Tuesday, October 20, 2015

#WhyIWrite National Day on Writing

Today we celebrate the 7th annual National Day on Writing.  Create by the National Council of Teachers of English, the organization partners with many others to promote the importance of writing in our lives and to showcase the variety of forms that writing can take.  In this digital world, those forms are many - from texting to more traditional forms of storytelling - yet we sometimes forget that so much of how we communicate on a daily basis requires us to write.  Writing is fundamental to who we are as a society.

So to honor the role of writing in my life and to share my love of writing with others, I joined my son's third grade class today.  In preparation for the lesson, I asked the parents and grandparents of children in the class to respond to three prompts:

  • What kinds of things do you write each day?
  • Why is writing important?
  • Writing is... (fill in the blank).
We developed quite a list, which I summarize here.

In the lesson with the children, we developed answers to these questions, and I shared with them the responses from the adults in their lives.  They each selected some that they liked.

In partners the children thought about the message that they wanted to send to the world today about writing.  They planned their words, some of them borrowed directly from the list the adults had created, and considered an image that would help them to state their message.  They took pictures, searched for images, and saved to iPads.  Then they used meMatic to create memes with the images and the words.

Image macros, the foundation of memes, have become an important way of sharing opinions via social networking, but even more importantly, writers can use images and words to convey ideas, and the third graders today did a wonderful job of thinking about what writing is, why it is important, and how we can, as one girl put it, "get our ideas out to the world."

By the end of the lesson, students reflected to their teacher that they had learned 
  • "that writing is a lot of things," 
  • "that writing is sometimes pens and sometimes computers," and
  • "how to use the app."
These takeaways are all important for these young writers, but more importantly, they were able to share their writing with the world.

So, why do you write?  Consider sharing your perspective on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #whyIwrite.  I know some third graders who think you should.  :)

Friday, September 18, 2015

My Village (or reflections on prejudice in my community)

About four minutes before I had to walk out the door to catch my train, I realized my daughter had a fever. We scrambled successfully to find care for her, and I made it to work. That night, I put a plan in motion --- just in case --- for the next morning.  I reached out to several friends and neighbors to see if anyone could help if my daughter hadn’t kicked her fever.  As I texted my friend who agreed to help a big THANK YOU, she responded with "It takes a village, right?"

That phrase, with its reported origins as an African proverb, has become part of our culture.  

I've never actually read Hillary Clinton's book though I do remember the controversy it inspired after its publication in 1996. The political line between "village" and "family" seemed artificial to me at the time, and it is only now as a mother who works outside the home that I understand the attacks on Hillary were, in all likelihood, attacks on women in the workforce. Regardless, in my view, having a “village” means that we live as a community, responsible for each other.  We must tell each other when our kids are being assholes.  We must work together for the good of the whole.  We must help when help is needed.

I feel lucky to live in a village where my kids have so many people watching out for them, but I'm also angry about comments that have been made publicly about people who live in my village.

In the last few weeks, two visible instances of prejudice have had me asking myself how I can stand up for what is right.  How can I make a difference, make my community more of a village?

Reflections on the Train and Prejudice in my Community

I am back to the city after a month of working solely from home, which means I have time to listen to my favorite podcasts during my commute.  Last week, I was blown away by The Problem We All Live With from This American Life.

The episode (first of a two-part series) explores contemporary issues of desegregation in American schools.  I add the emphasis to the word contemporary because the story chronicled in the podcast is about the process of desegregating a school in Missouri in 2013.  It also makes the argument that desegregation has been shown to be the single best reform in terms of reducing the achievement (or what academics in my field call, the opportunity) gap between white and black/Hispanic students.

As a student of history undergrad, I completed a full-semester independent study of the history of desegregation of schools.  Thus, I was intrigued by the reflection on the 1960s/70s efforts - and how over the last 30 years, the country has only grown to be more segregated.

I listened on the podcast to individuals in a suburban, White community proclaim the inequities to their children because Black and Hispanic students were, by state order in 2013, about to invade.  I hear their hurtful words, and my stomach dropped for the Black family that had attended the meeting, hoping for a better education for their daughter.

I imagined what I might say into a microphone in a public forum in my kids’ school district had I heard these insensitive - and racist - comments.  I saw myself arguing that my own children would not only NOT be hurt by a robust integration of our small, suburban school, but also be HELPED by it.  It made me sick to imagine that kind of prejudice in my community, but I knew that my small town was not immune.

After all, just days before, I’d seen prejudice rear its ugly head.

A post on our community “parents” page inspired a heated conversation.  Reacting to the controversy sparked by the decision of students at Duke University who refused to read Fun Home, a parent in the closed group shared a status by Franklin Graham that was overtly prejudiced against the LGBT community. The author of the post suggested that we, parents of K-8 graders, must be aware of what our school was doing and that "pop culture theme/movement of the moment" had no place in our kids’ curriculum.

The conversation that followed both angered me (that people in my town defended overt prejudice against gay and lesbian individuals) and encouraged me (that most of the comments reflected my own anger at the overt prejudice shown toward people in our village).

Given the discussion - and the fact that very few people on the thread had actually read Fun Home, I suggested we hold a book club, and after conversations in the grocery store that focused on a “one book, one community” project in our town, I had every intention of organizing it.

And then just a few days later, the day after I listened to that amazing TAL podcast, the one that made me imagine standing at a microphone and passionately arguing for racial justice, someone in that parents’ group reported that groups associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement had declared “open season on killing whites and police officers” the next day, September 11.  This parent was "afraid" to send her children to our local school.

The language her post used in trying to rally the community (at least I assume that was her purpose) was inflammatory, and it made me sick.  

I do not deny that prejudice exists - and that we ALL have biases that lead to prejudice. I see it almost daily in my job, and I work to overcome it, to make a difference. As a young teacher, I asked my students, mostly White, to think outside themselves, to hear the voices of others that have been silenced through history. As a researcher, I advocate for those who do not have a voice in society. I KNOW that prejudice is very real.

But perhaps I've been remiss in considering the prejudice that exists in my own backyard. Perhaps we all have.  How do we turn our lenses inward to examine ourselves and our own communities?

I'm angry at my community for being part of the problem and for hurting people in my village. I want to be part of the solution. And most importantly, I want my kids to know that we ARE a village, an inclusionary place where we work together for the good of the whole.  This core belief is what drives me, but right now, I’m not sure how to overcome my anger.  I’m not sure what I can do to combat the prejudice that I see.  I’m not sure, exactly, how to make my community part of my village.

Monday, June 22, 2015

KT's Summer Reading Challenge

I grew up in the country, surrounded by hamlets that formed my school's community.  One of these small towns boasted a post office, a community space, a sub shop, and a small public library.  It was at the McEwensville library that I learned summer was a time to explore the world of books.  In summer I could read anything I wanted, but as a young child, I really didn't know what I wanted to read.  The library in that small town helped me explore, offering fantastic summer reading challenges that I remember fondly to this day.

I want my own children to explore books with abandon, to be motivated to try new kinds of books and to feel proud of what they read.  I want them to spend the summer reading every chance they get.  I want to read with them and let them inspire me.

So together we created a summer reading challenge.

I plan to read alongside them, and we hope that others will join us in this summer fun (sign up here to let us know you accepted the challenge).

Monday, February 23, 2015

Spelling Test Liberation

Let me begin this post by apologizing to my former high school students for giving them rote vocabulary tests.  Though I tried to do better than simply having them take home the words for the unit, memorize them, and spit back definitions on weekly tests, I know that I never figured out how to teach vocabulary in a meaningful way.  So I'm sorry.

I've become even more aware of my failings as a teacher of vocabulary over the last 18 months as my own children have begun the weekly spelling ritual.  Since the beginning of first grade, they have received a list of words on Monday, and over the week, they (and by default, I) have spent the week drilling, killing, and (hopefully) learning the spellings.  They usually do pretty well on the Friday tests, but the process is arduous.  I get frustrated that they don't know how to study on their own.  They, I'm sure, get frustrated with their teacher-mom - who has no idea how to teach them.

We've tried sounding words out, writing them 5 times each, creating mnemonics, and breaking the list down into manageable parts for each day of the week.  We created a routine that we followed daily, and we practiced spelling in the car while we waited for the bus and while we drove to after school activities.  Despite all our efforts, by Thursday night, we were still struggling to spell the words correctly on a practice test.  Furthermore, even though they did well on their Friday tests at school, they did not actually learn how to spell the words.  They performed for the test but often misspelled the same words in their writing afterward.  Most importantly, I was driving the ship, not them, and they were not learning how to learn.  It was exhausting and frustrating, and it was casting negativity on much of the limited time that we spend together in the evening.

A few weeks ago my daughter introduced a new challenge into the spelling routine.  "Mama," she said, "If I get everything right this week, can I have breakfast in bed?"  I looked at her for only a second before I answered.  She is a learner who is highly motivated by external rewards, and she had defined her own motivation.

"How about if you get everything right two weeks in a row, you get breakfast in bed for the entire weekend?"  I replied.  Her smile sealed the deal, and I extended the offer to her brother.

For two weeks both kids were highly engaged in their own spelling study.  They seemed to listen to me when we discussed how to break down words, and I was less frustrated.  Both of them earned their reward.  I told them the deal was available for ANY time they earned two perfect scores in a week.  I thought I was free of the spelling test noose.

Until the next week.  When they slid back into their same routines and I became "mean mommy" again as we struggled to learn to spell before the end of the week.

Then on a Tuesday when we found ourselves with an extra two hours in the morning due to a school delay, I asked the kids to take out their flash cards (our newest attempt to develop independent study skills).  I was tired.  It was the second day in a row that I had to juggle work commitments due to weather cancellations, and the last thing I wanted to do was to jump into the angst of spelling.  As the kids brought their index cards to the kitchen table, the idea hit me.  The iPad.  There has to be an app that can take my place in this process.

I searched.  I found it.  I downloaded it.  We played with it, and I am now free of the spelling test noose!

For the last two weeks my kids have used the app to learn their words.  Without question they study their spelling list, and in fact, they kind of enjoy doing so.  This past Friday, they both got perfect scores on their tests, and my only effort was in giving them their Thursday night practice test.

During that trial test my daughter zoomed through her words.  I watched her effortlessly spell without stumbling once.  After the test, when we high-fived for a perfect paper, I asked, "Did the iPad help?"

"Oh yes," she exclaimed, and then she went on to describe to me her process over the week for learning the words.  It was a process that she had created, a process that I had no part in coaching.  She had developed study skills, and she was very aware of what she did that led to her success.

These things - self monitoring, metacognitive awareness, reflection - these are the pillars of independent learning.  I'm not sure why it took me so long to imagine the iPad (rather than me) as a facilitator in this process.  I know that it was, in part, my modeling strategies that allowed my daughter to adopt her own study skills, but it was the technology - perhaps the gamification - that engaged her enough to move forward in her development as a learner.

We no longer spend our limited time together drilling and killing their spelling words.  I am liberated.  And I'm pretty sure that next weekend, I'm going to be on the hook for breakfast in bed.

Spelling Test by FunExam

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Savoring a Moment

I dreaded looking at the online discussion forum for my town this morning.  The space started as a place to share school news, and it has evolved over the last few years into a place to ask questions and to get recommendations.  Feedback is almost instantaneous, and in this way, the forum epitomizes the good connections that can come from the Internet.

Increasingly, however, comments in the forum have turned sour, and quite regularly, posts publicly criticize our local government, special interest groups, individuals who take non-conformist views - and our local schools.  I am very much in favor of healthy debate in public spaces, but the derogatory remarks against our schools based solely on opinion and not on facts has taken its toll on many of us who monitor the site.  In fact, a friend was so dejected that she created a new forum, one where we celebrate our students, teachers, and administrators, rather than cutting them down.

Despite my growing frustration with the forum, I continue to find valuable information in it, and so I continue to read.  And today I knew that I would read critique of the district's decision to delay opening.  I didn't want to read the rants, yet I knew I needed to do so.  I knew that I needed to respond.

I do not envy the decisions that our school leaders make on a daily basis to provide a quality education to our children.  They navigate a path that is filled with political land mines as they determine the best course for both the safety and education of our children.  This winter has been especially challenging as they are faced with dire weather forecasts that promise to bring dangerous conditions to our area nearly every week.

We have not had school on a Monday since January 5.  My daughter has her media and tech class every other Monday, so she hasn't had formal instruction in this area since early December!  I know that our school leaders want her - and all of her peers - in class.  These adults do not want to stay home, sitting snuggly on the couch and watching the news (as one person on the community forum suggested).  They make the best decisions that they can with the data that they have.  And I support every call they have made, even when the weather forecasters have gotten it wrong, and in hindsight, we could have gone to school.

These "could have" days are frustrating for parents, especially parents who work.  Over the last few weeks, my husband and I have had to strategically plan which of us could stay home if the kids had a delay or a closing.  It has become a regular negotiation in our Sunday evening conversations, and yes, it is difficult.  Our work is important to us.  It is important to the people we serve.  But ultimately, our children come first.

So in reflecting on these "could have" days, I am thankful that our local school leaders have cared enough about their employees and students to consider their safety above all else.  I am also thankful that Web 2.0 has allowed me to (1) hold virtual classes and conference electronically with my students, (2) participate in virtual meetings with my colleagues, and (3) be productive at home.  But more importantly, I am thankful that I had some extra time to spend with my kids and to watch their creative minds work.

We are almost to the halfway point of rearing them, and I'm trying to savor as many of these moments as I can.