From my Diigo List: For English Teachers

I’ve been compiling resources aimed at what I believe to be a big shift in how we “do Language Arts” at the middle and high school level.  Several of the teachers I work with are in the midst of looking closely at their own curriculum and overall structure of their classes and we are finding that we need to make some serious decisions about what is we do, and how we go about doing it.

To that end, I went back into my bookmarks and pulled several that I had moved to a list called “For English Teachers” and published them here.  This is part sharing, but also part expectation of sharing back with your own ideas and resources.  What resources are out there that will help a group of professionals re-structure their curriculum and pedagogy to more accurately meet the needs of their students?

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


Something Practical

David Wees tipped me off to something interesting two weeks ago and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since.

When I was a kid, I read this book whose title I have forgotten, about a football team on the verge of going to the playoffs.  It was a choose-your-own-adventure-story and, well, I read the thing at least twenty different times until I made it to the Super Bowl.  Needless to say, I was intrigued by David’s tweet due to some nostalgic longing for that football book, but also for some other reasons that my more mature, adult “teachery” side found worthy of investigation.

When you walk into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum you are given a small card that looks like this one.  Inside of it is a story that will be told throughout your visit to the museum.

David’s idea pushed me to think of this as a writing exercise for students of the Holocaust, a topic usually covered either via a reading of Night, or by a run through on their way to V-E Day in their US History II class.  Take these cards or create your own characters and run with it.  Create a story that forces readers to make choices, choices backed up by historical evidence and write the outcomes that many faced, and do it using a simple form to create and track the choices that your readers make.

What else can we do with these type stories?  I was thinking of capitalizing on some of our students interest in FanFiction and allowing them to create stories in this format based upon popular novels, or asking students to create a choose-your-own-adventure for a classic like TKAM.  What would have happened if…

I’d love to hear from others out there who are using tools in a capacity that they were not necessarily meant for, but are giving their students some outstanding opportunities.

I Love to Teach

There is something maddening about leaving a classroom and realizing that your objective was not exactly met.  Yes, it was close, and there were several bright lights lit within the room, but equally as many blew out the candle out of either frustration, confusion, or failure to see the relevance.

What I love about teaching, and education in general, is our ability to come out swinging the following day.  We can do better by our students through a bit of analysis and inspection.

Over the last week, I’ve been working with groups of teachers from Camden Tech in Camden County, New Jersey on student writing.  Here’s the workshop description:

Progressive and innovative educators everywhere have long pushed for a re-emergence of critical thinking skills within student work, and in our era of standardized testing whereby we tend to place an emphasis on being either right or wrong, our students sorely need to be able to break out of those boxes (or bubbles).  The constant cry of employers in the 21st Century has been for thinkers and communicators–they want those who can think their way through complex problems.  Are we helping our students to do that?  Of all the advantages technology has availed us of in the past few years, has it truly led us closer to understanding how students think when they write?  In this session, we will talk about how simple, free tools can lead us to a greater understanding of what our students are thinking when they write, and give us another tool to use when we conference with our student writers.

My original intent was to help them see how to use the revision history within Google Docs and things like PiratePad to show how you can follow the way in which students wrote the paper.  By clicking on the “Next” button in the revision history, you can track through a student paper.  This idea, gleaned from conversations with Drs. Miller and Hammond from Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University, lets you see whether students are writing from 0-500 words in a straight shot, or if there is some recursion going on.  Plus, when feedback is given in the form of comments, are students responding to it in a positive way.

However, after a conversation with Zac Chase while he was awaiting his last dinner in South Africa, he got me thinking about something altogether different through a series of questions he dropped into my planning document.  After taking a look at my description above, he asked me:

  • Ask about the writing they do in their daily lives (digital and not). Why do they do it? Where do you they do it?
  • What’s the point of asking learners to write? What’s the endgame? Is there one? Should there be?
  • Why do we give feedback?

Side note: I still think that skyping someone into your world from another continent ranks as one of the coolest things you can do.  Granted, Zac lives in Philly, but physically he was in South Africa.  Just saying.

So from that description I originally came up with, and taking into consideration Zac’s questions, I decided that the learners in this workshop would need to be driving the bus.  Zac and I talked about how his students needed to trust him before they would write for him in any meaningful capacity.   Think about it, would you go out on a limb and write with your best voice for someone you had no faith in?  Especially young writers struggling to figure out their writing voices.  Will they take compositional risks for adults they don’t think can handle it?

Working off of that logic, how can we expect students to write well in standardized situations, especially if we value voice and audience?

Zac’s push led me to these questions that I posed to all participants in both sessions:

  • How can we both develop student confidence as writers and give them timely and effective feedback?
  • What formats are the most fitting for student writing styles?
  • Which technologies fit well into my idea/purpose behind getting students to write?

Here is the slidedeck I used:

And here is the site I built to house the activities and resources I pulled from.

Friday, I met with a group of 26 teachers, Monday, 16.  I walked away from Friday’s sessions thinking to myself that I had about a 50/50 split, and the survey’s revealed as much.  I looked closely at the comments and realized that the order of the workshop could be changed.  Instead of spending the bulk of the time on authentic writing, which the Friday group really go into quickly and produced writing quickly, I altered the focus to spend time on creating environments where they could play with the feedback aspect of Google Docs.

Result?  Much better feedback and a smoother running workshop. My only wish is that I could have the Friday group back again.

“…as a man coming over the top of a hill singing.”

I’ve spent the last two days in workshops with teachers working with terms like instructional reading level, indepenendent reading level, running record, Six Traits, and guided reading.  We’ve spoken about the research behind why children struggle to read, why they succeed, and what characteristics great readers and writers have.

I’m spent.  The fact that I am writing now is a complete shock to me.

But I read something at the end of the day today that I didn’t mean to read.  I opened up Google Reader accidentally while trying to open another link, and the first item in my queue was William Zinsser’s weekly Friday colunm at the American Scholar, a piece title “Joyful Noise.”  Zinsser writes about the act of writing and its affect on us as writers, which I truly appreciate, because on the rare occasion that I am happy about thoughts I’ve put down here, I’ll fancy myself a writer.

“Joyful Noise” was used in reference to the feeling that we should exude while writing, to which Zinsser, quoting historian David McCullough‘s recent commencement address given at a small Connecticut university, gave the following from American painter Robert Henri: “You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.”

We, better yet, I, forget this all too much in a rush to pull together something brilliant. Let me remember to write with the energy that Zinsser ascribes to McCullough.  Let me not “mail-in” the effort that writing deserves, regardless of the capacity.

Henri, Robert. (Artist). (1902). Snow in new york, 1902. [Web]. Retrieved fromℑ=7629&c=

Grey Matter, Grey Areas.

Jenna asked a poignant question of Drs. Hammond and Miller:

Outside of test prep, does the traditional 5-paragraph essay have any place in learning today?

It was great question to ask those who deal with our students and their writing once they leave us, and its answer is inherently obvious.  However, what can we learn about our system of teaching thinking from holding the despised format up to scrutiny?  I particularly liked Paul Hammond’s response when he proclaimed “how the hell did we get here?  We have seen the tool become the end.”  We have, indeed, seen the means to start students on the path to clear thinking become the end product.

Dr. Miller chimed in at this point in the discussion with a great anecdote about the history of the format.  His thought was that the five paragraph format is

driven by an anxiety about clarity.  You have to be able to be clear.  But it’s more than that.  You have to have something to say.

What followed next was nothing short of an epiphany for me:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

To repeat:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

That one struck me as squarely as did Jay Rosen’s Talk at TEDxNYED (see his entrance to “pragmatism” at about the :50 second mark).  These are the problems I want students stuck in the mire of—the types where they must reason their way not only out of their own thought-morass, but also of the writing quicksand they’ve stumbled into.  We have the honor of helping them figure out that there is a lot of thought and meaning that goes into the use of a semicolon in the midst of an argument.

We think it is our job to be teachers not of subjects or disciplines, but rather of curiosity.  It is our job to present really good problems to ourselves and our students, and go like hell to solve them.

I Think, Therefore I Write.

Today I spent the afternoon in the company of Dr. Richard Miller and Dr. Paul Hammond from Rutgers University.  I had asked Dr. Miller to come speak to our English Department regarding the shifts they saw in writing, composing, and learning.

In my conversations leading up to today with Dr. Miller, I found out that the Expository Writing Class at Rutgers is a course that nearly 85% of all Freshman take, with only those testing out via AP exams the exceptions.  Miller and Hammond have a unique advantage in that the changes they make to that class are ones that could have a profound effect on the quality of the writing experience that the students have in their undergraduate years.

I am really into the styles people use when they present after witnessing the excellence of the speakers at TEDxNYED, so I paid close attention when the two of them started today.  Miller used the backdrop of the Geocentric View of the Universe to introduce the idea of saving appearances; when the data coming in to astronomers was no longer fitting a clean model of the Earth as center of the universe, the scientists simply changed the models to fit the data, thereby increasing the complexity of the Geocentric system.  They had no choice–there was no way to save the appearance of the system without completely blowing it up.  When Copernicus’ Heliocentric model of the universe arrived, it was a paradigm shift entirely: new model, new ideas, new M.O.

Miller compared this to what is happening now.  We are seeing industries that have long been immune to changes in market or information flow completely decimated by what is occurring now.

Newspapers.  Automakers.  Education.

Our systems are not set up to handle the types of thinking and information flow that are occurring or will occur shortly.  Not our physical structures, not our time structures, not our curricular or assessment structures.

The ground beneath our feet is shifting and we are clinging to the idea that we must save the appearance of credibility.  It’s flawed thinking to believe that we can design school buildings, curriculum, school schedules, and syllabi in a manner that is best described by saying “it was good enough for us, why shouldn’t it be good enough for them.”

A few years back, Hammond and Miller set out to rethink they types of writing that were focused on during the Expository Writing class at Rutgers.  Their goal: “get behind the writing.”  Taking the philosophy that we’ve also latched onto here of writing as thinking, the two decided there needed to be more focus on getting students to think deeply and do so in an active capacity through writing.  How do you do that?

It was at this point in the presentation that Hammond and Miller broke out four case studies of student writing and peer editing via Google Docs.  In a move that I am truly going to steal for any one of my future presentations, they used the revision slider in Google Docs to illustrate how students built drafts, and how their editing partners added comments.  Essentially, they were showing the progression of thinking in the students’ writing.  One student plainly just wrote straight through to the end of the draft (until, as Hammond stated, he hit the number of words he needed) without any recursion to earlier points of writing.  Others, he noted, without prompting from peer editors, continually made edits as they wrote, jumping from later parts of the writing back to earlier parts.  Each case study brought forth a clearer picture of what goes on in the minds of young writers today.  We are no longer holding on to the idealized image of the solitary writer plucking ideas from his own imagination solely towards a much more social and conversational form of writing as thinking.

We can use the technology we have to get behind the writing to see the thinking that constructs it.  (at this point, the slide rotated from a screenshot of a completed Google Doc to a an image of it’s negative, thereby revealing that we were literally and figuratively, behind the writing–a truly great effect)

There’s more to come from this presentation, as I haven’t even touched on the conversation that ensued when one of our teachers asked about the relevance of the 5-paragraph essay in the college environment, but the length of this post is rapidly becoming offensive.  Soon to follow…

Writing and the Relevance of High School

In an effort to continue to bridge the gap between how we are preparing our students for future studies and the world beyond, on April 13th our high school will be hosting Dr. Richard Miller, Professor of English and the Director of the Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University.  Dr. Miller is the author of As if Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education (1998) and Writing at the End of the World (2005). His articles have appeared in the journals College English, CCC: College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Advanced Composition, WPA: Writing Program Administration Journal, and Pedagogy, as well as in the collections Composition Studies in the 21st Century: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, Teaching/Writing in the Late Age of Print, and Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together. He is also the co-editor, with Kurt Spellmeyer, of The New Humanities Reader (2nd edition, 2006) and co-author of the web site

Several of his presentations have been recorded and viewed by thousands via YouTube, including This is How We Dream (Parts I and II) which were made at the National Conference of the MLA, The Future Is Now (made to the Rutgers University Board of Governors), and The Spirit of the New Humanities.

We will be inviting other colleagues from our district, and Dr. Miller will feature several of his current undergraduate students in his discussion.  We will be live streaming the event via this Ustream Channel, and tweeting the link out to as many as are interested.  More information will follow in the coming days regarding some of your preferences in what he will discuss.  We are very excited for the discussions that will follow this.  Please Join us!

What are the Characteristics of Excellent Student Writing?

Excellent Work.002This is a question I have struggled with for a while, ever since I began teaching in public schools.  What are the elements that are consistent among writing we deem excellent by our students?  I think finding the answer to this question is essential for a group of teachers working as a team, as a school, or as a department.  It’s important to have a common language among the group as to what qualities students must strive for.

This week, I met with a group of teachers who will be teaching our Connections class next year.  Aside from brainstorming about the overall success and failure of the class, we also began the process of identifying what we think are the characteristics of excellent student writing. What I asked them to do over the summer is to work on getting more concrete definitions to the list they came up with .  What I ask of those that read this is to think about the characteristics we came up with and tell us if you think we are right on, or way off.  What makes work from students stand out above the rest?

Our list:

  • Risky:
  • Aimed at an Audience:
  • Follows directions/Addresses task at hand:
  • Has definite organization:
  • Evidence of revision/meta-cognition:
  • Connected to other, prior knowledge:
  • Has Original Voice:

Random Sampling

This is a big attempt to get in the habit of more regular writing, so these are some very loosely connected ideas and things I like:


In the last two months, I have picked up two more blogs on which I’ll be writing.  Twice a month, I’ll be posting at Tech and Learning.  I’ve joined a fantastic group of educators there, a group of people who I truly admire and enjoy reading.  Look for those posts on the first and third Wednesday of every month.  Also, one of the people I met at ASCD this year, Jason Flom, has invited me to post whenever I’d like over at Ecology of Education.  While I am not too familiar with a lot of the writers over there, I’ve been impressed with what I’ve read so far.  Jason and I were both covering the ASCD conference this year as media, and were flabbergasted at how well they treated us and the access they gave us to the presenters.  I look forward to reading and writing over there.


I’ve fallen hard for the emergence of data visualization as a high art form.  I’ve said often to the teachers I work with, especially those in the social sciences, that those individuals who can translate the amount of data that we now have in our possession, and will continue to accumulate, into meaningful images will be very powerful people in the future.  The folks over at Cool Infographics and Flowing Data have recently been blowing me away with their ability to visualize statistics in illuminating ways.  Be sure to check them out if you can.

Also, Hans Rosling recently created a wonderful overview of the last 200 years and how they have completely changed the world.  Check that out below: