Friday, October 30, 2015

When the Child Talks, We Learn

Who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) my classroom?

Many images of conferring show teachers sitting in chairs or kneeling alongside of students. The teacher asks the questions and the student does the talking.

In theory, conferring belongs to both the student and the teacher. The student learns by talking. Donald Graves writes, "Children don't know what they know. Most learners don't. When we speak, or when someone else elicits information from us, it is as informative to the speaker as it is to the listener." If we agree with Graves, how do we ensure that the experience, results, and impact of the conference remains with the teacher and the student beyond that single moment?

Writing as the teacher, I realize record keeping matters. Yet, it can be challenging. I have tried many variations of coding and shorthand. In the process of conferring and recording by hand, I find myself distracted and not fully absorbing what the student says. Additionally, my ability to engage the art of conversation--listening and asking questions to nudge the speaker further into his/her thoughts--suffers. In the end, my hand-scrawled notes serve as nice evidence of conferring, but they did not necessarily help me help the student.

I'm struck by something specific that Donald Murray wrote, "I must listen and the students must do the talking."

If Murray meant listen and write he would have written listen and write. But he did not. He wrote listen. Yet, I have often felt obligated to scribble hieroglyphics onto yellow legal pads while students poured out their thoughts, struggles, triumphs, and discoveries. I wonder what opportunities for growth we may have missed...

Over twenty years ago Graves suggested, "Keep tape-recorded samples of your conferences with children who do well and children who struggle." I wonder, if Graves were alive today, if he might amend his advice to record every conference on a personal device. 

I have read that students should write four times more than a teacher could possibly read or respond to--could the same be true of conferring? Should students be conferring 4x more than a teacher could ever participate in?

I imagine this depends on who we feel the conferring belongs to.

Currently, I use the app Voice Record Pro because it works on my iPhone, but more importantly I use it because I am able to easily store and manage conferences in a variety of places. These options include sending it by email or SMS, saving conferences to Google Drive, Drop Box, OneDrive, Box Cloud, or Sound Cloud. Also, I can send the recorded conferences to a personal website or even Facebook. However, I immediately upload the conferences to a private/unlisted YouTube channel.

By keeping records in this manner, I am able to place my device down on the desk and truly engage my listening in the moment with the student. I am also able to go back and listen to conferences and I am able to share conferences with the students, parents, administration, or guidance counselors if need be.

I can even share one with you here.

However, I am back to my original question--who has (or does) conferring belong(ed) to in my classroom?

Do I still wield more ownership than there needs to be--even if the student is doing the bulk of the talking? Have some of the conditions of conferring improved for both the teacher and the student since Graves wrote his advice decades ago?

One way I am going to examine and reflect on these questions is by inviting my students to record their own conferences with their writing partners. My classroom is a BYOD classroom and most students bring in a personal device. For those who do not, I have a classroom set of iPads and Chromebooks.

My students sit with self-selected writing partners. We write 4 out of the 5 days in class, and the writing partners discuss and share throughout the entire process when they feel they need it.

I am wondering how Graves and Murray would feel about the possibility of students recording their own student-to-student conferring sessions and then uploading selected conferences (student choice) to a classroom YouTube channel or a shared classroom folder in Google Drive or DropBox.

I imagine we may be crossing into a new and relatively unexplored territory of ownership and access. Imagine building a library of student-to-student and teacher-to-student conferences where all students had the ability to listen and learn from each other--beyond their writing partners, beyond the one-on-one with me, and beyond the confinement of time and space in school.

My current classroom research with Dr. Jolene Borgese has led me to experiment with the creation of just such a library.

After all, some students already set up shared documents--on their own--or email stories to friends for feedback. The more I set my yellow legal pads down, and the more I simply listen, I hear the students tell me that they want feedback...they want conversation...they want to share...and they want it with their peers. They want to own the conferring process because it is deeper with a friend than with a teacher.

Since deeper might just mean more meaningful, why wouldn't I create the space and conditions for those deeper, more meaningful, connections and discoveries?

I have been recording conferences (such as this one with two writing partners) where students share just how much--how deeply and specifically--they discuss writing without me. This is powerful and instructive for me to hear.

In their own way, students have been telling me, who the conferring should belong to in this classroom.

I am wondering if my students are speaking to you as well?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Blank Space

In my interactions with teaching candidates still in college or who recently exited college, I am surprised that many do not use Twitter for professional growth.

For example, I have spoken as a guest in two college classrooms over the past year and have extolled the virtues of developing a professional network--especially on Twitter.

In each case, I passed around a legal tablet with my name, email, and Twitter handle and asked the education students to fill in the same spaces. When the pad has been returned to me, each time, the blank space is loud and clear and confusing--no Twitter handles. It is amazing to see all of that blank space in the Twitter column.

This brings up questions, not criticism.

Are college education programs showing students how to develop a personal network? Just in my narrow band of experience, this powerful tool is passing by largely unexplored. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe my experience is too limited. Maybe these education candidates are just not interested in sharing their Twitter handle with me.

I emailed my surprise to a colleague and researcher--someone I have collaborated with as a writer for professional journals--and his response leads to even more questions:

"I know what you mean, Brian. In the feedback I received on the article that was published in English Education this summer, one reviewer asked if prospective teachers really need support using blogs, microblogs, and social network sites in ways that advance their professional practice. That reviewer seemed to assume that because prospective teachers use social media in their personal lives they must be savvy enough to leverage them for professional purposes. However, what you've described--and what I've seen in my work with prospective teachers--indicates otherwise." 

When I started teaching in the early 90s, my professional network was limited to individuals who worked within the brick and mortar of one building. Quite honestly, my network was even more limited than that--I wish I knew and learned from everyone from my building. We still only really get to know teachers who have common lunches or planning periods.

Today, all teachers have an unprecedented opportunity to learn and connect beyond the brick and mortar of their buidings.

Yet, I find myself wondering when I will meet the college students, young teaching candidates, who can speak about professional conferences they followed on Twitter (#ISTE15, or #pctela15, or #ksra15, or last year's #ncte14, or the upcoming #ncte15)...or something interesting they saw Tweeted by Carol Jago, Penny Kittle, Tricia Ebarvia, Gaetan Pappalardo, Barry Lane, Thomas Newkirk, Donalyn Miller, Jeff Anderson, Meenoo Rami, Lynn Dorfman, any and all writing projects, Eric Sheninger, Kathleen Sokolowski, Linda Rief, Bonnie Kaplan, Kathy Schrock, Christopher Lehman, Kristin Ziemke, Amanda Hedrick, Mark Overmeyer, Shawna Coppola, Jennifer Hogan, Nancie Atwell, Nicole Lemme, Gary Anderson, Jennifer Ward, Katie Wood Ray, Sir Ken Robinson, Christina Cantrill, Lee Ann Spillane, Stacey Shubitz, Ruth Ayres, Cindy Minnich, Sarah Andersen, Rose Cappelli, Luke Hokama, Ernest Morrell, Kylene Beers, Ralph Fletcher, Alfie Kohn, Jeremy Hyler, Kevin Hodgson, Diane Ravitch, Kelly Gallagher, Wesley Fryer, Paul Oh, Troy Hicks, Judy Jester, Jim Burke...

Did I make my point?

We all have access to one of the most positive, inclusive, and effective faculty rooms--and it remains, I gather, one of the best kept secrets in education. This kind of access did not exist when I started teaching in the early 90s.

The doors of access to one another have been completely reimagined and reshaped...and I wonder how many of us (cagey, wiley, old veterans included) are still not connected?

This is not a generation gap. This has nothing to do with age or not understanding Twitter because I find as many 50 year old educators not using Twitter as I find 20 year old educators not using Twitter. This is about want to.

If you want the access to conversations with some of the most positive, influential, and pioneering mentors in education then you will find your way to Twitter.

All of which brings me back to my original question--why am I not running into college education students on Twitter? Follow me! Follow Penny Kittle! Talk to us. Reach out. We love education. We love teaching. We love learning from one another. And if you are in school studying to be an educator then you are like me...I am still in school studying to be an educator.

THAT journey never ends.

And the access to that highway is free and open.

And you are welcome to join us.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Remaking a Teacher Through Picture Books

Children's picture books fascinate me in their role as doorways or portals. Often regarded as a bridge to lead children to a love of reading, children's picture books have launched me into being a better reader, writer, and teacher.

I have learned that some teachers use picture books to introduce the moves a writer makes--this has been an effectve shift in my planning and teaching. For instance, I could teach almost any lesson or mini-lesson on writing with a collection of picture books: 

  • Examine the similarities and differences in the leads and conclusions
  • What transitions are used; in what way are they used?
  • Follow the punctuation--which punctuation contributes to story?
  • How do the images complement or deepen the impact of the words?
  • Any grammar concept can be isolated, explored, and imitated.

Additionally, I am some finding children's picture books as launching points for my own reading life. I had never read anything by Jane Goodall--or anything substantive about her. I'd only known of her through fragments of life. Yet, after reading The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter, I am motivated to pick up one of Goodall's books.

I found the The Watcher while curating a pile of twenty-five picture books for a classroom unit on memoir. This is how I make good use of my library card. By the way, my local library has been very accommodating by allowing my to check out vast piles of picture books for extended periods of time.

Working my way through my library book pile, two struck me because of their potential for not only my reading life but also my writing life: How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz (Poland), and The Wall, by Peter Sis (Czechoslovakia).

How I Learned Geography frames a life around one significant experience. When author Uri Shulevitz was a child, his family struggled after the Warsaw blitz in 1939 and fled to Turkestan (Kazakhstan). One day, Shulevitz's father spends what little money he has on a map of the world instead of a few crusts of bread for his hungry wife and son. Having read this book, I now want to read more from this culture and certainly about this time period.

The Wall just blew me away in its combined simplicity and complexity. SO much is going on.

The basic story reads simply across the bottom of the page. Yet, it is so interesting to look at the physical page. Ninety percent of each page is filled with imagery filled with history, tension, conflict, and hope.

It challenges my brain. When I first began the book, my eyes were confused. I found myself hunting for the text. My eyes flitted all around the page trying to make sense of it all.

When I figured out the structure, I found myself spending more time on each page--and reading and re-reading the imagery more than the single lines of text at the bottom of the page.

Actually, the line of text functions as a story within a story.

It makes me wonder what might come out of my own writing should I try something similar about the neighborhood I was raised in...or about my experience as a student in school...or my experience as a teacher. 

Irrespective of where this carries me specifically, the point is children's picture books are leading me across a bridge to being a better reader, writer, and model for my students.