replies made a lot of sense and I made myself a note to find her book and read it.

I'm heading into my 4th week of a summer workshop with the National Writing Project. My reading over the past few weeks has brought me back to the exchange I encountered with many teachers on the Ning. More specifically it brought me back to rubrics and grading--so much so, that it is now the subject of my inquiry project as I move forward into the upcoming school year.

I read Wilson's book this morning and again found that I appreciated her well-supported candor. Most interesting to me was Wilson's research into the history of assessment in our country. American colleges needed a ranking system for high school students, standard modes such as multiple-choice testing and rubrics were born out of that need.

Wilson questions if something like a rubric, which actually brought writing back into our schools, serves the purpose it promises. She explores what rubrics offer and what rubrics exclude and deny.

Read this book and you won't look at rubrics the same way again.

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Southeastern European Food for Thought

I am currently reading Maja Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics which (so far) is essentially a soup to nuts examination of how we assess writing in the United States.  I pause to share an excerpt from the second chapter, There is a Cow in Our Classroom, because of the enormity of its implications:

Robert Yerkes, professor at Harvard and president of the American Psychological Association, was hired by the military around 1920 to develop and administer an intelligence test to all of its recruits.  Yerkes used a multiple-choice format, created by Arthur Otis in 1915.  Yerke's creation, the Army Alpha test, was the first large-scale multiple-choice test to be administered, and it publicity and popularity would pace the way for  the same technology to be used by writing assessments.
The multiple -choice format served the demands of standardization and ranking beautifully, allowing anyone anywhere to score the same test in exactly the same way in a short amount of time.  Another bonus of the multiple-choice format was that the results of the test could be quickly grouped, categorized, and analyzed in a number of  ways, individual test-takes and groups of people could be ranked, sorted, and analyzed.  In association with The National Academy of Sciences, Yerkes analyzed the results of the Army Alpha test, announcing that native-born American whites had scored the highest on the test and that of all the immigrant groups, those born in southeastern Europe scored the lowest.  Carl Brigham, who had worked as Yerkes' assistant to develop the Army Alpha test, did his own analysis, concluding that "'selective breeding' would purify and preserve the intelligence of Americans" (Caruano 1999, 12).  Added to the growing anti-immigrant backlash, Yerkes' announcement and Brigham's conclusions led to the National Origins Act of 1924, which established quotas for all immigrants to the United States.  The most severe restrictions applied to no other group than eastern and southern Europeans--those who had scored lowest on the Army Alpha test.  Multiple choice testing had become a powerful tool of discrimination.

The chapter goes on to study the history of assessment in our country and how Harvard specifically had its sticky crimson paws all over it--all in the name of ranking students.  Wilson continues to trace the development of this demand by institutions of higher education for a better and more efficient way of evaluating writing...and rubrics were born.

In the end though, I had to pause before I moved on to read the third chapter to think aloud a bit and simply share the fact that discrimination is somehow tangled within the history of writing assessment, and I can't help but wonder if it still is as rubrics are still firmly rooted in place and in many schools the use of rubrics drives the curriculum.

Resource Book Review: Time for Meaning

Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High SchoolTime for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School by Randy Bomer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great strength of Randy Bomer's "Time for Meaning" is a clear focus on how the physical and social structures of a classroom affects the writing process. As an aside before I go too far into my review, he focuses on the secondary classroom but it is certainly transferable to the middle school classroom.

Bomer writes, "I want my classroom to be receptive rather than transmissive or gregarious." Backed by the research of Murrary, Calkins, Atwell et al. Bomer tells us what his goals are and how he attempts to achieve them.

Later in the book he spends a chapter relating some of challenges in establishing a writing class--resistance from both (some) students, (some) peers, and (some) administrators. It illustrates the how heavily invested our culture is in clearly measurable objectives and assignments. Where the research and our cultural preferences clash is in the fact that writing is recursive and unique to experience and development of the individual. Furthermore, what our culture recognizes as the standard measure of competent writing--the five paragraph essay is a piece of the wedge which prohibits young people from developing their writing ability.

I want to add, that the final chapters which highlight the resistance and, at times, venom of individuals is a sad circumstance in education. Usually reserved for young teachers (easier prey), the criticism Bomer received ("your program") from some colleagues was divisive and ignorant. Yet, it is worth reading--not that any of us would experience the same treatment, but it is good to hear where the other side comes from--and I'll leave my comment at that. Read and judge for yourself.

You might think by reading that previous paragraphs that Bomer is proposing something absurd. Quite the contrary, he speaks of demonstrating value in student work, keeping detailed records of what students say and do, conferring with students on a daily basis about their reading and writing, and establishing that literature can help us create an awareness and respect for many things.

His students keep a writer's notebook and use it daily. His teaching style is to ask questions based on what the students write--pushing them to go deeper, to keep asking why, to live a life founded (in part) on inquiry. And writing is a great place to practice that skill.

Bomer offers many great ideas for incorporating a writer's notebook in your class--this book is great mix of current sound research and practical methods of encouraging a depth and extension of the traditional student writing produced in many schools today.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

National Writing Project Day 9: Revision

One of the great parts of giving your full effort and attention to something is that you're ready for any surprises which may come your way, good or bad.  I've been focused in my workshops for the last two weeks--more than I imagined considering they are taking place during beautiful summer days.

My surprise today was actually an A-Ha moment while working with the concept of revision.

Typically revision is a regularly scheduled part of the writer's process.  I've done it.  I've hear colleagues do it.  I went it through it myself as a student: write a draft, bring it to class to have your mistakes circled, and take it home to revise.  Hand in the final copy.

There may be variations to that example, but the core of my learning today is how silly I've been.  I've literally worked with revision as if it were a stand-alone moment.  As if we write-write-write and then take it home and then that is the roller coaster ride of revision takes place--alone in your room, at a desk, door closed.  As if that is where the magic happened for thousands of American teenagers with each writing assignment.

Revision: the wild ride on the Kansas tornado just before safely crashing atop of the Witch of the Deadline.  Upon landing, all color returns to your face and you open the bedroom door to the farmhouse; your younger brother and his good-time friends tumble around the house.  The paper is done--it has been matter what that mean ol' Miss Gulch has to say, you have a revised product to submit tomorrow.

I experienced at least five different exercises today where revision was either implicitly or explicitly ingrained as a part of the routine of writing single words, sentences, paragraphs, and even brainstorming sessions with partners.

It is interesting to look back on the word--revision.  To have a vision again.  To re-visit.  Yet that is misleading to students and teachers, isn't it?  Revision isn't a separate stage exclusively.  We revise as we write--whether we are overwriters or underwriters.  If we overwrite, we'll certainly have to cut some things out.  If we underwrite, we'll have to go back and insert more text.

As we scan our memories or creative ideas we are picking and choosing what to place on paper--revision is happening naturally.  How often have we paused before writing a line which excites us only to think it through again--revision.

It can be such a simple and painless concept--yet, somehow, in some adolescent circles it is made out to be a giant inconvenience.  It can seem so daunting to a student when left to the back end of a process: take all of this work you just muscled through and rewrite it using stronger verbs, improving your punctuation, minding your focus, double-checking your content and support...and so on.

No wonder some do not revise in that classic mode--it sounds exhausting.

I've revised this blog several times in the act of writing it and until today I never thought of it in that way.  I'm the classic underwriter--I write enough to put my ideas down and then I go back through and build it out from the inside, and go back through again and again to change words, alter meaning, twist a phrase just so.  In my example of a classroom, I may not have believed or understood that to be a form of revision.

And some kids have authentic experiences with this which they have already enjoyed.

Take the example of MadLibs.  Are there many American kids out there who haven't toyed around with at least one pad of these fun oddities?  If they have, then they have experienced revision as they've wrestled over which adjective sounds the most disgusting and subsequently hilarious.

I'm glad I paid attention--I don't think I wrote anything the rest of the day today without recognizing those many moments when revision just kicked in on its own.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Resource Book Review: Clearing the Way

Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage WritersClearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers by Tom Romano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I read more about the teaching of writing, a common message has arisen: encourage the writer.

Published over twenty years ago, Romano proposes finding the good in student writing, having students write more than a teacher could possibly assess, write and read all kinds of writing, talk about writing, talk about writing, and, oh yeah, talk about writing.

The same message is still be trumpeted today by members of the National Writing Project and many well-versed teachers of writing. Yet, the stereotypical red-pen wielding, mistake maven still dominates English classrooms. Shackled by any number of things, Romano asserts that teachers fall into the habit of becoming college professors. Our downfall is we critique the mechanics of writing so much that we kill the writer's voice. We do more damage by damning things like the comma-splice...

I got the most out of Chapter 8 where Romano addresses assessing student writing. He admits that there have been occasions where he has failed miserably at his job in this capacity. Yet, I am encouraged by his own revelation:

Distinguishing between the student and the writing is a fool's distinction. Writing is the writer. It embodies her voice, her passion, her thinking, her intellect, her labor, and, on some occasions, her very soul.
You are a fine person, but this piece of writing is a D.
Don't kid yourself--when that happens the writer is stung.
Such a method is directly opposed to our purposes as teachers.

I'm quickly becoming fascinated with how many teachers of writing are disgusted by the damage we do to young writers by grading their work. This is different than assessing. Romano and the rest lay out a variety of powerful and effective assessing models. But this issue of grading is sitting with me like a ghost this summer.

Romano's book resurrected the conversation for me today.

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Resource Book Review: Hidden Gems

Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student's WritingHidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing by Katherine Bomer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't say that I ever anticipated reading an emotionally moving book about writing instruction. Over the last 24 hours I have read my first.

The intent of Katherine Bomer's cogent book on teaching writing, Hidden Gems, is to transform the way the rest of us approach student writing. Admittedly, it is awfully difficult to see a piece of student writing and not leap to what is wrong with it. It is how I was taught when I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15... And I allowed myself a brief moment of silent shame in a class this week with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (NWP) when a colleague projected a piece of student writing for all of us to discuss. Immediately, I saw the errors.

We didn't once discuss the errors--we discussed what was strong in it. We discussed what the writer could build upon. I listened and I have to admit, my perspective of what I do and how I do was altered.

Bomer addresses the fact that many teachers share in my experience:

Constant attention to and judgment on mechanics and organization becomes a systematic means for placing restraints on kids without listening to what they have to say.

Especially helpful is the fact that Bomer includes many student samples in her book. Yet, she not only covers what is strong, but she also models how she would confer with the student and what a plan might be moving forward. These are not perfect texts by our traditional definition. She selected a wide variety of samples.

Bomer also takes into consideration that what may be making teachers begin and end with negative comments on student writing is traced to the writing rubric and grading itself. She quotes from Maja Wilsons Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment:

However, writing may not be a simple system like billiards, subject to the laws of determinism.  Writing may more closely resemble complex, chaotic systems like global weather, economic systems, or political unrest.

Bomer is trying to balance the reality of our profession (or vocation) with the best case scenario for all involved. I liked that she focused on teaching us how to find things to compliment and build upon in student writing--she is trying to change the way you see yourself and how you see your writers.

Bomer writes that teachers need to write for good cause:

Teaching writing without doing it ourselves is like trying to teach a four-year-old how to tie shoes when we have only worn flip-flops our entire life.

I've come to a crossroads myself as a teacher of writing. It is only through discussion with peers, reflections on past practice, and reading books such as this that I can come to an educated decision about how I will move forward next year. I do not have a perfect answer yet, and I do not know that any of us ever can:

Most of us have a long way to go toward creating assessments that teach writing rather than sort, humiliate, and confuse...

Kids try hard to make writing look and sound like the #4...and if they miss the cues and fail to conform, this becomes one more notch in their belt of failure...

The beauty in this book, is not just teaching us to see the beauty and possibilities in all student writing, but it also very clearly holds our "schizophrenic" roles of supportive facilitator to critical judge right up to our faces.

You may not look at your role in the classroom the same way again.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

National Writing Project Day 8: Immersion in Respect

My contribution today is acknowledging the collegial respect demonstrated at our workshop.

We all know that teachers teaching teachers can sometimes be an intimidating prospect.  I've heard colleagues comment even jokingly that teachers can sometimes make some of the worst-behaved students.

Have you ever been in a faculty meeting where rude behavior went unchecked?  Have you ever worked anywhere where cliques developed and colleagues fall prey to judgment and the earnest construction of walls to protect the fifedom of their room or hall?

This is not the case here and I do not think that that can go by unnoticed.

If you read anything about the founding of the NWP or its continued development of leadership,  you find that one of the seminal principles is affording teachers the time to immerse themselves in...reading? (yes) ...writing? (yes) ...conferring? (yes) ...but more to my point, immersion in respect.

So this is what respect feels like...

So this is what being trusted with time feels like...

These tenets of what should be the foundation of all schools, "ain't" always so across the nation.  Just read the news, you may not have to look too far.

I just want to say that I appreciate the foundation of respect found in our PAWLP workshop, and it has been a pleasure getting know different people and all of the unique perspectives and talent we bring to the group.

Hopefully, we can all take this with us and lay the balm of respect on our own families, colleagues, and classrooms.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Resource Book Review: Inside Out

Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, 3/eInside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, 3/e by Tom Liner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first two words which comes to mind are "comprehensive" and "practical."

I wasn't wowed so I gave it 3 stars, but it doesn't exclude it from being a pretty darn smart buy if you don't have a lot of money to buy writing texts or or time to read too many of them, Dan and Dawn Kirby's "Inside Out" is probably a good place to start. 

It offers summaries of all of the good stuff presented by Attwell, Murray, Graves, Elbow, and Ray (among others) and presents these well-supported ideas buttressed by several exercises or lessons for your classes.

I like that there are several alternatives for using a journal, assessing student writing, writing about literature, and so on. Any teacher should feel as though they can find some useful and easily adaptable ideas in this text.

The most useful chapters for me may not be for someone else--which is what makes this book a strong consideration for your resource shelf. From theory to practice, you get a little bit of everything.

If you are the type (like me) who prefers to go deeper into any one area then you should look elsewhere. This is a well-crafted catch-all idea book which will certainly get some wear and tear over the years because you will access it for ideas.  That alone makes it worth the thirty dollars it lists for currently on

If you have a limited out-of-pocket budget for books or resources for your classroom this may be the best place to start.

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Resource Book Review: Because Writing Matters

Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our SchoolsBecause Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools by National Writing Project

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I should establish that the 3 star rating exists only because I am looking for books which can help teachers in their classroom now.  As you'll read this is a book with a long-range goal and noble message which all teachers should read.

Quite honestly, this is really a book for administrators and school boards or people who pull the strings. It is an excellent call to action for our nation's schools.  While the teachers are on the front lines, we can only march or fire or set up camp at the direction of those in command--we can't just teach what we matter how correct it is.  For there to be change, real change, our leaders need to work together to inspire the change...or acknowledge the change which needs to occur.

What alarms me is that Because Writing Matters reminded me that the famous Newsweek article "Why Johnny Can't Read" hit the scene in 1975.


I was 7.

Actually, this belief that young people can't write is nothing new. We can go all the way back to Harvard University's creation of a writing course for all incoming freshmen in 1875.

Yet, writing scores across the nation continue to decline or remain well below expectations.


We talk about at work.  We make professional suggestions.  We encourage growth and offer professional feedback.  We read, and share, and discuss the scores from state testing.

Yet, all across the nation, Johnny still can't write.

What I gather from this book as well as others is that we value other things more. We may say students need to write better, but in order for that to occur they need to write more.

Many studies suggest they write less in all of their classrooms.

Or if they do write, teachers have been trained or permitted to teach to the writing piece. Teachers have learned to assign writing and not teach the writer--and there is an enormous difference.  We lean on rubrics (some catered specifically to narrative, informative, or persuasive) and we point to hamburger charts and teach the correct composition of the five-paragraph essay.

Many studies suggest that students not only write less in language arts classrooms but they may not write at all some of their other classes. Writing, in our nation, has been swept into a tidy pile to be covered almost solely by English teachers...who teach content-based curriculum.

They have content to get to and through.  They also have traditional points of view to deal with when it comes to writing--the notion that if you are noting every error or slip in grammar then and only then are you helping them be a proficient writer.

We know enough to understand that literacy influences the rate of success and growth potential in our career.  People who do not write well, unfortunately, find fewer doors open to them in this world.

Yet, ask ten English teachers across the nation in 2011 if their classes are content-based or writing-based.  Don't be surprised by the response.

What good is it if a student knows about the different types of clouds or rocks, or the causes of the Civil War, or the Pythagorean Theorem if they can't write about it...especially with the technological revolution swirling around us.  As Kelly Gallagher suggests in Teaching Adolescent Writers, the merging of technology and literacy is a stampede heading dead at these kids.  They either need to start running with it, or they'll be passed by, or worse yet...crushed.

What good is it to ask our science, math, and social studies teachers to use writing in their classes if they have not been trained?  I can make a pretty solid prediction that many teachers outside of the language arts classroom would assume that they are not qualified to handle a steady diet of student writing because they do not feel capable of helping students with the conventions of grammar.

I'll also assume that many of those same teachers might be willing to do it if they were trained...and there will be still others who will want to be assured that they only need to assess the content of the piece..and leave the grammar to the English types.

A teacher reading this book might find it simultaneously enlightening and frustrating. We know where we need to go, we even know how we might get there...we are willing to do it as I imagine many were when I was 7 and Newsweek printed "Why Johnny Can't Write" but some of the roads are still closed.

So, when I say that this book is best suited for administrators or people who make the big decisions it is because this kind of evolution has to begin at the top. Otherwise, we're just a bunch of teachers in a bunch of different districts in a bunch of different states trying to do the right thing within a system which has not adjusted the rules of the game in spite of the evidence.  Among teachers, writing is called the Silent 'R for good reason.

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National Writing Project Day 7: Domain on the Brain

I have a few thoughts elbowing their way around my brain after today's workshop with Dr. Andy Fishman:

Thought(s) 1:
Have you found that you/your colleagues have mashed together the concept assessing/conferring about domains and grading essays with rubrics?  The more I learn the more I think we've come to that--the word "rubric" has found a way to replace the correct terms of more than just "domain."

Conferring about a specific domain is quite different than using a domain chart to stamp a grade on an essay, isn't it?

Is it easy for a teacher to confuse the two...use each incorrectly...and confuse the student writer?
I find that the use of the Pennsylvania Writing Assessment Domain Scoring Guide makes sense when  dealing with formative assessment and conferences.

I'm struggling with the distinction between that guide and a rubric.  Can that guide be a rubric?  Should it be?

I don't like the thought of a number on a guide...or on something which is best promoted (in my opinion) as a formative assessment guide.

It gets gummy when I start thinking about numbers and letters generated from that guide.

Thought(s) 2:
I can't recall if I read it in Study Driven or Teaching Adolescent Writers...or someplace else...but the concept that writing in the real world doesn't supply a rubric before writing kept creeping back into me today (even though today's discussion was domains).

If we are teaching domains (Focus, Content, Organization, Style, and Conventions) and these are best reinforced through rehearsal and conferring and writing and conferring and revision and conferring over and over, then why are we really using rubrics?  To teach to the essay?  To have a piece of paper with a stamp of approval upon it?  To cover our own rear-ends so that we can say "See, I used a rubric, my expectations were clear!"

Can we ever really separate and distinguish the difference?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

National Writing Project Day 5: Show, Don't Tell

As part of a teacher demo today by Sarah (PAWLP) we had an opportunity to work from some writing samples already in our daybook.

The first challenge was to write directions for a photographer who was going to recreate or film the experience.

I treated it like I was writing for a film and ended up using the idea of a wide angle shot of a camera, scrolling in to the opening of my narrative:

Wide angle shot of a suburban neighborhood from above.  We move in slowly as might towards one house in particular.  A white van sits in its driveway and a very tall man is walking to it from the porch.  Details of man and van are vague at best.

The morning shy over the house remains violet from the waning night.  The horizon--a thickening line of pale lavenders.

The ground is wet from a recent summer shower.

We zoom in slowly on the van from the side and to the rear, we see more of the house beyond it--two rocking chairs on a porch, colorful annuals in outs, and one light one downstairs towards the back of the house.

We swing along the side of the van and enter the passenger side window, rolled down, and enter.  We see Norman.  Tall and over-sized for the front seat, Norman stares at his cellphone in his open palm.

Phase two of our demo was to breathe some life into a character.  I chose to stay with Norman as I may be developing it for my rough draft for the week.  We had to write comparisons, showing what they do not embody.

Sarah used Sonnet 130 (Shakespeare) as a model for us: "My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun..."

This proved difficult for me.  It forced me to look at my character in an entirely new light.  I had to see a new detail which I may have ignored or maybe just didn't see:

Norman is ten pounds of cotton in a two pound bag--his wrist and shin and chest hair burst around and over and through the fabric like plumes of insects silently stalking prey.

What worked here for me as teacher and writer was not worrying about defining showing versus telling.  We were invited to work with our own authentic pieces of writing to begin to breathe life into it.

We did other exercises and discussed the ideas behind showing versus telling, but I have to throw it out there that I appreciate learning from colleagues when we are permitted to play around with the work, experiment, heck even fail at it--but it sure beats being lectured at and simply just told x, y, and z should be done because Dr. Fancydegree wrote about it in a book.

Teachers need to put their hands on the task and need to do it themselves to be able to understand it and then be able to teach it.

I'm appreciating the spirit behind our instruction in the PAWLP workshop--write alongside of your students.  See yourself as a a writer...and bring that into your classroom.

Start teaching the writer and not the writing.

Resource Book Review: Teaching Adolescent Writers

Teaching Adolescent WritersTeaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What strikes me about Kelly Gallagher's book is how thorough it is--by that I do not mean to suggest cumbersome and extraneous. I mean here is somebody who not only clearly articulates and well-support belief, but explains how he covers it in his classes and offers ideas as to how you might cover it in your class.

Everything I read in this book is absolutely adaptable to any class at any grade level.

He begins with a spot-on metaphor of what is happening in our world. The explosion of technology is putting a premium on an individual's capability to communicate: read and write. Technology hasn't made the fundamental value or skill easier, if anything it has shined a very bright light on it.

I'm writing now. You are reading now. Via technology.

This exchange between us did not occur LAST YEAR...others were blogging and reviewing books, yes, but it just trickled down to me. Now, go back ten years ago.

Go back to when I started teaching seventeen years ago. This did not occur.

As Gallagher extrapolates, "All teachers share the responsibility of not only teaching their content, but also promoting the literacy level of students."

We have to move beyond assigning writing and move more towards a whole-school value of teaching writing.

Gallagher roots his beliefs in the core value that we are all stakeholders in this process. And he demystifies the notion that science, or math, or art, or any teacher other than an English teacher can/should/is capable of teaching a writer in their subject area.

He offers dozens upon dozens of exercises capable of being used, right out of the book, for any course, any curriculum.

This is worth a first and second look; it is worth placing in your classroom as it will certainly get a lot of use once you crack it open. Who knows, maybe you'll even inspire a colleague to grow from it as well.

The bottom line is, kids have to write more than what we are generating nationwide. The national and state scores bear it out. The future, the rate and manner in which technology is hurtling forward...that too bears it out.

It is going to take some dialogue, but it has to start somewhere.  Gallagher's book is as solid a start as any I've read.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Resource Book Review: Study Driven

Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing WorkshopStudy Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a gem.

I borrowed this book from the PAWLP library, was impelled to take notes as I read--thirteen full pages--and still have resolved to buy the book for myself for my classroom and a place near my desk.

As a reference and resource for pieces of writing or places to find pieces of writing for support in your classroom it is the best I've come across.

As a reference and resource for lesson planning ideas it is the best I've come across. Katie Wood Ray offers THIRTY thorough lesson plans or what she calls study possibilities. This is after 186 pages chock full of great ideas, support, and inspiration. Some of the study possibilities she offers span the range of memoir, historical fiction, and practical how-to fiction, to photo essay, how writers use punctuation as a crafting tool, and Editorials, Commentary and all Things Op-ed.

This is a seriously thorough and well-balanced book.

At the core of her belief is immersion. We can only hope to improve students we teach by immersing them in the texts and in their writing--teaching them to read like writes. Immersion affords us the possibility to read the type of writing we are going to do, talk about it, practice it, and share it.

One of the seminal questions we can help all students by asking is "what have you read that is like what you are trying to write?"

Her preference for the outline of a typical class period would entail: whole class gathering for teacher-led conversation, demonstration, or inquiry; independent writing and writing-related work (conferencing); talking and sharing about the process of writing.

Katie Wood Ray concludes this thoughtful book by covering the issue of time. We are all pressed for time in our schools and districts. I won't go into here, but she makes a very eloquent case for considering trying to make at least some part of these ideas work in your classroom.

We don't teach under the same rules, issues, or needs. But can reach the same texts and have the same conversations (which our colleagues) to, perhaps, begin to shift the pendulum back. As far as time goes, until something changes, we have what we have.

Read this book--even if nothing changes in your school or district or curriculum I am confident this will help you make at least some positive change in your teaching.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Resource Book Review: Because Digital Writing Matters

Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia EnvironmentsBecause Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments by National Writing Project

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Built more on theory and pedagogy, this NWP book provides sound, rational reasoning for building the digital literacies of ourselves and our students--in that order.

A generalization referenced in the book resonated with me: our students are "digital natives" and their teachers are "digital immigrants". I appreciate the idea that we (the teachers) are constantly working to fit in technology. The book goes on to point out that since 2003 when everything began to become networked and our cloud environment was in its infancy, our students are now no longer the people our educational system was built to support.

It is different than The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks in that there are scant few authentic examples of projects, student work, or specific digital technology. While BDWM will certainly provide some moments for you to chew on, it is not the book to reference for quick adjustments to bring back to your classroom.

This is the slow-simmer book. It contains the ideas to bring back to your colleagues and your administrators. It is the book to bring back to your school community.

Are things really just the same as they were 30 years ago just with nicer computers, or has the world dramatically shifted, and with it writing, composing, conferring, reading...learning?

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Goodnight, Mrs. Morehead

This is a short story generated through a writing exercise at the NWP summer workshop I am currently taking.  The story completely evolved and shifted from a comedy about a cockatoo flapping around the head of a very tall plumber to a story about caring for a mother with the onset of dementia.

Still a draft (and in need of revision)...

Norman didn’t just duck his head or stoop his shoulders through doorways, each joint in his body participated out of necessity—an unfortunate circumstance for a plumber who by the nature of the job often accessed low and cramped spaces.  When engaged in work, Norman often resembled a preying mantis—all knees and elbows and Adam’s apple. 

He sat in his van outside Mrs. Agnes Morehead’s cape cod with the Spartan wraparound porch.  The van idled and Norman stared at his cell phone in his open palm.   He dwelled on called out sick for work this morning. Someone else could finish the work at 112 Prairie Aster Lane.

He would have to go someplace else for the rest of the day.

Jutting his face forward and tilting it sideways he admired the cleanliness and charm of the property.  Colorful annuals in tiny pots dotted the porch.  Two austere rocking chairs stood on guard on either side of one window.  And a whirligig of a man rowing a boat while another bailed water shifted slightly.

Norman looked at his phone again.   Seven fifteen.  If he was going to call out sick it would have to be now.

He put it away in his shirt pocket.  Reaching into the brown paper bag on the passenger seat he dropped a small brown vial into his other shirt pocket.  On this pocket "Norman" was stitched in red.

Opening and closing his hand, a dozen tiny snaps released from between his finger bones and then Norman shut of the van, opened the door, and disentangled himself from the driver’s seat and steering wheel.  He couldn’t do it—he couldn’t call.

He held onto the doorframe in order to slide the core of his body out without losing his balance.  With his long flat feet firmly on the street, he uncreased the rest of his body, cracked his back, and settled into who and what he was: a very tall man.

His lip frowned on the right side.  It was involuntary but truthful.  He set the tool bucket down next to him on the wooden planks of the porch and paused.  He squeezed two pieces of PVC pipe under his arm, while his pockets bulged with two new supply tubes, a bonnet, a poppet, a wax gasket, another new stop valve, and an assorted handful of gaskets, bolts, and washers.  Norman looked at the door handle and became aware of the phone in his shirt pocket.

He could still call.  He should call.

With his hand reaching for his phone again, a neighbor yelled good morning and to say so to Agnes as well.


Before finishing his statement of self-loathing Mrs. Agnes Moorehead spoke in her normal speaking tone and level—a classic old woman’s scream.

“It’s open!”

The word “open” rolled beneath the door and up up up into Norman’s cocked head with a long and undulating pitch.

Disgusted with himself for yet another morning, he pressed on the handle and opened the door.

“I was just getting my house coat…”

The door swung open slowly.

“…and saw you through the window.”

She smiled at him familiarly.

Norman folded himself under the archway and grunted inaudibly.  Again, each bone crackled its reestablishment into place and Norman grew another foot or more.

“Close the door, won’t you, son.”

On the dining room table, set directly in front of her plate of one fried egg and one slice of toast, was Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s beloved cockatoo Baby.  With a knotty hand, she removed the cover and slipped the clasp of the cage to set Baby free inside the house.
Norman’s muscles tensed as he remained still, holding his bucket of tools and PVC pipe, one complete step inside the doorway.  He looked at the egg and around the rest of the table.

Baby immediately flop-flop-flopped her wings to Norman and then up to his face.  And just as she had done yesterday, she pounded the air to settle on a shoulder on either side of his head.

Norman’s eyes rolled up in familiar annoyance.  His pants felt heavy and uncomfortable.
It seemed as though the bird was in utter disbelief in what it saw, again—her crest stood on end and her beak hung open, agape.  For brief moments she cuddled her crest against his face—his lips purled in distaste of feathers.

The birds wide wings thumped the air and cuffed Norman in the forehead or the back of the neck whenever he moved when she clearly didn’t want him to move.

“Oh!  Baby wants to be your partner again today, Norman!  Isn’t that nice!”

In some respects it helped Norman that Mrs. Agnes Morehead yelled.

“Close the door, won’t you, son?”

He winced as wings obstructed his sight during some moments; otherwise, the wings marred his hearing.

Norman learned to walk all over again yesterday.  A recurring pattern in this house it seemed. On many occasions he stepped forward and caught an agglomeration of the pale yellow underbelly of Baby’s wings.  He learned to be patient and waited for the bird to choose his right ear or left ear to hover near.  Once he felt that Baby settled for a moment, Norman took long and quick strides—he knees stretching out far and high.

Baby had to pump her wings in order to catch up and it proved quite an effort to accelerate.  These proved to be the difficult moments for Norman.  As Baby caught up, Norman stopped to allow her to circle his head again, rubberneck in disbelief, and begin the process of trying to walk all over again.

Beads formed on his forehead and he heaved the bucket packed with tools and negotiated Baby’s flight pattern.  Across the living room, down the short hall, and into the bathroom designed on a budget, Norman grumbled out of the side of his mouth, “Beat it, Baby.”
He thought ahead when he loaded the van this morning.  Although he stared at his phone and contemplated the sick day, he shoved every tool he’d need into a bucket (it held more than his toolbox) and even those he would never need to finish the job without having to head back to the van.

In the bathroom now, Norman felt a sense of satisfaction that his face would be behind and under Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s wet toilet.  It proved to be the only respite from Baby.

She yelled from the dining room in her normal speaking voice.

“Norman!  I’m going to fry an egg.  I haven’t had my breakfast.”

Baby still perched nearby, on the lip of the lid, and peered at Norman with a laser beam’s intensity, but he felt a sense of joy that he was winning something—he’d gotten one over on Baby this day.

In his mind, he was in a comfortable place.  He smiled at the breakfast comment.
Norman placed each tool in a neat stack, like a cord of wood, between the vanity and the toilet.  As his bones tucked beneath other bones so he could crouch, Baby settled onto the sink.  As he rose again, and bone after bone popped into a corrective state, Baby took flight again—a halo of white and pale yellow around his head.

He dropped fistfuls of parts from his pockets onto the floor near where his face would soon be, and he leaned the PVC tubing against the wall in tub.

Everything was done so he would not have to rise much, if at all, and not have to work around this bird any longer than needed.  If he could only make it to noon then he’d be fine—Baby only came out to stretch her wings in the morning.

Using the sink and the wall tile as a brace with his hands, Norman began the careful routine of tucking, bending, doubling over body parts, bones, and joints. He maneuvered like an erector set pressed together into a box that never would hold it.  He became human origami cramped into the space between the wall and toilet and he exhaled in relief.  One leg stretched well out into the hallway while the other draped over the wall of the tub and rested against the wall.

The valve still leaked.  He replaced it yesterday, but now he’d have to disassemble it and work on it again, perhaps replacing more pieces than he did yesterday.

A patient and observant plumber, Norman rated off the charts by his supervisors.  His father was a plumber—he’d died only a few years ago.

Turning off the water he flushed to empty the tank.  Baby hopped from the sink onto the bowl.

She wanted to be closer to her Norman.

Norman reached under the sink and tossed some old hand towels up into the tank.
He disassembled the stop valve against the wall and went ahead and removed the valve at the bottom of the tank. 

With elbows tucked against his chest he scrubbed everything with a wire brush and wiped each end of each piece smooth and clean with a remaining hand towel.

Perturbed, Mrs. Agnes Morehead yelled again from the dining room.

“Young man!  Er…young man!  I haven’t had my breakfast.  I’m going to fry an egg.  I like to dip toast into the yolk!”

Fascinated by her gentle giant, Baby remained on the edge of the lid, her beak and brown eyes inches from Norman’s face. 

He replaced everything, leaned up to reach in for the towels in the tank—Baby rubbed her head against his face again—and then settled back down to turn on the water.

He spit fragments of feathers from his lips.  Baby shifted from talon to talon.

Norman reached up with his hand, flushed, and everything continued to leak.
He pushed on as his father had instructed him.  In twenty minutes time, Norman had removed the suspected failing parts again and replaced everything again, this time with newer parts.

Time passed and his struggle with the slow leak continued.

He repeated the process a third time, trying different combinations of today’s newer parts with yesterday’s new parts.

He looked up and saw Mrs. Agnes Moorehead standing near the doorway looking at neither him nor Baby.

“Everything ok?”

Her eyes blinked once and she seemed to see him again.  And smiled.

“I’m going to fry an egg, sir.”

Norman held back his grin—her yelling echoed through the tiny quarters.

“Didn’t you already eat?”

When he didn’t hear a reply, he looked up and she was gone, but Baby continued to gawk at him.

Norman continued to wipe beneath the toilet, but could not pin point the leak. 

Baby flapped and fluffed her wings in agitation.  She smacked Norman on the head again and again like something out of long retired vaudeville animal act.

He finished wiping and he knew what he had to do.  He loathed the thought of it, but he couldn’t see any other way for peace.

Foot by foot, and bone by bone, Norman unsnarled himself from beneath Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s toilet and stood to the relief of his bones and the flop-flop-flop of Baby staring directly in Norman’s eyes.

Norman took the brown vial from his shirt and stared back at the bird.

“Pardon me.  Sir.  I have to excuse myself to the privy if you don’t mind.  Is it safe?”

He dropped the vial back into his shirt and excused himself to the living room while Baby pelted his face and head and neck with her flapping wings.

Mrs. Agnes Moorehead returned to the living room and they stared at one another as strangers.

“I like to dip my toast in the yolk.”

And then she shuffled on by to sit in isolation in her dining room chair.  Only fried egg whites remained on five separate plates.


Norman began to speak.   But he stopped himself, and so, he and the bird returned to the bathroom.


Norman took a rag and stuffed the bottom of the sink and turned on the water.


He removed the tank lip and held it in his left hand.  With his right he turned off the water in the sink.


Also with is right, he removed the vial from his pocket again, twisted the cap off with his teeth and dumped the contents into the tank of the toilet—red food coloring.
He replaced the lid, checked for any spilled food coloring, and then returned to the living room.


“I’ll need to come back in an hour or so, but you can not use the bathroom.  Can I take you next door?  Mrs. Murdoch told me to say good morning to you.”

She seemed to stare at old pictures in gold frames and didn’t move or respond.  The dining room remained dark.  On the table in front of her sat an empty open cage and five plates of uneaten fried egg whites.

Norman repeated his question.


She didn’t respond.  She was someplace else and learned he would have to wait for her to return.  She was ok where she was—he would have to wait.

Norman sat on the sofa, the carpet worn in his usual place beneath his feet, and stared back at an old woman who didn’t know him anymore.

The scent of a burning egg intensified.


Resource Book Review: The Digitial Writing Workshop

The Digital Writing WorkshopThe Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rooted in sound process writing principles, Troy Hicks leads you through many possibilities of transforming at least a portion of what you do in your class. I liked that he stresses the concept that we shouldn't be writing digitally just for the sake of using a computer or a slick new program. The core of what we are working are still the principles of effective writing and that should always be the primary concern.

Understanding that that is platform Troy Hicks builds upon, The Digital Writing Workshop covers RSS, Social Bookmarking, Blogging, Podcasts, Wikis, and Collaborative Word Processors just to name a few. He offers many well documented sources and authentic examples of teacher and student work. We can see both in the book as well as by typing in any number of the sites Hicks suggests what modes we can influence in our own classrooms.

One of the strengths of the book is its clarity of purpose, audience, and execution. Each segment is covered thoroughly in a language which can comprehended by any teacher with any level of experience of technology. He offers links to wonderful sites which can take the beginner step by step through the basics, as well as links for the intermediate or advanced.

I borrowed the book from a library and took extensive notes in my daybook, but I am already committed to buying my own copy to have on-hand as a resource.

His style and vision is so helpful that I went and borrowed his second book, a collaboration, Because Digital Writing matters...which I plan on beginning once I end this sentence with a period.

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The Big Picture: Bringing mentors into your classroom...

On July 6th I will be presenting a presentation entitled The Big Picture: Bringing mentors into your classroom through videoconferencing tools such as Skype, iChat, and Google+.  The following is the supplement which I will distribute to the teachers.  This is a part of a National Writing Project summer workshop hosted by the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University.

 PAWLP Presentation

National Writing Project Day 4: Character

One of our peers, Katie, presented an engaging lesson on character which can be easily adapted to any classroom at any grade level.  The focus of the presentation was having students analyze and create character within the same lesson--of course you could break this up over a couple of classes.  We completed the lesson within the hour.

We were first asked to think of a strong character who appealed to us and then write a list of all of his/her traits.  I chose Granddaddy from Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  I remembered his many strengths even though I'd read the book several months ago: intelligence, curiosity, humble, loving to his granddaughter, mysterious, private, independent, strong, perceptive, generous, and courteous.  I failed to add that I imagined him physically as the spitting image of Mark Twain.

After we shared some of this prior knowledge, we were reminded that strong characters are alive, believable, and relatable.  All of these applied to the character I chose.  It was a grounding moment and a good way to build a sense of community within a lesson.  Many heads nodded or carried pleased grins because their characters also fit the attributes presented by the teacher.

Using Ralph Fletcher's tenets of a strong character (What a Writer Needs) our next activity was explained.  We were to use physical traits, personality, a telling detail, spoken words, and gesture or motion to build a strong character.  We would generate this by writing in our daybooks.  However, Katie used a charming method of moving the group into having some fun with the task while also providing us an unobstructed path into writing almost immediately.

We sat in groups of 4 or 5 and were told we were cooks in a diner.  We even had fun short order cook hats which she made.  Katie came to each table and placed her order as our customer.  At our table she ordered one of each of the tenets of strong character.  Her specific request for our table asked us to focus on height, frustration, a pet, whispering, and the adjustment of something.  Given ten to fifteen minutes to write I found that this specific request was so focused that it immediately gave me a way in.  Yet, it was also broad enough so that our creativity was not corralled into so narrow a chute that our group developed similar characters.  Quite the contrary, everyone came up with dramatically different characters.

We were then asked to read our entries to our group members and then highlight the lines which they believed captured one of the tenets quite well.  We searched for lines within our group until we could fill the columns labeled: physical traits, personality, a telling detail, spoken words, and gesture or motion.

Katie asked for two volunteers to share their character for the entire class and a partner for each.  As one read to the room the partner would ring a bell each time he/she heard one of Fletcher's tenets of building strong character.

I don't have the direct quote, but Katie posted a quote on the board by education pioneer Donald Graves which nailed the importance of doing such an activity with students: fiction offers children an opportunity to analyze human characteristics.

This struck me as a perfect lesson to process summer reading in districts where students are given a variety of choices.