Posts Tagged 'teaching'

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!

Playing with Google Search Stories

It’s true, I love to play with new toys and tools on the web.

It just so happens that we spent the week talking about writing with technology in both my classes. So, when I saw the news about Google Search Stories, I had to give it a whirl.

It’s the end of the semester and I’ve been thinking about my students and their next steps.  The Search Story below is inspired by them.

The story took me all of 10 minutes to make and upload.  The search options were interesting. For instance, I knew that I wanted to use the image search for “to bloom,” figuring that it would bring up pictures of cheerful flowers. It was serendipitous to find images of Bloom’s Taxonomy sprinkled in as well, which fit the educational theme.

I feel a tiny twinge of guilt when I realize that this is basically an advertisement for Google, even though it is an ad I can customize to do something creative. But, I balance the guilt by thinking that I also showed the students many tools and sites that aren’t part of Google (at least not yet!)

Here’s the search story post that inspired me to try it, from A Year of Reading.

And here’s a post from TechCrunch that links the original Superbowl ad that started Search Stories as well as some clever parodies.

Take a few minutes to play!

just what the world needs….

another blog! (?)

yes, it’s finally time for me to start my personal blog. I’ve been itching to do it for a while, but haven’t taken the time.

Why is now any different? This semester I’m teaching two courses in Language Arts/Writing to future elementary and middle school teachers. Over my past semesters of teaching and learning, I’ve become an avid reader of blogs and have seen many examples of blogs used by students and teachers to enrich their educational practice. At the same time, I’ve become frustrated with the limitations and structures of course management systems and the like. So, with all that coming together, it was time to blog – for me, and for my students. I try never to give my students an assignment that I wouldn’t find valuable myself, so here I am, blogging along with them.

I’ll be adding to the “about me” page as the semester goes on, but I am guessing, as has been the case with my former students, that you’ll get to know more “about me” through my writing and thinking here than from any kind of thumbnail sketch I’d put together over there. I will keep the “about me” page, in case anyone stopping by needs a quick and dirty idea of what I’m doing here, but I’m guessing the topics will range far and wide. I’m sure I’ll talk about literacy and libraries, about my family and my students, about pieces I’m reading and about how I am developing as a researcher and as a teacher. I almost named this blog “both and” because I tend to refuse it when people ask me to choose either one thing or another. Instead, if someone were to ask me if I am a literacy person or a library person, a teacher or a researcher, I’d say I am all of those, plus a bunch of other things they forgot to mention. I refuse to decide, to boil it down to one thing, to favor one identity over the others. I am a web, a constellation.

I could go on but I’m going to keep it pretty short, as I’ve asked my students to do in their blog posts. I’ll share some of the other guidelines I suggested to them as time goes on, as well as some of the other parts of life that intrigue me. I’m happy to tell you that I am learning as I go.

In closing, I’ll welcome 53 new blogging teachers to the blogosphere this week. (And I count myself among that group as well, so call me #54.) It’s exciting to see so many bright young teachers develop an online presence and share their thinking in a different way. I’m already inspired.  Even with all the blogs in the blogosphere, I think that 54 more blogging teachers just might very well be what the world needs.

recent tweets from librarybeth

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