Thursday, December 21, 2006

Some Job Networking

I doubt the few of you that read this will be able to do much, but I firmly believe that half of finding work is through networking.

I'm doing some tutoring in Fort Collins, if anyone out there is interested or knows someone who is interested.

In other news, I've just applied for a job at Lincoln Junior High School teaching (I think) remedial reading (my dream job at my dream school). Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Whales Use Grammar

While this may not have a whole lot to do with teaching, I thought it was too cool. I've been convinced for a while that whales are way smarter than we realize.
To the casual human listener, the love song of a humpback whale sounds magnificently free-flowing and improvised.

But fresh mathematical analysis of the song shows there are complex grammatical rules. Using syntax, the whales combine sounds into phrases, which they further weave into hours-long melodies packed with information.

Full story

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Time: How to Bring Our Schools Into the 20th Century

The swinging pendulum has manifested itself in the Time cover story this week:
American schools aren't exactly frozen in time, but considering the pace of change in other areas of life, our public schools tend to feel like throwbacks. Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand, reading from textbooks that are out of date by the time they are printed. A yawning chasm (with an emphasis on yawning) separates the world inside the schoolhouse from the world outside.
No wonder student would rather text message on their cell phones than listen to us.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Thinking and Rethinking

I've been rethinking a lot recently about the thinking I did over the summer about my semester of student teaching last spring. I'm really beginning to see this fall semester when I had to go back and retake one class for my degree as a blessing in disguise. I've been able to take some more time to assess my teaching before getting in my own classroom.

I've thought and rethought so much about my teaching that I can see where I've gone wrong and so many things that I'll never let happen again - like teaching without thinking. I never really looked back to assess my own teaching during my student teaching. My excuse was I was too tired. But how hard would it have been to type up a few paragraphs on the blog after school each day. It might not have been deep reflection, but I could have reached that reflection later, after going back and looking at my initial reactions.

And thanks to Google Reader (man, technology is just so cool! I just never got into any of the other readers, but with this as my homepage, I'm reading like crazy) I've been reading a lot more of other blogs than I was before - get ready to watch the aggregator grow. Here's a post from Donna that got me thinking about my rethinking my thinking.

What's the Motivation Behind Writing Workshop?

I sure hope this happens to other people besides me: when you think of something after a lesson that you should have thought of before - only in this paticular case, replace lesson with unit.

Maybe someone out in the blogosphere will have an answer to this question. I was pondering my student teaching this morning, as I do from time to time when my mind drifts, and about writing workshop. What is the motivation for a student to put together a portfolio in an average English class? Theoretically, if one comes up with some really good writing prompts, students will want to write. But what if you have a student or students who just really hate writing. It would seem they should have to learn to write at a functional level, but why should they be happy about writing poetry or short stories or anything other than the essay they might have to write in college, depending on their major, and the reports they might have to write depending on their job. Usually, we can convince students that writing has some factor of coolness associated with it, but what if we can't?

So then one thinks they're being a really cool teacher encouraging students to write poetry and stories and multigenre projects in addition to the essays required by standards. But then students end up disgruntled for making them write so much.

The limited stuff I've read on writing workshops comes from three books: In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Room 109 by Richard Kent, and A Community of Writiers by Steven Zimmerman and Harvey Daniels. Atwell works at a private school for highly motivated, gifted students. Kent teaches an elective writing course. Zimmerman and Daniels encourage workshops as well, and for all I know are pretty well rounded teachers.

So maybe writing workshop shouldn't happen in required English courses. It seems like the students who would benefit from it would lose out, but what do you do with the students who hate to write if you can't get them to love or like or endure writing? Fail them?

In my naivity I think I'm missing something? Can someone help? Maybe this never happens, maybe all students find motivation to write if they're asked the right questions - I don't know.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Correcting Writing Errors

I read an interesting post today by Dana concerning marking errors in student papers:
Exactly which method of writing instruction works best?
  • Explicitly marking each error in a student’s paper.
  • Marking a line, indicating an error, but leaving it for the student to identify what the error is.

Which method do you use? Which method do you think would help students learn errors and how to correct them?

I've posted on this subject very briefly before, although in a different context. In a class I took a year ago (Teaching Reading was the title), we read Breaking the Rules by Edgar Schuster. One of the book's premises (if I remember right, I can't find it on the bookshelf) was that students don't need to know the rules of grammar before they write. They can learn them along the way with minilessions and by trial and error.

Nina's comment to Dana's post was pretty much along the same lines of Schuster's and my thinking:
I would generally put a check to the right of a line and write down the section of Hacker that addressed the error. They were required to look up the info for a homework grade and correct the errors. Usually I tried to focus primarily on those aspects we’d covered in class. If a particular type of error occurred more than once, I’d make a note of it in my comments at the end of the paper.
The only thing I would add (and this isn't really adding, but elaborating, I guess; I just like listening to myself talk) is that errors in grammar and capitalization or any other aspect of "Standardized American English" can be a progressive thing throughout the year. Start with minilessons at the beginning of the year and in the first paper, only mark those errors that were taught in class. Before the next paper, do another minilesson or two and then add those to the list one marks in papers.

And while I'm thinking about it, here's another interesting tidbit I learned from Marty Marsh at Lesher Junior High, though I don't know the original source. If you use a pen when you correct papers, a study found students feel worse when the marks are made in red than in another color. Woah, Twilight Zoney . . .

Monday, December 4, 2006

This I Believe

Anne, a teacher working with Karl Fisch, is having her students podcast "This I Believe" essays. What a cool idea.

I wonder how many of her students are familiar with the NPR series, and if there's something similar in the younger culture that one could also do this with. Doesn't MTV or VH1 have some sort of poetry jam thing?

Saturday, December 2, 2006


I'm not convinced this has practical applications, but I'm going to try it out after my post on vocabulary instruction. Wordie describes itself as "like Flickr, but without the photos." It seems like students could create a network of words this way, but they'd have to go about it right . . . maybe the most useful thing is the ability to discuss words and leave comments. It might be cool for word awareness, if nothing else.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Rethinking Vocabulary Instruction

So, I just turned in the last research paper of my undergraduate career (I hope). I'm one of those sick people who like writing papers about things. This particular paper was for linguistics and was about vocabulary instruction.

I don't know what it is about me and teaching vocabulary, but I'm really psyched about it. I think part of it may have been that I was forced to copy definitions from dictionaries, and now that I know there are better ways to do it, I'm so ready to stick it to the man! Not that there's anything wrong with dictionaries - they're a great tool for the right jobs, but learning vocabulary isn't one of them.

At least, that's what I argue, and what the limited research I've read says. The studies I looked at basically tested three different types of vocabulary instruction:

1. Definition-based instruction. Usually consists of a list of words that students look up and write down the definitions to on Monday. For homework they study them. On Friday, they take a test.

2. Using context as a clue. Students read sentences and paragraphs that contain a target word and infer the meaning from what they can figure out from the surrounding material.

3. Semantic mapping methods. New words are linked with simpler words already in a student's mental lexicon. Psycholinguistic find that words are connected in a giant mental web in four ways - groups of words on the same level (like salt, pepper, mustard, antonyms fall in this category as well); words that often go together (like salt and water, butterfly and net); words that are part of a group signified by another word (like salt and spices, or robin and bird); and finally synonyms (like hungry and starving). These four have big complicated titles, but who really wants to know those, anyway?

So basically, the research shows that definition-based instruction doesn't work well in the short run, and there's definitely little to none retention. Context works when students are really, really great readers, what Kylene Beers called "independent readers." Otherwise, it's not so hot. But semantic mapping methods seem to work really well.

Now, I would argue, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't teach students how to use dictionaries and how to figure out unknown words from context clues. That is what will bring them independence after all, and context is how students pick up on the 2,000 to 3,000 words they learn each year.

But, I would suggest, that when we do teach vocabulary, we should teach either subject specific vocabulary, or we should be focusing on one book that has particularly hard vocabulary, and not just words we think students might use someday. And when we teach it, we should link it in some way to words they're already familiar with. Then the words will get assimilated into the mental lexicon, and students will actually, possibly, start to use them in their speaking and writing.

Here comes the twister - are you ready (if you read this far into this post, I'm really impressed. Everyone else fell asleep.) Students who choose their own vocabulary words from their reading (keeping some sort of reading journal or "new words" chart) also learn vocabulary better. It's the old "invested in learning" trickero. So if we had students who used word charts AND used semantic mapping, imagine the possibilities!

So now I need to integrate this into what I did in my student teaching last semester. I did have students use a vocabulary chart where they picked up new words each week. Then I ruined everything by having them put it into a wiki that was organized by letter. What was I thinking? I wasn't. I know, it's heartbreaking. Silly Ben.

And I was thinking today, maybe it could be organized like a web, so that it would be a collective mental lexicon of the classes. That sounds cool, but I don't know what purpose it would fulfill. I mean, maybe if the students could start linking all these different words together, it would be like a semantic mapping method, but it also might just be a model of semantic mapping, and students might not get anything from it.

But, my hunches tell me there's some way to use a wiki along with this. I'm going to do some thinking about this, and if any of you have some ideas, please leave a comment.

How Does This Work?

Here's a post by Camdaram that made me think of Cindy's post yesterday. I would argue that Cam's activity "worked." How do we define things that "work" in the classroom?