Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Worthy and Indispensable

I have been writing like a madwoman for the last three weeks, trying to meet two self imposed deadlines that have given me several migraine headaches and carpal tunnel pain shooting up my right arm.  I gave myself these deadlines because I am seeking tenure at my university.  And let's face it, deadlines make me more productive.

One of these two projects arose out of a conversation about some data that a colleague and I had collected this spring.  A few days before our talk, an editor of a journal had solicited an article from him.  In the academic publishing world, editorial solicitation is known as a "lay-up," the fast track around months of grueling writing, revising, and rejection.  When one is on the tenure track where publications matter, lay-ups are much appreciated.

So my colleague and I decided to go for it and to draft an article from nothing into something worthy in less than a month.  Our task was complicated by two factors: (1) I had a grant proposal due the same day as the article, and (2) my co-author was leaving for Europe to spend his summer "vacation" teaching abroad. (Despite popular opinion, in higher ed, as in public school teaching, we rarely get a summer vacation.)  Thank goodness for modern technologies, namely Skype, Google Docs, and Dropbox, that have allowed us to craft this article together. (By the way, I added the links because in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Will Richardson suggests that real blogging links to outside resources.)

During one of our Skype conversations, as we compared hectic schedules and made plans for continuing our work, I joked with my co-author that my life would settle down, hopefully, in 2014, when I had proven myself worthy and indispensable.  I was referencing, of course, my tenure year, and I repeated the joke to my husband, who happened to walk in the house as I was signing off of Skype.  My husband nodded, sympathetically but not with empathy, and as he smiled at me, I realized that in my world of mom, I had already proven myself.  I am both worthy and indispensable.  My ah-ha moment lifted my spirits, and I began to think about A, my colleague at another university, who also happens to be a mom on the tenure track.

In the middle of my three-week writing binge, I stepped away from my desktop to attend a conference.  At this conference, I saw A, had several great conversations with her, and planned a future collaboration.  During one of our discussions, A gave me reason to pause.  Unlike me, who sees publications as lines on the CV that will move me to tenure, A said that she thinks about "who is going to read it."  She cares whether her work will make a difference to someone's own research or practice.

I realized that I too care whether my work will make a difference, and I choose projects that I find valuable.  I do not want to be the academic who publishes just for the sake of publishing.  Yet with my indispensable role of mom, it is difficult to find the time to write and revise worthy pieces and to find the appropriate outlet for that work, a publication that will affect others in their research or practice.  I know that I must publish to achieve my career goals, and so my struggle, I think, is about balancing life on the tenure track with life at home.  A seems to have figured this balance out.  I hope that it doesn't take until 2014 for me to think about "who is going to read it" when I write for publication.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What I Learned in Preschool

My digital story is finally done.  It's not perfect, but I can't fight the technology any longer!  Creating the story helped me bring together what I had learned from my visits to the preschool this semester.  I continue to think about how to take what I learned to the world of secondary education.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Happy Pretend Birthday

My birthday is in July, and when I was a child, I felt bad that I could not celebrate my birthday in school.  All of the other kids, it seemed, had their day with cupcakes and cheer in the classroom.  I felt left out.  My mom, brilliantly, began sending cupcakes on my "half" birthday in January.  She still remembers to wish me a happy half birthday.

I assumed I would carry on the tradition of half birthday with my own children, who were born in August. Secretly, I love that my kids have summer birthdays.  It saves me from the "invite the whole class" rule for their parties, which for twin moms whose children are in separate classes, makes for a terrifying gaggle of young children.  I remember very clearly the dread that spread through me as my good friend, a veteran twin mom with children about four years ahead of mine, explained her search for a location that would host over 50 children.  (She now holds two separate parties for her son and daughter.) So for a twin mom, the summer birthday is a blessing, but for my kids, who now understand what it means to celebrate their classmates' birthdays at school, the August birthday means they miss out on an element of childhood. 

I had planned to celebrate their half birthdays in February, honoring their special day with their school friends in the same way my mom had honored mine.  However, the preschool had already taken summer birthdays into account, assigning each child with a birthday in June, July and August a day toward the end of the school year to celebrate.  Since my children are in two separate classes, they were assigned to two different days.  My daughter's "birthday" was held last Thursday.  My son's will be held this coming week.

I appreciated that the days were split as it allowed me to attend both classes, a visit with each child that I know other moms have enjoyed throughout the year.  I didn't anticipate my son's angst over the separation of his birthday from his twin sister's.  In the car ride to school, he cried that his birthday was supposed to be the same day as hers.  "But my birthday is the same as M's," he persisted even as I explained that it was a pretend birthday and that he would have his pretend birthday next week.

Eventually, he came around, and he began making a pretend cake for his sister.  As I drove, I heard him in the backseat adding eggs, flour, and sugar to his pretend bowl, mixing it, and popping it in the oven.  When he took it out to give to her, he sang, "Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to you.  Happy birthday to M....  (M pushes his hand away from her, as siblings in the backseat of a car are apt to do.)  NO M I AM SUPPOSED TO SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU AND GIVE YOU THIS CAKE." Well, at least he came around to celebrating separate pretend birthdays, I thought.

My daughter milked the pretend birthday, telling her ballet teacher that it was her birthday, which prompted a chorus of "happy birthday" from her classmates at ballet that afternoon.  That night she described to me the "princess party" she wants to have in August, for her "real" birthday.  My son wants a car race for his birthday party, and I'm trying to figure out how to build a racetrack around a princess castle in my backyard.  I suppose it's a good thing that their pretend birthdays at school fall two months from their real birthday; otherwise I would have to explain to twin 3-year-olds that they had to wait six months past their half-birthdays to have their parties.  That's a conversation where I would not win.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Star of the Week

I've thought a lot about the "Star of the Week" that the four-year-old classes have implemented at the preschool.  I've wondered if middle and high school teachers could capitalize on the practice, which values individual differences, highlights out of school literacy and learning, and encourages parental participation.  In professional development workshops I've held this semester, I've asked upper school teachers whether they thought "star of the week" could be adapted for an adolescent classroom.  A few nodded their heads.  Most balked, saying that the teens would not want to be on display and that parents would not participate.

I run into resistance a lot in the work that I do, so I wasn't surprised by the negative reactions.  I was encouraged, however, by the nods of those few teachers.  After visiting the four-year-old class in May, I am even more convinced that we need to find a way to bring "star of the week" into the ELA classroom.  As I watched the teachers individually assess and instruct that day's star, who was in charge of leading the morning circle each day that week, I realized another advantage of the practice: it allows for, and encourages, the individualized work that many students need.

I haven't quite figured out how to do "star of the week" in an adolescent classroom, where admittedly the students are often resistant to being center stage and the stakes socially and academically are high, but I think there might be a way.  I think we could learn a lot from the preschool setting.

My return to the 4s and their literacy learning

I've had the notes for this blog post on my desk for nearly a month.  I won't make excuses.  It just is.  My note to readers is simply that this reflection is a little less "real time" than some of the others.  It's still worthwhile to me to write it, however. 

As I walked back into the four-year old classroom, after three months away, I noticed a marked difference in my confidence.  The nerves were gone.  I smiled easily at the teachers, called each of the children by name, and walked immediately to a group that was playing with magnetic letters.  As I knelt, one boy asked, "Mrs. T, what does this spell?"  He had assembled a series of Bs and Os, with a few Ms mixed in.  I started moving letters around, forming real words.  He wasn't interested in my efforts and nearly as soon as I sounded out the words for him, he moved them back into his formation.  "But what does this spell?" he inquired again and again.  So I went with it.  "It spells, bmoombbmoobb."  Satisfied, he added some more letters, and we repeated the process of my trying to show him real words and his rejecting my attempts.  Was it enough, I wondered, that he was interested in what the letters spelled?  That he knew that letters make up words?

My time at the preschool has taught me that name recognition is an early skill, and names are often the first sight words children acquire.  The four-year-olds had moved to last name recognition when I visited in January.  During my May visit, I watched as one child searched methodically for his name during the morning circle.  The teachers had chosen last names that day, but it was clear that the child thought he was looking for his first name.  He paused as he passed his surname, clearly finding it familiar but rejecting it all the same.  When he stood, lost in the center of the circle, the teacher prompted him to look for his last name.  He immediately found it with no outside help.  I could see schema theory at work in this young boy's literacy development.  Without the frame, he could not recognize his last name.

The letter of the week was "M", and as the teacher listed M words, called out by a chorus of young voices, she reminded the children that certain words need capital letters.  In grammar textbooks we call them proper nouns.  Smith and Wilhelm, who write for middle and high school English teachers, argue that when teaching usage and style, in most cases we should use words that are more descriptive of function, rather than formal grammatical terms.  They suggest that we can get away with using the word "name" in lieu of "proper noun."  Preschool teachers already know this trick.

As my mentor teacher capitalized the "names" on the M word list, I pondered how this issue of capitalization, which is so clearly taught in preschool, continues to plague educators of all levels.  High school teachers blame middle school teachers.  Middle grades pass the buck to the elementary teachers.  But actually, I think, all  of us are teaching capitalization.  It's one of those prescriptive rules that just doesn't stick, perhaps because, as Sterling suggests in a NY Times article, capitalization is sometimes redundant, and quite frankly, omitting capital letters does not impede comprehension.  That said, it's a traditionally taught convention - and it's teaching begins in preschool.  I will be sure to stress this fact to the high school teachers who complain that their students don't know how to capitalize!

I could see growth in the individual students in the four-year-old class.  They were developing early literacy, and I could see how the structures of their classroom had been facilitating this process.