Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: Redefining Literacy 2.0

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with the first part of David Warlick's Redefining Literacy 2.0. I felt like it was moving a little slowly, and explaining too much about technology. Just as I was about to lose interest, though, I found his last three or four chapters. Now, I feel like a fanatic about this book.

In this text, there are so many great statements, ideas, and links that I have basically saturated the last half of it with highlighter ink. I love the format of the book throughout. It's simple, easy to read, and Warlick provides a little boxed-off area at the bottom of pages where he's talked about links to give a little recap of those links in list form. The text is clean and straightforward, which adds to its usability.

More importantly, Warlick's philosophy about the necessity of combining/ implementing literacy and technology education in our classrooms is direct and it makes sense. He brings together current research and marries that knowledge with great strategies and ideas for integrating technology to enhance students' literacy.

I also loved that at the end of each chapter, Warlick provides a list of implications for a variety of audiences. He has lists of steps and considerations that directors of technology, principals, media specialists, school tech facilitators, teachers, students, and parents should be thinking about and implementing in schools.

I highly recommend this text as a resource for any teacher, parent, or tech staff who is interested in thinking about where literacy is headed in the 21st century.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Word Teasers SAT Vocabulary Game

This summer, I had the wonderful experience of having a little extra cash to spend on items for my classroom. I wanted to purchase some materials that would enhance my teaching and offer my students to play with language. One such purchase is an SAT vocabulary game called Word Teasers. I found it somewhere online and was able to purchase it through amazon.

What I immediately loved about this game is that it does not give silly sentences that have no relevance to teens' lives. It asks questions that engage students. The questions, as I found when I first used this with some senior girls, also allow students to make personal connections between their real lives and SAT words. It was pretty amazing. For instance, a question like "name a characteristic of a friend who you venerate" sparked an awesome conversation about what it is that we admire and are potentially jealous of in our friends.

I also love that the definition and pronunciation key are right on the back of the card. There's no fumbling around and feeling stupid if you don't know how to pronounce or define a word; simply turn it over and read from the card. This way, the questions are at the forefront and the potentially unfamiliar words are easily used right away.

I love this game for all of the great conversations it has started and for the powerful words my students are using since playing it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Teach Handwriting or Technology or Both?

I have been a bit stunned by the repeated conversations and articles I've seen over the past year or so concerning student handwriting, or penmanship. I've read articles where teachers and parents are lamenting the fact that their students cannot write using cursive handwriting. I know from experience in proctoring the SAT's every year that I need provide the cursive alphabet on the board so that students can figure out how to write their required "oath" in cursive.

To me, though, this is a minor inconvenience. I don't really get the point of spending too much time honing children's ability to write in a way that can be pretty cumbersome and frustrating, especially given the fact that they may never need to write for an employer or professor using cursive penmanship. I would much rather spend time teaching students how to navigate the internet and use applications on their laptops. I feel like these are the skills that my students need for their future employment and learning.

Click here for the article that inspired this rant. I found some of the support for teaching penmanship pretty weak, including the perennial: What if you were stranded on a deserted island without electricity? Seriously, folks! Just because students' cursive penmanship is not stellar does not mean that they will not be able to take a stick and carve the word HELP! into a sandy beach!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: I Carry It Everywhere

Recently, I had the pleasure of needing to spend a little of my budget at a local book store. I found a bunch of YA lit titles right off the bat, and was feeling pretty satisfied with my finds. Then I noticed a small, square book tucked in a corner bookshelf. On the front was a picture of a girl holding a sign that read I Carry It Everywhere: 50 Teenagers on What Really Matters. Immediately, I skimmed through the book and that it was a collection of short narratives mixed with photos of teens either holding signs or standing next to chalk boards that offered a simple personal belief statement.

I just finished reading this collection this morning. It was amazing. As it turns out, this collection is an effort from the Telling Room, an organization from Portland, Maine. The voices included in this collection include many immigrant voices and some homegrown ones. Some of the stories will break your heart and others will inspire you. The text is well-written and the images are spread throughout the collection.

I am excited by the format of this text and hope to use the ideas contained in this collection to form some creative writing assignments. There is nothing more powerful, I think, for students who're unsure of their voice than to see that other teens just like them are in print. It is also important for teens to read the words of peers from the same area of the country, I think. I know that some of my teenage students feel invisible living in rural Maine. Maybe if they have more opportunities to see peers who've spoken and written about their lives, they'll be more confident in doing so themselves.

This is a great, fast read and will inspire many great creative writing assignments. You can order a copy of this book (or other collections by the same organization) through Longfellow Books.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Contrary to (Seemingly) Popular Belief

Everywhere I go, I hear that students today are less literate than students of previous decades. I read that students are not writing letters, not buying books, making more spelling mistakes, are unable to pass standardized tests, and are just plain not as functionally literate as their forefathers.

And then I read articles like this. New evidence suggests what most classroom teachers who use technology with their students know. Kids are writing more than ever and are getting better and better at targeting specific audiences in their writing. Yes, this evidence takes into account the number of blog posts, tweets, and facebook updates students type, but isn't that writing? And, isn't it pretty amazing to think that those short blurbs can illicit any number of responses from a sometimes huge audience? Powerful stuff when you think about it.

I know that I spent most of my teen years glued to a telephone. Landline, not cell phone. I talked and talked until my father literally literally unplugged my phone from the jack and locked it in his file cabinet. But, after my phone was gone I did not start writing.

For one, the internet was basically nonexistent until after I graduated from high school. Cell phones were not common until I was in my early twenties. Texting was not common until a few years ago. Blogging was not common and not as connected as it is now. There were just not as many opportunities for me to express myself with the written (or typed, more like) word as there are for today's teens.

So, as a teacher, my response to those who complain about the spelling, grammar, and literacy of today's teens has to be something along the lines of "whaaa?". Spend any amount of time with an actual teenager and you'll see writing happening all day long.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Should Students Choose Reading Selections?

A recent New York Times article gushes about the success of several teachers who've allowed students to have more (and in some cases total) choice over the reading selections for the year. Teachers who were interviewed for this article talked about increased student interest and interaction with their self-selected texts. Author Nancie Atwell's classroom is a focal point of the last part of the article. Her room is described as overflowing with books and readers. Some critics weigh in with fears that no one will read the great classics if they're no longer assigned in class.

Basically, I feel like this article goes back to two perennial English teacher issues: How much, if any, of the canon needs to be taught and what happens when we shift control and choice from the whole sage-on-the-stage to guide-on-the-side?

I know that I struggle with the first question. I feel like I have enjoyed many of the classics I've read and I've had some good experiences in teaching them to students. More and more, though, I've had better experiences and more amazing discussion with groups of students around well-written, high interest young adult titles. I've worked really, really hard to keep up with current YA titles so that I am able to match students with books that will interest them. I've tried to remember back to my early reading experiences and what it was that catapulted me into the realm of book addict. I tried to remember any of the titles I read in middle or high school and have found that I only remember two that I read as part of a whole-class unit: Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. No wonder I am a bit obsessed with teaching Shakespeare!

What I do remember about my high school reading is that I read books recommended to me by my peers. We passed books back and forth almost as if we were sharing secrets. I read lots of Jack Kerouac, I read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and weird selections like The Taking of Patty Hearst. I did not read any of the canon besides those two Shakespeare plays, but I've managed to read a lot of it in the past ten years or so. I began to read the classics in college and for fun on school vacations. I enjoy them now, but I don't know that they would've made me the reader that I am today if I had been forced to read them in high school before I was ready.

As for the sage versus guide issue, I do feel that it's important to allow students to engage in their own selections and to make choices based on their interests. I know that boys and girls have different interests and the same titles may not appeal to both. I am also amazed sometimes by the books they actually choose to read. Some are much more heady than I would assign in class. Others choose light fare, but I sometimes do too!

This was an interesting article to read. I feel like it gives some credence to the choices I've made this year in terms of the amount of time I've dedicated to SSR and reading circles. It also justifies the amount of personal funds I've spent on creating a little classroom library for my students. Keeping kids in books is not cheap, but I can't resist those new YA titles when they come out. I guess that's the book addict in me!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Interesting Story

As I was driving to work yesterday morning, I heard a story from NPR that made me think about the politics of students' behavior. I've been thinking about this story ever since, and it's making tons on sense. I've been thinking a lot lately about transforming the culture of my classroom. I feel like I have always tried to maintain a classroom climate that is positive and respectful, but I'm hoping for more this year.

Here's what I want:

-I want a classroom full of students who read ALL the time. I want my classroom to be a place where students are talking about books, poetry, magazine articles, comics, etc. ALL of the time.

-I want my classroom to be a place where students can talk about their perceptions and feelings about their world. I want to talk about reality.

-I want to make poetry a focal point of my lesson planning and teaching.

-I want us to be surrounded by words and to never take lightly the power that a single word can carry.

-I want us to write, write, write until our fingers are inflamed!

Maybe some of this won't happen. Maybe some students won't want to write, write, write and will still talk about their weekend plans when I trying to bring the class to order. Maybe some students will groan when I announce that it's Poetry Friday. At the very least, I'm going to keep these "wants" of mine upfront and center when I'm thinking about my students and my teaching. I'll let you know how this all shakes out!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For by Thomas Newkirk

I have to admit that it took me longer to read this book than I had anticipated. I don't know whether it was the fact that summer finally decided to appear in late July or the slow start to this text, but I did not plow through it with the same gusto as other selections that I finished long ago. Now that I've read the entire book, I can say that there are enough nuggets of wisdom and common sense to make this book a worthwhile read.

What I liked most about this book were the end sections. This is where the author, Thomas Newkirk, talks about the promised "Six Literacy Principles" from the subtitle. These principles are explained in great depth through a combination of personal stories from Newkirk's high school and college teaching experience and a good deal of evidence from research. The six principles are:

-Balance the basics
-Expressive Writing
-Popular culture as a literacy tool
-Literacy and pleasure
-Uncluttering the curriculum
-Finding a language for difficulty

All of these areas are explained in great depth. I found the chapters on popular culture and pleasure the most interesting and full of great points. The one issue that I have with this text is that it seems to end abruptly, without much of a conclusion that ties the whole together. Newkirk ends with a section on free reading, which could have been either developed more fully or a seventh principle, in my opinion. I was looking forward to this section the most, but it was only a few pages. In some ways, this felt a little rushed to me and I couldn't help but wonder why it did not go on longer or have any sort of conclusion.

I would not say that reading this text was time or money wasted. I would definitely read another title by the same author and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide

Though I bought this last year sometime, I never really had the chance to look at it until this year. I had a bit of an emergency at the beginning of this school year where the study skills classes I teach are concerned. I've taught study skills for five years now, every other day, no problem. Until now.

Not that what I have going on with the new version of study skills is exactly a problem. It's more like a challenge. For the first time, I've started teaching study skills every day for forty minutes twice in a period. So, the students I have for the first part of the period leave half way through and go to a math class and then I get kids who've just had math for forty minutes. All in all, I see about thirty students for first period every day.

This is where The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide by Erin Gruwell has come in handy. I needed to revamp this course anyway, because it was becoming a bit boring, for me and for students. I needed some creative, thoughtful activities that could be easily completed in forty minutes and that would still have the same reflective, goal-oriented qualities as the ones I've always taught. Also, since we do not yet have any laptops in our classroom because they're all being imaged, I need to have activities that do not require technology.

I like that each of the activities in this text comes with a good description of how it should be carried out, thoughtful quotations from students and teachers who've completed the activity, and blank reproducibles for easy photocopying or to use as examples for students. I'm not much of a photocopy-reproducible-type of teacher, but I am feeling some anxiety about the new set-up of this course and it's been comforting for me to have some back up, should I need it. Also, I have been excited by the products that kids have come up with. They're more than jsut busy work; students have poured a lot of thought and energy into their creation.

Thanks to this resource, we're off to a good start in what could've been a pretty crazy situation.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The First Days of School by Harry & Rosemary Wong

I was super excited to read this book after I saw Dr. Harry Wong present at this year's Model Schools Conference in Atlanta. Dr. Wong was so passionate, so like a rock star that I found myself running, not walking, to buy this book when it was over.

It's not that I'm disappointed in the book, but it does seem a little more appropriate for a beginning or novice teacher. I found myself thinking that this book would be perfect as a present for a student teacher or as a text to use when mentoring a new hire. Certainly, I found some good ideas within this text, like how to structure the first day of school to ease student stress and to set up routines.

All in all, I would totally recommend seeing Dr. Wong at a conference, but this text can be skipped if you feel like classroom management and your room set-up are not an issue for you. If you feel like having a refresher on either of these topics, then this might be a good read.
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