LoC STI Day 1

Day 1 of the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute has wrapped up. A few quick reflections…


I’ve got a few pages left in John Dewey’s Experience and Education. In it, he says, “teachers need to plan intelligently, considering the capacities, needs, and past experiences” of their students. Design of learning is so important in both the classroom and professional development. Even in the first day of the STI, I’ve been impressed by the design of the sessions. A small, but important, example…

We began the day by choosing from a series of primary source documents. We wrote on a post-it why we chose the particular document and what connection we felt to it. We then grouped up with others with related documents and drafted a newspaper headline that could encompass all our primary source documents. Then as a group we introduced ourselves, shared our headline, and the connection we made to our document. Starting like this gave participants a means for sharing and self-disclosure but set that sharing within the frame of a collaborative exercise. I despise pointless ice breakers, but an activity like this accomplished what icebreakers attempt to do, minus the needless embarrassment factor.

In the afternoon, we toured the Library’s Civil War in America exhibit. Much of the information wasn’t new to me, but there were two highlights. The first was the content of Lincoln’s pockets from the night he was assassinated. I love that he’d fixed his broken glasses with a tiny string. That kind of detail makes you feel a connection to a historical figure who feels kind of mythical in US history.


The second was an alphabet book produced in the South to teach students, not only their ABCs, but as a way of inculcating a particular set of values from an early age. I think it might be a fun model/mentor text for student projects.


One of the things that I’m hoping to think about while I’m at the LoC STI is the interplay of primary and secondary sources in the classroom. I wrote a bit about that here. Some of the questions I’m pondering…

Should primary sources be “primary” in the classroom? Are there dangers in relying too heavily on primary sources? How do we teach about bias and reliability in primary sources? In what way do primary and secondary sources interact? How can they best be used in tandem in the classroom?

Gorgeous floor of the Great Hall after the Library was closed to the public for the evening

Gorgeous floor of the Great Hall after the Library was closed to the public for the evening

Don’t Let the Fire Die

A steady feature of my middle and early high school experience was the weekend long Baptist church youth retreat. The weekends were equal parts fun and serious and often included roasted marshmallows and few hours of sleep. The last night would inevitably include teary renditions of songs like the one that lends its title to post. We were whipped (and whipped ourselves) into great fervor, determined to return to our schools and friends new people, on fire for Jesus.

Inevitably, though, reentry would be difficult. We might keep up our commitment for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, but then we’d start slipping. Sleep seemed preferable to prayer or a daily devotional, and the latest MTV video seemed easier conversation fodder than the Lord.

It was easy to slip into a kind of junkie retreat cycle, always living for the next praise music, sleep deprived, junk food fueled emotional retreat high.  At some point I decided the high wasn’t worth the hangover, so I checked out.

Dancing Flame #4

Those retreats came to mind in reflecting back over the past year or so of attending professional conferences. It seems dangerously easy to slip back into that same kind of mountaintop experience mindset. It’s tempting to get jazzed up by the amazing work those whom you’ve met have done, so you commit to come back and change your whole teaching practice, to be more disciplined. But then it’s Sunday night before you have to head back to school on Monday and the exuberance of the conference collides head on with the reality that you have three preps for tomorrow.

In a recent post, Bud referred to his hope that conferences might be “waypoints, times to recharge and retool before heading out into the work again.” I like that metaphor because I think it reflects the idea that conferences can be a time of rest and connection and a time to hone skills and reflect on our work.

Because the other danger is not to get excited at all, to cynically view the work and ideas presented at the conference as something that’s great for other teachers. Teachers with more resources or different administrators or more eager students or less need for sleep.


A postscript

One of the things that makes conferences now different from retreats back then is the relative ease of staying connected once the time together is over. In my mind, that’s still not a total substitute for face to face conversation and shared experience, but it does make staying encouraged and connected easier.

For what it’s worth, I found my way back to the Church, although in a form that looks different than the one of my youth.

A PD Week in Review

I recently read a blog post about the difficulty of fitting professional development into the school year. Despite a schedule that allows some time during the year for professional development, the post said most PD occurs during the evenings or weekends at home.

I began wondering how much time I spent doing PD outside of school hours, so I decided to chart it for a week.

A few disclaimers:

1. I counted PD that occurred while I was also engaged in other activities- driving while listening to Tribes, folding laundry while watching Sir Ken- so long as I felt I was sufficiently focused to be gleaning benefit.

2. I spend a lot of time checking Twitter but it’s sporadic and difficult to disaggregate PD use from personal use. I’ve erred on the side of underestimating my Twitter use. I’m sure I’ve missed other small interactions, too.

3. I stink at math, especially in a non-base 10 system, so my addition could be off.

4. I did not include anything directly related to planning or grading for my classes, although I’m sure they contribute to my development as a professional, too.

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Read, responded to, and forwarded Bill Ferriter’s post 30min
Revisited post and retweeted links related to it 30min
Read Kevin’s glogster book review and offered suggestions via Twitter 20min
Read Donalyn’s post 15min
Discussed inquiry-based learning w/ friend at lunch 15min
Downloaded audio book and discussed via Twitter 15min

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 30min
Watched Chris Lehmann’s NYSCATE keynote, tweeting quotes 1hr
Browsed at Shmoop and Pictory 30min
Read ECNing and responded to question 15min
Followed twitter conversations, esp related to storytelling resources 30min

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Watched TED talk on danger of single story 20min
Wrote post based on TED talk. Posted to ECNing and reflection blog 1hr 15min
Listened to Sir Ken Robinson’s Hammer lectures 1hr15min
Responded to online colleague’s question re:websites for 5th/6th graders 15min
Listened Seth Godin’s book Tribes 50min
Tweeted re: various ed issues/questions 15min

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Listened to Sir Ken at NYSCATE 45min (significant overlap w/Hammer lectures but better than Hammer)
Read and responded to smeech’s post 45min
Tweeted re: various ed issues/questions 45min
Listened Seth Godin’s book Tribes 50min
Read and responded to Russ’s post 15min
Read EC Ning posts 15min

Cruising New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Responded to queries, shared student work on Twitter 30min
Listened Seth Godin’s book Tribes 50min
Watched TED talk 15min
Read about children’s v. Young Adult literature 30min
Played around with Twideducate 30min
Watched Justice at Harvard U 60min

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Listened Seth Godin’s book Tribes 1hr 10min
Responded to reporter ECNing query 15min
Played with Spaaze and Twiddla 30min

Cruised New York Times/other newspapers 15min
Researched options for EC Ning twitter feed embed and created screencast with ideas 1hr
Responded to tweets and shared links 30min
Discussed Web 2.0 w/colleague and shared student work 1hr
Read EC Ning posts 15min
Conversation with instructional tech director

Total for the week 21hr 50min

Reflections: My first thought was- Wowsers! I could totally forget this PD stuff and get a second job 🙂 But the truth is that I’d probably be doing this kind of thing anyway because I care about it and I’m convinced it makes me a better teacher than I would be otherwise. The things in the list above were food for me, and I either saw their influence in the classroom last week or expect to see it in the future. That said I am spending some time this Winter Break thinking about the way I allocate my time, since the past semester has felt unbalanced and I don’t know that this amount of outside work is sustainable.

So much of the PD I do happens online. I still read and listen to books, but I really appreciate the ability that Twitter, my blog, and the EC Ning offer to have ongoing conversations with other educators. I sometimes have conversations with school colleagues but our days seem so consumed by meetings, planning, administrative duties, and teaching.

What kind of PD do you find most useful? When does it occur?

RATS in the Classroom

Teaching writing is one of my consistent struggles. Writing instruction in many ways feels like some strange mystical land into which I’ve not been granted entry.  For a long time, I just whined about it. But since returning from NCTE, I’ve been reading Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher and Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle and trying to implement some of their strategies. 

Students have been rewriting African folktales in a variety of ways and their drafts are due tomorrow. I decided to try a strategy for revision Kelly describes in his book. He describes the STAR (Substitute, Take things out, Add, and Rearrange) acronym Richard Cornwelll devised. As I wrote the letters on the board at the beginning of class, one of the students suggested it could be RATS. That led to a minute of word scramble (ARTS, SRAT, TARS), but students decided RATS was the way to go. (I really hate rats but anything to get kids on board.) Students brainstormed a list of the kinds of actions they might take for each category.

One class was struggling with the difference between revision and editing and kept suggesting adding commas or substituting commas with periods. While I emphasized these were good mistakes to correct, I told them we were focusing on improving writing, not just fixing grammatical mistakes. I shared that I had sent a piece of writing to a friend (Jim Burke) last night. He responded with an entire page of suggestions, none of which had anything to do with my grammar or spelling. They were floored. At first they thought I didn’t have any grammatical mistakes or maybe my friend wasn’t really a teacher 🙂 I assured them I’d made mistakes and showed them the back of my Teacher’s Daybook to prove that he was a teacher. I told them my friend was more interested at this point in helping me use words to better express myself than making sure the punctuation was exactly right.

The exchange brought home for me how much some teachers (including myself more than I’d like to admit) focus on fixing the grammatical mistakes when teaching writing. On the occasions when I’ve done this in the past, it’s been primarily for two reasons- 1) It’s quicker to correct the easy mistakes and 2) I didn’t feel like I had the tools to help students who were struggling do anything past fixing the easy mistakes.

After we’d made the list of possible revising actions, students split into groups to revise news stories written for the same unit by last year’s class. (Always fun to critique the older kids’ work.) As I walked around the room I heard things like- “We should replace _______ with _________ because it is more specific.” or “I think this part will make more sense if we rearrange these three sentences.” After they finished their edits, we reconvened to discuss which action had been most helpful for revising each article. Students noted that different actions had worked better depending on the article.

At the end of the class, I sent this tweet.

Thank you, Penny, Kelly, and Jim! Today’s class was made possible by you.

Looking Back: NCTE 2009

I had an incredible three and a half days at the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Philadelphia last week. I wrote a kid-friendly summary of the experience on my class blog, but before too much time passed, I wanted to get down a quick list of things I might change next time around and things I wouldn’t.

Things I’d Do Differently

Worry Less
I was both attending and presenting for the first time at this year’s convention. About 10pm on the night before my presentation I went into full-court panic. That fear was a double-edged sword. Because of it, I went in search of poetry on my iPhone and stumbled upon a site containing Seamus Heaney’s poetry read by the author. I tweeted one out, which resulted in this exchange on the EC Ning. The fear also pushed me to tighten up my presentation and make sure I could do it with out notes, but it meant little sleep that night.

Sleep More
So this is only partly true. I got in late on Thursday night due to traveling snafus. I could have headed straight to bed, but instead went to have a quick drink with some folks from the EC Ning. It was one of the highlights of the convention for me, especially after such an awful day of travel. But I certainly could have gone to bed much earlier on Friday, see above.

Plan, But Be Flexible
For those of you who haven’t been to NCTE, the program guide is huge. For any given session slot, there were up to 50 presentation options. I’d spent a little time looking at these online but not enough. I wish I’d thought about my time at NCTE a bit more holistically instead of only thinking ahead to the next session.

Take More Pictures
Seriously! How did I end up with so few pictures?!


Things I Wouldn’t Change

Bring a Thermos
I calculated that I saved at least 15 cups + sleeves by bringing my own insulated mug. (I drink a lot of tea, ok? 🙂 )

Ask for Recommendations
In the absence of good planning on my part, I found it really useful to canvass other folks, especially those who are long-time attendees of NCTE. Their recommendations led me in good directions.

Focus on the Relationships
If you looked at my attendance record for the sessions at this year’s convention, it would be a bit sad. There were at least two or three times where I made a conscious decision not to attend a session in order to have a meal or continue a conversation. As a younger teacher, I feel how much need I have for information, for honing my craft. But I believe that it will be these relationships, rather than pedagogical theory, that will sustain me.

Go for the Speaker, Not Just the Information
There is a glut of information at NCTE. It’s like candyland for teachers. I found, though, that the sessions that impacted me most deeply were those presented either by people I knew or by those who were good speakers. Given the limited resource that is time at the convention, it seemed the best stewardship to seek out people who are able to convey their information in a way that adds value beyond what I would get if I just read their slides. Being able to present well is a gift. I saw and participated in really great presentations by Tom Liam Lynch, Jeff Wilhelm, Kelly Gallagher, Jim Burke, and Jeff Anderson.

Tweet Like a Maniac
I’m a steady twitter user generally, but I really spent a lot of time on it during the convention. It was a great way to make notes for myself and others, connect with people who were at the convention, and take care of logistical issues. Some examples:

For a couple sessions, I decided not to tweet, knowing that others were. It was nice during those times to be able to just soak things up and not try to simultaneously process and type. Tweeting requires a really high level of concentration which can be exhausting.

Tweeting before the conference (pre-tweeting?) was a great way to connect with others who were attending and eased some of the social awkwardness I usually feel in starting a conversation with someone I haven’t met before.


The Take Away

Information-> Good
Relationships->Even Better

I expect more writing will percolate from the experience, but that’s what I have for now. 358 days until Orlando….