Wednesday, May 20, 2015

King for a Day

Reading Hamlet during my freshman year of college I felt like I was deconstructing a skyscraper by hand--rivet from steel, brick from mortar, nail from wood--and sorting all of it into piles just to make sense of it.

The vocabulary was too difficult.

After twenty years as a teacher, I have little faith that any vocabulary series or program alone would have prepared me for my first encounter with that specific text. On several occasions I have read and heard in workshops that it takes being exposed to a word 20x or more for it to take root within us.

This doesn't mean reading a word to oneself 20x in a row: lithe, lithe, lithe, lithe... It means 20 different and fresh encounters. Perhaps the first two would be on the Word Wall in my classroom over two consecutive days. A third might come (hopefully) from a reading. A fourth from a rereading of the same text. A fifth arrives the next day in class when the student sees the Word Wall. A sixth might come from a writing prompt in another content area. A seventh might be the student adding it to their notebook Word Wall. 

And so on.

Making vocabulary stick is a recursive process, much like writing. We return to an idea again and again with a fresh set of eyes in the fresh light of a meaningful and fluid circumstance. It frustrates me when we invest money and time into vocabulary programs which neither work in conjunction with the texts the students read nor work in conjunction with much of the content in a student's day.

I do not hesitate to add that the reason for the success of some vocabulary programs and disposal workbooks is because they make a teacher's work easier rather than provide the best instruction for growth in vocabulary. Vocabulary programs and workbooks are fine for crunching words in preparation for the SAT, but they do little to bolster the everyday literacy of most students.

If I were King for a Day, and I could improve vocabulary instruction in middle schools, this is what I would do:

  • Word Walls in every classroom based on current content area texts--which models what students should keep in their notebooks
  • Word Walls in every notebook--modeled on the teacher's Word Wall, students develop vocabulary lists based on in-class texts, out-of-class assigned texts, and their self-selected, independent reading...which means students must be reading engaging texts in order to develop vocabulary.
  • Team "Words of the Week" included on our teacher/team word walls
  • Writing across the content areas to engage higher-order thinking and to engage creativity.
Although I am not King for a Day, I am King of my blog and so I will end by repeating myself: students must be reading engaging texts in order to develop vocabulary

As opposed to furiously completing exercises in vocabulary workbooks for a very short-term, disconnected, experience. An exercise in learning how to know something just long enough to remember it for the test.

If you are stuck with a vocabulary program or workbook the best gift you can give your students is the gift of self-selected, independent reading. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

We Get What We Emphasize

I caught a Tweet this morning that struck me: "It's not about the app. It's not about the device. It's about the process."

Applying this logic to the English classroom, would these also be true: 

"It's not about the classroom novel. It's not about the classroom library. It's about the process."

"It's not about informative, argumentative, or narrative writing. It's not about the five paragraph essay. It's about the process."

I'm sure others can turn a phrase more powerfully, but what struck me is how focused we can become on the concrete. Which novel should we teach? Which type of writing should we emphasize? And now, many schools are on the hamster wheel studying which device would be best. Classroom teachers continue to pick each other's brains for a can-do, magical app.

We often forget the process is what matters most. The process gets lost in conversation. The process is often overlooked in professional development. At best it is on the docket, but never quite takes center stage.

Why does "process" get pushed off on individual teachers to figure out in isolation?

Answer: because there is no one process. For every child in our classroom, we have the potential for variances of brilliance within individual processes. Teaching and emphasizing process takes time and empathy.

And process doesn't test least not in our current state of testing.

The tweet struck me and it continues to turn the cogs in my brain. It struck me that we are stuck in education. We are indeed stuck on "device" and "app" and any number of fixed, standardized modes of content.

Device. App. Informative Writing. Tom al. None of these are unnecessary conversations, but they seem to be the only conversations.

I learned very early in my coaching career--and it is so true for education--we get what we emphasize.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Bond Between Writing & Character

Last night I attended a book chat hosted by the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Author Mickey Getty discussed and read from her gritty novel Soot. Set in Pennsylvania coal mining town, Soot is the story of the struggle of Bridie O'Doyle. She, like all who endured that life, lived as a slave to coal. It killed every significant soul in her life--neighbors, fathers, husbands, and children.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Mickey and her husband. We got to share a short piece of writing with one another. To start things off, everyone was asked to respond to the prompt "What memories do you have of coal in your life?"

I wrote:
My great-grandfather came to America 114 years ago from Southern Italy. He settled and raised a family in Philadelphia. On the coldest of evenings, he took hot coal from the basement stove, wrapped the chunks in rags, and bound them to the feet of his six children as they slipped beneath the covers in bed. One of his daughters, my great-aunt, shared that memory with me many times.
Mickey read hers about being a child and watching the "river of coal rush" through a chute into her basement and then being scrubbed clean in a hot tub with lye soap. She smiled like the cat ate the canary and said, "I guess I did more than just look."

Yet, what struck me most about the evening was when Mickey read passages from her novel. On several occasions, she wept as she read.

It was powerful.

Mickey apologized and explained that she really does become Bridie as she reads. She said she embraces a Stanislavsky-like approach when she writes. So, she lived and endured Bridie's hard story a million times over.

And it never gets old. It feels new and real each time.

She shared, "many women lived this way."

It was so touching--and interesting--to witness a very real bond between writer and character. I can't explain it, nor do I want to.

I just want to admire it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Community of Teachers

Can I share how nice it was to sit down with colleagues to talk about people rather than programs?

Too often, education entombs itself in discussions of programs: Study Island, Math in Focus, Vocabulary Workshop, Singapore Math, Lindamood Bell, Holt-McDougal, Pearson, et al. Everyone is producing programs which often justify themselves with jargon such as "clinical research and experience indicate..." Sometimes "program" is simply a synonym for curriculum.

Teachers end up in training or self-contained meetings discussing curriculum and programs. We focus so hard on what is contained inside of our curriculum buckets that we completely disregard looking through the windows which have always been in front of us. 

We talk curriculum and program so much that we forget to talk about people. Sometimes we make decisions based on what is easier for us to manage and assess--ergo the birth of the purple unicorn aka the five paragraph essay--rather than what we know is good and true and valuable for our kids.

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to spend the day with three colleagues and a guest to discuss writing. Over the course of six hours we read and discussed four articles: Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product, by Don Murray; Assessing With the Heart, by Vicki Spandel; On Getting Lost, Finding One's Direction, and Teacher Research, by Jerome C. Harste and Christine Leland; and Chapter 4: Common Characteristics of Writing Workshop, by Donald Graves.

We shared what we did in our classrooms. We questioned ideas. We asked for help.

Our discussions were built on research and evidence in addition to the realities of our classrooms and our students.

The best indicator of our growth was when we began to question and challenge the group with what-ifs about people:

  • I agree with what the research says, but how do I help this specific student?
  • I like this idea, but can I do it? Can I let go of x?
  • What if we do x, but it doesn't affect every student?
  • How would I help this student if I did x with these students?

We found a shift. We stepped outside of the shallow curriculum bucket. Our answers were not in a product or a program, the answers are around us. And the answers are beautifully incomplete--and never will be mastered--because we are talking about people. And people change. Numbers don't change. Words don't change. People change.

In that meeting, we valued people over programs.

This is not to dismiss the value of programs. No one in the right mind would bash the idea of a curriculum. However, we need to step outside from the safety of our houses. Growth in education should be messy and challenging and collegial. Sometimes we are a neighborhood of teachers who  build fences and ignore the importance of being an active part of our community. We should be learning and trying things together rather than individually burying ourselves inside of programs and products.

And, quite honestly, this only happens if we talk through more than one lens. Attending conferences, workshops, visiting classrooms, reading education journals--getting outside of our own houses and experiences--opens up the conversation. We welcome the community and the community welcomes us.

And the more we talk about what we see other teachers do or what we heard other teachers say or what we read others write, the more likely we are to talk about people and value people over programs. When we do, we truly become a community of teachers more than a neighborhood.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Student Notes & What Sticks

On Friday, some middle school teachers received handmade notes of appreciation from former students. We receive the notes each year--someone is organizing the gesture through our high school.

It struck me as I read mine--and after a colleague read several of his aloud--that our former students appreciated how we treated them more than what we taught them.

Note after note referred to memories of joy. They remembered laughter and silliness. They noted moments of independence--in my case, an appreciation of time to read self-selected texts in comfortable spaces.

Currently, I am reading Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith's "Reading Unbound" which makes a strong case for creating the conditions for joy through reading.

This comes on the heels of reading Harste and Leland's "On Getting Lost, Finding One's Direction, and Teacher Research" ( which reminds us how little we allow for student input when creating curriculum or designing the conditions of our classrooms.

Perhaps these notes of appreciation are more than thank you.

Perhaps these notes of appreciation are tangible evidence of what sticks with students and what we should do more of.