Archive for May, 2015
It is always exciting when we start to work on a new project with a new author — at least a new author to us. Last week Paula Bourque stopped by our editorial meeting to witness the official “turnover” of her manuscript. She’s done the hard part, now it is up to our production team, including Louisa Irele (right) to produce the book that you will hold in your hands. Stay tuned!
Author Paula Bourque with Louisa.
May 28th, 2015
If you are thinking about introducing peer conferences into your writing workshop, Mark Overmeyer has some advice for you! His new book, Let’s Talk! is full of ideas on how to make conferences more manageable and meaningful.
The Power of Peer Conferring
By Mark Overmeyer
Students should be encouraged to confer with one another about their writing. But if peer conferring is not carefully framed for students, some unintentional things may happen.
If your writers think that working with a peer is an opportunity to “be the teacher,” there may be some negative side effects. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a young child. Whenever I had the opportunity to work with a partner, I tended to be a bit bossy. And because I desperately wanted to “teach” something, I would make things up if I had nothing to offer. So, if asked to work with a peer in writing, I loved marking his or her paper up and giving it some kind of score or grade. My desire to be a teacher led me to take over the writing for another student, which, of course, did not help the writer at all.
Here are some tips for making peer conferences successful for all students:
Suggest that peers question and wonder rather than jump straight to giving advice.
Peers might be more successful at asking questions of one another than giving advice, especially early in a peer-conferring experience. After a writer shares, the reader might ask a few clarifying questions that can then nudge the writer to think of more details to add. I find that peers have more authentic wonderings because they often experience the world in the same way as their peers. They might ask better clarifying questions than an adult because they have less experience with filling in the blanks of a slightly confusing narrative.
Make the roles of reader/listener and writer clear.
The reader/listener can begin by praising the writer for something specifically accomplished, followed by suggestions. It is perhaps best to think of these offerings as “suggestions” rather than “teaching points,” because successful peer conferences require the writer to make final decisions about what to add, delete, or change based on peer suggestions. In a teacher-student conference, it is more likely that a teacher will actually require a writer to try something to improve the writing, because the teacher’s role includes helping the student to become a more flexible writer. In a peer conference, however, the writer has to make the final decision about what advice to take and what changes, if any, to make.
Let the writer take the lead.
Another way to increase the success of a peer conference is to ask the writer to begin by writing on a sticky note where he or she thinks support is needed. If the writer sets the agenda for the conference, he or she is more likely to receive helpful advice from the peer reader.
Focus on content, not grammar and mechanics.
One key to successful peer conferences is to ask students to focus on content rather than on conventions. All writers in your classroom have the advantage of having lived as long as their peers in your class. They have similar life experiences in the sense that fourth graders see the world through fourth-grade eyes, not through adult eyes. When the focus is on content and not on conventions, I no longer have to worry about grouping a “strong” writer with a “struggling” writer. These kinds of labels limit expectations for writers in general, but they can cause particular harm in a peer conference. When setting up peer conferences, I am careful about grouping students together for the purposes of supporting one another but not based on my assumptions about the levels of their writing. Remember what Carl Anderson says about writing conferences: they provide an opportunity for conversation. I firmly believe that all of my students can engage in meaningful conversations about their work if the focus is on content.
The biggest danger in allowing peers to provide advice on conventions is that students tend to take their friends’ advice, even if it is wrong. A peer may unknowingly “help” a fellow writer by correcting a mistake that wasn’t an error to begin with. Editing for conventions is the work of the writer, with the support of the teacher—not the work of his or her peers.
Make peer conferences a choice, not a requirement.
I believe in the power of peer conferences, but once they are established and students can meet with peers independently, I do not require students to confer for every piece of writing. My writers need to know that although it is okay to seek advice from a peer at any stage of the writing process, it is also okay to continue writing without seeking support. I find that, when given a choice, students work with peers in more meaningful and authentic ways because they aren’t doing so to please me or to meet the requirement on a checklist. They are meeting with a peer because they want to meet with another writer.
Debrief with students about the benefits and potential pitfalls of peer conferences.
If you want to know how peer conferences are working in your classroom, go directly to the source: ask your students. After a few rounds of peer conferences, you might gather your students and ask for their honest feedback about the opportunity to talk with their peers. Consider asking questions like, “What do you think about peer conferences? What is working? What might make it better?”
Make sure you encourage students to speak in positive terms, and do not allow them to name the peers they worked with as writing partners. This is why I suggest that you debrief after a few sessions of practicing peer conferences. If you debrief after only one opportunity for peers to work together, some students may feel singled out. They may interpret their partners’ comments as a negative reflection on them.
Students might be given a few language frames to help with this debrief:
“One thing that helps me as a writer is when the reader . . .”
“The kind of advice that helped me the most was when . . .”
“It would have been better if . . .”
When used effectively, peer conferences are a powerful tool for creating more independent, motivated writers in your classroom. An added benefit is that students tend to use more age-appropriate voice in their writing. When students confer only with me, my writing biases tend to bleed through: I love descriptive writing and the use of dialogue. I don’t know much about how to infuse humor. I struggle with passive voice, so sometimes I don’t even notice that writers are not using active verbs. Allowing peers to work together on their writing content lets them grow in ways I can’t provide as just one voice offering praise and advice.
May 21st, 2015
Sarah Cooper is back this week with this thoughtful post about the importance and power of memorizing lines — from history, from poetry, from speeches. She argues that having a thorough knowledge of a subject helps students dive further into analysis and understanding and that these memorized lines can become companions for life.
The Power of the Memorized Line
By Sarah Cooper
My mother, an English teacher, was master of the literary one-liner.
“There’s a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons,” she’d muse while visiting Boston in December, the sun setting just after 4:00 p.m. Emily Dickinson’s poetry became a way for my mom, a longtime Californian, to manage the gloom.
Well into my adulthood, whenever I said anything remotely snide, my mom would whip out King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child.” Sometimes she meant it more than others.
And, faced with any situation in which despair threatened to overwhelm hope, she would quote William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” I’ve pulled out that one myself when discussing historical catastrophes with students.
At their worst, such displays of erudition can remind us of Monica in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, who “knows one line from every poet.” At any remotely apropos conversational moment, Monica inserts an allusion to make herself look smart.
At their best, however, the right quotations, plucked from long ago—in the middle of a classroom or the middle of the night—can ignite memory and make us feel we’re not alone.
Memorization might seem old-fashioned, a straggler behind the excitement of inquiry learning and design thinking. Yet mastering a substantial body of knowledge can lead to playful analysis.
“The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem,” assert the authors of the recent book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which applies cognitive science research to memory techniques.
When I taught English, my students often memorized a poem as part of a larger poetry project. Now that I teach U.S. history, each year I choose a couple of quotations that students must memorize verbatim, keeping in mind poet Robert Pinsky’s observation that “a people is defined and unified not by blood but by shared memory.”
Last semester, the eighth graders memorized the opening to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ideally these tenets will echo in their ears any time they see rights being taken away.
Next year, I hope to ask students to internalize a more subversive section of the same paragraph, which declares that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” We live in inertia until something propels us otherwise, an idea I would like them to seize upon as they become adult citizens.
This semester, students are memorizing the final sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Why this particular sentence, laden with prepositional phrases?
The students told me a bit of “why” themselves after they circled resonant language in class: charity, strive, bind, cherish, just and lasting peace. These words aspire to create community in the face of deep conflict.
Lincoln’s grand ending also invites us into a national discussion of peace and war that has persisted for 150 years.
President Gerald Ford held Lincoln’s speech in mind when he said in April 1975 that “the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.” Ford hoped that an appeal to Lincoln’s graciousness would help heal the rancor of Vietnam.
So too did Barack Obama hail toward Lincoln in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, when he spoke of “three ways that we can build a just and lasting peace.” Echoing the words of others does not simply show a familiarity with history but also gives strength to persevere through difficult work.
As with Lincoln’s speeches, the best documents of American history contain a great deal of poetry. Memorizing such rich language gives us what poet Billy Collins calls “the pleasure of companionship” from something we have set to heart. “When you internalize a poem,” Collins says, “it becomes something inside of you. You’re able to walk around with it. It becomes a companion.”
My mother’s quotations—Faulkner, Shakespeare, Dickinson, all—have walked around with me for a lifetime.
Similarly, I think all of us hope that the documents, speeches, and novels we teach might in some way become “companions” for our students in future years—when they feel beleaguered, when they feel emboldened, or when they simply need to remember that someone else has faced their struggles before.
May 18th, 2015
Staff, students, and parents at Pritchett School in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, will dedicate the new library/media center as The Dr. Mary C. Shorey Learning Center on May 14, in honor of their colleague and teacher who died last year. Shorey, co-author of Many Texts, Many Voices (Stenhouse, 2012), taught at Pritchett for many years and shared her students’ deep explorations with critical inquiry, social justice, and multimodal literacy in the book.
May 13th, 2015
If you missed the excitement and buzz of ShadowCon — the alternative, teacher-led mini-conference during NCTM — here is your chance to revisit all of the speeches and calls to action. We are excited to post one speech here from one of our own authors, Elham Kazemi, who, along with Allison Hintz, wrote Intentional Talk. The second speech is by Laila Nur, who encourages math teachers to bring humor into their classroooms. You can find out more about ShadowCon and see how other teachers are implementing the calls to action on their website.
Call to Action from Elham:
My call to action is for you to make collective learning opportunities happen by doing the following:
- Find two teacher friends or more (over time, your principal would be a strategic bonus). Take something you want to try from this conference, from a book, from the math twitter blogosphere. But don’t try it out alone. Explain the idea of owning the lesson together and set some norms for collaboration and risk taking.
- Plan together and identify some questions you have about your students. Then teach together, while you sit among your students. Call teacher time outs during the lesson that let you pursue ideas, shift direction, or experiment with a next good question.
- Share back with us what you tried and what you learned from this new way of making practice public and learning together.
Call to Action from Laila:
Incorporate mathematical and/or educational humor into your class at least once a week for the next four weeks (or longer). Then:
- Describe how you implemented humor into your lesson/class time.
- How comfortable did you feel during implementation?
- Take note of changes in students’ behavior and attitude over time. How did students respond?
- Do students seem more confident or comfortable speaking in front of a group?
May 12th, 2015
We are excited to announce the winner and honorable mentions of our Twitter Poetry contest. The challenge was to write a poem in 140 characters or less. Shirley McPhillips, poet and author of the recent book Poem Central, served as our judge.
And the winner is….
HER by Erika Zeccardi
leans against the maple,
bare branches outstretched.
Faint whispers of red river valley
dance across the yard
BROTHER LUCIEN EXPLAINS THE VOW OF SILENCE AT FONTENELLE ABBEY
Allowed to speak? Yes.
Of course. But always we must
have something to say.
Phoenix rises from ashes
Memories in flashes
Fall hard on ground
Voices call her
Daggers take her
A new day begins
Tomorrow’s mystery today?
Now needs full attention.
I can’t afford spending
today with tomorrow.
Congratulations to Erika, as well as to Chris, A.T., and Carol! Keep writing!
May 8th, 2015