Revising, Re-seeing

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

In this world of technological advances, we have to rethink how we teach writing; every good writing teacher knows that already. Like I tell my students, I use Grammarly’s grammar check because having bad grammar is like tucking your skirt into your pantyhose; people will notice you, but not in a good way. Relatedly, how do we validate teaching bibliography formats when EasyBib exists? We need to impart the importance of grammar and proper citation, but it’s silly to pretend that we’re still on the equivalent of the abacus when in fact, better “calculators” are readily available.

Writing is one of the most important skills we can teach our students; this I know for sure no matter what space-age tool they end up using to compose and craft their work. As writers, they need to learn how to polish and enrich their language, and they need to learn structure and framework, but most of all, they need to learn how to really see their own work. It’s difficult to develop a critical eye, but it’s even more difficult to learn how to distance yourself enough from your own work to be able to engage that critical eye on it. I tell my students all the time that professional writers all have editors, but then, in the age of blogs and fast-paced e-journalism, I also think it’s crucial for any writer to be his or her own editor as well.

So how do we do this? I do direct instruction on important skills like outlining, quote integration, and how to craft argumentative sentences instead of ones that only summarize. I coach them on how to do effective peer review and ask them to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as writers, which we try to pinpoint in one-on-one conferences along the way. I provide them with model sentences, and after each formal essay, I pull strong examples of sentences and paragraphs from student essays to use as models. I hang grammar jokes and cartoons in my classroom, and we do activities focused on learning the rules of grammar, and we practice vocabulary strategies. I ask them to write personal and opinion pieces as well as formal analytic essays, and they do frequent short informal pieces to get more comfortable with low-stakes written expressive forms. I’m always looking for new resources and I’ve learned so much from other teachers and writers, and when it’s written out like this, I realize just how many different ways we approach the teaching and learning of writing in my classroom. But still somehow, it never seems like enough.

I’ll keep looking for the best tools to share with my students, and keep thinking about the most engaging ways to coach my students through the writing process. I don’t know if any of my students will become professional writers, but I hope mightily that they will become strong women, with confidence in their own voices.

Disclosure: I was compensated by Grammarly for writing this post, but all opinions included are my own.

A Forest of Vocabulary

Vocabulary - Words Are Important

Vocabulary – Words Are Important (Photo credit: Dr Noah Lott)

Like many English teachers, I’ve gone through a whole bouquet of ways to teach vocabulary before settling on what (I think) will be my preferred method. This year, I’m choosing about 25 words from each quarter’s main text, providing those word before the girls start reading the book, and then working with them on finding different ways to not only define, but feel comfortable recognizing and using those words. In the first quarter, they wrote definitions as well as sample sentences, took a fill-in-the-blank quiz, and then expanded their understanding of the words by finding them in the text once we had read the book and then adding in what they discovered from context clues, as well as assigning pictures to each word that might help jog their memories before they were tested on the words again. With this method, we will have studied about a hundred words together in the course of the year, but I hope also to have instilled in them the importance of doing more than just looking up the word on and copying/pasting the definition!

For the second quarter, I’ve provided them a list of words from The Catcher in the Rye and they’ve already done definitions, including parts of speech. We did vocabulary dialogues in small groups in class, where they had to choose five words from the list and write a dialogue showing that they understand the definitions, which they then acted out for the class. Next, we’re going to do a project where each girl will choose just one word from the list and do an in-depth study. They will do a vocabulary tree for their chosen word, and they will also make two short videos, one defining their chosen word, and another defining a related word I’ve chosen from the Word of the Day section on the New York Times‘s education-focused blog, The Learning Network. The Learning Network is running a 15-second vocabulary video contest, which is what inspired me to add a video component to this project, and I will be requiring my students to post all of their videos on the contest page. The contest post is full of helpful links and examples, and I think this will be a fun project for my students, many of whom are fairly adept with video production already. All the vocabulary trees will get displayed in my classroom, so the entire project has a public aspect with authentic audiences. Finally, at the end of the quarter, they will be formally tested on these words.

I’m also considering making a YouTube or TeacherTube channel where I could host all of the videos in one spot, which would be a great study bank for the girls to have for both the test and our midterm. I’m still working on this part, as I’m not sure whether it would be best to have one channel and share that password with the girls, or whether I would be better off having them send their videos to me for me to post them. There’s a learning curve involved here for me too, clearly, so it’s a challenge for me as well as the girls. If you have any suggestions on the best way to facilitate this aspect, I’d love to hear them, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Teaching Beowulf: Gathering Links

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as I did in preparing to teach Persepolis, I’m gathering links to help me with my other new 9th grade unit next year: Beowulf!

Teaching Persepolis: Gathering Links

Cover of "Persepolis: The Story of a Chil...

Cover of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Next year, I’ll be teaching Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood for the first time, so I’ll be spending part of my summer planning out that unit. My first step, as a digital social teacher, is to start pulling together resources that will inspire and guide me. In other words, welcome to my first collection of links for teaching Persepolis!

MOOCs, Redux

After making a strong start with Modern Poetry (nicknamed ModPo) last fall and feeling really enthusiastic, I ended up crashing and burning midway through the semester. However, since it was completely a falling-down on my part and not at all related to the course, I’m giving Coursera another try this summer, as well as enrolling in ModPo again for the fall. This summer I’m signed up for:

Latin American Culture: hoping this will help prepare me better to add more history and culture to my Latin American fiction course next spring

The Fiction of Relationship: not totally sure I will be able to complete this one, as there are several books on the reading list I’ve never read and don’t own! But I’m very curious about the class, and what they will discuss for the books I am familiar with, like Beloved and Ficciones.

This time around, I’m planning on taking more of a cherry-pick approach; I’m definitely aiming to complete the Latin American class, but if I don’t get to every assignment, I’m okay with that. With the fiction class, I’m planning to start off as more of an interested observer, and if I get hooked, then I will do my best to complete what I can. I think this is probably the most realistic approach for me, and I think it will also help ensure that I do feel I’ve gained something for the hours I end up investing in the class.

The next big Coursera development that intrigues me is their entry into professional development courses for K-12 teachers; I’m especially interested in this course on Brain-Targeted Teaching because I’m familiar with some of the professor’s work, and she is the former principal of the elementary school my daughters attended until this year. I also added this course on museum teaching strategies for the classroom to my “watch list,” so that Coursera will alert me when future sessions are scheduled. I have no idea whether MOOCs are a good venue for effective professional development, but I’m fascinated to see how this unfolds.

Tracking Students with E-Textbooks

English: Textbook

English: Textbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hot topic in education today is how technology is going to shape, track and modify student behavior, especially in areas that are typically hard to control. The NYT writes about e-textbooks that will track student engagement in real time for professors to view. However, how we interpret this data is not so clear cut.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

Here are my questions: who among us hasn’t been that student, where everything you needed to know was discussed in lectures, and the reading so thoroughly reviewed that a sharp student didn’t need to do it in the first place? But more importantly, doesn’t this also point to a greater problem with how the course itself is designed? In other words, if that student can pass that class without opening the book, then hasn’t the teacher gone wrong somewhere in designing the course, the content, the lectures, the assignments and/or the choice of book?

Later in the article, everyone involved acknowledges that students will still continue to be inventive:

students could easily game the highlighting or note-taking functions. Or a student might improve his score by leaving his textbook open and doing something else.

Apparently, students taking paper notes are also penalized because the system can’t track them.

Finally, one of the professors seems to engage in some self-reflection toward the end:

“Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more,” Mr. Guardia said. “Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.”

If our students aren’t engaged, aren’t challenged, aren’t paying attention, they certainly own part of that responsibility. But we do too, as it is our job to track and reflect and engage, even without any high-powered software to help us.

Digital Social Teaching

Twitter 6x6

Twitter 6×6 (Photo credit: Steve Woolf)

Teaching in the 21st century, wired into social media and working in a 1:1 laptop school, has fundamentally shaped me as a teacher in ways that make me so grateful to have the job I have, when and where I have it. A related milestone I never made time to blog about this year happened fairly recently: I had a piece published on the ReadWriteThink website! I have used this wonderful resource as inspiration for many lesson plans and projects over the years, and am thrilled to contribute my experience with Making Friends with Holden Caulfield. This is just another chapter in how I try to find creative ways to integrate social media and digital tools and activities into my lessons and work with students.

The most popular entries on my blog, year after year, continue to be the two posts I wrote about another similar project: the original Gatsby Facebook Project post and a post I wrote to update and expand some of the ideas and resources I mentioned. That second post mentions an article I co-authored on Digital Scaffolding, which discussed the Gatsby project as well as a project on explicating sonnets using Voicethread. In years past, I tested out a lesson plan from ReadWriteThink using the language of texting to imagine new scenes and moments in The Catcher in the Rye, and used blogging when teaching Catcher as well as Hamlet. When I was still adjuncting, I taught courses on Facebook culture and the implications. Clearly, this is a thread that runs through my teaching, inspiring me as I look ahead.

But beyond what I’ve implemented in my classroom, I’ve also been so inspired by the resources at my fingertips, sites like EDSITEment from the National Endowment for the Humanities,, The Poetry Foundation, and ReadWriteThink. Whenever I tackle a new text or plan a new course, like my fast-approaching elective on Latin American literature, I make sites like this my first stop for ideas, plans and seeds for exploration. I follow amazing educators like Traci Gardner, Jim Burke and Carol Jago on Twitter, and get updates and links from NCTE and Web English Teacher there too. I check in on group blogs like ProfHacker and love the conversations at the English Companion Ning. Individual blogs like Treasure Chest of Thoughts, What Now? and Confessions from the Couch not only teach me about activities and tools like foldables, but provide camaraderie and company on days when I need a boost or some validation.

Do I read every post or follow every link? Of course not, but it all provides a fruitful atmosphere to get my own brain churning and stimulated. Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking of all the things I could be doing, which is too often followed by guilt over what I’m not doing, but that’s life in the digital age, right? When I try to imagine my life as a teacher any other way, I know it’s worth whatever I have to do to keep a better balance between inspiration and overload when I think about digital social teaching and learning.

On Parent-Child Cellphone Contracts

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Lucy and I went out for a mother-daughter lunch recently, and while we were chatting, she said that many of her classmates were going to ask for smartphones for their 5th grade graduation present. Trying to hide my total surprise, I asked her if she thought she might want that too. “No,” she said, “I really don’t see the point of it for kids my age.” I nodded and agreed, but I know that if my kids had older siblings, or were playing on traveling sports teams, they might well be one of those kids needing to stay in closer touch with us. But then the texting, and the screen time, and restrictions; such a can of worms to open!

Even more recently, I saw a popular post written by a blogger as a letter to her 13 year old son, who got his first iPhone for Christmas. It’s a wonderful and thoughtful approach, and there were a few lines that felt especially valuable to me.

4. Hand the phone to one of your parents promptly at 7:30 p.m. every school night and every weekend night at 9:00 p.m. It will be shut off for the night and turned on again at 7:30 a.m.

I hear my students say that they sleep with their cell phones under their pillows so they feel the vibrations when they get new texts, no matter how asleep they are, and other students say they use the phone as their alarms, so they have to keep it in their rooms overnight. Parents say the kids are constantly attached, interfering with family time and communication, and that they struggle with knowing where to draw the line. We know that kids are using their phones as their Internet sources more and more, but they still need that time to disconnect, to get healthy sleep, and to keep the online world in its proper place and perspective. I would definitely adopt a similar policy with my own kids, after what I’ve heard as a teacher.

8. Do not text, email, or say anything through this device you would not say in person.

9. Do not text, email, or say anything to someone that you would not say out loud with their parents in the room. Censor yourself.

Again, so important! Adolescents are learning so much about themselves and the kind of people and friends they want to be, and they will inevitably make mistakes and not be as kind or empathetic as we would like to think they are. But the shock on a friend’s face when you stumble and say something you shouldn’t can be a powerful corrective that just isn’t possible when you dash off a quick text and send it flying.

18. You will mess up. I will take away your phone. We will sit down and talk about it. We will start over again. You and I, we are always learning. I am on your team. We are in this together.

I think the lesson this mother is trying to teach her son here is one that is important to teach our children in so many arenas, from schoolwork and grades to mastering digital balance and etiquette. It’s all a process, and we are there to guide them, not punish them.

Do your kids have cellphones? How old were they when they got their first one? What rules have you established?

Biblical Allusions Playlist

You all know how much I love Spotify, right? In the year since I wrote that post, my love has only grown, especially now that I have a Premium account and can listen to as much music as I want, ad-free.

One of the many aspects that make the service so enjoyable is the ability to create your own playlists, as well as listen and subscribe to playlists made by thousands of other users. I’ve benefited greatly from the lists others have made, and have tried putting together a few of my own (beyond simply compiling one album). My first triumph was my playlist for the novel High Fidelity, and recently I made a list of songs containing Biblical references, to go along with my Bible as Literature unit:

Some users online agree with me about the teaching possibilities, but the Spotify site is a little unclear about the venues in which it is allowed to be used. Classroom use seems “non-commercial” to me, but it’s a little unclear. Even if I keep the playlist for my own use, it’s a fun mix–enjoy!

Note: I deliberately did not include sacred/gospel music, to allow for more of a range. If you have suggestions for additions, let me know!

Tabletop, Geeks, Games and Me


Tsuro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realized recently that I may have been wrong about myself, and where I fall on the geek spectrum.

See, I don’t feel like I have many of the biggest markers of true geekdom. I have never been a comic book fan, and I’ve never been to a convention. I’ve never played a RPG or LARP, but I know what the initials mean (I think) and I certainly have gamer friends. I’ve never managed to finish the entire LOTR series of books, and even the movies leave me a little cold. I’ve never dismantled a computer (but I know people who have), and my coding knowledge stops at basic HTML. I find video games fairly boring.

But–I did read the entire Shannara series, by Terry Brooks, in fifth and sixth grades, not to mention the Harry Potter series as an adult. I did play on my high school quiz team, my high school sweetheart was a Mathlete, and I did score a perfect score on my (verbal) SAT. I did teach myself HTML back in 1998 to put up my first webpage, and I remember the sheer thrill of figuring out how to make images become links. I’ve been blogging for about nine years, and I remember playing video games that were all text (“You go into a room. In the room, you find an Orc”). I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones and have read the first four books of the Song of Fire and Ice series.

My husband is a little easier to peg, I think. He played Dungeons and Dragons in his youth, treasures his battered copies of the Dragonlance novels, and can tell you more than you want to know about X-Men and the Avengers (before the movies came out, of course). He can also tell you lots about techno music and the impending zombie apocalypse, introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and enjoys Chemistry Cat a little too much. As a result, my girls already have opinions about their favorite superheroes and are waiting to be old enough to love Buffy.

So Are we geeks, or are we nerds? Does even posing the question also provide the answer?

I don’t remember the first time I read Wil Wheaton’s blog, but it’s been a regular read for me for at least the past year, and slowly but surely, I’ve become intrigued with gaming. Wil’s new webseries Tabletop got me hooked; I’ve seen every episode, but the real kicker came when my girls caught me watching an episode and wanted to see what was making me laugh. It was the Ticket to Ride episode, and they were instantly hooked! They have seen every episode now, and their favorite is the episode featuring casual games. So for their birthday, I bought Tsuro, and we have really enjoyed playing it! Lucy even likes to say, “Stop getting up in my dragon grill,” because one of the Tabletop guys said while they were playing. I think sometime this summer, we will end up owning both Zombie Dice and Get Bit, and then we’ll decide on a bigger game to purchase that we’ve seen on Tabletop, probably Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, once we feel ready.

Are we raising geeky/nerdy children? I can only hope so, as one of the great accomplishments of my adulthood has been embracing the idea of being a geek or a nerd: a highly intelligent and passionate person who dives deep in each enthusiasm and is inherently curious and engaged in the world, someone who wants to share those passions with anyone who might be interested, and someone who always has a new fact or opinion to bring to every conversation. What’s not to like about that?