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.


Insert Transformative Practices Here.

Consider this a fact-finding mission.

Here’s some context:  I am new to the district I work in, meaning I just started here in July.  I was hired to come in and supervise three departments, three departments that had not been supervised (in the traditional sense–whatever that is–) before.  Curriculum had been looked at, but a group effort to make it flow from K-12 hadn’t been attempted.

In New Jersey, schools are grouped according to something called a District Factor Group, which is a value consisting of wealth components and educational levels of the residents taken from the most recent census data.  The group we belong to is very close to the highest (on and scale that rates them A-J with A being the lowest, we are an “I”).  The top two socio-economic levels usually comprise most of the top performing schools within the state.  Withing that group, we rank near the bottom in most of the measurables society uses to gauge us.

Are the two items related?  I’m sure there is something to the fact that there hasn’t been an earnest evaluation of what we do in quite a while, and going through such a process is often painful the first time, but it must be done.

I’ve talked to the teachers, specifically in the English Department at the high school, and outlined a plan to change the sequence of the courses offered.  None of them liked it, and, in fact, most were opposed.  That plan is now being debated in public.  It’s equal parts structural/course sequence change and curriculum change.

But what I am finding I really need is more input.  Input from the teachers and students.  Input from the network out here.  How do re-arrange situations in which students don’t view their learning in certain “levels” with any seriousness?

I need models.  I need ways to help kids who don’t like to read and engage in “literary things” find value and meaning in what they do in their academic classes.  I need ways to make it come alive for them.

I also need ways to do this so that teaching these kids in this new way does not drive my teachers insane.

There are models I’ve looked at that I love.  I’ve read Readicide and am mining that for ideas and inspiration.  What else should I read?  Who else should I talk to?  What are you doing that is making this type of difference?

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!


Take a quick look at this video:

It may be contrived, it may be produced by a major publisher, but notice they didn’t try to sell anything.  Also notice that the students were honest in their assessment of their reading habits before and after choice.

Do we underestimate the power of choice in student reading?  Do we accept that students must read certain books regardless of whether or not they are ready for them or want to read them?

Look, I understand the Broccoli Effect, but if you asked me whether or not these students learned more about the skills they will need to become lifelong critical readers through a teacher-paced dissection of TKAM, or what they did through reading books of choice, I am going to say that the choice ruled.

This is perfect timing for me as we have been analyzing where we lose our students when it comes to reading, and how we can correct this.

SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page.  I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.

This month’s meeting had a dual focus:

  • Resource Sharing
  • Summer Reading Discussion

We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:

“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).

We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.

I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when

no one
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?

Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
fifty pages?”

The purpose behind this was two-fold.  Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read.  Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments.  Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.

Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):

  • Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments?  If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
  • What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
  • If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?

The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion.  The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers.  The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal.  I find myself reading and commenting often.  Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.

The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading.  Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice.  Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol.  Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels.  She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level.  When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys?  is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.

If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that?  If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is?  Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like.  His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post.  What if we asked our students to do this at every level?  Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.

The Thesis is Dead. Long Live the Thesis.

I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark.  However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.

On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out.  We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft.  A while back, I  came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.”  The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move.  But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind.  And did he ever.

The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program.  Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response.  Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:

High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.

As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years.  It just rings.  Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process.  It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts.  Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph?  Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs?  I’ll take the scrapping any day.

What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended.  Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing.  Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with?  Can they get to B without having gone through A?  Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.

The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers.  My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly.  My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes.  But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it.  Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students.  Push where needed, pull back when necessary.

All in all, a great meeting.

Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream

Literacy Response

Before I left for vacation, I posted a link to Motoko Rich’s article from the New York Times titled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? to the high school’s English Department Google Group. I’ll do this occasionally with interesting articles that I’d like to share with my colleagues in the various departments I work with. This one really struck a chord with the teachers, and several of them responded passionately. Here is my response to some of their comments.

What a great dialogue. I was away for a while and came back to read
all of your responses. Many of the thoughts you all expressed echoed
my own, and I pulled some of the quotes that resonated with me from
your responses to comment on.

Brooke wrote:

“It takes time to immerse oneself in a novel and once done
effectively, the reader isn’t even reading anymore. They are seeing
and interacting with the novel on a completely different level of
consciousness. That, one of the most compelling reasons readers read,
is lost on the Internet reader who doesn’t have the opportunity to go
through whatever cognitive process allows it to happen. The novel has
the opportunity to move students through vicarious experience and
changes who they actually are the way experience does.”

Brooke’sdescription shows the nearly spiritual side of reading that we hope our
students can learn to go through. We introduce them to great works of
literature, often types they would never encounter through their own
volition, and then teach, discuss, analyze, oppose, share, empathize
and hope that they emerge on the other side of that novel changed in
some way. The very nature of reading on the internet, as it appears to
me (as someone who does the majority of their reading on the internet)
is cursory. I read much more than ever before, but my choice of to
read longer articles or books is more rare than in the past. Reading
newspapers from around the world, reading magazine articles from
hundreds of magazines a day, or reading blogs written by people in the
education and design field, can be done with much more ease than if I
had to go out to a newsstand and buy them, not to mention the cost
associated with all of my daily reading is zero.

I don’t think our students read online for the reasons they would read a
good book; as Brooke stated in her post, it’s a different animal.
Carol’s respons to Brooke took my thinking in another direction
entirely, however.

“grazing on the Internet is a very different set of skills that our students are now automatically
acquiring on their own. Although we do need to help them hone those
skills, it still remains our primary job as English teachers to expose
them to the rigors, the complexity, the challenge, and, yes, the
beauty of literature–to the “best that has been thought or said in
the world” (to quote Matthew Arnold)– where they will develop and
exercise their powers of analysis, critical thinking, and empathy.”

The ideas she brings out here, those of analysis, critical thinking and
empathy are crucial to the success of our students in their college
years and beyond. One of the books on my summer reading list was “A
Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink
, which I recommend to all of you (I
have a copy if you would like to borrow it). The premise of the book
is that the abilities that dominated the Information Age, which were
primarily those of left-brained thinkers, will not be enough for our
children. They need to become able to recognize patterns, find deeper
meaning, see complexity and manage it, have a sense of design and
flow–all skills that we strive to foster in the study of literature.
With those skills, we often find it necessary to push students “To rise to the challenge, to work for something, to feel achievement in
the accomplishment, and to work that brain to figure it out,” as
Carol said. To which I say there may not be a more important set of
things we show our students than these three. And I love how she ended
the paragraph:

“If we aren’t going to guide them through this in the English class room, where will
they encounter it? Internet Age or not, these are not skills that we
can allow to leach out of our common psyche!”

We are not “teachers of technology,” but rather can use tools that
transform the ways in which we allow our students to meet challenges,
think critically, empathize, and connect with ideas larger than
themselves. Our desire to lead them through the processes of critical
thinking and analysis of literature need to be connected to something
within themselves. What is their connection to it? What motivates
them to access these skills?

Andrew expressed a sentiment in his reply about students and the technologies they use:

“Technology, with all its pros and cons, has emerged alright, so why do we have to go out of our way to expose our students to it. They get it just fine, especially for

This raises the question of literacy in general, the definition of which has
expanded greatly over the last twenty years. Our students, and
ourselves, for that matter, are inundated with information whenever
they open their computers. The ability to sift credible information
from sources they read, view, or listen to is essential. While they
may “get” technology in the sense that they understand how to entertain
themselves, they often struggle with its ability to make their academic
life richer and more simplified. That is where we come in. Just as we
helped them navigate the world of the Dewey Decimal System,
peer-reviewed journals, and the like, we must now do the same for the
systems that are making information accessible from everywhere they
are. We need to teach them how to ask the right questions, find
things, evaluate them, and synthesize them into a credible whole. That
part hasn’t changed. The tools that get the job done most efficiently

Image Credit: “”we love to read” mosaic @ HMCRA” via ehoyer’s photostream

Stress, Ambiguity, and Confusion are Good for You?

You betcha.creative confusion

When I sit down to create lessons for teachers, or help them create lessons for students, one of my most frequent points is how they are creating “good stress,” within their students. Without pressing, most know what I mean inherently: there is an amount or type of mental strain that permits the mind to flex around a new issue or concept in order to overcome it and create new knowledge.

Stealing this from George Siemens (whom I have been robbing a lot from lately)

bit of stress, a bit of ambiguity, and a bit of confusion are healthy
contributors to learning. As long as we have a feedback loop where
learners can contribute and faculty can respond and adapt, we have the
basics in place.

Connections are the starting point of all learning. It’s so
obvious…and therefore so often overlooked. We really need to think
about types of connections learners have with each other and
content…and ways that we can extend the learning experience by
critically analyzing and forming those initial connections.

In two places in the above quote, Siemens mentions the word “connections,” and when we sat down to begin designing the additional language arts course for next year that was focused on critical thinking and writing across the curriculum, I thought back to my days at Eric Smith School in Ramsey. They had a school-wide standards system called “The Quality Standards.” It was partially a gaff among the staff at the triteness of the name, but in actuality, it was sound. The standards were:

  1. Following Directions
  2. Presentation
  3. Supporting Details
  4. Connections
  5. Higher Level Thinking
  6. Evaluation and Revision

Designing this class forced me to think back to the most effective of those standards, and by far it was connections, and the name for the class was born. In light of reading Siemens post, and in conversations with the teachers of the class, I can see that the term fits. We need students to create links, both mentally and digitally, from what they know already, to what they are trying to know. We are stressing “cognitive leaps” and learning by doing as often as we can, but there are inherent problems with that.

The last time I had the group of teachers together who will be teaching the class this fall, I stressed the first two weeks of instruction. Sure, what a shocker; however, we are asking these students in grades 6-8 to do some things that there are not going to be used to. For example, by the time they reach middle school, a good percentage of students have already perfected the question “will this be on the test?” and have figured out that there is a formula to getting good grades: find the answer the teacher wants, and give it–case closed. Now, we are going to have them walk into a classroom this fall and tell them that there is no right answer, only the answer you can defend in writing and in your ability to argue it. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

One of our group had shared with me a document (which I am trying to get a copy of at the moment) that was a letter to parents informing them of what to expect from this class. When we are trying to move students away from “schooliness” and do some in-country “unschoolingsnails and scotch” we are going to hit some rough spots, from both students who are not used to being confused or stressed about school, and their parents who haven’t seen their child struggle with school before. As always, we will deal with those situations as they arise.

Image Credits: “Creative Commons = Creative Confusion?” from Joe Pemberton’s photostream

“Confusion” from Lithoglyphic’s photostream

The Moments Never Announce Themselves, They Just Arrive


I am not a principal. I don’t run a school. I don’t monitor if you sign in or not. I develop curriculum and help teachers hone their methodology. It’s what I love to do. But I also found out over the last three days, I lead people too.
For the last few weeks, there has been a growing disconnect between the staff I work with and myself. I am new; my position was just created as of December 1st, but I have worked with this staff in other capacities for almost 5 years. Something was afoot, something palpable, an undercurrent of discontent that showed itself in subtle ways.
Then the fences went up.
We are beginning a three-year construction process (if we are lucky and the construction management Gods smile upon us), and the initial steps to begin destruction of buildings not in the redesign were taken last week. While the exuberance of teaching in a state-of-the-art building appeals to all of the staff, the reality of the three or so years leading up to it hadn’t shown its forlorn self until those fences appeared.
When I was in the classroom, I lead students by example. My passion was my greatest weapon, and the stories we shared together about the history of the world enveloped us all. As I migrated into staff development I relied on the same practice; it was a passionate relationship with the possibilities that technology and new pedagogy opened for me. It, too, infected those around me. Leading people was so much more about the “hey, look what I am doing. I’ll show you so you can do it too.” And it worked because it was a suggestion to a colleague.
What changed when I entered administration, and I don’t know whether it was a preparatory change I made sub-consciously or a change that was overt, was that method of leading by doing no longer was seen as suggestion, but mandate. Although I still felt like a colleague, acted like a colleague, and contributed to the development of ideas, it was no longer taken as collegial, but rather a directive.
Prior to this past week, I had been contacted by a few of the teachers in the departments that I oversee about the climate of the building in which they work. The general feeling was that the morale was extremely low, that teachers were not happy, that they had no voice and no support on issues that are essential to their ability to do their job. Decisions were made that affected their classrooms and they were being told about it after the fact. The top-down approach they were seeing was not helping them feel as if they had a stake in the future of our school.
My plan originally was to address the individuals who spoke with me and assess the situation in a one-to-one conversation. By the time our department meetings rolled around this week, it became clear that what we had was something close to revolution. Our agenda for this week was to have each department meet for 3 hours a day during the HSPA Testing and work on curricular issues. Each department would have 6 hours over the two days to examine their curriculum, methods and resources. That’s a lot to ask of an unhappy group. We have a professional staff and they worked brilliantly to revise and add resources to their curriculum. It was in these meetings over the course of three days that I learned something valuable about leadership.
The English Department came in on Tuesday and on Thursday faced with re-writing their research process due to the fact that our Media Center will not be a Media Center next year, but most likely become classroom space due to rooms lost to reconstruction. Our goal was to analyze what we wanted our students to do with the resources we did have left. As they progressed through the morning, I noticed that they worked hard, they were knowledgeable about what they taught and they cared deeply about doing it well. Something was missing.
A lot of the conversations in the blogosphere are about making students feel like what they are doing has a point in the real world. Meaning is a bigger issue than information. I agree with that, but I agree with that for teachers as well. On Thursday morning, I had planned to do all of this crazy tech stuff with the teachers: Google Docs, Notestar, Google Earth, etc. ad nauseum. On Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with one of the members of the department, I decided to throw all of that aside.
I gave them a copy of my image for the Passion Quilt Meme, and talked about the things I was passionate about in education. I asked them to list the things that made them become English teachers. What were there passions? And we talked about them, we agreed on things, we stole each other’s ideas, we learned about one another, and we laughed with one another. Then I asked them to take those passions and describe how they would want to pass them along to their students. Who do they want entering the world after they graduate? Our results connected us by way of our common and disparate ideas for our students.


I feel like most of the meaningful moments in my career are accidental; that I have no control over when my greatest lessons are going to be learned. This is what happened to me yesterday. I learned to be a leader, and I learned to do it by listening to people tell me what they want, and then helping them get there. Yesterday told me that leadership is not always about gaining control of situations, but giving it over to the people that need it.

I listened, of course, but then I let them act.

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Flickr image credits: “Flat” and “Heirarchy” from timabbott’s photostream

Someone Please Stop My Feet from Dancing..

Room To GrowOn a tip from Dean Shareski’s daily links, I found this gem to work with from the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Executive Committee Meeting:

TOWARD A DEFINITION OF 21st-CENTURY LITERACIESAdopted by the NCTE Executive Committee February 15, 2008

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and
communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As
society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has
increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the
twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide
range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These
literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in
virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in
the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life
possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups.
Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology

• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally

• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes

• Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information

• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts

• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

The timeliness of this statement is not lost on me as I begin to craft my idea for what a 21st Century writing class should look like. “These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in
virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable.” How great is that?

Yet, somewhere within me there is the skeptic heart that tells me the same reaction I got when I proposed the idea of teaching visual literacy to our English Department will greet me with this new class as well. The same questions of time (there is not enough of it to add anything new), student apathy, and clinging to what was done in the past will be brought up.

I need the statistics and rationale to back up what this will be about. I need your success stories. How are you effectively teaching writing these days?

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Room to Grow,” from tlindenbaum’s photostream