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?

Monday, October 15, 2007

take a look and give me some advice

I've started a new blog that the book club kids in Rebecca's and Beth's classes can participate in. "Can" being the operative word here. Not one kid has posted yet, though a few have participated in the little poll I created at the bottom.

Will you take a look at this and let me know of any suggestions you have for encouraging participation? You should know in advance that access is an issue (this may be the problem) because the district blocks comments on Blogger, though reading is possible. Many of Beth's kids don't have computer access at home either.

Here's the url:

(BTW, the "cd" part stands for "civil discourse")

I'd love to hear your ideas!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

can I vent?

WARNING: This post is long and self-indulgent.

Rebecca and I are piloting a new set of materials in her class right now based on our reflections on how book clubs went in her class last spring. We’ve both taught long enough to know that the utopian classroom doesn’t exist, but it still feels to me like we’re searching for that sweet spot right now, the perfect synergy of kids and materials and sunshiny afternoon that will let us knock one out of the park. So every semester, we tweak materials and develop new ones, and that’s what we are doing right now.

True confession: I love developing curriculum. I’ve spent many a happy hour searching for stories and resources and developing materials and strategies to help kids engage with them. So this summer when Rebecca and I decided that the kids could benefit from more easing in to tough talk and the reading/response strategies we’d ask them to use with their tough texts, I was very excited. Still am.

To scaffold their transition into book clubs, we’ve spent this week putting them in “No-Book Book Clubs,” as Rebecca calls them. Allowing the kids to discuss short stories and a long narrative poem in these “practice” BCs has also given Rebecca a chance to observe the social dynamics of different groups of kids before she makes final decisions about who should work with whom when they’re actually reading books. This has been our sequence this week:

DAY ONE: Introduce the project and the concept of civil discourse; ask kids to discuss some “What would you do” scenarios from past BCs we’ve seen when discussion fell apart; ask them to develop book club norms based on this discussion; introduce the sticky notes bookmark and ask them to use it to help with annotating the every-so-freaky short story “The Son” by Horacio Quiroga

DAY TWO: discuss “The Son” in no-book book clubs; follow with a class discussion where each group shares a big idea/big question; explain Dailies (a four-column graphic organizer that allows them—and us—to trace the development of their responses before, during, and after book clubs); assign Julius Lester’s edgy short story “Spear” that deals with an interracial relationship

DAY THREE: Wrap up discussion on “The Son;” discuss “Spear” in BCs; assign the long poem “The White Rose: Sophie Scholl” and provide historical background on the poem via a Keynote presentation (the Mac version of Powerpoint)

DAY FOUR: Whole-class follow-up discussion on “Spear;” BCs create and share visual interpretations of assigned sections of “The White Rose”

DAY FIVE-SIX: booktalks on BC books; kids state top 3 choices; Rebecca places kids in real BCs and they set norms; begin reading books using sticky notes bookmark and Dailies
So today was Day 3. Did I mention how much I love creating materials? Did I mention how invested I get in these materials in the process? What about how I envision kids putting them to use with at least as much enthusiasm I felt as I created them? (Seriously, in my mind, they are so excited that they are eating this stuff up like CANDY. They are BRAGGING TO THEIR FRIENDS that they get to read and write in THIS classroom.)

Did I mention that these kids are fifteen years old?

Okay, so I have a fifteen-year-old daughter at my house who actually loves to read and write, and she has a fabulous writing project teacher for her pre-AP World Lit. class (the same class that Rebecca teaches, except at another school). Every day when I ask my daughter how her day went, she doesn’t even mention English, not even once (unless you count the time that she made eye contact with the boy she likes as she was leaving the classroom. Oh…my...god!). Perhaps if I had reflected a bit more on this reality as well as my 11 years of teaching h.s. English, I would’ve been more prepared for how Rebecca’s class went today.

This morning, I put the final touches on the Keynote presentation. I couldn’t wait to see how riveted the kids would be by the film clip, the old photos, and the scanned images of historical artifacts that I’d figured out how to include in it. Right before class, I re-read “Spear” and loved it just as much the tenth time. “As would they,” said the Kelsey Grammar voice inside my head, “As would they.”

So while I was hooking up the LCD projector in Rebecca’s class and the kids were moving into book clubs, the first thing I overheard was a girl saying, “Yeah, so I didn’t really like this story?” And the first thing I saw when I turned around was all five members of another book club sitting silently, studying the obviously fascinating tops of their respective desks. I glanced over at another group and saw the unmistakable look on the kids’ faces that says “another day, another worksheet” while they filled out their Dailies. (It’s possible that at least one of them was yawning.) Although other groups were talking as I glanced around the room, I was too far away to hear how it was going. So the short story didn’t fly like I thought it would. I busied myself with the projector and put all my hopes in the Keynote.

We allowed ten minutes at the end of class for the Keynote presentation, but the kids had to move their desks back into rows, and I spent too long setting it up, and, and, and…once we finally got started, I talked as fast as I could but the bell still rang before the final big-finish slide, the pow that was supposed to hit it out of the park and send the kids running toward home plate eager to read this poem.

But the bell did *not* ring before their eyes had time enough to glaze over or to fasten resolutely on the second hand of the clock hanging over the door. (Now looking back, I realize that my own daughter would’ve been thinking at that moment, “So what’s the deal with all the historical background? Doesn’t this babbling professor remember that we’re in English for godsake? And doesn’t she know the bell’s going to ring any minute? And doesn’t she understand that if I don’t get out of this class immediately, I won’t get to make eye contact again with the boy I like?”)

So we did not hit it out of the park today. And I walked out to the parking lot remembering what it felt like to be fifteen again while at the same time bemoaning the fact that there may not be a lot that we as teachers can do to compete with that. Tomorrow, I’ll probably be ready to think more about what I wrote in my fieldnotes on Monday: “On any given day in the classroom, what we expect to happen rarely happens, but *something* always happens that we can learn from.”

Right now, though, I think I’ll go plan some more curriculum.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

what is civil discourse?

I plan to write a longer post to this question early next week (my parents are here, I had to read a 350-page dissertation, and the CSUWP post-institute meeting is today, so I'm maxed out).

In short, though, I've been intrigued by the way that the term "civil discourse" and the concept of civility has been invoked repeatedly in the past couple of weeks in light of the University of Florida event with the taser and the Rocky Mountain Collegian editorial by J. David McSwane. Interestingly, though, neither concept is ever defined by the university presidents, editors, and letter writers who use it. I've taken this to mean that they assume their listeners and readers understand it as a shared value in our culture.

Uh, really?

So I've been doing a lot of digging for basic definitions of "civil discourse" as these appear in etymological roots, dictionary definitions, definitions posted in blogs, and so forth. My question for you, then, is how would you define the term "civil discourse"?

Monday, September 17, 2007

to be faithful in little things

On Saturday, Natalie asked that I post the questions I’m investigating in my current sabbatical project, a book tentatively titled Tough Talk, Tough Texts. I thought I’d done so before here on this blog, but they’re actually pretty hard to find. So I’ve spent the past half hour or so reviewing old entries, my original sabbatical proposal, and the NCTE proposal Rebecca, Cam, and I had accepted for this year’s conference. What I discovered was that my questions have definitely evolved over time. In fact, a whole series of sub-questions has emerged. Still, in its most boiled-down form, my controlling research question is:

How do we help students engage in productive conversations about provocative texts during book clubs?

The underlying premise of this question is that our students don’t have a plethora of cultural models at hand to help them engage in civil discourse. With commitment and very careful preparation, however, they can learn to do so independently within the context of a book club discussion.

(NOTE TO SELF: I should talk more later about what I mean by “productive conversations” and “provocative texts.”)

Before I leave, though, I want to admit that as I’ve described the book concept to others over the past several months, I’ve felt a little sheepish. I keep hearing this voice inside my head that wants to know, And exactly why is this so important? On Saturday, Natalie and Rebecca helped me remind myself why I still think it is.

You know, a lot of really fine books have been written lately to help teachers figure out how to help kids read and write for authentic purposes. These recommended strategies often culminate in service learning or community projects. In other words, at the end of such a unit of study, kids literally have something to show for it—a petition to city council, a letter to the editor, a new deck for the local coffee shop. I heartily applaud these approaches, but as I’ve held them up next to what I’m proposing, I’ve wondered:

Is learning to read with empathy and talk about difficult issues in productive ways really enough?

But every time I ask that question, the other little voice inside my head quietly but clearly says:

Yes. Oh, yes it is.

In my high school classroom, I only had two Argus posters (you know, the ones with the beautiful photographs and the inspirational quotations). One of them said, “Everyone is an exception,” and the other said, “To be faithful in little things is a big thing.” I’ve been thinking about these phrases over the past few days because they both seem relevant to this project. What might really happen in our culture if people were able to recognize that everyone is indeed an exception, then to enter empathically into lives that differed from their own? What would happen if they were able to really listen and to talk with one another about difficult issues in an effort to co-exist, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye?

Mother Teresa said, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” When I take to heart how much the world has benefited from her thinking, suddenly, this doesn’t seem like such a small endeavor any more.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

where am I now?

We’re back together at the AI post-institute meeting and beginning it as is our usual custom—with Morning Pages. I wrote the prompt and am suddenly realizing that I’ve broken more of the rules than I normally do. For one thing, I did the bad-teacher thing and asked everyone else to create a timeline without creating one for myself.

I guess that’s not completely true. I wrote a ridiculously ambitious one for my sabbatical proposal, and according to that, I should be finished with a draft of my book by the end of the semester. Cue hysterical laughter here.

Let’s just say I probably won’t get quite that far. In terms of where I am right now, I have been writing a good bit, but not much of it is fit for human consumption at this point. In fact, I’m a little adrift (See what I mean? Even as I write this, I’m wondering, is it okay to admit this in a public forum?). Or, more generously, I could say I’m still exploring. I’ve been reading very widely (and am amazed by the echoes I see that reflect back to this project—to interconnectedness and cultural change, for instance) and writing lots of questions and lists of topics/issues to think about later. Now later is here. And as for keeping up with blogging…well, you can look at the date between my last entry and this one and figure that out for yourself.

One new development that I’m very excited about, though, is that I’ll be starting a new book club in Beth Lewis’s classroom in a couple of weeks. Beth works in an alternative school and has pretty free rein with the curriculum, so we’re currently contemplating books that are “edgy contemporary.” To give you an idea, we’ve been tossing around titles like My Heartbeat and Rule of the Bone, and since our last meeting, I’ve thought about Perks of Being a Wallflower, Imani All Mine, and Chanda’s Secrets.

So what do I need to move forward? I need to begin reading texts that are more focused on this topic directly. For instance, I want to see what others have to say about how we use stories to make sense of our lives, how entering storied worlds can lead us back out into our own worlds and help us understand them in a more expansive way. I also want to get back to the search on civil discourse that I began last spring. I also need to talk with Rebecca and Cam to get a sense of their timelines for book clubs in their classes this year. Rebecca and I wrote a rough outline for our NCTE session this summer, and I think it would be a good way to focus our work. Finally, I want to get back here more. Writing has also been a way that I make sense of what I’m learning, and that brings me to my next point.

Here’s how the Inquiry Group can help today. When I told Beth that I still felt very exploratory in my thinking, she reminded me why this project is actually important to her as a teacher. I want to figure out what it can teach me as well:

Why do I feel deep in my bones that this is what I want to know right now—how to make a difference in our world through the “mere” act of literacy? Can we talk about why this project might have some social significance to you as a teacher and to others?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How does your investment in your RQ and the students’ background about your topic affect the research?

How does your investment in your RQ and the students’ background about your topic affect the research?

I think it hugely affects the book club research, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing as long as we come clean about it. During Jason’s Researcher’s Chair yesterday, he verbally sketched out an outline for an article on his topic, and he was adamant about starting with the “why.” As he explained his rationale for this approach, I remember thinking that his passion (think positive connotation here) for this subject would drive the piece, its voice, and, eventually, its impact on the reader.

Teacher research is just too intensive (again, think positively) to take on if you aren’t invested in the topic. And while this goes against the traditional notions of the Researcher in the white coat with the pocket protector and his (and, yes, the image has historically been male) supposed objectivity, there’s got to be some passion back there somewhere.

In the physics wing of the engineering building where we’re holding the summer institute, there’s a terrific quotation by Einstein that I’ll get and post here, but the gist of it is that his outlook was driven by passionate curiosity, something he considered a terrific strength. So, yeah, I think the passion’s gotta be there, both to prompt and sustain the work.

In the case of the students’ background on engaging in civil discourse via book clubs, again, we’ve discovered that this is hugely important. One thing that’s been interesting to me is that the premise I had going in to this work—that students don’t have a plethora of civil discourse models to glean from in this culture—is proving to be true. At first, Rebecca and I actually tried to emulate the traditional white-coat mentality, I suppose, because we didn’t let the kids in on what we were doing. We just observed while they read edgy books to see what happened. And basically, what happened was that they while they did have mostly well-behaved book club conversations, when edgy topics came up, they either giggled their way through them or ignored them altogether. So our more distanced approach was useful in this regard.

But the next semester we ran book clubs, we wondered why we’d been so secretive. Why not tell them what we’re interested in, see how they respond to that premise, and let them reflect those thoughts from the very beginning as they set their book club norms?

It made a difference, so it did shape our research, but deliberately so. And our documentation of that process is part of our data set, so it’s something we can account for as we share our findings. We learned more from that book club sequence that we want to shape our next round of our teaching and research as well. But that’s what teacher research is all about. Teaching to understand and make well-informed adjustments as a result.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

if your research were a color...

During Morning Pages time today, Stacey posed a series of prompts to us to help us think about our research in metaphorical terms. Here's what I wrote:

If our book club research were a color, it would be the muddy grey that Easter Egg water becomes when you dip all the eggs in all the water. I was watching family videos recently, and that’s how toddlers dye Easter Eggs—one egg, all colors because those bowls of tinted water are just too irresistible for one. Even the most patient parents eventually give up and let ‘em go at it because no degree of explanation works in advance. Kids just have to be okay with the mottled outcome or wind up being comforted, learning their lesson, and going the more conventional route—one dye vat per Easter egg. Eventually, they might get clever and figure out how to suspend the egg in one vat until that color sets and then move it to another for a nifty two-tone effect. Or they might learn how to create secondary colors by taking it a vat at a time—red + blue = purple. Or if the multi-color temptation persists, they learn to use crayolas and let the dye take the backseat as a background color.

I wonder if teacher research methods are similar? My approach is generally to deliberately collect certain kinds of data and then keep everything else for context “just in case.” This can be overwhelming, but it also allows me to be selective later.

I’ve also used layered forms of data analysis if I get a richer picture that way. If different filters give me different views, then I’ll do it, methodological purists be damned. Generally, though, I take a first pass through and then at least another, much like a two-step Easter egg process.

The same has been true for the book club research because each BC sequence has resulted in new questions and adjustments that we need to pursue for another round. I hope the vats of dye are infinite because I know this Easter egg will never be finished.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

a little ditty I like to call "reality, perception, and the nature of truth"

Okay, so Natalie has set the bar REALLY high with her individual morning pages prompts (AND pictures—really, we’re all kind of hating her right now, but in a good-natured writing project kind of way). And I’d probably be tapping right away except that Stacey made the fruit dip that is so yummy, you really need your own bowl to stick your whole face in. But enough stalling…

Natalie’s posed a real doozy of a prompt for me:

“How do you tell what’s real from what’s perception? What I mean is, how do we determine the changes that occur as a result of what we do as t-rs and changes that would have naturally occurred anyway? How do we know what’s real—or does it really matter?”

Believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about the last question in particular, and Jason (Malone) and I were just talking about it yesterday in reference to students’ reactions to The Life of Pi, which Rebecca’s kids have been reading to mixed reviews in book clubs for the past couple of years. Well, you get the picture—more groovy serendipity in CSUWP. So it may be hard for me to think of these questions in the broader sense of t-r, but I’m going to try in the next 8 minutes.

This question really has to do with the nature of truth, I think (oh, yeah, like I’m gonna solve that problem in 8 minutes…). Okay, so I’ll take a stand. I do think that truth is in the eye of the beholder to a large extent, but I also think it does matter. Yes, there is such a thing as empirical truth, at least when it comes to inanimate objects, but as soon as something moves, well, so does the nature of truth. One of the things I’ve learned in my years as a qualitative researcher (and a human being) is that truth is to a large extent the story we tell to make sense of what happened (cf. Life of Pi again).

Maybe applying this to my recovery from back injury would be helpful here. Thankfully, I’m having more good days than bad days now, but the task of late for my physical therapist and me is often to figure out why that is and how to avoid more pain on the bad days or to replicate more wellbeing on the good days. She’s encouraged me to keep a daily journal to note what I did, what my pain level was, what adjustments I’ve had to make in my activities, and so forth. As a result of that journal, I’ve started paying attention to my body more than I did prior to the injury so that even on the days I don’t have time to make a journal entry, I still am writing one in my head.

The conclusion we almost always come to is that in both cases, we can’t pin down a single cause. Almost always, it’s a combination—I didn’t rest enough or was experiencing high levels of stress or did a handstand in the swimming pool (okay, that was pretty stupid), therefore I had a bad day. While we can both see the results of the bad day—visible spasms in my back—we aren’t always able to pinpoint the cause. However, because of I’m more aware of potential variables overall and am able to make accommodations to avoid them, I’m beginning to have more good days as a result.

So how does that connect to t-r? (I have 5 whole minutes to go here, so be kind if I miss the mark ☺) I think that one of the differences that teacher research and its concomitant methods make is that I become more mindful. I wonder more. I document my observations, so that I can reflect on them and draw conclusions that result in deliberate changes I make to my teaching and to my thinking about it.

The result for me as a teacher has been that I have more good days than bad. But more significantly, I think that my definitions of “good” and “bad” have changed. In fact, both have nearly been replaced altogether with “interesting.” To borrow an idea from Maclean and Mohr, the teacher-researcher mindset has allowed me to approach my teaching with more professional distance rather than automatically (and rather self-centeredly) assuming that I am responsible for every behavior or event that occurs in my classroom.

No matter how many classroom management books we read, we don’t have near as much control as we’d like to think we have (and this is also true in life, I’m afraid). Sure, we can set a tone and do what we can to help students maintain it, but kids are agents, too, and we can no more determine the exact experience they will have as individuals in our classroom than we can make sure everyone has a fabulous time at our next dinner party. We can work within our own set of variables to make one possible, but in the end, everyone is responsible for having her or his own fabulous time.

So going back to Natalie’s prompt, my perception—the story I tell myself—is also my reality to some extent. But teacher research provides me with some tools I can use to hone that perception so that I arrive at a more complex understanding of teaching and learning (both mine and my students’) and the nature of truth in both realms.

Monday, June 25, 2007

checking back in

Okay, so it took longer than a week to get back here, but as I just told everyone in the AI (sorry for looking directly at you, Steph), our first mantra for the next 2 weeks is "no guilt." Also, swearing is okay, and sometimes to be expected, during CSUWP activities and teacher research in general.

So no guilt.

The face-to-face part of the AI began today, and despite the fact that CSUWP is running (count them) NINE programs this summer and I'm as tired as I look, I'm really excited to be here. Right now, we're writing morning pages via our blogs, so if anyone wants to check in on us over the next 2 weeks, you can get a play-by-play of our thinking and hopefully our progress in our own work. Our morning pages prompt today is simply to check in and think about what's next for us this week. What have we already done, and what do we want to do now?

As I said a couple of entries back, Cam and Rebecca and I have got a whole lot of data--fieldnotes, book club discussion records, mandalas (I think), freewrites, and a taped discussion, I'm hoping to:

* get caught up on the AI blog
* get all that data organized and begin analyzing it with Rebecca (and Cam, too, if possible), and
* get some outside reading done about civil discourse
* make a sabbatical plan

Oh, yeah, and also to work our way through our AI schedule by learning more together about teacher research.

That plan may be too ambitious, but it's a place to start, and the good news about it is that I'll have a to-do list when I leave here, too.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

i need to take a week or so off

I won't be blogging this week. Two of my h.s. daughter's best friends were in a car accident on Friday night, and one of them was killed. The other was injured but is out of the hospital. We know both families very well and are helping with many of the arrangements this week, so blogging's not at the top of my list. I'll be back in a week or so.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

this is the good part

I am blissfully awash in data. I'm working in both Rebecca and Cameron's classes now, so I have double the fun--fieldnotes, student freewrites, book club norming sheets, discussion records. And all of it wonderfully surprising and stimulating.

I should update you on my and Rebecca's experiment the last couple of weeks. It worked. And I don't mean that in the sense that I often say the phrase when I'm talking about my teaching. It worked in a teacher research sense, meaning that we got good data out of the deal. (NOTE TO SELF: I want to come back to this notion of what it means to say something "works" as a teacher researcher in a later post.)

If you scroll down to a post I made a couple of weeks ago ("Dragon Drawings and Other Social Postures"), you'll see that we wanted to try to cue kids to talk more about the difficult, controversial, or challenging aspects of their book club texts, and we also wanted to hear whether or not their book club interactions influenced their understanding and interpretations of their books. So for their last two book club sessions, we've tried using the freewrites to book-end the period. A week ago, immediately prior to their book clubs, Rebecca asked them to free write for a few minutes to this prompt:

"What challenges, controversies, or difficulties did you encounter in this section of your reading? How did you react to them?"

After students had written for several minutes, they moved into book clubs and began their discussion. As usual, she asked them to talk as they wished and at some point to record each members' best contribution on a discussion record. At the bottom of that record, we also ask them to consider a question common to every book club in the room. For the question on the discussion record that day, we asked them to make a bulleted list of some of the ideas they had written about in their individual free writes and to briefly consider how others in their group reacted to the same issues. Again, the point of this was to help them actually discuss these if they hadn't done so previously.

Then after book clubs wound down, Rebecca asked students to draw a line across the middle of the page where their previous free write ended and write this time about how they now felt about the same issues after having discussed them with their other book club members and why.

Because we liked the rhythm of this process last Monday (and the data it produced), we tried it again yesterday, but changed the questions slightly. In the first freewrite, we asked students to also identify the issues they felt most passionately about from those had listed, to explain why, and then to consider how their understanding of that particular issue was influenced by their personal background (e.g., social class, gender, ethnicity, upbringing, where you live, etc.). Students were again cued by our discussion record question to discuss these issues, and then for the final free write, Rebecca asked them to do a couple of things:

1) to think about how others in their book club had influenced their reading experiences, and

2) to rate their book club experience overall (thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or somewhere in between) and describe how reading in a book club was different from reading alone.

Through this series of questions on students' freewrite, we're trying to cue students to think about how their responses to text are shaped by both their own backgrounds and their interactions with others. We're also asking them to rehearse these ideas before they have to share them with other members in their book clubs, and we're attempting to collect data in these areas as well.

We haven't formally analyzed either set of free writes yet, though we did skim them after both classes, and they're practically burning a hole in my backpack. On that cursory read, however, I've been fascinated to see how kids are defining "tough topics" (i.e., what they found "difficult, controversial, or challenging"). The one response that's stuck with me for two weeks now was by a kid Rebecca says is incredibly bright. He's reading _Cry the Beloved Country_ by Alan Paton.

If you don't know that book, it's set in the forties in South Africa just prior to apartheid legislation. The narrator is omniscient, but most of the action centers on the life of a black minister from a small village whose son murders a white anti-apartheid activist during a botched burglary in Johannesburg. Rebecca and I chose this book because it's what I call a "green-light text" in _The Book Club Companion_. In other words, because the book is a classic, most students and parents accept it without question as a book appropriate to be read in school. As I argue in my book, I think it's important to include at least one of these in any book club book set so that kids can opt out of more in-your-face texts and topics if they aren't ready for them yet. In my and Rebecca's minds, though, this book still qualifies as a tough text because of its subject matter and its difficulty level.

Now back to the kid and his first free write. Let's call him Jack.

Rebecca and I have observed over this book club cycle that the students reading this book have been detached from it overall. That has played out across the data we've collected so far as well. In his first free write, Jack commented that he knew that race was *supposed to be* the controversial topic in this book, but honestly, it hadn't been personally controversial for him, partially because he didn't have to deal with it in his own life (not surprising since this is a white kid writing in a mostly white school and community) but also because of the way the story was told. In the latter case, the narrator's voice had distanced him from the story. Jack went on to say, however, that WHAT MIGHT BE CONTROVERSIAL IS THE FACT THAT HE AND OTHERS IN SOCIETY FEEL DISTANCED FROM RACISM, PERIOD.


I mean WOW. How insightful is that? Remember, this is a fifteen-year-old talking.

Except that I'm out of time, I could keep writing. I don't know if Jack shared his insight with the rest of his book club or if he just discovered it during the moment of writing or if he's thought about it since. Suffice it to say that I have, though. Even in the cursory first read of data analysis, that insight alone has kept me thinking, has generated more conversations with Rebecca and Cam, and has resulted in my hunch that we need to provide even more curricular scaffolding than I'd anticipated when we're asking kids to read tough texts. My conversations with Cam and Rebecca have resulted in the generation of some new curricular materials that I'm pretty excited to try out and a whole lot of new questions.

So stay tuned. This is getting good.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hi, kiddies, guess who I am today: teacher or researcher or both?

Wow, I have so much to say that I can't blog it all in one entry (SIDE NOTE: I'm trying to give myself permission to write shorter entries so that I'll post more regularly :). In fact, this entry started out as a comment on Rebecca's blog that was just going on far too long. Incidentally, you should go read that entry because it's a really good one.

Her entry brings up the question: In any given classroom situation--say, student making and commenting loudly on his dragon drawings in book club while other students are trying to talk about the book--how do you manage the observant researcher with the dutiful teacher? Because they often aren't the same thing.

This tension between the dual roles of the teacher researcher comes up on a regular basis in teacher researcher Karen Gallas's work, too [see NOTE below]. She's done her t-r in a primary classroom, and she's usually looking at some pretty hot-button issues like race, gender, and class and how these get played out among young children.

My teacher research group in Oklahoma and I used to talk about the dual-role tension in her work because we sometimes questioned whether or not the teacher in us would let a particular activity go on to the extent it did in Gallas's classroom all in the name of collecting data.

I just now looked at what "the Marians," as Bud calls them, had to say about this tension [Marion Maclean and Marian Mohr are the authors of Teacher Researchers at Work]. They describe an almost identical scenario to the one Rebecca describes where a kid is being disruptive during writing time. Here's how the Marians describe the teacher researcher's reaction:

"As a teacher researcher, you are trying to observe, describe, and reflect on what is happening in the classroom: to question, not to make assumptions. In your research log, you write your observations of Jeff's behaviour and make notes on reactions or the lack of reactions by the rest of the class. You jot down your own feelings and reaction, too. Finally, as a researcher, you make a note to ask jeff a question later that will help you understand the function of his pen-tapping during that day's journal writing.

But you are also the teacher, and in that role you have a responsibility to make the classroom an environment in whihc everyone can work...As a teacher, you want Jeff to be quiet and to get his writing done even though you may wonder why he isn't writing. In this situation you experience a tension between your responsibilitites as a classroom manager and classroom researcher, but your examination of Jeff's writing practices adds insights to your teaching as well as data to your research" (p. 107).

That pretty much hits the nail on the head, doesn't it? The Marians don't offer any easy answers, but they go on to say that the researcher stance is helpful in that it provides what they call some "involved distance" that allows the teacher researcher to view the kid's behavior at hand as "something of interest...points of change, informative shifts, and important clues to the learning process" (p. 108). They suggest, and I think I agree, that "(t)he research process, while it requires immersion in classroom tensions, helps [the teacher researcher] gain some control and authority over her work from an involved distance....For a teacher researcher, the shift in stance is not a shift away from being a teacher toward being a researcher. It is more a shift away from being only a participant, even a thoughtful and conscientious one, toward being someone who has the distance to take a look at the participant role. That means being prepared to address the tensions and questions that characterize the experience of doing both at the same time. Addressing those tensions and questions is one source of the depth of understanding that results from being a teacher-researcher. We are not teachers OR researchers, but both" (pp. 114-115).

So what should the teacher researcher do? Step in and insist that the kid quit disrupting others or keep observing as long as things don't get out of hand and see what the kids themselves will do? I'd say it depends--on what the teacher research question is to begin with (e.g., does it have to do with social interaction in a book club setting?) and what else I can predict about where this behavior is likely to head based on prior patterns I've observed in the classroom.

Regardless of the decision, however, clearly, ethics become an issue the minute you set out to conduct teacher research in your classroom.

One last word from Marian Mohr's "Teacher-Researcher Statement of Ethics" in Jane Zeni's Ethical Issues in Practitioner Research, a chapter we'll probably read in the summer session of the CSUWP Advanced Institute:

"1. The Teacher-Researcher Role. Teacher-researchers are teachers first. They respect those with whom they work, openly sharing information about their research. While they seek understanding and knolwedge, they also nurture the well-being of others, both students and professional colleagues."

So who are you today:)?

*NOTE: You can find a really interesting review of Gallas's book Sometimes I Can Be Anything in Education Review. In it, William Pawluck comments on the dual roles of a teacher researcher and also has a good deal to say about how the seeming insularity of Gallas's teacher research methodology is tempered by her involvement in the Brookline Teacher Research Group.

Friday, April 20, 2007

dragon drawings and other social postures

Rebecca and I observed the first book club of this next round in her class last Monday, and it was fascinating as usual. This conclusion comes after several days of reflection and an afternoon of scintillating conversation on Wednesday (Rebecca is so dang smart).

We didn't necessarily feel that way on Monday post-book club, though. In fact, when we thought about how it went that day, both of us wound up fixating on the loud, at-first-glance off-task group in the corner who're reading a great YA sci-fi book called Feed. This group is comprised of 4 boys and 1 girl, who I'm pretty sure was ruing her book choice by the end of the period. When Rebecca and I thought about how different this group's reaction to the book was from the group's last semester, we were baffled. I mean, this is a great book, one of the best choices of those we're making available in terms of its tailoring to an adolescent audience. It should've been right up this group's alley.

Yet by the end of the book club, my fieldnotes show that these guys (and yes, it was the guys) were throwing pencils around, laughing raucously about their own clever substitution of the word "expletive" for the characters' swearing as they read passages aloud, and riffing on the term "weasel face" for about 5 minutues straight. At one point, the girl in the group, whom I'll call Hope, disgustedly asked, "You didn't read anything, did you?"

And that's what Rebecca and I initially thought as well, especially when we looked at the dragon drawing one of the particularly rambunctious boys had seen fit to draw on the back of the group's book club discussion record (kids summarize the group's discussion on these things). But then we took a closer look, and actually, once you got over the fact that he'd depicted all the main characters as sword-wielding dragons (he wanted to read a book with a sword, he told us the day they chose books), it was pretty darn right on. It recorded one of the most significant scenes that had occurred in the book at that point and did so in some detail, all of it accurate. What were we to make of this?

Later during our Wednesday conversation, Rebecca said she had a hunch that all the kids in the Feed group probably had read, at least based on their past track records with other books and assignments. So our next question became, then why were the boys working so hard to look as if they haven't? I'll cut to the chase here, but the conclusion we eventually arrived at is that while we have been attentive to social interactions within book clubs ever since we started studying them, we've only recently (okay, as recently as Wednesday) begun to articulate the unspoken question that we think is pretty present in adolescent readers' minds in a book club setting:

"How do I want others to read me?"

In some ways, this is an old-ish question. Peg Finders has been thinking about it for quite some time in regard to gender roles middle-school girls display through their literacy practices, and has long had some provocative things to say about intermediate elementary students' social roles in the context of literature circles. However, I don't know of anyone who's currently considering this question in regard to adolescents (dis)engaged in the more free-flowing conversation of book clubs. So that's good news for us. At least in terms of research.

In terms of actually working with kids this coming Monday? Well, that's a different story. So the experiment we'll try then is based on our hunch that kids are reacting privately to books in ways their more public social roles might prohibit them from sharing during book club. At the same time, their social interactions during book club are likely to shape their private readings in turn.

For instance, if you as a private reader noted on a sticky note that a topic was controversial, yet you got to book club and found that no one else felt similarly, would you say something and risk your response as being marked as alien to that of your peers? If your 15-year-old self was having a particularly high self-esteem day, maybe so. But a lot of other times, we're guessing maybe not.

Here's our pedagogical experiment, then, which hopefully won't be too simplistic. Immediately prior to book clubs on Monday, we're going to ask students to do a quickwrite to identify any challenges, controversies, or difficulties they encountered in this section of the book (incidentally, we're also interested in how they're defining these terms). Then we'll observe their book club interactions and ask them to do another quickwrite post-book club to describe what they think now in regard to these challenges. Did their reactions change, stay the same, or something else, and why?

It's sure to be interesting. We'll keep you posted on what we're finding out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

check out the new links

To the right, I've added lots of new links to blogs and sites by lots of cool people. One is to the "mother blog" of the new CSU Writing Project Advanced Institute. Starting in a couple of weeks, we'll be conducting an online book club on various articles in Working toward Equity, a recent and terrific new publication by the Teacher Research Collaborative. In fact, the entire book is available for FREE download at this same location on the NWP website. If you can't take part in the Advanced Institute this summer, this would be a good way to participate vicariously and via comments if you're interested.

I'd also like to call your attention to my new baby--my little podcasting show called "This Project's Life," where I'm posting brief interviews with CSUWP members every other week or so. You'll also want to take a look at the rest of the our new website, including the new (and brief) videos of CSUWP members because they're a lot of fun.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

i'm baa-ack...

Even though I haven't been blogging in a while (geez...2-month hiatus), I've been reading a lot of other people's blogs. Does that count for something? If not, I'm a virtual slacker. I'm okay with that.

In reading those other blogs, though, one thing I've discovered is that confessionals are pretty dang common. A lot of people apologize because life gets in the way. I could do that, too, and it might actually be relatively interesting, but I'm going to resist.

Instead, I'm writing from the very first meeting of the very first CSU Writing Project (CSUWP) Advanced Institute. So while I may be a slacker, I also belong to a group of groundbreakers. Balance is the key to life.

As I write, everyone's setting up individual blogs. I'll add them to my links soon so you can check them out, too. In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit more about this really cool group of people and what we're doing in the basement of Mugs Coffee on a snowy Saturday morning. Ever since 2003, CSUWP folks have been wanting to have a summer institute part two. This year, though, we got a grant from those nice people at National Writing Project so we could actually do it. So eleven of us are going to spend a lot of time together (both virtually and F2F) over the next year exploring our own teacher research questions, reading other teacher research, and yes, consuming enormous quantities of food as always (betcha wanna see a group picture now, huh? Trust me, it's a writing project thing).

You can read about their teacher research as well as take a look at our "mother blog," as Bud's calling it. Everyone should be posting an entry today. Since I know this group, I know they'll be asking good questions and answering them in entertaining and insightful ways.

And because the AI co-director Jason Malone and I are asking all of them to post at least once a week for the next several months, I gotta--oops! I get to--do it, too. So if you're interested in my professional life, come back fairly often. I'll be here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

there's a brave new blogiverse out there: scrapartists

In a recent post on her blog, Louann Reid posed the question, "Why not blog?" You can visit Louann's blog by clicking on the Multiliteracies button at the bottom of my blogroll to the left (sorry, can't make links today because I'm posting from Safari).

As I commented there, blogging makes a lot of sense to me from a professional standpoint, but I've also been intrigued about why so many people choose to blog *apart* from a sense of professional duty. Probably there are some closet columnists out there like me, but I stumbled on a whole new discourse community by accident this weekend. As a result, I spent an embarrassing amount of time lurking this weekend. In fact, my daughter claims I'm officially obsessed, but I prefer to think of it as fascination.

It's all her fault anyway. She's a senior, so I'm making her a scrapbook for graduation. I know next to nothing about how to do this. As always when I have a little question, I turn to research. I flipped through a scrapbooking magazine at the grocery store and discovered they have a website. And let me tell you, not only is the blogiverse full of scrapbookers, but out-of-school literacies are alive and well out there. I mean, these people are SERIOUS. They host conventions. They scrapbook digitally (wow, do these women know their way around in Photoshop). Some call themselves "Life Artists" or "scrapartists," and they have created their own language complete with abbreviations sure to confuse the uninitiated. Here are a few examples:

scraplift=copying a LO design from another Life Artist
journal=to write often lengthy captions near pictures on your LO
rubon=a decal of lettering or design that you "rub on" to a LO<--It took me several hours to figure that last one out.

They pose creative challenges, suggest pre-writing procedures to help with journaling, and host contests like MM Idol (Memory Makers Idol). They scan and post their work and comment on one another's. There are rules and tools. They emboss and chalk and sandpaper. They buy expensive Nikons and talk about what makes the best light. They blog and journal and participate in online forums with a vengeance. And all of them appear to be female.

I was so impressed that in the supposed service of collecting ideas for my daughter's project, I just couldn't stop myself, Gee's voice whispering in my ear all the while: "What do you make of this? Is scrapbooking a literacy practice? And if so, what makes it so compelling that entire discourse community has formed around it? Why do only women get to be members? Why the abundance of apparently affluent SOHs (another common abbreviation for "stay-at-home-mom"), and why do so many of them live in Provo (a.k.a. the "scrapbooking capitol of the world")? What are scrapbookers' norms and values?"

At the very least, I find scrapbooking to be a peculiar (as in "noteworthy") instance of a feminized discourse community that has, in the service of preserving family heritage and creating art that deliberately reflects the artist's individuality,

* appropriated many practices often associated with a masculinized domain, such as tool use--online technologies, drills, heat guns, etc. (many scrapbookers recommend buying supplies at Home Depot and Lowe's; I followed one thread that described how a salesman looked at a scrapbooker as if she had a "third eye" when she asked for a screw post)


* combined them with many practices typically associated with a domestic domain, such as sewing, scrapbooking itself, and community formation (many scrapbookers host local LO parties that sound reminiscent of quilting bees).

What surprised me most, though, was how central literacy is to all of this. My visits to websites and blogs like those I've listed below dissuaded me of my notion of scrapbooking as a quaint little domestic art. It's anything but quaint, and its practitioners are highly motivated to use literacy in robust and authentic ways I'm pretty sure they didn't pick up in school. Or maybe they did. Heather Burch, the owner of Poppy Ink (it's the last scrapbooking website I've listed below), posts a pretty surprising bio.:

"I graduated with a double-major in English lit. and print journalism. The written word is serious business. Some of the best prose ever written is: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolfe. THAT is what this hobby has given me—metaphorically. It’s given me a part of my life that is mine. In between vacuuming, diaper-changing, peek-a-boo, tantrums, bills— I have a place I can escape to create. And at the same time, I preserve my family’s story. A big job. A job I’m grateful for."

Now I'm wondering what we as English teachers/educators can learn from scrapbooking and its practitioners? I encourage you to think about that and check out this vast online community for yourself. Here are a few of the most interesting sites I found this weekend: (website where scrapbookers can post their work, shop, connect, etc.) (blog of a scrapartist living in Beijing) (blog of the woman who coined the term "Life Artist" and is using scrapbooking as a way to promote autism awareness) (website for a scrapbooking company deliberately influenced by pop art)

thinking about silence

Perhaps because we've been talking about class discussion in my Methods class, perhaps because I'm thinking about classroom discourse as always, perhaps because I had a really peculiar dream on Saturday night in which my house was so noisy, I couldn't hear the strangers who had appeared to reveal to me the secret of my life, I've been thinking about silence. Here's what came out in my journal today:


What could we learn
from the space between our words
when we bare the flats of wrists
the backs of knees,
make vulnerability visible
beneath linked cuffs and nylons?
Silence threatens to embrace us
and so we drop our eyes
lick a finger pray for wind
for any subject that will neutralize
our trembling at its mercies.
But if I were to trace
your snaky temples
and you my furrowed brow
(these little deaths),
we could revere them.
Nothing more
would need be said
be done
but bowing.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

personal pep talk

“In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones, p. 241

I’m still convinced that my new book is important to write (despite the fact that my editor didn’t even nibble on the unrequested progress-report bone I threw him in my recent e-mail). And I’m trying hard not to listen to my annoyingly persistent self-editing voice that wants to know if his lack of response is some sort of “sign.”

All I know is that something deep within in me keeps insisting that it’s important to write about why and how to teach literature that deals with difficult—some would say dangerous—issues and questions. So far in my rationale, I’ve been pointing out the difficulty that people everywhere—most visibly, politicians, reality TV contestants, warring spouses, angry adolescents—seem to have with doing this very thing, or at least doing so in a civil fashion.

But on further reflection, as I heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice about knowing who I am, I realize that right now, I’m a 41-year-old woman with an injured back who struggles daily with my own big questions, as I’m guessing we all do, whether we want to admit it or not. Conflict and big questions are an unavoidable part of existence, and at least part of the reason why I read is to confront them vicariously through literary lives. And talking through them with the help of a text, what Parker Palmer refers to as a “third thing,” gives me the distance I temporarily need to sort through conflicts of my own as well as questions posed by living in the larger world.

Why does it matter that we talk these texts through with other people rather than pondering them individually then sliding the book back on the shelf? Listen to what Palmer says in A Hidden Wholeness:

“Whether we know it or not, like it or not, acknowledge it or not, our lives are interconnected in a complex web of causation. My understanding of truth impinges on your life, and yours impinges in mine, so the differences between us matter to both of us.”

Now Palmer’s not writing about literary discussions per se, but I think his claim holds true for them as well. As teachers, we can distance our students and ourselves by underlining the similes and highlighting the metaphors so that it actually becomes a “fourth thing,” but is that really why we read? Aren’t we more interested in the truths those linguistic parallels eventually lead us to? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids to do all that annotation in the service of asking Why?

Well, I think so. Of course I’m not the only one to argue that we enter literary worlds to exit into our own more clearly or that talking through texts can help us do so. I know I’m evoking those buzz words “relevance” and “authenticity” here. (And I also know the book feels so important because it’s probably tapping my own need to confront conflict and speak my own truth, too.) But I don’t think it’s always (or ever) easy to teach the texts that really matter. (Witness the difference between some of my Methods students’ recent list of texts they’re dying to teach and the ones they actually suggested for their working unit. Let’s just say the second list is mostly canonical.)

So summoning the courage to teach the text in the first place seems an important first step. And dealing with the “hot potato” once you’ve done so seems an important second. And yes, I think this could make a difference in helping our kids learn how to deal productively with difficult issues beyond the classroom. So while I’m not entirely sure why it seems so important to me personally to write this book, I think I have to try.

Friday, January 26, 2007

I'm back

Okay, so I've been away for so long, I forgot my username AND my password. Is that a bad sign? Could be.

But I've decided that what counts is that I'm back at all. Even after a non-restful Christmas "break," an 80+ page grant proposal, and being rear-ended by a drunk driver. (Stories lurk behind every item on that list, I assure you.)

I'm patting myself lightly on the back (see aforementioned incident with drunk driver) that I remembered enough about blogging to retrieve my password. It took me so long, however, that I have exactly 2 minutes before I must leave again for a meeting. So right now, if anyone's still out there reading, all you're getting is a promise of what's to come:

1. some guest posts from my students last semester
2. ongoing thoughts on the new book
3. some musings on human plasticity

Farewell until then.