Saturday, February 18, 2017

Getting It Right

As a secondary English methods professor, I wish I could get it right every time.  The truth is, I wish I could claim just one perfect year as a middle or high school teacher instead of a few near-perfect class periods or too many near-perfect disasters.  As many educators of any level might agree, it is the striving for perfection that keeps us moving forward: researching best practices, finding better resources, attending professional conferences, and meeting new colleagues as we continually shape and reshape our philosophical stance on teaching and learning.

Every week, my English methods students pose tough questions about numerous topics in education that experienced teachers struggle with daily.  Last week they asked, "How do we get students to actually read (or care about reading) during silent reading?  What does accountability for independent reading look like?  How do I manage student choice and grading?"  Channeling some of my best professors' strategies, I asked them to discuss their own classroom observations and what they have learned from their mentor teachers.  Most recently, however, during our discussion of Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development and Deborah Appleman's Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, one student stumped me with questions about grading: How do we assess scaffolding if one student needs more resources and assistance than another student?  How does the scaffolding enter into grading?  


Time limited our discussion that evening, which made it immediately clear that we needed more resources to help us grapple with these issues around grading practices.  Having experienced the depth of the Twitter professional network, I turned to #sbgchat and discovered #sblchat (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST).  In just moments, I found a video by Rick Wormeliproficiency grading guides, a website on all things standards based by Matt Townsley, and conversations archived by Garnet Hillman around grading theory and practice.  


Yes, my students' questions give me pause, more now that I realize how much there is to learn.  But knowing how to navigate these education resources moves me closer to being the professor my secondary teacher candidates need me to be.  I have an advantage over my first-year teacher self of twelve years ago: supportive professional networks that constantly teach me (how else would I have discovered teachers on Twitter?).  These networks include the National Council of Teachers of English (@NCTE), National Writing Project (@writingproject) beginning with the Louisville Writing Project (@LouisvilleWP) and continuing with the Illinois Writing Project (@IllinoisWP), the International Literacy Association (@ILAtoday), the Illinois Reading Council (@ILReadCouncil, and the Literacy Research Association.  Through these professional networks, I have learned the value of mentors, lifelong research, and constant investigation.  I have also learned the importance of wobbling on the edge of new challenges.  Without these experiences and the support of these associations--of mentors and friends--I wouldn't be able to show my future teachers how to get it right, even if it's only some of the time.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Longing for Writing Space as an Early Career Researcher Professor

I woke this morning with the longing to write, the need to carve time for creativity, to voice the thoughts swirling around in the ether.  Simultaneously, university course work tugged at the coattails of a writing desire that has become more and more elusive over the past several weeks.  I wobbled against its weight.  The pull of grading, of announcements to students clarifying their questions, and of emails to colleagues scheduling meetings worked to stifle what I know to be true: if I do not write, I cannot teach writing, nor can I teach future teachers how to teach writing.

Attending the Illinois Reading Council (#IRC2016) reminded me of the passion I need to reignite: writing to discover new ideas and to nourish the ideas that have had little time to take root.  A small group of professors with the College Instructors of Reading Professionals answered questions, and more importantly offered much-needed encouragement in my pursuit of what fills me as a professional.  Anne Gregory with NIU said it best when describing how early she rises each morning to workout: "I deserve this . . . and you deserve the time for your passion." Deserve.  I deserve the time to write.  That one word shifted my thinking profoundly.

But it did not shift my ability.

In a late afternoon session yesterday, Ralph Fletcher showed us poetry and encouraged us to draft a few lines ourselves.  I stumbled.  My phrases were lackluster.  The poem ended awkwardly with no connection to Fletcher proposed be our final two lines.  And how I needed that punch to generate an image, an idea about a memory long past.  I could then, and now, feel the rusty spigot creaking little by little with each word.  No pressure except for the words pressing themselves against the narrow faucet opening.

When Kelly Gallagher spoke in his session about voluminous writing in the classroom, I nodded agreement.  How can students improve their writing and enhance idea generation, organization, and detail development without constant opportunities to experiment with craft and improve writing stamina?  His strategies for engaging students in low-pressure writing without increasing the grading workload should be easy to implement in any grade level.  In fact, I am eager to add his Reading Reasons to my collection of professional resources to become as well-referenced as so many other reading and writing experts.

But then, let's flip the voluminous writing concept back to us.

Are we creating the space--time and place--for low-pressure writing in our own professional and personal settings?  In a sense, everything I have written in the past several weeks has been for a "grade."  Grading students' essays and communicating with colleagues or partner schools via email are higher-pressure writings that become evaluated by the people who read them.  Likewise, reports, course syllabi, and students' degree study plans cannot receive failing grades.  I like having a job.

Blogging is that release for me.  Writing in this space solidifies the ethereal thoughts, giving them legs to stand on . . . and hands to shake loose whatever weight might be hanging onto the tails of this new coat I am trying on.

So tell me, how do you create the space for writing?  What do you recommend for early-career researchers and professors?  What helps you reignite writing when other weighty obligations begin to take over?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Operating on the Dissertation Behemoth for Academic Publishing

When I first entered the doctoral program in summer of 2011, I viewed academia as a place where someone else shared knowledge with me.  In that fall's doctoral seminar class, however, the professor shared bewildering information.  We needed to eventually publish.  Whether we co-authored with mentor faculty or were the sixth author on a research article, we would be in better academic and professional standings if we published in journals (although Raul Pacheco-Vega questions this logic in his recent blog post).  So, as a full-time middle school language arts teacher and part-time graduate student, I ignored this advice and focused on providing endless feedback on 8th grader drafts and writing my own projects, articles, reflections, or unit plans for graduate coursework.

Fortunately, a popular writing course at the university cycled the program every few years and fit my schedule.  Writing for Publication brought together students from across disciplines in a joint effort to resurrect old drafts for journal submission.  We dug deeply into Wendy Belcher's Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.  I wish I had purchased the actual book rather than the digital version, but her website provides the consumable resources so books can stay "clean."  The intense yet practical approach pushed me to write, revise, share drafts, and revise again while also researching possible journals and attending to specific audience needs.  I finished the course successfully and submitted my manuscript, which I described in a previous blog post.  My waiting resulted in disappointment when it was rejected several months later.  With the bustle of other projects and without the pressure of a grade, I let the manuscript and feedback collect dust.

Over two years later, several pieces of writing lurk within my computer, notebooks, and coursework folders.  I have written drafts of literature reviews and reflections in preparation for my dissertation and some did, in fact, make their way into that behemoth of data and analysis.  I proudly and successfully defended my dissertation (Understanding through Narrative Inquiry: Storying a National Writing Project Initiative) on March 28, 2016.  Imagine my excitement when my committee members said they could see possibilities for six journal articles I could develop from this work.  Six!

Six! Imagine my anxiety knowing I should dissect my beautiful behemoth into smaller beasts for academic journal writing.  I wrote a semi-traditional five-chapter dissertation and pushed its boundaries only slightly with creative mini-narratives to describe findings in chapter four.  How do I distill the essential learning found in my research problem, literature review, methodology, findings and closing discussion chapters?  How do I engage in meaningful academic writing that highlights my insights about professional learning communities, teacher-leadership, planning professional development, trust, and invitation?  These are real questions for which I have not yet found answers, even though I feel it is my responsibility to already know.

I do not step lightly into this task.  For many months I raised and cared for each of these 213 pages.  Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, I have to operate on a monster for these insights to live on.  Thank you in advance, Wendy Belcher, for being my assistant.  And thank you, readers, for your own experiences about how you managed this task.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Being a Student Again

As a recent graduate, I have pondered my journey to completion and what it actually took to get here.  Even though the Louisville Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute hours applied toward my coursework, my official entrance into the doctoral program came the fall of 2011 with a seminar course.  For many students, I can imagine, their initial experiences in a program can determine their trajectory for the remainder of their studies.

This seminar introduction to deciphering qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods; writing literature reviews; and developing a path for research was akin to mental Olympics.  I felt pushed, pulled, and stretched in new, very demanding directions.  For the first time in a very long time, my brain felt out of shape.  For over seven years I had attended professional development, created innovative lessons, crunched impossible amounts of data, and learned how to be a more effective teacher, but none of these experiences trained me to run this marathon.

During that first semester, I remember wondering if I would ever learn it all.  Would or could I learn enough to earn a doctorate?  Fortunately, our professor named our fears and welcomed them.  He encouraged us to wrangle literature and make sense of published data.  My brain hurt.  I felt, well, dumb, and may have said as much to my classmates (and professor).  By the end of the semester, though more knowledgeable, we all had glazed eyes with expressions of "what the hell have I gotten myself into?!" plastered on our faces.

When I think about some of my attempts with data collection and analysis even closer to the end of my coursework a few years ago, I realize now the incredible patience my professors must have had.  For instance, only experienced researchers should attempt to record and analyze unstructured interview conversations and try to make sense of their contextual significance or explain that significance in class.  Thankfully, I learned from these experiences.  With guidance and understanding (surely everyone has early researcher mistake stories), my professors modeled what I hoped to become.

Being a student influenced my teacher lens in my middle school classroom.  I hope I became more sensitive to students' struggles, more flexible with my instructional approaches, clearer in my expectations.  At the minimum, I hope I found ways to stretch my students' brains.  For that reason, I encourage teachers to pursue higher education--a master's degree, endorsement or certification, or doctorate.  Enroll in MOOCs or a study group to which you are accountable in some way.  Be a student again.  Yes, we have well over eighteen years under our belts as students, but (sigh) that is the same argument we hear with members of legislature.  Becoming a student after being a teacher revealed insights I never would have discovered otherwise.  I promise it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Terminal Degree as the Beginning

As I listened to Ashley Miller speak at the doctoral hooding ceremony about her fears of not graduating, of that dreaded email requiring one more course or one more draft, I realized how real my own fears had become.  The time-line of defending my dissertation at the end of March, addressing the committee's recommendations in early April, sending the revised draft to my adviser soon afterwards, submitting the final dissertation to the graduate school before April 22, and the ceremony on May 13, intensified these fears rather than relieved them.  And when I was in line to step onto the stage, I held back the urge to look inside the cardboard tube with the University of Louisville seal to see if anything was inside.

The ceremony marked the transition to "Doctor" as one to be taken with great responsibility.  Dr. Beth Boehm, vice provost for graduate affairs, assured our families that a terminal degree meant "the end"--no more coursework or dissertation drafts.  Yet, this journey is just beginning.  As doctoral students, we learned how to create new knowledge.  Through our doctoral programs, we discovered the needs within our communities.  Our new terminal degrees have positioned us as researchers, creators, and problem solvers.

Through courses in education and literacy theory, teaching writing, cognitive coaching, and qualitative research design and methods, I discovered the need for "small data."  I am prepared to analyze trends, identify learning gaps, and further disaggregate data as tiny lenses into education; yet, more exists to be seen and heard.  My dissertation research study narrated the stories of a teacher leadership team and the liaisons across the country who developed and implemented a Literacy Design Collaborative professional development workshop called Assignments Matter.  Narratives such as these show us effective ways into big data.  Teacher and student narratives help us see the faces behind the numbers.

Inspired by the speakers' encouraging words, my adviser Dr. Penny Howell's vote of confidence, and my professor Dr. Lori Norton-Meier's special congratulations, I enter the next phase of my education.  Empowered with the knowledge of how to create new knowledge, I attend to the literacy and professional development needs within education through organizations such the Illinois Writing Project.  And although I hesitated to add "Ph.D." to my C.V. until it was official, I now have a signed parchment that no one can take away from me--I'd like to see them try.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Students' Voices at the IWP Writing Palooza

What happens when students, teachers, parents, and grandparents come together in the same space to write and share?  The Illinois Writing Project hosted a Writing Palooza on Saturday, April 30 to find out the answer to that question.  What we discovered far surpassed our expectations.

The Writing Palooza event featured Adrienne Gibbs as the keynote speaker to jump start our day on writing.  She shared lines of poetry from noted authors and some of her own writing from middle school.  Everything and anything can be a story, she encouraged, and writing flourishes when writers discuss their works together.

The morning and afternoon writing sessions and workshops included poetry, soapbox speeches, and memoirs for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.  In the poetry sessions I attended or facilitated, parents and teachers were encouraged to join in the writing and discussions.  The primary focus, though, was empowering students' voices.  

In the middle grades poetry session, R.J. with the Young Chicago Authors invited introductions from everyone.  These introductions were slightly different in that he asked us to rate the day on a scale of 1-10 and share one thing we often think about but do not get to talk about.  How powerful it was for students (and teachers and parents) to answer this question!  Students around the room identified environmental concerns, worries about their neighborhoods, world events, self-destruction, and other issues they have weighing on their minds with no outlet for conversation.  A common thread wove its way across the room.  Yet this space was different than their more familiar settings of school and after school activities--here, students could discuss and, better yet, write.

One girl in our afternoon poetry session rated the day a 10.  I wondered what made this day shine so brightly for her.  Was it her morning session on writing memoirs, perhaps?  Was it the lunch led by The Chicago Community Trust with information about leading #onthetable2016 civic community conversations?  Or maybe she was there with friends who had also found an outlet for their writing passions.  I did not have the chance to ask her, but I did get to hear what she had to say.

The IWP Writing Palooza culminated with an author share in the auditorium where Adrienne Gibbs began our day.  A few of our youngest eagerly started the line, and we watched with amazement as the line perpetually grew longer and never shorter.  The thirty minutes allotted for this part of the day grew into forty-five.  Students shared narratives about their first roller coaster adventures and soapbox speeches about playground repairs or ugly words on bathroom stalls.  And poetry.  Their poetry, like what was written by the girl in the earlier session and the one by another girl, pointed out the unfairness of stereotypes and made me wish a whole community could fit into that auditorium to hear what these students had to say.

I am excited that the Writing Palooza might become an annual event.  But what I realized even more at the end of this incredible day was that students need more than just one annual event for their voices to be heard.  Where is our daily palooza joining communities of students, teachers, and parents together to write and share?  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

EL Methods on Location (Part 4)

Immersion versus bilingual language learning methods can be a difficult call to make for parents and administrators.  The elementary I observed in this district offers bilingual up to 3rd grade.  Then in 3rd grade students go to English classrooms with EL supports.  According to the district coordinator, schools may approach language learning in one of two ways.  In what they call their bilingual education program, the class is taught in both the first language and the target language.  Over time, the first language usage is decreased while the target language is increased.  In a dual language program, classes are taught 50/50 in the first and second language.

Unfortunately, some students may not have strong literacy at home in their first language, which means bilingual methods would not work well for them.  If students do not have a strong literacy background in their first language, they will struggle learning another language, and some students may come from extremely diverse backgrounds, as Rubinstein-Ávila (2003) showed in a snapshot of three EL students.

In the first-second combined classroom, Ms. Carmen* shared that she used whole brain teaching, a multisensory approach that involved the mind and body.  Teaching grades one and two allowed her to see students for two years, which helped her determine if language learning difficulties were developmental or indicative of a learning disability.  

At the beginning of the day, Ms. Carmen displayed a Spanish paragraph on the smart board and asked students to find three new words.  Students then added these Spanish words with their English equivalents to their vocabulary list.  The paragraph she displayed provided directions for the remainder of the morning.  Further, she pointed to a list of phrases in everyday English and asked students to practice the accompanying phrases in academic language. These included phrases about respectfully disagreeing with someone else’s point-of-view.  Collier (2008) listed strategies teachers could use to help ELLs access academic language.  Up to grade 4, students are learning to read, but older students begin to show gaps in understanding because instruction changes to reading to learn.  As Ms. Carmen demonstrated during my observation, small group instruction is important.  And, as Collier emphasized, using academic language verbally is more important than worksheets or other forms of vocabulary instruction.

After leaving Ms. Carmen's room, I was able to see the many hats of Ms. Lapiz, one of the EL teachers.  This day, Ms. Lapiz worked with a second grade student from China who had been in the school for only three weeks.  They played a matching game.  Erica counted as she laid out the cards with the color names.  As each card was turned over, she read the card aloud.  Ms. Lapiz reminded her to “use your words.”  Erica smiled with each match she made.  At the end of the game she counted the matches aloud.  She had six and Ms. Lapiz had four.  Stewart (2010) stated the importance of feedback, especially the type of positive feedback Ms. Lapiz constantly gave Erica:
Positive feedback can be empowering for students who lack confidence in the subject
matter. By giving them such feedback, ELL students may be motivated to put forth more effort, which will produce a higher quality of work, greater self-confidence, greater learning and then even more deserved positive feedback in a continuous loop. (p. 5)
I followed Ms. Lapiz to a 5th grade math classroom.  They were working on perimeter of a rectangle.  Ms. Lapiz circulated the room.  With some hand gestures, she communicated with a student.  She stopped to work with two students at a table group in the front of the room.  When the teacher directed students to work with partners, I noted how Ms. Lapiz facilitated students' learning:
Ms. Lapiz continued to circulate and occasionally paused to check student work.
“Use your resources,” the teacher said.
Ms. Lapiz knelt by another student to guide work.
A student asked the teacher a question.  She responded, “Where can I start to help you?”
Ms. Lapiz worked with a student.
The teacher circulated the room.  Students explained their answers and she asked, "Why?”  They explained further.
Ms. Lapiz worked with other students at a table.
The teacher said, “Prove it.”
Ms. Lapiz moved to another student.  I heard her say, “Yes, but how?”
Fenner (2013) said, “ESL teachers can play a critical role in helping content teachers analyze the academic language demands of their content areas, design lessons that teach academic language and content simultaneously, and implement CCSS-based instruction for ELs” (p. 9).  Ms. Lapiz and Ms. Carmen showed how they supported the youngest students in the district.  What I discovered was that this level of commitment to collaborating, co-teaching, and instructing with EL students' needs at the center continued throughout the grades but presented itself in slightly different ways.

Rance-Roney, J. (2008) discussed the importance of establishing a classroom community inclusive of everyone in the classroom.  Such communities in EL classrooms are developed by teachers who work together.  Ms. Lyons, a middle school language arts teacher, stated it best when she responded to my observation follow-up email: 
I love co-teaching. It can be so much fun! It is like a good marriage. You have to work at it, and both partners have strengths and areas of growth. I like the people I am co-teaching to be equal to me. It helps to share the chalk when you are on the same page and can plan together. Everyone brings something to the table. Sometimes it takes time to develop the relationship, especially trust. It improves over time. The outcome for kids is amazing, especially when it is effective. I love teaching with [my EL teacher]. She jumps right in and is a great resource. Her enthusiasm and her focus on them as people is inspiring. She truly honors what they say and do.
Honoring students.  When honoring students is at the heart of their professional learning, instruction, collaboration, and reflection, educators wearing any hat in the school show teaching as more than just a job.  

*All names are pseudonyms