Celebrate Independents!

No, the title is not a typo. The "independents" I speak of are your local independent book sellers. Sure, I shop at Barnes and Noble and online. But, there is something special about walking into my local independent bookstore and getting a smile, a personal recommendation from someone who knows my tastes, and to just browse.

My local independent bookstore is called Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers.  This past week, I stopped by to purchase a couple of books and the owner said, "Oh! I'm glad you came in. We have a poster for you." I was a bit confused because I had not ordered a poster, but the person working (a fellow English teacher) rushed out back and came out with a poster based on this book:

Awesome, huh? (For those of you who don't know this, my first name is Hattie. It's not common, except in children's books about pesky little girls : )

This experience just served to reinforce what I already know to be true: There is no online or "big box" replacement for a good, personal connection. Thanks, DD&G!

To find information about independent booksellers in your state, click of this interactive map from poets.org.

Using Rubrics to Assess Student Blogs

Every time I talk about blogging with students, I am inevitably asked about the assessment process. I understand that some educators are wary of "grading" this new(er) medium for student writing, but I think that blogs are actually much easier to assess and to offer feedback on than are some other forms of traditional assessment.

First, most blogs have a comment section. I often leave comments for students in this space. I find that students are excited to see that I've commented (because I don't always do it) and I have found that they often will correct whatever I've suggested in a timely fashion.  Typing, for me, is easier and quicker than writing by hand. Students cannot lose their blog post, but they sure can lose a piece of paper that I've commented on!

Over the past three years, I have been working to develop rubrics to use with student blog posts. I have narrowed down my general criteria to the following six:

Evidence of Critical Thinking: Thoughtful observations, connections between readings and the larger world and/or your life, and growth in your thoughts/ observations from the beginning of the year.

Evidence of Critical Reading: Evidence of thorough readings, comprehension of reading materials, insightful reflections, and connections between readings materials.

Evidence of Creative Thinking: Inclusion of photographs, music, videos, or other media that enhances the presentation of the post; original ideas presented in readings are extended in a creative manner.

Evidence of the Ability to Write Clearly and Effectively: Grammar, spelling, capitalization errors do not interfere with audience understanding. The structure of your blog posts allows for understanding and is easy to follow.

Evidence of Awareness of Diverse Audience: Opinions, justifications, rationalizations, and summaries are written in a way that allows a diverse audience to understand your intent. Writings are not offensive, but engage audience members in your ideas and opinions in a creative manner.

Community of Practice: Wherever necessary, credit has been given to original source for photos and ideas. This is done through embedded hyperlinks.

Why these six? There are some specific challenges and opportunities that are presented in blogging. The challenge is that students cannot write a whole lot of text, because no audience wants to read on and on when they're reading on a computer. Blog posts need to be a lot more concise and quick. There are no five to ten page literary analysis papers on my students' blogs. This does not mean that we do not do this type of writing; it is just not appropriate for a blog format.

Another challenge that actually helps to build students' skills as writers is the unknown audience factor. A student who writes a post as if the audience is comprised only of me and his or her classmates has not prepared an unknown audience to be able to comprehend the meaning or significance of the post. This fact helps to create better student writers.

Something that blogging allows for that the traditional pen and paper routine does not is the ability to add-in images, videos, and songs. There are several students in my classes who do not think in a linear, linguistic fashion. Allowing students to add-in other types of media has helped those students who are not always able to completely express their thoughts through the use of language. I have absolutely found this feature to be invaluable in the blogging process.

Students are required to contribute to the blogging world with their thoughts, but also with their links. Just as plagiarism is not okay on a research paper, the same is true in a blog post. The more that students link to the outside blogosphere and web pages, the more that their writing will be picked up on google. This is just good practice for social responsibility. 

Finally, I wish that you could see students' faces when they look at their counters (cluster maps and flag counters). These counters allow students to see that their writing is being read by a huge, global audience. Once in a while, students will get a comment, but usually viewers will leave comments on my blog. Students love and cherish these comments; they are proof that the world cares about their thoughts and opinions.

I hope that this criteria helpful. I welcome feedback and suggestions for other items that I may have overlooked.

Poetic Commencements

As we approach the end of the school year, I am always thinking about how I am going to send off my seniors. I like to step back from the role of teacher during the last couple of classes that we have together and focus on their memories and allow them to say a proper goodbye to their public education.

Some of my students will go straight to college after high school, but others will leave education for good. With this in mind, I want to give students a little time to reflect on the past four years of their education, the high school years. To do this, we have:

Created Six Word Memoirs

Drafted Commencement Speeches (To be read for our final)

Completed an End-of-Year Survey

Finished the Sounds of Senior Year Soundtrack (Cover Art as Picture Insert)

And, there are other ways to say goodbye. Poets.org has a whole section of their site devoted to graduation poems. On this list, there are a whole range of poets and poems represented, from William Shakespeare to Langston Hughes to Emily Dickinson.

I am glad that I've taken the time and put some effort into saying a formalized "goodbye" to my seniors. I think that they have benefited from having the opportunity to reflect on their public school years. It is amazing to think that thirteen years of their short lives have been spent with us. Congratulations, seniors. We will miss you and are proud of you!

Using Google Surveys to Gather Information

At the end of every quarter and at the beginning and end of every school year, I have distributed and collected surveys to my students. Often, these surveys helped me to better my instruction, plan for the variety of learners I have in my midst, and reflect on my teaching.

I have loved using surveys, but gathering hard copy surveys can be cumbersome. Plus, some students are not great writers and will choose to not write out a detailed answer because their fine motor skills are lacking or they just don't want to fill out another worksheet. Because of this obstacle, I decided at the beginning of this school year to offer all of my surveys online using google docs.

And what a difference it has made! I can store all of the results of my surveys in my google account, offer the same survey to multiple classes (or create class-specific surveys), create nifty graphs with the flick of my fingers, and project results onto my whiteboard using my LCD projector. This has become a tool for my reflective purposes and for students to reflect.

So far, I have asked all sorts of questions. Google docs offers many different types of questions, including: short text, long text, multiple choice, more than one choice (check boxes), ranking on a scale, and graphing. There are so many options that you can make your survey as complicated or simple as you choose.

Best of all, students have reported that they love the opportunity to offer feedback to me and to think about their learning. By offering surveys, I have allowed them to be active participants in their learning. When I make an instructional or planning decision based on their suggestions or feedback, I let them know. This way, they can see their feedback in action and they feel as if I've listened to them.

This is a simple, effective way to gather data from your students. You can use the same survey more than once. Results can easily be shared with students and colleagues. Also, you can compare answers from different sections of the same course or different age groups or particular students overt time. I have not run into any difficulties with this program and recommend it without any reservations.

Here are some screenshots of surveys I have used this year:

The Theater at Monmouth, Maine's greatest Shakespeare theater, has announced its 2010 summer and fall theater schedule. Every year, my mother, sister, and I go to the theater to see a play. It is an event that I look forward to all year. Ticket prices are reasonable and the acting is professional and experienced. Plus, the theater itself is gorgeous, with all sorts of beautiful paintings on the ceilings.

This year, we're planning to see Mark Twain's comedy Is He Dead? Here is the hilarious-looking promotional poster for this comedy:

Other plays featured during this summer and fall are: Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Pericles, Prince of Tyre, George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde, and the musical The Pirates of Penzance.

Whatever your choice of show, come out and support Maine's local theater!

Ideas for a Poetic Mother's Day

This Mother's Day, why not send your mother a poem? Chances are good that there's a poem that's already been written that will explain your inner most thoughts and feelings about your mother in a way that you simply cannot. Here are a couple of great resources to get you started.

-About My Mother: A collection of Mother's Day Poems from the Poetry Foundation. There are nine poems to choose from at this site. Topics and tones range from innocent to reflective to haunting. There's a poem for every mother/ child relationship here!

-Send a Coupon: Poets.org offers a printable or email-able coupon allowing your favorite mother an hour of "undisturbed reading or writing time". It's super easy to get or send and even has a bar code. Best of all, it never expires!

-Make a Homemade Poetry Card: Poets.org makes Mother's Day simple, inexpensive, and meaningful with their homemade card ideas. Don't know what to say? They offer preselected lines ready for use!

-Poetry Infusions: Decorate a gift of herbs and vinegar with a pre-made poetic label. Simply print and paste onto a gift of rosemary, lavender, or sage vinegar. Maybe this will inspire mom to do more cooking?

The Power of a Story

I've been a Storycorps fan for a long time now. I visit the site ever now and again and every time I do, I find that I uncover some sort of gem. On my most recent visit, I watched a powerful animated video. This video is a Storycorps first--And I hope that there are many more to come!

This animated segment helps to represent the visually the range of topics covered when a preteen boy named Joshua interviewed his mother, Sarah. Joshua has Asperger's syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder. The range of topics covered in this short interview and the complete candor with which this mother and son talk is refreshing and heart-warming.

Here is the video:

With Mother's Day fast approaching, maybe you'd like to interview and record your mother or have a conversation with someone you care about? There is no time like the present to ask those simple or complex questions! And, think about having an interview like this to help preserve a child or an adult's voice? Priceless.