Friday, September 05, 2008

rocking the vote

My 19-year-old daughter has always been determined to make up her own mind, and this presidential campaign is no exception. She's oh so excited to be able to cast her very first vote. (They really ought to make a page for that in the baby book.)

We talk about politics daily at our house, even when it's not an election season, so she's grown up with it. This, plus the fact that both my husband and I have been in education for over 20 years, means that conversations about politics often center on education issues.

Despite my temptation to sway my daughter's judgment about where she should cast her vote, I sent her instead to the Pew Research Forum's website where they publish thumbnail sketches of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates' views on a number of issues, including education. (When you go there, don't get thrown off by the "Religion and Politics" banner at the top of the webpage; the candidate profiles are on the right.)

Right below my profile on the right, you'll see links to the Pew website as well as links to both McCain's and Obama's education platforms as stated on their respective websites.

You should check them out so you'll know whom you're voting for and why. You owe it to your parents to think, and vote, for yourself.

And not just because your Mama said so.

Monday, August 18, 2008

take no prisoners

I'm writing this from my back porch. Late summer in CO = 74 degrees, light breeze, hummingbird hovering over the agastache that smells like licorice when I rub my hands against the leaves, and lots of green tomatoes on the vine. It's hard to tell how many of them will actually ripen. The sun is shifting to the south part of west these days, so frost isn't long in coming.

That means that no matter how irresistible the pull of the garden, it's time to get back at it. Same time, one week from today, I won't be counting tomatoes, I'll be teaching.

The pull of the classroom is (finally) becoming irresistible, too. Coming off my sabbatical, I was worried that this might not happen. At a party the other night, though, a colleague reassured me. Without saying something terrifying like "It will be like you never left," he said I would be able to fall back in line. And he made that sound not so terrifying. He said I would be okay.

Right now it feels like it could be true. Over the past month, I've found myself jotting down random lines from magazines, books I'm reading, my own brain, and thinking about how to weave them into my teaching. I'm reviewing the texts I've chosen, bookmarking blogs, and dog-earing journal articles. Will any of it be relevant? No way to know for sure without being in the heat of the teaching moment, but I'm obediently collecting just in case.

Another (potentially) good sign: I'm making lists.

I like to make lists. I like to check items off as I complete them. Doing so at the beginning of the semester allows me to feel smug and industrious. I remember this feeling. But as the semester progresses, the trouble with my lists (and, unfortunately, the plural form is accurate here) is that they breed like bunnies, and before long, I'm only feeling crazed.

Syllabi feel like lists to me. Lists of lovely promises: I/you will...teach/learn, assign/read, request/complete, grade/produce. Everything feels expansive and possible in August (i.e., "After taking the course 'Teaching Reading,' by golly you'll be able to teach reading! Your students will not only be able to read, they will do so with enthusiasm. Bookstores will lure them. You will be thanked."). By December, though, all of us are deeply resentful of those same promises, pulling all-nighters, skimming. Students complete projects begrudgingly, and as they grade said projects, profs kick themselves for making so many assignments in the first place.

Today, though, I came across an article called "The One Who Is Not Busy." In it, Zen Buddhist Norman Fischer talks about being "prisoners of the list" as we realize (again) that there aren't enough hours in the day to do all that we need or want to do. He says,

"But the point is not how many things we have done or will do in a given amount of time; the point is how we do what we do."

As I read that this morning, I substituted "taught/teach" for "done/do," as in:

"But the point is not how many things we have taught or will teach in a given amount of time; the point is how we teach what we teach."

"Learned/learn" works here. "Wrote/write" and "read/read" do, too.

As I move back into Eddy Hall this year, I know I'll be clobbered again by the temptation to become the prisoner of my lists. I know I'll want to be counting tomatoes rather than how many more projects are left in my stack of grading. I'm writing this entry to remind myself that I can't teach it all, no matter how ambitious my syllabi. In fact, maybe being less ambitious would let all of us learn more in the end.

Friday, November 16, 2007

1 down, 2 to go

I'm writing from NYC, where yesterday, Rebecca, Cam, and I did our first presentation on book clubs at the NWP conference. Our segment was part of a larger session on "hard talk." It went very well (especially considering that we were operating on very little sleep, and Rebecca was operating on none at all thanks to a delayed flight), and we had a good response from others who thought the work was interesting and important. Our solo session at NCTE is Sunday.

Even though I thought I would NEVER finish putting the Keynote presentation together, doing so was worth it. I discovered that we weren't just making this up--there's a lot of substantial, significant work here. Below, I'm pasting in one of our handouts that's just a list of the questions, topics, and issues that kids in both Cam and Rebecca's classes have raised in the last semester. As you look at their comments, please remember that the comment from one group (reading Wringers, I believe) was written by an ELL kid who Cam says came a very long way in the course of the year in terms of his phonetic awareness, so you'll see some inventive spelling there.

When I get back to the Fort, I want to write more about how the search for a "civil discourse" definition has become even more interesting as I've enlisted the help of multiple reference librarians who've run into the same challenges I have--lots of invocations, few--if any--definitions. There have been some significant surprises along the way, though, and I think I've arrived at a cool solution to the problem.

Gotta get off here now. Nothing's free in NYC, including wireless! Here's the handout:


• Is peace possible?
• Why don’t teachers talk about “real things” in school [in re students’ feelings of isolation from current politics, esp. the Iraq war]?
• Is the Bible “true” [in a literal sense]?
• If a friend is hurting herself, what should you do? What would we do?
• What would it be like to be disliked?
• Can love overcome fear [in re interracial relationships]?
• Is punishment necessary? Is revenge inevitable? What role does human nature play in the ability to forgive [in re circumstances of war]?
• What does it mean to “make a difference”? If you can’t change everything, do small changes matter [in re non-violent resistance]?
• What’s the relationship between fate, foreknowledge, and free will? Would foreknowledge result in the ability/responsibility to change the future?
• What’s the line between parental responsibility and a child’s independence?
• How do parents influence/attempt to control their children’s identities?
• Is there such a thing as civic silence?
• What’s the difference between arguing and disagreeing?
• What role should art [and literature, in particular] play in our culture? (“Art should shock you.” – 10th-grade student)
• How has my religion influenced my views on sexuality [and homosexuality in particular]?

trust, betrayal, death, euthanasia, “grey areas” (good/evil, right/wrong), disabilities, divorce, infidelity, parental abandonment, friendship, technology, racism, war, cutting, censorship, sexuality and identity, the emotional and physical effects of violence, power of organized religion, idea of “original sin,” semantics, technology, personal connections, historical connections (e.g., genocide, Ghandi, Hitler, etc.), multiple allusions (e.g., quantum physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Icarus myth, thematically-related movies, literary and biblical texts, etc.)

dealing with people’s feelings vs. ignoring them – “One of the tough topics that we talked about was people’s feelings…My book club dealt with this problem by talking about it and not just egnoring it. We talked about how people have felt like that and what they have done because we didn’t want to hide from that topic for the rest of our lives.” (excerpted from Book Club Discussion record, 6th-grade group reading Wringers by Jerry Spinelli)

religion – “The cherectors talked about the bibl and what it said. Riligin is controversial and people biliv in what thay biliv. We talked about what we bilived.” (excerpted from Book Club Discussion record, 6th-grade group reading Bridge from Terabithia)

influence of one’s background on one’s empathy for characters and capacity to connect to texts – “We can’t relate personally to their experiences, but we can understand.” (from “Mapping the Terrain” project, 10th-grade group reading In the Time of the Butterflies)

sexual identity – “We spent some time talking about if he [Jacob, the narrator] is beginning to think that he may be gay or if he could have been born that way. We felt this was really relavent to his lack of self confidence around Daan & in general. He might be wrestling with himself trying to re-define who he is.” (excerpted from “What My Group Thinks” column of Dailies, 10th-grade boy reading Postcards from No Man’s Land)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

draft of deadline draft

The CSUWP Advanced Institute crew is meeting today to work deadline drafts of our current research. What follows is a *very* rough draft of my deadline draft, posted only for ease of sharing with my inquiry group. (This is not a disclaimer--which is against CSUWP rules :)--, just a warning; seriously, I haven't even edited it yet.)

How do we use edgy literature to help students engage in
civil discourse (i.e., productive conversations
about culturally sensitive issues) during book clubs?

How I Became Interested in This Topic
I have been working with students in book clubs for over a decade in my and other classrooms. When I moved to the university level, however, the books changed because the contexts have changed. As I’ve continued to work with secondary-aged students outside my own classroom, I and the teachers I’ve worked with have been able to move beyond the bookroom and the typically canonical texts housed there to select more contemporary books. Although the subject matter of canonical books is also often quite edgy (think about Shakespeare’s fascination with power, Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sex, Steinbeck’s journeys into the nature of good and evil), the language is less accessible to students. Not so with more contemporary books.
As a result of this transparency, the nature of students’ book club discussions changed as well. Especially in recent years in Rebecca Garrett’s 10th-grade pre-Advanced Placement class (see also her article in this volume), we noted that students dealt with difficult topics in less than productive ways: they often giggled and moved on when characters were conflicted about their sexuality, for instance, or they argued, or they ignored such subjects altogether. As we observed this pattern over multiple semesters, we decided to investigate why in more intentional ways.

What My Research Looks Like
Multiple contexts
Data Collected
Analysis Processes – Open to focused coding, inquiry group

What I’m Learning through My Research
1. First and foremost, in answer to my overall research question, “Yes, kids can really do this!” as my friend Louann Reid recently put it when I was talking with her about this work. Furthermore, unlike more conventional dialectic models familiar in our culture (e.g., debate, op-ed columns, etc.), the book club approach is dialogic. In other words, it is geared toward connection as opposed to argument, conversation as opposed to debate, empathy for others’ perspectives rather than conquest.
2. Book clubs allow students to use literacy practices for civic consequences—that is, to surf, read, write, talk, listen, draw—in order to engage in civil discourse about culturally sensitive issues. This work is rooted in social justice principles, but unlike much of the other work done in this area, it takes place within the classroom and is thus immediately consequential.
3. Collaborative conversation is central to this process because “all of us know more than any one of us.” The literacy tools students use in book clubs, like Dailies, discussion records, maps make this collaboration visible and function as springboards into new understanding. (QUESTION: Is this the place to make a list of the big questions and issues they brought up during this process?)
4. Perpetual scaffolding by both teachers and students is essential for this kind of work to take place. We were explicit with this initially (e.g., introduction of the project, no-book BCs, norming, early meta-talk) then gradually embedded more implicit scaffolding throughout the process (sticky note bookmark prompts, discussion record prompts, Dailies, drop-ins during BCs & map-making, our and peers’ questions during presentations).
5. Multimodal tools enable an elegant intertextuality among responses that students can synthesize into their final projects. Furthermore, as Rebecca and I discovered when creating our own map to report our findings to the students, projects requiring multimodal responses challenge one to think in different ways.

1. What about the primacy of the social and the performative aspect of Book Clubs? Something happens from the time students make individual, private responses to texts in their Dailies to the time that make more public responses in the hybrid context of book clubs to their corporate responses in the public context of the whole class? What gets glossed and what gets exaggerated as a result of social posturing, gender, prior classroom roles, and so forth? We know that something happens; we’re just not sure why that is. Typically, though, students gloss the complexity of their responses when they move to the whole class setting (e.g., saying whether they connect to their book or not in the Golden Compass group).
2. How does this overall approach push reader response theory? The tools we’ve asked students to use do prompt students to transact with the text, but there’s something about book clubs that makes the private borders of their independent responses more permeable. As a result, an “intertransactionality” (intertransactiveness?) occurs as their responses transact with one another. [I obviously don’t know how to talk about this yet. Cf. the sources I found yesterday that referred to borders.]
3. How much teacher scaffolding is optimal during this process, and how much is intrusive? Tentatively, I think the amount varies with context.
4. What’s the potential for transfer of these skills into other contexts? More specifically, beyond mere back-patting, how do we make students aware of the significance of what they’ve accomplished? This is especially challenging given the ephemeral nature of literacy processes. Is enlisting students as inquiry partners and sharing these findings one way to do this [NOTE: This seemed to have little, if any, impact in Rebecca’s class. Students appeared to be ready to “just move on already” when we presented our findings via the map project]? How does meta-talk function in this regard?
5. I share this question with Rebecca: Is it okay for readers when there aren’t one-to-one connections between their books and their lives [Note: see my blog entry on provincial reading and also cf my conversation with the How I Live Now book club].


5. Suggested Resources (Annotated Bibliography)

6. Contact and Blog Information

7. Personal Information = WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THIS? BIO. INFO?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

seeking your input

In meeting with my inquiry group and talking with other teachers and some thoughtful non-academics over the past couple of months, I'm about to decide that this project is 2 books instead of one. One audience would be secondary teachers, and the other would be the more general public. So here's where I could use your input.

1. As a teacher, what are some questions you would hope to explore in a book that focused on using book clubs as a means to help students engage in civil discourse on provocative cultural issues? What would you want to know about this project?

2. Now think of someone outside of academics that is nonetheless interested in issues of schooling, literacy, and how both might be used as vehicles to help kids engage productively in civil discourse (i.e., difficult conversations about the often polarizing topics in our culture). What are some questions that person would have? What would they need to know about this project?

(One thing to keep in mind: Although the first book would definitely include resources for teachers, it won't focus primarily on the nuts and bolts of book clubs since that was the focus of my last book.)

Thanks for your input!

Monday, October 29, 2007

reading beyond the provincial

It happened again. Today at the end of class, Rebecca’s students finished discussing the last third of their book club books. As part of that discussion, Rebecca asked them to think about a couple of questions—what their overall impressions of the book were and how their own backgrounds might influence those impressions.

The first group who reported out to the rest of the class said that they uniformly did not like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. The book is told by 15-year-old Daisy whose mother has died and father has remarried. Because of Daisy’s intense anger toward her father and stepmother, she jumps at the chance to visit her cousins in England. A war breaks out after she arrives, and the children are left to fend for themselves when Daisy’s aunt, who is on business at the time, is unable to return home. The novel focuses on Daisy’s personal development and the relationships she experiences in the midst of their attempts to survive.

When Rebecca asked the group to explain why they disliked the book, one girl explained that they thought the book was dull because it went on for a very long time about things they couldn’t connect with. They saw the only point of the book as being about war and felt that they couldn’t relate to the book because, to paraphrase them, you can’t connect with war unless you’re a part of it. At this point, I rejected the urge to ask questions like: Are we in a war? Are any of your parents divorced? Have any of you ever wished that you could be in charge of your own life? Have any of you ever felt like you were falling in love?

Regardless of the connections I was able to make, these kids really disliked this book. One boy said that you should only read it if you have nothing else to do, but then went on to say that he wouldn’t read the book even if we were completely bored. Another girl from the group said others might want to read it for extra credit or for a grade but no other reason. They even seemed to object to the fact that the book was a fast, easy read (though the comments that followed actually suggested that some of them had difficulty with Rosoff’s stream-of-consciousness style).

Another book club who had read The Golden Compass volunteered to report out right after this group did. This book follows the twelve-year-old orphan Lyra through an England that is at once familiar and fantastical. Among other things, Lyra and her daemon (the animal-like companions connected to each character) run away from Oxford college where she has been raised, help to free children who have been kidnapped by the Gobblers, and outsmart an armored bear with the help of witches, another exiled bear, the cowboy-like Mr. Scoresby in his hot-air balloon, and the golden compass which only Lyra can read.

In contrast to the first group, the Golden Compass group unanimously gave the book a thumbs-up and recommended it especially to readers who like fantasy. When Rebecca asked them what they appreciated about the book, they said that they liked that it had lots of action and well-developed characters that they were able to connect with. One boy also mentioned that he was intrigued by the idea in the book that daemons were visible expressions of each character’s soul. Because I had been sitting near the group during their book club discussion, I also know that they connected to many, many other topics, ranging from organized religion to parallels to Nazi Germany to the Icarus myth to recent movies to the relationship between fate, free will, and foreknowledge as prompted by one girl’s discussion of quantum physics in her chemistry class.

As usual, I left class wondering what in the world just happened and about my and Rebecca’s recurrent question about why readers, and more specifically kids, read in the first place.

So beyond the no-accounting-for-taste notion, what to make of the differences in each group’s responses? If I weren’t acquainted with these kids and hadn’t been there, I’d be leaning toward one of these two reasons—it could be the kids OR it could be the books. I think both of these first-glance reasons are inadequate explanations, however.
In the first case, if I were tempted to think that one group was simply more capable of abstract thinking than the other, I’d need to recall that to a person, all the kids in the Golden Compass group made some pretty deep connections during their book club discussion. In the second case, I’m actually struck more by the similarities than the differences between the books. While The Golden Compass is certainly more plot-driven than How I Live Now, both books feature female adolescents (or almost-adolescents in Lyra’s case) of at least symbolic orphan status dealing with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Both involve survival in the face of armed conflict. Both are even set in England for crying out loud.

I’ve also thought about the differences between the connections The Golden Compass kids made within their book club and those they reported out to the rest of the class. Perhaps they were simply crafting their review for an audience of peers (i.e., “This is what my classmates would want to know about this book”). Since I did not observe the How I Live Now group today, it’s possible that similar complex connections occurred during their book club that the kids didn’t note in their report out to the rest of the class. Rebecca and I have noted the primacy of the social in previous years when kids who have extraordinary in-book club discussions of serious issues gloss or avoid them altogether during final project presentations.

But another possibility is that kids aren’t always (are seldom?) aware of the multiple and wide-ranging connections they make during literary discussions. Because making connections is certainly a huge reason why people read, I believe it’s important that we help kids become aware of the more complex reasons they relate (or don’t relate) to books that extend far beyond “I liked it. I could relate to the main character. I didn’t like it. That character is nothing like me at all.” So one question I continue to have is how to help kids do this, especially in a book club setting where the teacher may or may not be standing by. And if the teacher is standing by, how much should s/he intervene? How much scaffolding is optimal during book clubs, and when does it become obtrusive?

As I said from the start of this post, though, today’s occurrence was a repeat. Last year, one group reading an historical fiction novel had had what Rebecca and I thought were in-depth discussions of it throughout their book clubs. Yet they reported during their final presentation that that they wouldn’t recommend the book because they couldn’t relate to it since it took place in another country and another time period. Since then, Rebecca and I have talked at length about how much our reading motivations differ from those of her students’. Both of us recall the excitement we felt at a very young age when we read books featuring characters, worlds, and circumstances very different from our own. In fact, though we probably weren’t always conscious of doing so, we now realize that we often sought out precisely those kinds of books in order to explore the unfamiliar. Little surprise probably that we both wound up as English teachers and that we still wonder why it hasn’t occurred to some (actually many) kids that part of the beauty of reading is moving beyond oneself to vicariously experience the world of another.

Yet we’ve observed that many kids continue to read or *stop* reading for solely provincial reasons—for the immediate pay-off (think points here) they will or will not have or the immediate connections they can or cannot make to a book. Presumably this would not be the case in a pre-AP class that kids have elected to take, but alas it seems to be so, and Rebecca and I think it’s gotten worse in recent years. I have lots of ideas why this is the case that I want to write about later, but for right now, I’ll just say that these include the reductive approaches to reading that have spun out of the era of standardized testing as well as the potential limitations of reading primarily through the lens of reader response.

How do we counteract this line of thinking? Without harping at kids so that all they hear is the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher, how do we get them to try on other motivations for reading? What does it look like to help kids learn to and want to read beyond themselves?

My hunch is that one’s capacity for engaging in civil discourse is directly related to the ability to take an empathic stance from which to consider another’s circumstances and point of view. And though I’m not exactly sure what this looks like yet, I believe that helping them learn to read empathically is one way to get there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

more feedback needed

Rebecca and I have been talking about what we'd like students to do for their final projects. In the past we've asked them to create mandalas to capture the worlds of their books, but this year we've really been pushing them to think about the subjects, questions, and issues that come up in their books that are points of conflict in the real world so that they can discuss them in productive ways. (Judging by the conversation on homosexuality I overheard on Monday, this is working in a big way with at least one book club.)

So as I've been trying to think of another final project that would also help them to think about how their worlds and the world of the text overlap and how they might represent their questions and interpretations in visual ways. On my bike road home from Centennial yesterday, I thought about the typical Venn diagram (bo-ring). Then when I was waiting for a light to change, I thought about intersections. That got me to thinking about maps, so today I did some searching of what features are typically included on maps and then came up with the following assignment. Could you take a look and tell me what you think? A more specific question I have is this: Rebecca and I usually require some kind of written accompaniment to the visual group project that students turn in individually. Could the "traveling tips" work this way?

Here's the assignment:

***Mapping the Terrain of Your Text***

From drawings in the sand to atlases to GPS devices, maps throughout history have used symbols, pictures, and color to guide travelers on their journeys through various lands. For your final project, we’d like for you to create a map directing the class toward your group’s interpretive journey through your book club book.

As suggested by the prompts below, it’s important that you think in symbolic terms as you create your map. In other words, we want you to think beyond the literal, physical locations mentioned in your book to symbolic landmarks and points of interest in characters’ lives as well as intersections between the book and your own lives.


As your book club presents your map to the rest of the class, you’ll function as tour guides with 3 primary goals:

1) to translate the icons on your map’s legend and explain your use of color and spacing
2) to help us understand how and why your book club mapped the terrain of the text in the way you did
3) to offer traveling tips to other readers who might pick up this book

As for specific requirements, your map should include a minimum of 8-10 key symbols. Use the prompts below to help you brainstorm what to include on your map. While you need not address all the items listed, starred* items are required. Also include a legend at the bottom of your map, and create a list or booklet of traveling tips. Finally, as you prepare for your presentation, be sure to discuss spatial layout, that is, how you determined where particular features should be located and what the distance between them should be. Finally, be able to describe how you’ve used color in symbolic ways (for example, a red item might represent an event that provoked anger while a black item might represent a defining moment for the narrator since it contains all colors on the spectrum).


Geographical Features – Think about the geographical features included on maps, like rivers, bodies of water, beaches, mountains, valleys, public parks, forests, etc. What features could you include that would work symbolically for your book? For instance, a forest might represent confusion, a mountain range could represent challenges, and so forth.

*Key Intersections – Where and how did your world intersect with the world of this text? What real-world connections, issues, and questions emerged in your sticky notes, Dailies, and book club discussions?

Landmarks & Monuments – Maps often indicate sites like Mount Rushmore or the Vietnam Wall that honor famous people or memorialize historic events. Who are the key people and what are the important events in this book that? How can you feature them on your map?

Leisure & Tourism – Maps sometimes feature sites geared toward leisure or tourism, such as museums, art galleries, amusement parks, golf courses, sports arenas, etc. What do your characters want to preserve or create? What amuses or inspires them? How do they exercise who they are?

Public Services – City maps typically mark locations where public services are offered, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, post offices, and libraries. When do your book’s characters experience distress or danger? What messages do they try to send? What do circumstances or people must they learn to read?

Roads – Almost all maps include different types of roads, such as highways, toll roads, residential streets, trails, bus routes, and railroads. How do the characters travel through your book? When is the going fast and easy, and when is it more bumpy or treacherous?

Sites of Learning - Some maps indicate the locations of schools, colleges, and universities. What do the characters in your book think about and realize? What didn’t they know at the beginning of the book that they know by the end? What provoked this learning?

Sites of Worship – Some maps show where churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples are located. How do your book’s characters develop spiritually or emotionally? What do they worship or idolize? Whom do they praise or appeal to for help?

*Traveling Tips – What advice do you have to offer about navigating the terrain of this text if we choose to read this book? In other words, what should we be aware of? What don’t we want to miss on this journey? What did you learn, realize, or think now that you didn’t know before you read this book?

* Uncharted Territory – Hundreds of years ago when English mapmakers wanted to indicate the limits of the known world on a map, they would write “Beyond this place, there be dragons.” What subjects, issues, and questions remained unresolved in your book club discussions? How did this book make you think? What questions are you asking now that you weren’t before you read this book?

* Xs and Arrows – On pirate maps, X usually marks the spot where buried treasure lies. On maps of campuses, malls, and airports, red arrows often indicate “You are here.” What treasures are to be found in this book? Where are they located? Where would you locate yourselves in the territory of this book?