Posts Tagged 'learning'

Changing Their Minds (With a Little Help From My Friends)

I am lucky to be connected to many wonderful, vibrant school library media specialists who work in high school settings.  So when I thought about how to demonstrate the possibilities of school library media programs, I reached out to friends and asked for their help. Two media specialists, Holly Frilot and Buffy Hamilton, were able to participate.

These future teachers were amazed by Holly’s work at Collins Hill High School library media center in Suwanee, Georgia. She shared a Prezi that showed many of the ways her library media program reached out to teachers and students to enhance literacy learning. Take a look at what her program provides… Her presentation made the connections between the school library media program and literacy learning abundantly clear. The teachers were amazed at what they saw, scribbling notes and links throughout her talk.

I also shared a peek into Buffy Hamilton’s Unquiet Library at Creekview High School in Canton, Georgia. Although Buffy could not take the time to come to Athens, because of her meticulous documentation of her program at Creekview, I was able to search her blog for video testimonials from teachers and students.  The videos I selected are linked from my presentation. (See slide 6).

As I showed these videos to my high school preservice group, they were amazed at the quality of thinking going on in the Unquiet Library. This experience also reinforced the importance of taking time to document (and share) the learning taking place in school library media centers.

In my next post, I’ll share a bit about the final take-away activity I did to try to solidify the new ideas these teachers were creating about school library media programs and literacy learning in high schools.

(In an interesting side note, since my presentation several months ago, both Holly and Buffy have taken new positions, working with wider audiences to further connections between libraries, literacy, and learning.  Thanks to both of them for allowing me to share their amazing work!)


Initial Impressions of School Libraries from a Group of English Teachers-To-Be

This is the second in a brief series of posts about my recent visit with a class of undergraduate students who will soon become high school English teachers. I was invited to share information about the role of school library media programs in teaching and learning.

One of my core beliefs about effective instruction is the importance of knowing your learners.  With two hours to make the case and little information about these students to start with, trying to somehow get to know these learners was a difficult challenge.  I started with a little information gathering to learn about the students. I did a short exercise at the beginning of the session to get them thinking about their ideas about school libraries and librarians. This exercise also allowed me a glimpse into their initial thoughts on these topics.

I started with a simple google form that I embedded into a wiki page that formed the home base for my presentation. In the form, I asked several simple questions.  Given that these are future English teachers, I decided to take a grammar-flavored approach. I asked them to list (separately) the first 5 nouns, verbs, and adjectives that came to mind when they thought of school libraries. (I then asked them to do the same for school librarians, which I will share in my next post.) After the students completed the questions, I went to the spreadsheet of results and copy/pasted the information from each column into As you likely know, wordle generates word clouds based on the frequency of responses.  The more often a response is given, the bigger the word in the wordle. This results in a “quick and dirty” analysis of the answers given by students. And yes, there are flaws, but it does give some general information to fuel discussions.  (As an aside, I’ve used this little process in many situations to “take the temperature” of a group on a number of subjects.)

Once the wordles were generated, I posted each of them and we asked questions such as: Which words are missing? Which words are bigger or smaller than we might have expected? Which words are surprising?  What assumptions or stereotypes might this word cloud reveal?  (And yes, one of the possible flaws with this particular process was the use of the stereotype-driven poem at the beginning of the session.)  What can we learn from this text?

It usually makes for interesting discussions. Inevitably, there are some unexpected, random words that either make us all laugh or make us all think.

Here are the wordles the students generated when thinking about school libraries. First, the nouns.


“books” is the clear winner here, but I was initially surprised that “computers” came in such a close second. But, if you look closer, “Books” (with a capital B) and “book” are included separately, so I don’t think it is quite as close as it initially seems.  Librarians are smaller than I had thought they would be, but other than that (and a few interesting odds and ends – “fortress”), most of it seemed relatively expected. Although I was happy to see the appearance of “ideas,” I wish it had been bigger.

Next up were the adjectives describing school libraries.  Maybe the biggest word won’t surprise you…


It is a fascinating mix of words, from safe and welcoming to dusty, confusing, and smelly (and yes, the “book smell” did make an appearance in our discussions.)  I wonder, what do you make of this?

Finally, the verbs. As the students completed the google form, many of them seemed to get stuck.  When I asked what was challenging, several students said that the question about verbs in school libraries was the toughest to answer.  Several of them could not think of five different verbs to list. (Ouch!)  As I mentioned earlier, this was not a scientific poll, but it does tell us something about the impressions some young teachers might have about the kinds of things we can *do* in school libraries. For this group, it was far easier to think of objects than actions.  I’ll leave you with the wordle of their verbs, and hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.


Adding it up: Writing another semester

It has been so long since I shared on this blog!  The second half of the semester has been hectic.  I’ve started my on-site dissertation research, which is exciting and will figure in to future posts. I’ve also been busy enjoying my daughter’s first lacrosse season, track season, some task force work, and various other obligations both personal and professional.

But, for the moment, I am thinking about the courses I taught this semester. I had the privilege of teaching two groups of college seniors at the University of Georgia (59 in all), all on their way to certification in teaching elementary aged students. I taught two sections of Language and Literacy P-5, where we explore our ideas about writing and language arts and develop a vision for writing pedagogy.  One of the key parts of the class is, unsurprisingly, a LOT of writing.  We write all kinds of things in this course, in large amounts.  As a way of wrapping up this semester, I wanted to do a rough calculation of the massive amount of writing these students created since January.

472 blog posts (plus quite a few extras)

59 narratives, both imaginative and personal

108 maps to fuel our ideas (heart maps, place maps, and so on)

22 piclits

59 persuasive pieces, from commercials to letters to essays

40 (or more) wordles and tagxedos

59 informational pieces, about everything from vacation spots to the history of M&Ms

25 recipes

50 concrete poems

177 lesson plans

59 stories of our writing identities

40 sets of writing mentor texts

108 reflection papers

180 genres for our multigenre project, including everything from collages to diary entries, stories to brochures, birth announcements to wall maps, menus to videos, tickets to medical bracelets, paintings to poetry

countless drafts on the way to final pieces

endless to do lists (that have now, finally, ended!)

scores of emails

and more!

This accounting is all the more impressive given that many of these students walked into class fearing, hating, or feeling downright bad at writing.  They each challenged themselves and accomplished wonderful things. I am honored to have read every word of their work. I feel as if, as the semester added up, my own teaching and gratitude multiplied many-fold.

So, as I wrap up this semester, I just wanted to publicly share this wonderful experience. It is especially bittersweet because about a week ago I learned that I will not be teaching next year as I had planned. In an unexpected turn of events, I received a Dissertation Completion Award which allows me to focus my attention on completing my research and my degree.  Although it is a wonderful honor, and a gift for a researcher to have this devoted time, I confess I was a bit sad when I thought about not teaching again.  I have to think of it as a brief break from formal teaching, knowing that I will be back working with and learning from students very soon.

Hopefully I’ll be back to blogging a bit more regularly in the coming weeks.  I want to share the latest batch of multigenre projects, a bit about my research, and a whole list of other things I’ve been thinking about.  Thanks for staying tuned. Congrats to all my students!  You give me hope that the future will be better and brighter. Take care, be well, keep writing, and keep in touch.

From Discussion to Creation: Transforming Talk into Something New

At the beginning of each semester, I set goals for myself as a teacher.  Usually, these goals relate back to flaws or shortcomings I’ve noticed in my own teaching during previous semesters.  I make these goals public to my students on the first day of class.  As a teacher of teachers, I feel it’s important to model the kind of reflective, rethinking, renewing practice I hope my students will embrace themselves.

For my goal this semester, I put concerted effort into making class discussions more meaningful and productive.

As the semester winds down, it’s time to share and reflect on how it has gone.  My students provided anonymous feedback to me several weeks ago about the course, and I asked a specific question about these discussions to see what they thought.

First, a quick overview of where I began and what we’ve done this semester:

Since I began teaching 2 years ago, I’ve felt somewhat lost when it comes to facilitating effective discussions.  My students read every week, then write blog posts responding to their readings.  Up through last semester, they would bring their blog posts to class, then have small and large group discussions to share and debate the points they thought were important, questions they had about the content, and so on.

Some of these discussions were worthwhile, but more often than not it felt like the students just read their posts to each other and then waited for time to elapse.  I would walk around and monitor discussions and when I stopped at a table, they would make extra efforts to engage with each other, then lapse back into more passive tones once I moved on.  Even with guiding questions and other encouragements or scaffolding, it didn’t seem to improve.

Another, seemingly unrelated issue I knew I had with my courses was my habit of doing a “digital day,” which always seemed to happen at the end of the semester.  I use blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, Youtube videos, and so on, throughout the semester.  But I usually reserve a day just to play with technology we haven’t had a chance to talk about.  In the past, these included all kinds of tools, from wordle to tagxedo to photo editors, twitter, and anything else I had bookmarked.  I basically just threw it all at the students in a big link farm, did quick demos, then told them to play. This worked reasonably well – it was always fun because the tools are fun and play is fun.  Students would email me their creations and I would show them up front on the screen.  But I always felt pretty unsatisfied by this kitchen-sink add-on look-how-cool-this-is approach to technology. I wasn’t modeling the effective use of technology to enhance learning.

It was late last spring when I realized that these two problems might be put together into something new.  So, this fall, when students discuss the readings in small groups, they also have to produce a piece of writing / digital composition to show what they have learned from and with each other. They have about 35-45 minutes to create their collaborative pieces. Once they complete it, they email the pieces to me and we view them on the front screen, talking about what they learned and some of the commonalities and contrasts in the pieces they made.

Here are some examples.

The first time we did this, students were getting a handle on writing workshop, working on their “big ideas” of what a workshop might look like from introductory chapters in a book.  They had to transform their group’s ideas into a concrete poem.  I used Paul Janecszko’s A Poke in the I as a mentor text.  Here are a few of their poems:

Obviously, these first compositions weren’t digital, but they are creative pieces of writing that represent the groups’
negotiated understandings.

The next week, students read more about writing workshops and the kinds of activities that take place in workshop classrooms. Small groups used to write a scene (or scenes) from a writing workshop. Here are some examples:

We also talked about comics as good sources for learning about dialogue and “inner dialogue.”

Third, we made piclits to talk about focus lessons in the workshop.  I love the easy drag-and-drop use of this site.

Up until this point, all the texts included visual elements, which is another part of the workshop that is sometimes neglected.

Finally, we talked about conferencing.  I had the students write a recipe for conferencing, encouraging them to use mentor texts off the internet for ideas of the nuances of recipe writing.


Serving: 2, teacher and student


1 Notebook student’s writing

3 heaping spoonfuls genuine interest

2 handfuls of teacher’s writing to reference

Endless possible strategies to suggest

1 teacher’s observation notebook


1. Research by listening to students tell about their writing. Optional: Record observations in


2. Decide which one aspect to focus.

3. Teach by suggesting various strategies to help them as a writer, not just that particular writing.

4. Let students explore and try out suggested strategies.


A teacher
A student
A handful of open-ended questions
A pinch of constructive criticism
A dash of creativity and direction
A pinch of praise

Begin with a student who has started the writing process. Add a teacher who has prepared
a handful of open-ended questions about the writing process. Then, slowly mix in the
constructive criticism. Depending on the consistency of the writing, suggest dashes of
creativity and direction. Let simmer for a couple of days and then top with a pinch of praise.



1 cup quiet space
1 table
2 chairs
1/3 cup teacher talking
2/3 cup student talking
½ lb. student writing samples


Preheat room to 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine quiet space, table, and chairs, mix well. Slowly stir in
teacher talking and student talking, alternating until both are
completely added to mixture without lumps. Work in student
writing samples, ¼ lb. at a time. Pour into an 8 ½” x 11” writer’s
notebook, and bake for 7 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool
for 1 hour.

Servings: 2
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 7 minutes
Cooling Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour, 17 minutes


The examples go on and on.

My thoughts about the difference this has made:

There are several reasons why I am pleased with this change. First, I am learning how to further integrate composition and technology into the classroom, in order to make learning different. Some of these writing experiments were more successful than others, but each provided some insights into the content, into the genres, and into the different ways we can use writing to learn and share what we know.  This, in turn, laid the groundwork for their multigenre projects which started after midterms.

These in-class creations also facilitate conversations about the writing process, plagiarism (and how to avoid it), and can be a means of formative assessment of understanding regarding their emerging ideas about language arts and writing instruction.

The student response to these writing tasks has been overwhelmingly positive.  As an observer, they seem more engaged in their group discussions and have more debates about what is important. The students agree: according to the student evaluations, making something new has mattered to their discussions. Here are a few of the comments they provided on their anonymous evaluations:

  • I enjoy the group activities and find them helpful in generating discussions actually around the topic.
  • I really like the class discussions and group writing. I like how you can pull up what each group said, and I want to use the websites that you gave us in my future teaching.
  • I like to see what other people think about the readings.
  • Creating something meaningful from our small group discussion helps me process the information
  • Really great – they help our discussions at our tables and get us to actually talk about what we read.
  • They are excellent. They keep us focused instead of talking about our weekend. I had no idea I could be so creative til you provided the outlet and we create from here. It’s open ended but not too much that I don’t know where to start.
  • Group writing is awesome – better able to discuss a topic when we create something to go along with it.
  • I enjoy doing discussions in creative ways. It is often more challenging, but its fun and it gives us good ideas to use with future students.
  • I think it is so very beneficial to me as a teacher one day.

I need to keep expanding my repertoire and thinking more about technology for learning.  But overall, I’m pleased with how this has turned out.

Do you encourage your students to write collaboratively?  I’d love to hear your experiences!

Some Good News About Teachers (For a Change)

The past few weeks have been tough on the teaching profession. From Oprah to NBC’s Education Nation to the rollout of Waiting for Superman, talk of American education’s problems pervade popular discourse.  Placed at the root of many of these problems are “bad teachers” (and the unions that protect them).  I am working on a longer response to all of this which will be posted soon. But in the mean time, I felt compelled to share something that happened yesterday.

When I got home from all my regular running around, I picked up the mail, as usual. Unlike my childhood days, when I held out hope for the occasional hand written letter, these days I’ve pretty much given up on much “personal mail” coming in the mailbox. (It seemed a sad milestone this week when, for my birthday, I did not get a single mailed card – a first!)  I was flipping through the bills, periodicals, ads, and Netflix, when something caught my eye.  It was a postcard, hand written! I was sure it couldn’t be for me, but it was – and it wasn’t an ad, someone telling about an event I needed to attend, a political diatribe, or anything else of the sort.  It was something I really wanted to read – a postcard from my 6th grade daughter’s teachers, just telling me that she is doing well, with a few personal details. Could I have been more proud or pleased?  And all it took was a few personal sentences and a stamp.

I take (or am reminded of) several lessons from this small experience:

Kids are more than test scores, and no matter how hard policy tries to convince them otherwise, smart teachers know this. In a data-driven era, when we seem to be always worried about what a student doesn’t know, this postcard was a recognition of the good things my daughter is doing. Teachers can write these about every child in our classrooms! As a parent, it means a great deal to me that the people my daughter spends so much time with know her and see the good in her.

It feels great to hear good news from school. I have had years when most of the communications I have gotten from my children’s teachers were about problems with my child.  This does not bother me, because I want to help and be a partner to the teacher in any way I can. Plus, teachers are very very busy and they can’t contact me every time something positive happens. Still, sometimes the “no news is good news” approach could use a boost from some positive, unexpected comments. Since my daughter’s school only conducts conferences “as needed” this postcard was also a good way to get a quick update and feel connected to her teachers.

Paper and handwriting can get people’s attention. I’m a techie, it’s clear.  Maybe that is why it means so much to me to get a handwritten postcard.  Emails have become “something to manage” in my life.  I might have glazed over this note a bit more if it had come through my inbox instead of my mailbox.

Good news take time to convey, but the investment pays off. As I think about recommending something like writing out-of-the-blue postcards to my own students (future teachers) I will tell them that emails are ok (for parents who have email accounts) but taking a few minutes a day over a few weeks to write personal postcards is a worthwhile investment.  I also think that, when times get hard or pressures get overwhelming, sitting down to write something positive about each of our students can remind us of all the worthwhile things they bring to our classrooms.

Good news is worth sharing. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I take from the postcard. When students are doing good things, it is worth sharing with all kinds of audiences. We can share good work with parents through postcards or phone calls. We can share good work with the community through public displays. We can share good work with administrators through whatever form of communication would reach them best. We can share good work with other teachers through our learning networks, or through professional conferences. Take these opportunities to share and shout about the great things happening in schools.

We have heard so much BAD “news” about schools and teachers lately.  And yes, there are definitely problems regarding education that everyone in our country needs to help with (not just teachers). But lately, any positives happening in schools (especially local public schools, which my children attend) have been getting lost in an increasingly adversarial public dialogue. I fear that the conversation is being hijacked and educators are going to be further and further excluded.

Many have called for the sharing of GOOD news as an antidote to this poison press.  I am going to take a lesson from my daughter’s teachers and sit down to write a postcard to Arne Duncan this week (and a few others) to tell him about the good teachers my children have and the learning my kids are doing. I know that all teachers are not great (myself definitely included), and some will say this post is too sunny, but I wonder…if we can try to change the dialogue and resist the wave of negative and dehumanizing energy in education, might we see fewer great teachers broken?

I hope you will take a few minutes and join me in sharing something good that you see happening in schools. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see Arne’s mailbox filled with postcards?

Lessons from the Backyard: What are you Noticing?

When we bought our house about eight years ago, we moved into a house that was already seven years old. From the bare yards all around, it was obvious the whole neighborhood had been clear cut when it was built, and even when we moved in, not many trees had been replanted.

So, among our first priorities was populating the lawn with some beauty, shade, and interest. Over the years, the trees and bushes have done well. Our apple, fig, and pear trees are incredibly productive. The dogwoods are coming along. Eight years later, the yard is starting to mature.

We have many beautiful plants. This summer, though, the biggest surprise has been the butterfly bush. I’d say it’s about the size of a VW Beetle – bigger, actually. As a plant, it’s not particularly pretty to look at. But over the summer it has become a hangout spot for, at any given moment, 20-30 butterflies of various shades and sizes. Watching the butterfly bush is a mesmerizing delight, full of fluttering fanciful flyers, constantly moving their wings, hovering, and then sailing off again. I could watch the butterfly bush for hours.

Recently, I realized that I’ve started noticing butterflies more and more in other places – on a walk at the park, getting out of the car, even stopped at a traffic light. I tend to “live in my head” a lot of the time, and I usually don’t notice much of nature unless something is brilliant. So, noticing the butterflies in my everyday life has been something of a surprise. It’s as if a switch turned on. Now, when I see a butterfly while going through my daily routines, I’ll notice it, and find myself comparing it to the butterflies who frequent the bush in my yard.

I also find myself wanting to know more about the butterflies who spend the day at our bush – what kind(s) are they? Why do they like the butterfly bush so much? How does the bush nourish them? Most importantly, will the butterflies stay here all year?  I’m reminded of Laurence Pringle’s amazing book An Extraordinary Life, which taught me so much about monarch butterflies when I read it years ago.

Why does all this matter?

Our butterfly bush reminds me of several elements of education, from kids all the way to adult learners (like educators!).

First, it reminds me of the kinds of noticing we do in writing workshop. We encourage writers to notice decisions about craft in writing. We immerse them in amazing examples through libraries and lessons. Then, we hope, they take that noticing eye and carry it with them to other pieces of writing they come across in their everyday lives.  They start noticing the butterflies that may have fluttered past them before.

Second, it reminds me that what we surround ourselves with can affect how we notice the world. For a professional example, if we are reading a lot about e-books, or bilingual education, or (ahem) butterflies, it is only natural that we would start to notice mentions of e-books in the news, stories about bilingual education, and so on, in our everyday lives.  I think we pay attention more, anxious to make connections with what we’ve been learning. This makes me want to be more intentional in what I read, knowing I’ll be on the lookout for those topics in my everyday life. It also makes me wonder how I can find out more about what my students would like to surround themselves with – what can I connect them with that will help them learn and notice?

At the same time, as I start to notice certain things in my everyday life, and work to use this to my benefit, I worry that my focus might narrow a bit too much. To use a personal example, I follow many people on twitter who share my interests and, to a great degree, my point of view about libraries, literacy, technology, and other topics. How do I keep from becoming too closed off and insular? One thing I have tried is, when I see one of my twitter friends arguing with someone I don’t know, I follow the person who thinks and believes differently than my friend (and, usually, me). One worry I have with twitter is that it is easy to build our networks without diverse and dissenting voices.  I try to push back at this consciously, but I’m not sure how successful I am.

For another crude but related example, when we go to the park, my youngest daughter is always trying to catch frogs. She has special places to look for them on the path we often walk. I try not to be too busy looking at butterflies to miss the frog that is hopping a foot to my left. So I have to remind myself to attend to many things, not just butterflies. Having her around and being interested in her interests helps keep my eyes open to different things.

Keeping my eyes open – I guess that is what it all comes down to. It’s amazing how a seed planted years ago can change the way we see today. What seeds are you planting, for yourself, for others? What have you been noticing lately? What would you like to notice more of?

A Selection of Blogs for Reading, Literature, and Writing Teachers

During my first classes of the semester with my preservice teachers, I was upfront: they would not leave my class knowing everything there was to know about literacy education. After their astonishment wore off, I explained that, in my mind, a big part of being a teacher is being an ongoing and insatiable learner. So, I told my students that one of my goals for this semester was to help them develop ways to continue their learning that would last far beyond the semester’s end.

With that in mind, this week I took the plunge and started talking about RSS. All semester I’ve been sharing and using resources that came to me through blogs and twitter, but this week students started developing new spaces and pathways for connecting on their own.

About an hour into my classes, I showed the RSS in Plain English video from Common Craft, then talked through some blogs to start with. Many students were surprised that, as google account holders, they had not known about google reader before. There was some excitement as well as some skepticism, which is to be expected.

The big question for me was, which blogs should I choose?  I follow many literacy-related blogs, but wanted them to start with just a handful. I asked my twitter network for their suggestions a couple of weeks ago, and many in my PLN responded with great ideas. I was also asked to share my lists once they were complete. So, my starter blogs for Language Arts, Kindergarten through 8th grade, are listed below.

Note: This list doesn’t even begin to cover all the great blogs out there.  I chose some blogs that seemed to best reflect the principles of literacy education we’ve discussed this semester. I also included some technology-focused blogs, and blogs by classroom teachers. In class, I talked about how important it is to read blogs that are provocative and even opposed to your own perspective, just to keep you thinking. I need to keep working on this last point.

Writing Workshop by David Stoner

Two Writing Teachers

The Book Whisperer

The English Teacher’s Companion

In For Good

Free Technology for Teachers


Larry Ferlazzo

Grammar Girl

Teri Lesesne – ProfessorNana

The tempered radical

The Reading Zone

A Geekymomma’s Blog

Welcome to NCS-Tech

30 poets 30 days at Gottabook

Raising readers and writers



Miss Rumphius Effect

A year of Reading

We will talk in the next couple of weeks about what learning this way is like, and how it might (or might not) be useful. I’ll share their thoughts soon after.

In the mean time, do you have any other favorites that I missed?

recent tweets from librarybeth

my photos


%d bloggers like this: