Wednesday, November 29, 2006

what does it mean to say something works?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my students who is currently student teaching. She was sharing teaching materials she'd developed this semester. She was clearly excited because, as she put it, "What I love about these techniques is that they really work!"

The materials she described made my heart hurt: choral responses to vocab. words ("I can really see who knows the definitions and who doesn't!" she explained, her eyes bright), pre-tests and post-tests containing multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions ("They do so much better on the post-tests!"), lesson plans based on the school's template, which mandated that most of the class be devoted to direct instruction.

And I began thinking, what does it mean to say that something works? Did these things "work" because kids were compliant when she asked them to participate? Did they work because the majority of the class scored well on the unit test, even though it assessed only low-level understanding--the kinds of knowledge you can bubble in or fill in the blank?

I've been contemplating the same question the past couple of days in the book club classroom where I'm working. Yesterday, the kids were making mandalas to communicate their understanding of the spirit of the book. I've written about this exercise previously in an English Journal article, but I'm really excited about the changes Rebecca and I made for this go-round because, well, at least intitially, it appeared worked! What do I mean by that?

Well, yesterday, it "worked" in terms of eliciting student engagement. In fact, as Rebecca and I discussed later, for the entirety of the class period, only a small handful of kids got off-task, and even they didn't stay there. Kids who rarely participate in whole-class discussion had already talked more in the book club setting. But during mandala construction, some of them actually even took the lead! Overall, the groups worked *willingly* until the bell rang, and then they scrambled to put away their supplies, gather up their books, and rush off to the next class.

Today, as students began presenting their mandalas to the class, however, I thought of the question again. In the past when I've used visual interpretation activities with my classes (again, Peter Smagorinsky and I have written about Body Biographies extensively, so you should check those pubs out if you want to know more), such activities have generally encouraged students to move beyond the literal in their interpretations. The very nature of asking them to create representative symbols usually encourages that. This time, though, I was surprised to find that some of the groups didn't move much beyond the concrete events that occurred in their books. For instance, the "symbols" created by the book club who'd read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime included smiley faces ("Christopher uses these to show his emotions because he's autistic"), envelopes ("Christopher's mom sends him letters in the book"), and math equations ("Christopher really likes math"). Yesterday, though, mandalas really seemed to be "working" for this group. One of the girls had even remarked, "Our mandala is basically cool."

So did mandalas really "work" for them? Well, sort of. I think the kids would say they enjoyed the activity and felt they'd provided an overview of the book for the rest of the class. Yet, as we debriefed afterwards, Rebecca was clearly disappointed. I think she'd say mandalas didn't work at all for this group. But was this a symptom of the activity itself or something else like the fact that Rebecca suspects these kids are dutiful assignment readers but non-readers beyond that? In other words, is this a sign of the consequences of aliteracy?

Or maybe it's something else. Like the Curious Incident book club, other book clubs mentioned in their presentation that they weren't able to relate to their books because they hadn't met similar characters or had similar experiences. Maybe that's why they didn't move beyond the literal. But as Rebecca and I discussed later, isn't that why we read in the first place? To get to live other lives? So is their literalism, even in the face of a prompt like the mandala that begs for symbolic representation, a product of the standardized testing era where you get to be successful as a student if you understand the plot and can label the simile? Where in schools are kids taught to see reading, and literacy in general, as a means of cultivating the imagination?

My point is that the notion of "what works" is far more complex than we generally imply by the phrase. The good news is that I think the new book is NOT a big mistake because Rebecca and are learning that we need to provide far more scaffolding to help kids discuss difficult books in complex ways. That's what I was hoping to accomplish anyway; getting there is just going to be more involved than I anticipated.

If anybody's out there, oh, dear reader, please tell me what you think.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What if my new book concept is a big mistake?

I'm writing today with disappointment...or at least so I thought as I was rehearsing this entry in my head after working in Rebecca's class this morning. A bit of background info. to contextualize this post:

I'm working on a new book on book clubs, the premise of which is that book clubs might provide a context for students to do 2 things:

1) explore challenging topics and/or controversial issues in difficult texts

2) learn how to talk about the above in productive ways

Well, today, as I watched Rebecca's students in their book clubs, I felt like my whole book might be in jeopardy because neither of the above things seemed to be happening. And I thus faced a terrifying prospect: What if this whole book concept that I've already devoted considerable time and energy to is a big mistake? What if I don't learn anything at all?

Fortunately, my teacher researcher voice is telling me to back off a little from my grand expectations and see what I actually have to learn. In fact, if all your initial predictions prove true, do you really learn anything in the end?

So at the moment, I think Rebecca and I may be learning that we need to prepare kids more if we want to help kids accomplish these objectives. Because let's face it, they probably haven't been cued to do so already in schools. What have kids been cued to do? Well, it's hard to know for sure without direct interviews, but it's likely that they've been taught to read for structural features like similes, metaphors, plot development, theme, and so on. For instance, if they read Romeo and Juliet last year, maybe they did so with a focus on decoding the language, comprehending the plot, and defining tragedy rather than understanding sexual puns, thinking about class and gender expectations, or exploring the phenomenon of adolescent suicide. Like I said, it's hard to know for sure without talking to them personally, so I'll probably need to do that at some point--maybe in a group interview at the end of the book club sequence where I'd ask them to comment on how this approach compares to prior classroom experiences they've had with literary texts.

But my hunch is that we can't expect that kids will suddenly be able to talk about difficult issues like racial conflict in Cry, the Beloved Country or the existence of God in The Life of Pi or sexual identity in Postcards from No Man's Land simply because we've bought some really cool books and asked them to use sticky notes to respond to them.

Of course, we've done more than that, too, but the students appear to be either unaware of or unable to address the issues I'd predicted they'd discuss in their book clubs, even when the issues are central to the texts and we'd indirectly prompted them to do so with the response tools we've provided. As a result, I'm asking new questions. Here are a few from today's fieldnotes:
  • In their independent responses to texts, do kids know how to acknowledge and respond to difficult issues and conflicts?
  • Do they know how to have discussions on such topics in schools? Or do they need more explicit models for doing so? If the latter is the case, how do we reconcile the notion of models with the benefits of the free-flowing nature of book club conversation?

At the very least, Rebecca and I are already thinking carefully about what we want to do next semester with book clubs in another class. At the moment, I think we need to be more explicit about why we've chosen this particular set of texts and about the teacher research questions we're attempting to answer by observing their book club interactions. We also need to more deliberately scaffold the processes of identifying difficult issues in texts and dealing with them productively in the public setting of book clubs.

So maybe the book concept isn't a big mistake after all. At least I'm learning something....

Friday, November 17, 2006

more from NWP

Howdy, ya'll,
Those of at CSUWP are once again prepared to take over the world. It's amazing how inspired I've managed to get in a little over 48 hours, even in my post-sinus infection haze. The magic of hundreds of fired-up writing teachers under the same roof never fails to take me by surprise. At my very first session, the NWP presenter said, "We are the answer." And as bold as that may sound, you just gotta believe it.

Halfway through our trip, here's what we've already done:

1. Written a plan for an Advanced Institute that will integrate teacher research and technology and will be open to any CSUWP teacher THIS SUMMER (if you're interested, you need to ask me about this), identified a potential grant to fund it, and begun to think about staffing

2. Started thinking seriously about a one-day administrator's conference

3. Become convinced that professional development support for early career teachers is a necessity, not an option (this morning we heard that nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within 5 years, yet the median # of years for a NWP teacher is 25! Coincidence? We think not.)

4. Gotten me to post to post to two blogs in one day, including my own (click on the blogessor post to the right to see the other post)

5. Figured out that my sleep number is 45 and discovered that all Nashville roads are under construction (see Cam's previous post)

Tomorrow Rebecca Fox, Tiffany Hunt, Emily Richards Moyer, and I will make a strong CSUWP showing at our NCTE presentation. I'm pretty sure Bud will be posting some pictures and a truly heartwarming story about the impact of your podcasts soon.

Stay tuned,

why blogging could make me a better person

I'm back after a little hiatus. I could make some excuses for why I haven't been writing much lately, but we've all been busy, haven't we? In fact, some of the busiest people I know are making time for blogging on a regular basis, so that excuse...well, it really doesn't work.

Really, it doesn't.

So I've been reflecting on what this has been a hard habit for me to embrace. I journal faithfully. Virtually, all of my scholarly work is grounded in exploratory composing (talk, writing, visualizing). I write for external audiences. So why hasn't blogging become a part of my life?

I'm writing from the National Writing Project conference ( --sorry, though I feel ever so cool for knowing how to hyperlink, I haven't figured out how to make it work in safari yet, and I'm blogging this on my mac). Yesterday, I presented with Bud Hunt (see budtheteacher link in my blogroll to the left). Bud and I have been working together for about 8 years now, and we're still trying to save the world. I believe teacher research is the answer, he believes technology is the answer, we both *know* that the writing project is the answer, and yesterday, we talked about the intersection among all of those things. At the moment, we're also planning a CSU Writing Project event ( that will explore them in more detail. In the process of this, our conversations have been pushing me toward the above questions about blogging as did a conversation Bud and I had yesterday with one of our roundtable participants who blogs religiously.

In fact, there was a really odd moment during our session when Bud was preaching it, and he looked to his right and realized (out loud), "Hey, how are ya, Paul?," like he was talking to an old friend that he'd somehow never met. Bud went on to explain that he "knew" Paul Allison from the New York City Writing Project, but only cybernetically. Then, he talked in detail about how Paul's online work with his students had influenced his (Bud's) thinking. In other words, though he and Paul had never met, they clearly knew one another in a way that is pretty substantive, yet very rare, in education. Bud had been "inside" Paul's head *and* his classroom, and now, it seemed only incidentally handy that they were meeting face-to-face.

Well, the three of us stayed after the session and talked about, among other things, the impulse toward blogging that heretofore has struck me rather like the motivation for flossing. You know, one of those habits you know you'd pick up if you were a better person, especially because someone really smart like your dentist says you ought to. And so you floss for a couple of weeks after your check-up until the little plastic box conveniently gets shoved to the back of the drawer so you don't have to think about it any more.

But there's been a confluence of events now, so I don't know that I can so easily forget about blogging. First, Bud said that he wants more people to blog not so much because of what it can do for the blogger but what it can do for the "blogee." He said something along the lines of this: "I want you to blog because I'm selfish. I want to know what you're thinking, and I don't want to wait until the next time I see you or the next time you publish to do so." He assures me that other people feel the same, not about my thinking in particular, but about thinking, period.

Secondly, Bud's clearly on to something when it comes to networking. Do you know how many people have come up to him in the course of two days and said, "Hey, you're Bud the teacher, aren't you? I really like your blog." Now, I admit--at first I thought that was a tad bit creepy, but then, some pretty interesting conversation typically and immediately ensued. So maybe blogging, like journaling, is a kind of knowledge-in-progress, except with a potential audience who could shape your thinking attached.

And the coup d'etat was NWP Director Richard Sterling's comment this morning that "new media is the new democracy and therefore an instrument of change."

Knowledge-in-progress, networking, and democracy as an instrument of change. Now that's something that will get me blogging...and maybe, just maybe, make me a better person all at the same time.