Sunday, August 29, 2010


I've just finished Mockingjay. What did I learn?
  • War scars.
  • You can't always get what you want.
  • Happiness comes, sometimes.
  • Peace is tenuous and costly.
  • Hold on to those you love.
  • Protect your family and your friends.
Overall, a satisfying end to the Hunger Games trilogy. I devoured the book.  Though badly wounded and indeed often sedated and kept prop-like  to be paraded across the air waves for those in the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen rises heroic out of loss to show us what it takes to survive: committment, drive, integrity.

Not to be a spoiler but this may ruin it for some, so if you're one of those types quit reading now.

Peeta suffers throughout much of the book. His mental breakdown leaves him angry, confused, bitter and resentful. In order to survive and to cope he and Finnick come up with a game of sorts: real or not real. Peeta shares a memory and then asks his companions "real or not real." They answer. The truth begins to rebuild him, but their love starts with this exchange:

"Ally." Peeta says the word slowly tasting it. "Friend. Lover. Vicgor. Enemy. Fiancee. Target. Mutt. Neighbor. Hunter .Tribute. Ally. I'll add it to the list of words I use to try to figure you out." He weaves the rope in and out of his fingers. "The problem is, I can't tell what's real anymore, and what's made up."
The cessation of rhythmic breathing suggests that either people have woken or have never really been asleep at all. I suspect the latter.
Finnick's voice rises from a bundle in the shadows. "Then you should ask, Peeta. That's what Annie does."
 "Ask who?" Peeta says. "Who can I trust?"

"Well, us for starters. We're your squad," says Jackson.
"You're my guards," he points out.
"That, too," she says. "But you saved a lot of lives in Thirteen. It's not the kind of thing we forget.
In the quiet that follows, I try to imagine not being able to tell illusion from reality. Not knowing if Prim or my mother loved me. If Snow was my enemy. If the person across the heater saved or sacrificed me...I suddenly want to tell Peeta everything about who he is, and who I am, and how we ended up here. But I don't know how to start. Worthless. I'm worthless.
At a few minutes before four, Peeta turns to me again. "Your favorite color . . . it's green?"
"That's right." Then I think of something to add. "And yours is orange."

"Orange?" He seems unconvinced.

"Not bright orange. But soft. Like the sunset," I say. "At least, that's what you told me once."

"Oh." He closes his eyes briefly, maybe trying to conjure up that sunset, then nods his head. "Thank you." (270-271)
Thank you, Suzanne Collins.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Race to the Top

I have a lot of questions about Florida's win in the Race to the Top funding competition. Will only struggling schools receive funding? I don't think so, but I think struggling schools will recieve the lion's share of funds(only appropriate, right?). Isn't that opposite of our former school grades system that rewarded A schools with more money than D and F schools?

Will all schools be expected to implement the reforms even if they aren't funded at the school site? I think my biggest question though is about teacher and principal evaluation. My county posted this overview of Race to the Top plans last year. There are several items to celebrate: career and professional academies, increased opportunities for STEM education, advanced classes, positive behavior systems, mentoring and more. But how will districts, and my district specifically, revamp teacher compensation systems? The Memorandum of Understanding calls for a teacher compensation system that "ties the most significant gains in salary to effectiveness." How will effectiveness be measured? Surely we'll get more than one shot to showcase effectiveness right? Or will effectiveness come to down to a solitary standardized test score? Don't get me wrong, I think standardized tests, and the FCAT in particular have value.

Tests, judiciously used, can provide valuable data I use to compare students to a norm group or to a set of criteria. But measure a teacher's effectiveness? I can plan instruction using testing data. But can I plan and execute student behavior? Human beings are entirely too complex to be categorized by one score, one measure, one 2.5 hour bubble in the answer test. And we certainly can't capture that complexity with monthly or quarterly tests that continuously interrupt instruction.

I am teaching as hard as I can, but some years, with some students, my best does not seem to be good enough. Perhaps that's politics working to, as Alan Sitomer says, "shame me into working harder" or spur me into "working for less." But we've been working for less. And this year we went to a 7 period school day. Teachers teach 6 classes instead of 5 to meet class size amendment laws. The other reason the school day has changed has to do with budget shortfalls. For every 6 teachers we need one less in our English department. With 48 minute classes, my students this year get 1,800 less minutes of instruction in language arts. That's 30 hours. That's one month less in my English classroom. But we are measured on the same scales we used to measure last year's students.

I wished we measured growth. In Florida we measure learning gains. We say we measure growth, but growth is strictly defined. The state defines growth or a learning gain as 77 developmental scale score points. Is 77 points statistically significant? Is 10 points practically significant? One hundred percent of my students do not make learning gains on our FCAT test. One of my best years, more than 80 % of my students improved, but less than 70% made that magical 77 point gain. In the state's eyes those students didn't make a year's worth of growth. Did we all walk on the same day? Did you master bike riding on the same day that all of the neighborhood kids did? Dick Allington says that more than 50 years of educational research has proven one thing: kids are different.

I'm thankful Florida will receive funding. Our schools need the money. But it's money with serious strings attached.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Books Read: Dusk & Songs Without Words

I picked up a couple of books from the Barnes and Noble bargain section the other day. Well worth the sales prices. Dusk by Susan Gates tells a story of genetic manipulation, military experimentation and what happens when all goes awry. You can probably guess from the cover image how Dusk, the character, was genetically engineered -- I won't give that away but suffice it to say this short read reminded me a bit of Patterson's bird children. Much less developed than Maximum Ride, Dusk inhabits wilderness and wild places, no angel metaphors for her, she eats mice whole then spits out fur and bones. Though the title would suggest an ending of sorts, Dusk vibrates with living.

No so for many of the characters in Ann Packer's Songs Without Words. Such songs are suicide songs--swans songs of the depressed. Sarabeth, lampshade artist and part time realty stager, survived her mother's suicide with the help of her best friend, Liz, who's family took her in after the death. Now grown up the women have a sisterly friendship that is constant in both of their lives. Constant until Liz's teenage daughter, attempts suicide. Packer highlights complex relationships with ease and compassion.

The book reminded me of Cindy Bertossa, a former teacher and friend who lost her sister Jenny to suicide more than a decade ago. Cindy is raising money for the American Society of Suicide Prevention by walking in an Out of Darkness Community Walk. The foundation helped her and her family in their recovery and I've got to think that Sarabeth, from the novel, would have had a much healthier emotional life as an adult if she'd done some of the things I know my friend Cindy has done (but Sarabeth is just a novel character after all).

If you are interested in learning more about suicide prevention or in supporting Cindy in her walk visit her donation page or the American Society of Suicide Prevention.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Twitter?

Why tweet? What's the point of twitter anyway?

I twitter to learn. By tweeting I connect with tech-giants to learn new about new tools, issues, headlines or professional books in the ed-tech world. I tap into the collective wisdom of teachers in my state (Lee Kolbert, Jerry Swiatek and others I follow via lists like Heather Mason's list of Florida teachers) or lean on teacher expert English teachers from across nation and nings. Meredith Stewart makes following such folks from the English Companion Ning-ers easy with this list. I'm talking educational rock stars in the English education world. Folks like Jim Burke, Kylene Beers, Stephen Krashen. For an an English teacher who is passionate about reading and learning this is 140 characters of heaven. As are the young adult authors who tweet:John Green, Ellen Hopkins, Sarah Dresden and more.

I twitter to change the world. John Green and his brother, Hank Green showed me twitter's world changing power last year during the Project 4 Awesome. The Green brothers, who just hit 200K subscribers on YouTube, command a band of Nerdfighters and host a yearly charity event on YouTube where the Nerdfighters comment and rate videos featuring charities in order to take over YouTube's most discussed page. Last year's the brothers added Twitter to the mix and we (for I too am a Nerdfighter) pushed the Project 4 Awesome to Twitter's #1 trending topic. If two minds are better than one, twitter ups mind power exponentially and no one leads the swarm better than the Green brothers.

How do you find time to do that? Twitter takes as much time as you want to give it. I don't twitter from my hip all day long. I dip into Twitter in the morning, sometimes mid-day and in the evening. During the Project for Awesome I twitter constantly, but unless there is a special chat or event, I am low-count tweeter. I joined twitter nearly 3 years ago and have not hit 3,000 tweets. Deeply embeded tweeps tweet much more than that. Meredith Stewart and Jen Ansbach, wonder-teachers and ECNingers, are closing in on 18,000 tweets in under 2 years time.

Twitter does take a time investment, but you choose your level of commitment. Do you want to listen in and lurk? Or will you join the conversation? Themed chats using hashtags* are one way to jump in. Find a chat, such as #engchat on Monday nights or #edchat. Chats seem like o-matic community builders because you have a group of folks gathered around a similar interest talking away. Like a great dinner party conversation but you don't have to worry about what you're wearing. I throughly enjoyed Sunday evening's book chat with Paul Hankins (@PaulwHankins) and Donalyn Brooks (@donalynbrooks). This was their first Title Talk chat and there are sure to be more.

So why twitter? Why not?

* * *

Twitter Vocabulary

twitter: social network where users can communicate with followers by posting short messages (140 characters or less)
followers: people who subscribe to your twitter stream or feed
tweet: sending a 140 character message via twitter
tweeple: people you connect with on twitter
list: a way to organize groups of tweeple in order to follow by categories you create
trending topic: subjects (recorded by keyword or hashtag) that are most popular on twitter
hashtag: a system of organization or folksonomy created with #sign and keyword (ie: #p4a is the Project for Awesome hashtag)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Books

I chose My Name is Memory because I love Ann Brashares' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I also love resurrection stories. Stories that show the eternal nature of our lives. My Name is Memory is a love story between Daniel and Sophia that spans centuries. With each life, Daniel searches for Sophia in order to fulfill the love he felt at their first, violent meeting. I enjoyed the characters as they changed from ancient times to present day and the mystery of their final connection kept me reading.

Pat Conroy is one of my favorite authors. The Prince of Tides one of my all-time favorite books. His magnolia-scented prose echoes a south I can only imagine. The descriptions in South of Broad are delicious, delectable, luxurious in their richness, but it is the characters that I fell in love with: Leo Bloom, Sheba and Trevor Poe and their band of high-
school friends turned adults on a quest. The novel spans decades and tells the story of friendship, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in San Francisco, the downfall of the Catholic church, integration and so much more. Conroy's novel is full of love, saints and sinners who come to know each other and commit to life in a way most characters only dream.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What do your readers do?

While dipping in to my twitter stream this morning I came across "The Fake Book Report on" Nancy Ehrlich's teaching blog. I've been thinking a lot about how I will run independent reading this year and I started to leave Nancy a comment and realized I was writing too much, so I thought I 'd write out my thoughts here and then link the post back to her comments.

Nancy's post reminds me of a story I once herd Yetta Goodman share. "What's the first thing you wanted to do after you read The Bridges of Madison County?" Goodman asked the audience. The first thing I would wanted to do (then and now) was call my best book-friend and talk about the book so that she would read it next or I might just bring her the book to read as I talk about it. Goodman described a scenario where she finished the book while reading before bed time and jumped up to go create a diorama of the bridges. Harvey Daniels summarizes the Goodman wisdom, "What do lifelong readers do when they finish a book, Yetta wondered--make a diorama?"

Real readers don't create dioramas or digital book talks or movie trailers. Read readers talk. some may write about books--teacher-y nerds like me especially, but for the most part it is a rare student--a student who is just learning to enjoy reading--that will spontaneous write about a book experience. First he needs to enjoy reading and feel the pleasure of being lost in a story.

Like Nancy, I thought critically about my own classroom when my son qualified for the accelerated reader program at his school. I will never forget how he got into the car and said, "Now I can't read whatever I want." I could barely suppress my anger. Of course he could still read whatever he wanted--I told him I'd fight all the way up to the principal's office to insure that right for him. Satisfied, we found ways to work around the AR program and found books he enjoyed for which his school had purchased tests, but still. Students should not have to take a test every time they read a book. I'll save that rant, but it was AR (and later my son's canned book reports--all written, no choice) made me seriously look at the assignments I was using to bog down readers.

While I may not run the readers' workshop Nancie Atwell pioneered and continues, independent reading--a mini-workshop time--is a core part of my classroom. I do not require students to do something with everything they read. Well, I take that back. I do require them to log their reading time and keep track of the pages they have read. Reading homework is consistent throughout the school year. Students may choose to read 2 1/2 hours each week for an A, 2 hours for a B, 1 1/2 hours for a C and so on. Last year I gave students extra-credit for each 1/2 hour extra that they logged. The reading log I use is a simple form. Originally meant to be cut apart, students never did, so the three column logs show me quite a reading history once they are complete.

Read Log

In my classroom I ask students to read 25 books a year. In the mid-90s New York and California new standards included a "25 book standard" for students in New York, I glommed on to the idea. I sold it to students by saying "If students in New York and California can read 25 books then so can you!" Now many states' standards include book thresholds. Georgia even acknowledges that reading and meeting the 25 book standard is everyone's responsibility in their social studies performance standards.

I hold students accountable for reading. I record the status of the class in my reading record notebook each day and use the data to assess students' progress as well as award points for reading. I wish that it were not so, but points, or grades, show students that I value reading. I also grade their progress toward the standard on our final exam. The 25 books becomes 25 points and the number of books students read adds to their overall exam score.

In the past, students have kept reading journals writing up to 2 pages weekly. Once students demonstrate application of the strategies I have been teaching in class by writing specifically and about the books they are reading, I "release" them from the responsibility of journaling about their reading (a la Lois Lowry). I did not have students keep reading journals last year. At the end of the year, mid-year their independent reading essays weren't as well crafted. I think the reading journals are a practice place I will bring back this year. We do them at the beginning of the year, for the first quarter only. I will need to revise my reading journal directions; the one I used to use, is embedded in this set of workshop handouts.

I don't require a monthly project or even a quarterly project, but I do ask via the journal and the log that students do something with their reading. I let go of the journal quickly though. I also assess them as readers and thinkers by making their independent reading the topic of our midterm exam. Students are give personalized essay questions--a process I wrote about here. I assess students as members of a reading community by asking them to showcase a book they have read at the end of the year. Like Nancy, I have required types of projects (book talks, book-movie posters, podcasts, etc), but I have also offered choices. This 100 projects list is what I may give students to choose from.

I've never had students fake an independent reading essay, but it's a long process. A teaching process I employ to scaffold students' abilities to think critically. We'll see how it works this year. I still have a week to think about what I want to do differently this year. One thing I'm definitely going to do is follow Ehrlich on twitter and subscribe to her blog. Her desktop chaos theme made me want a blog make-over of my own and I appreciate the parent perspective she brings to her teaching and thinking. Reflective, practical, she sounds like my kind of teacher.

Daniels, Harvey. "What's the Next Big Thing with Literature Circles?." Voices from the Middle 13.4 (2006): 10-15. Web. 14 Aug 2010.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Discovering the AR-C


"Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you've got, and fix it as you go." ~ Paul Arden
Though Arden didn't write Nike's ad campaign, his words here call it to mind. Just do it. This week I've applied the slogan and swoosh in two different ways.

We've started a Ning at school! It's not perfect --indeed we need students and a community to get it up and humming, but it's begun. Our purpose is to engage students in reading, writing and learning socially outside of the classroom. I can only imagine the groups we may create and the communities we can develop online.
My next big tasks for the ning include:
  • an acceptable use policy
  • a parent information/permission slip
  • create layout and welcome for front page
  • spiffy graphics and a customized css layout
  • invitations to join the ning (to poetry slam poets, to media specialist, for students, etc.)
  • reviewing the controls and management features
  • add widgets to front page
  • upload cchs photos to front page (my students signed photo releases last year so I'll start there)
  • write blog post for the ning
Lots to do, but it's going to be an exciting learning journey!
The second just do it task of this week: creating a model for argument (indeed an entire vocabulary) to use in Advanced Placement Language and Composition classes with other A.P. language teachers. Our collaboration hummed this week. It is amazing what can happen when you get people together and talking on the same page and in the same direction.

We (Marjorie Anderson, Allen Gorney, Sheri Hjelms, Rebecca Mayo, Jacquelyn Owen, and I) were talking about themes and text sets that we could use with AP lang this year: medical ethics, science & technology, health care, the environment, gender roles, etc. Marjorie suggested health care or the ethics of dying. She told her father's story and pointed us to a recent 60 Minutes story on the cost of dying. Have you ever watched cotton candy being made? Seen how the pink sugar spins out like sweet spidery ribbons only to fall back to the center and wrap around the paper cone. As she spoke, our thoughts and were like that sugar. Here are my notes from that conversation.

Suddenly it all came together. Allen looked at my notes and I explained what I was thinking and we were on to something. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to developing what we are initially calling the AR-C. Think arc of conversation or ark to hold ideas. AR being argument and C for construction. What has been missing with our students is an ability to construct and argument in a logical and focus way.

The organizer begins with a bubble map of conversations in the center. Take the big idea of gender roles. What conversations or discourse communities exist around the idea of gender roles? We record conversations or thematic threads on the spokes of the center circle. Identity, sexuality, expectations, responsibilities, these and more are conversations people have about gender.

What affects these conversations? Perspective certainly. So, like the conversation round table we have perspectives in our frame: individual, group, societal and global. But these perspectives are static and remain in our frame as an enduring part of the conversation.
Circling the big idea and it's constellations of conversations are ripples or considerations (target notes). Considerations change with the big idea or over time. Considerations, like ripples in a pond, are dynamic and fluid. They add layers and focus to a conversation. Considerations could include: historical, political, financial, religious, philosophical or critical. The author and text are also considerations. The conversation may start with a text (if all things are text it probably does), but the conversation is not text dependent, so the text becomes a consideration, a layer in the conversation. The text and the author are constant ripples though changing as we bring in texts to the conversation. Does that make sense?

The model merges a bubble map with a circle map and Jim Burke's target notes and conversational round table to get at thinking critically about conversations (big ideas) and the influence texts and other factors have on those ideas.
We'll see how it works. Our intention is to make our thinking processes explicit for students and to scaffold their ability to create focused claims and questions they can use to write about text. As Paul Arden says, we'll fix it as we go.
If you'd like a one-pager explaination on the model click here. If you want to try the model with your own students find several versions here (we made several in order to teach different parts of the model separately).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Two for Tuesday

Enchanted by Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells, I knew I would enjoy The Girl Who Chased the Moon. I wasn't disappointed. Full of magnolia and moonlight, the threads of Allen's story weave a magical southern tale. The characters are many, but the stories and their intersections focus on two women: Emily Benedict and Julia Winterson.

Emily Benedict moves to Mullaby, North Carolina to live with her grandfather after her mother, Dulcie Shelby, dies. Known as the town giant, he's nearly eight-feet tall, quiet and reclusive. He mystifies Emily. Why didn't Emily's mother tell Emily about her grandfather or his reclusive ways? Will he ever really talk to her? Does he even want her living with him? Why did Emily's mother keep Mullaby and her past a secret?

Next-door neighbor, Julia Winterson, a Mullaby native, comes to Emily's rescue not only with the hope-filled cakes she bakes, but also with friendship that gives Emily a sense of place and belonging. Heartbroken but determined, Julia has a two-year plan to restore her now dead father's restaurant and then sell it. She makes magical cakes. Butter, sugar, flour, chocolate and more combine to reveal Julia's heart and call forth a past love.

Love, redemption, family ties and friendship The Girl Who Chased the Moon doesn't disappoint.

* * *
My favorite book by Chris Bohjalian is The Double Bind, a twisted Gatsby-esque tale of intrique and one woman's tragic spiral into mental illness. His latest thriller, Secrets of Eden, focuses on the pastor Stephen Drew's loss of faith after newly baptized, Alice Hayward is murdered seemingly by her abusive husband. Bohjalian is a master of the telescopic moment--zooming in and out of time reeling in readers with the unexpected detail. Drew finds temporary salvation in Heather Laurent, an acclaimed angelologist and author, but like Drew's God, Laurent withdraws from him amid suspicions of murder.

Bohjalian masters suspense. The novel takes many points of view and readers who enjoy a good run with Jodi Piccoult will find intrigue and satisfaction reading Secrets of Eden.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Spend the Night Pillow Talk

Conversation between my son and two friends, brothers, he had over to spend the night:

"At my school you can't read books if you don't have the right lexile level."
"Yea, I wanted to read The Lightning Thief but my teacher said, 'Oh no, you don't have the lexile level, so you can't read it now.'"
"Oh yeah, Percy Jackson was 10 pts. more than my lexile and she said that another boy read it and didn't understand it, so she said I shouldn't read it." I was reaching for the book and then she smacked my hand away!

What? I thought, can teachers do that? Do teachers do that?
* * *
"One kid got expelled. He kept saying bad word, so he got kicked out!"
"But my teacher is sooo strict, but all the teachers are so nice except Mrs. Crabtree"
"No, Mrs. Crabtree is nice."
"Ok maybe she is is."
"What's your lexile score?"
"1080, what's yours?"

And the conversation continued through lexile scores (one said he was over 1000 and reading at a high school level) and what books each liked. One of the boys asked the others what types of books he liked. They talked about adventure books (Hunger Games) and myth-type books (Riordan's new Red Pyramid). I kept thinking how the boys' conversation mirrored that of my own book club.

I wished I'd recorded the conversation but when I went to plug my iTalk adapter into the iPod, the iPod battery was spent, so I took notes. Do you limit students reading? Why? How?

When I went in to remind the boys it was time for bed they had the lexile conversation with me. I said to them that lots of time interest in a book can overcome difficulty. If a student is interested and motivated to read a book then they will reach for it and make it work for them. I said that if their teacher wouldn't let them read it, they read it at home. Not the best advice I'm sure, but I'm learning. I wish their teacher had the same opinion. We need to support students where they are but we need not be gate-keepers. That's what I think.