As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Value of Discussion and Discourse in the Literature Classroom

Chapter 4, Authentic Listening and Speaking, resonates with me a great deal. I've been a proponent of Harkness discussions since 2010 and I wouldn't run my classroom any other way. Sonia's experience on pages 99-105 are a testament to this process. I can share the same experience as Sonia. Repeatedly students give me feedback once they're in college that they felt completely prepared for classroom discussion as a result of the format of my class. The discussions build confidence in their own opinions, teach them how to back up their opinion with textual evidence, foster good listening and speaking skills, and so much more.

Sonia offers good advice on how to start training students on seminar-type discussion formats. She offers excellent advice particularly for incoming freshmen who are likely not accustomed to discussion format. I particularly like her "Sentence Starters." It's also important to have students prep for discussions, so she offers the Socratic Seminar Prep Guide. I do something similar, but I have students keep notes in what I call a "daybook," which is essentially a dialectical journal to capture quotations and thoughts on the reading.

I encourage anyone who hasn't tried Socratic or Harkness discussions in his or her classroom to give it a shot. It takes a lot of modeling and patience to get the engine running, so to speak, but it's well worth it in the end.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Story So Far...

I've been really connecting with this text, realizing that I do a lot with my own classroom in regards to bringing in real world relationships. I am a supporter of the mini lessons, allowing students to bring in real world examples (current events, television shows, anecdotes from their jobs) to what we are doing in the classroom. I love it!

One thing that keeps bouncing around in this head of mine is the concept of encouraging students to take responsibility for their work and showing them what they can do with it.

As a teacher in Detroit, I hear and see a lot of the same things:

  • My parents never went to college and they're fine.
  • Why do I need to do this? I won't need this for a job!
  • Copying homework
  • Photos of tests and quizzes sent to kids who were absent
  • Why do I have to write so much?
I struggle with finding ways to prevent the cheating and the defensive questions. What I think is encouragement seems to always be me hounding my kids and then having them not do the work because I sound more like their mother than a teacher.

I really like the different projects discussed so far in this book, especially the Hairspray Project (because I'm a theater person at heart). Creating these projects for students to have more than just a research paper to take away is astounding.

I'm thinking more and more about how my kids need to be doing things that they are proud of and not copying things from anyone else. I have done a couple, however I feel like I need to work harder and come up with more things to incorporate in my classroom.

Almost finished with chapter 3. I can't wait to discuss more with you.

Writing is the New Black:thoughts on chapter 3

The more I read this text, the more I find myself conversing with it -- arguing its points and nodding my head in agreement at some others. One thing this book and I agree on is that writing is a life skill and we need to take time to develop students' writing. From that point though, a lot of things complicate this process and standardized tests seem to be one of them, among others.

First, this text talks about how teachers feel pressured because of standardized tests and that shouldn't be the focus, yet the authors use standardized test scores to show how students are lacking in their writing skills. All I could think was how does writing on standardized tests accurately measure how well our students write? In many cases they are timed, and the product is essentially a rough draft. My question is, how often in "the real world" do we write a first draft of something and send it or publish it? Like, NEVER. (I apologize for the use of the filler word "like" in this instance but all that came to mind was the Taylor Swift song "Never Getting Back Together" -- like EVER -- and the way she stresses it in the song is the way I hear myself saying it in this post. BUT, I digress!) While I agree that there are likely gaps in writing in most students, given the examples of so-called college writing I've seen myself, I'm not sure that standardized tests are the best way to measure how well our students write. Essentially it's like assessing them on a first draft. Can you even imagine grading on a first draft? I can't. It's not realistic. Where's the collaboration? Where's the editing process? What would the final product look like? As we all know, some of us are better first draft writers than others, but that doesn't make one a better writer than the other, does it? Perhaps I'm wrong. I don't know.

Another point of contention I have is the fact that Lattimer asserts high school teachers don't think it's their job to teach writing and that it belongs at the elementary or middle school level. In my experience, all high school teachers have their students write and probably believe they are satisfying the writing across the curriculum idea. However, I wonder if it's a matter of HOW to teach writing for non-English teachers. Can anyone tell me if in their teacher training in disciplines outside of English if you were taught how to teach writing to students in your discipline? I'm legitimately curious to know, because as an English teacher, I had to take a course or two on how to teach writing. So I wonder if the same is true in other disciplines.

Writing absolutely needs to be taught across the curriculum -- explicitly. At the same time, we need to equip teachers of those disciplines how to teach writing in their subject area and sufficient class time needs to be allocated to writing in each classroom and discipline.

One last point I disagree with Lattimer on is her take on providing a framework for writing (i.e. thesis development, topic sentence development, outline, etc.). She argues that the thinking is taken out of the process when we break down the writing process in such a manner. I don't agree at all. Giving a student a starting point as in coming up with a working thesis or working topic sentences doesn't stop the thinking process. I do think it could do that if the student is fixated on a specific number of paragraphs or words, but some type of assistance with organizing thoughts absolutely needs to happen. This doesn't mean that one has to have a rigid format that a student must follow, but young writers need help organizing their ideas. I think offering such tools as graphic organizers and modeling the writing process personally benefits these students. Eventually they will acclimate to whatever writing process works best for them, but we're there to give them the tools to help them organize, and some students need graphic organizers or outlines and such to help them do so.

All in all I can agree with Lattimer that writing is essential in today's world regardless of the field in which one works/studies. I have trouble with the hypocrisy of criticizing standardized tests, yet using standardized test scores to prove how dire our student writing situation is. While our students should absolutely write about real-world situations and audiences, I alsob believe their writing should be assessed in a more realistic way than standardized tests. Additionally,  I think we should assume good will when it comes to teachers in other disciplines as it relates to writing, but perhaps we need to think about how those teachers are trained to teach writing in their disciplines. Maybe then we would see an accurate picture of where our students' writing is and improvement in their skills as well.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lighting a Fire

Photo from https://eastwest.force.com/apex/Offers?Experience=Celebrations%20$%20Festivals; Text added by Me :)

As I write this blog post, I am at a conference for some professional development in Denver. It is exciting and reinvigorating to be with other educators who are trying new things, finding ways to provide amazing learning opportunities, and thinking critically about how to improve their own practice. After a long year of teaching, this conference as well as the ideas in the book (that I will discuss below) is exactly what I needed to reflect on my own teaching, inspire myself to try new things, and set some goals for next year. This post will specifically focus on my ideas and thoughts about Chapters 2-3 (about reading and writing) in terms of my key take-aways, some specific goals I have for myself for next year, and some lingering questions about which I would appreciate help and feedback.

Take-Aways / I Learned...
In the two chapters about reading and writing, I found myself focusing on a number of similarities in their overall messages about what this means for effective teaching and inspired learning. There are four main things I learned or was reminded of in these chapters that also help to inform the goals I'm setting for the next year.
  1. Learners need explicit instruction and a clear breakdown of skills, expectations, and goals. This came through most clearly for me when Lattimer (2014) writes, "Too few students are actually taught how to critically engage with complex texts in a manner that prepares them for the reading expectations of life after high school" (p. 26). Too often do I (and others) assume that students know how to read, comprehend, and think through the different forms of text we present them. They need clear direction on what is expected of them, why, and how they can and should work to achieve those goals.
  2. We need to provide learning opportunities with authentic tasks and audiences because this helps with student motivation and interest and also leads to more student-driven purposes for reading. That is to say that the students will be more likely to be actively thinking about why they need to read a particular text, what they hope to learn from it or get out of it, and thus become more engaged in finding, analyzing, and thinking about sources as well as creating, revising, and sharing their own productions. This idea is true for both reading and writing as demonstrated by the following two quotations from Lattimer (2014). "In the world beyond high school, people read when they need to answer real questions in response to real problems" (p. 31). And, "Too often, writing in schools isn't communication between a writer and an audience; it is a grade-driven transaction between a teacher and a student" (p. 62). We need to show learners that these skills are actually lifelong skills by preparing them for and engaging them with authentic questions with real audiences.
  3. Our classrooms and teaching strategies must work together to create a community of learners that supports and encourages both collaboration, debate, and student accountability. In writing, Lattimer (2014) describes how, "Uncovering varying stories leads to more questions, further research, and hard discussions about the nature of history as well as the nature of 'truth'" (p. 61), which is exactly what I hope students will do in history and in life as they work to understand different perspectives. Similarly in reading, she references some other research to say,  "When students can talk about their reading, comprehension increases and retention of information is strengthened" (p. 26-27). Again, this is what we as teachers hope for (learning and retention). However, this is only really possible if you have a community that is supportive, collaborative, and inquisitive. As Lattimer (2014) explains, "Interactions with peers, readers, reviewers, and supervisors help writers to clarify their thinking, communicate effectively, and ensure that they are achieving their intended purpose" (p. 64). Without a community of learners to help each other, debate ideas, and hold each other accountable, we are making more work for ourselves and providing fewer opportunities for growth for our students.
  4. Throughout all teaching, we must give students lots of time to practice with reflection. Not only does Lattimer (2014) emphasize the importance of "Practice, Practice, Practice" in both chapters 2 and 3, but it is also abundantly clear through all of the sample lessons she provides in these chapters. The projects and learning opportunities created for students give extensive amounts of time to practice these skills and reflect on them as they go. It takes time and thoughtful practice to improve and master these skills, so we need to make sure students not only do that practice and reflection but that we provide meaningful opportunities for them to do so.
Goals / I will...
In addition to these key ideas identified above, I also set myself some personal goals for what I will try to do in my own classes in the coming year. Although I hope all of these things will help me develop in my own teaching practice and work towards doing all the things I just listed above, I also wanted to come up with some concrete things I knew I could do that were fairly realistic and manageable with some legwork on my part.
  1. I will help students develop their clear purpose for reading and hopefully include something similar to the poster in the case study classroom that helps students do this by asking the following: 1) What are you reading? (title, author, source); 2) What do you expect to learn from it? (information, ideas, perspectives); and 3) How will it help you answer your research question? I will make something similar, but may adjust slightly to also include some prompts to help get students thinking through a source evaluation technique we use at our school.
  2. I will include mini-lessons with the just-in-time approach followed by individual conferences with students. I sort of did this with some projects this year, but I really like the idea of focusing mini-lessons on clear and specific skills that students will need that day and then following up with them to see how it works, and give further guidance if needed.
  3. I will connect with my communities to help create authentic audiences. A couple ideas that I have for how to do this include interviewing different community members in different roles about what it means to be American or about their immigration stories (for my US history class). We could also find ways to provide some products (like a books or comics) explaining what they've learned to elementary school students in our district.
  4. I will teach and model skills that I am expecting students to use. So the mini-lessons I create will not just be about reading and writing, but also include instruction about how to collaborate effectively, evaluate sources, and provide clear and useful feedback to peers. I'm not entirely sure how to teach or explain all of these things just yet, but hopefully I can figure it out (and get help from others, too).
Questions / I wonder...
Finally, I'm wondering about how best to do the following, so if you have tips, advice, suggestions, or are feeling the same things and are willing to grapple with it all together, please reach out!
  1. As mentioned above, how do you clearly and explicitly teach skills like noticing things in texts, collaborating with others, or organizing notes and information? Are their mini-lessons from the case studies in the book available? Or are there are other resources of sample lessons for teaching these "soft" skills?
  2.  Lattimer (2014), says, "An effective real-world writing assignment has clear expectations but avoids giving so much structure that the writing become formulaic" (p. 65). How do you find the happy balance of structure without formula? When first helping my middle school students to develop and writing thoughtful essays, how do I help them master the structure without giving them a sort of formula to write their thesis, topic sentences, etc.?
  3. Many of these exemplary case studies have outside experts come in to school to present the problem and evaluate final projects, and most are also having students ask these experts or community members questions in interviews. How do you find the time and funding support to help students do all these interviews/field trips? With 8th and 9th grade students, they cannot drive themselves, and coordinating transportation is an incredible hassle for the most part. So, I'm wondering how I can get my students out into the community and also how all these teachers convinced already busy professionals to take time to come in to school to evalute student work.
As always, I look forward to discussing more with all of you about this and hopefully beginning to answer my questions, but at the very least, this conference and these chapters in the book have helped reinvigorate me as a teacher. They reminded me that, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire," as William Butler Yeats said. I just rekindled my own fire and passion for teaching, and I hope this summer will help me come up with concrete ways to light fires in the minds of each of my students this fall.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Someone Give Me a Good Example in the English Classroom!

First, let me be clear that I buy into this idea of real-world literacy and PBL and all the other PBL-like instruction (or whatever one wants to call it). I've been dabbling in it myself in my Literature classrooms. Still, every darn good example I read comes from a discipline other than English. Chapter 2 of Real-World Literacies does nothing but frustrate me because, once again, I read examples from biology, or history, and a theater class. Yes, there was an example of an English classroom with a podcast, but honestly, it was weak in my opinion. I so badly want to read about some awesome PBL experiences in the literature classroom -- something other than a podcast or publishing a story or writing a letter to a senator or state representative. Most English teachers I know have been there and done that. Does anyone out there have any good examples of a problem-based unit in the high school literature classroom that has real-world applications aside from those I mentioned above? If so, I would love to hear about it -- in detail. What did you do? How did you do it? What were the specific challenges you faced? Perhaps I should plunge right in myself and then write a book about this process specifically in the literature classroom? :)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Daunting but Necessary Challenge

(Please accept my apologies for being late to join the blog party. The end of this school year was extra hectic, chaotic, and challenging for me for a variety of reasons. Although I had the best of intentions in starting this when we were supposed to at the end of May, other things in life took precedence to ensure I was contributing to my best and fullest potential in my own school community, personal life, and this amazing EMWP community that I'm joining. Thank you for understanding, and I can't wait to discuss these ideas with you all more online and in person come July.)

Image from http://www.pixteller.com/img/275549
Over the last few weeks, as I've been struck by the extremes we face in our world - the extremes of love and hate, of support and fear, and of unity and division. In talking to a friend about the tragedy in Orlando, he made me think seriously about what I am doing in life and why. As a reporter covering the aftermath in Orlando, he expressed concern over the way that huge tragedies like this can almost become routine in the coverage. People are overwhelmed, concerned, and trying to find solutions, but these things keep happening. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Charleston. San Bernadino. Orlando. While we shared our dismay about the apparent endless cycle of shootings in our country, I explained my own love for my job as a teacher. Every day, I can see my own hope for the future. I know there is a lot that needs to change, I recognize that I will not be able to change it all in my lifetime, and I hope that I am giving my students the skills, compassion, and dedication needed to continue improving our world in the future. In the first chapter of Real-World Literacies, I had two main take-aways that helped me think about what some of those necessary skills are for my students and how I can help support their development in those areas as a teacher. First, I was reminded of some of my personal goals and expectations for my own teaching practice that I hope to reinvigorate next year, and second, I reminded myself that teaching well is an incredibly daunting but necessary challenge.

Goals for Teaching
The following are all quotations from the research brief and first chapter that resonated with me about what I hope to provide in my teaching. By no means do I think I do all of these things yet/well/effectively/all the time, but I hope I'm working towards them, reminding myself that like research, good teaching "is never 'done' but is an ongoing quest" (Lattimer, 2014, p. 13).
  • "Instruction is most successful when teachers engage their students in thinking, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and interacting in discipline-specific ways, where literacies and content are not seen as opposites but rather as mutually supportive and inextricably linked" (Lattimer, 2014, p. xii).
  • We need to "ensure that they [students] can critically respond to, critique, evaluate, and investigate that information or independently access new information that might complement or contradict the official knowledge presented in their textbooks" (Lattimer, 2014, p. 3).
  • For me as a history/social studies teacher, students should be "expected to revisit historical documents and interpretations with new questions to generate new learnings that have relevance to our understanding of both past and present. ... [and] to learn to question, read critically, suspend judgment, consider and effectively communicate new interpretations, and 'cultivate puzzlement' (Wineburg, 2001)" (Lattimer, 2014, p. 3-4).
  • "We must provide students with rich, inquiry-oriented learning experiences and teach them how to learn. We must explicitly nurture habits of mind that will allow students to adapt literacy practices in response to evolving contexts, technologies, and disciplines" (Lattimer, 2014, p. 4).
These four quotations highlighted the importance of helping students to develop skills and ways of thinking that allow them to reflect, question, investigate, and communicate their own learning. Again, I hope that I am working towards creating a learning environment for my students that does all of these things, but I also know that I am by no means where I eventually want to be - in part because of my second take-away from this chapter.

A Daunting but Necessary Challenge
After giving the overview of the two case studies in the first chapter, Lattimer (2014) writes, "Even if you're convinced that these five curricular concepts... hold promise for student success, you may still find the reach of the work in the Innovations Academy classroom a bit daunting" (p. 16). YES! I was both incredibly inspired and overwhelmed as I read that example. I loved everything about it, but kept asking myself, "How did she do this?" How did she connect with the experts? How did she figure out the community need for such a project? How can I do something similar when my content is focused on ancient world history and early US history? How much time did this take? How did they have the resources to get students to a university library, to have video editing and animations, to converse with local professors and experts? The project seemed amazing, but I felt a bit at a loss for how I could actually implement something similar.

However, despite my intimidation, I recognize that this is necessary. I need to find more ways to involve the community, to make my content directly linked to current issues and questions, and to give students real audiences for their work. This is what my students need, and this is what I need to think more seriously about over the summer. I can't wait to see what else the book has to offer and, more importantly, to engage in continued conversations and brainstorm sessions with everyone online and in the EMWP to figure out how I can work on this.

In short, this first chapter helped me keep in mind that, "Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." Desmond Tutu is credited with saying this, and it is a comforting reminder that even in the depths of a challenging school year - and challenging world events, there is hope in creating a better, more thoughtful future.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Initial Reactions Ch. 1

I apologize for the delay in posting a response but I just received my book in the mail. Long story -- but I've had the worst luck with the postal service these days! I had to reorder my book and now I'm ready to post :)

In theory I completely agree with Heather Lattimer that "learning by doing" is the best approach to teaching. I grappled with the idea of PBL in my high school literature classroom but had a difficult time fully seeing how it would work in the English classroom. The process clearly works best when working in an interdisciplinary environment in conjunction with other classroom teachers of other disciplines. Now, by looking at it as a collaborative effort with other teachers in the school, it can be overwhelming to figure out how it would work. I'm looking forward to the real-life examples from other disciplines later in the book to see how this approach looks in other disciplines outside the science classroom.

My bigger question is whether or not a school needs to be structured differently. For example, if in biology class the students are working on a project that requires consultation with a math and English teacher, how is the work on the project incorporated into those particular disciplines? What amount of curricular co-planning is involved to keep the engine running, so to speak?

I guess I'm intrigued by what I'm reading so far. I see glimpses of what I already do in my classroom, but reading just this first chapter leaves me wanting to do more. I hope to learn more about how to do that.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Reading for Learning

Chapter 2, Reading for Learning speaks for the need to help students learn solid reading skills in order to build disciplinary literacy. In entering public health education, most students struggle with reading scientific articles. For many, it's the first time they will encounter these types of articles-- and all of it is new to them-- the format, the language, the tone, the tables and figures. Most faculty in public health don't take the time to instruct students on reading skills but I plan to do this when I return to my job. Good reading skills help students with writing skills, and working on reading allows students to spend time thinking about different rhetorical "moves" in scientific writing and what they are accomplishing. As the chapter points out, reading skills from other types of documents don't apply to scientific writing-- the students need to immerse themselves in these disciplinary genres to gain access to this type of material.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Literacies of Public Health

June 8, 2016

I am just about done with the MA in written communication, planning to return to my previous job in public health at UM this fall. After doing public health research and some teaching for the past 10 years, I decided I needed a change. I am planning to go back as clinical faculty, to teach scientific writing to graduate students, and starting in 2017 to undergraduates (we will be admitting undergraduates starting fall 2017). I really like the idea of helping my students move toward a deeper understanding of "public health literacy." It encompasses so much more than "scientific writing," capturing the spirit of what I hope to achieve in my work. In the brief description of NCTE's policy research brief (p. 3), the authors use the words "economic, professional, civic, community and academic." Those are what I consider to be the very core of public health! So I am quite intrigued with this idea of disciplinary literacies from the get go. Looking forward to reading more and learning more!!

Ella August