Recent Posts

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Made Something, Look!

Josh Selig, president and founder of New York’s Little Airplane Productions, shares on the need for professionals to take some creative time for themselves. Sorry, teachers, but writing lesson plans, mapping curriculum, and grading papers do not count as creative time, no matter how good you are at those tasks and how much you enjoy them (and I know we all enjoy them). Check out Josh's insightful blog at Planet Preschool.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom

Tara Seale has compiled a nice list of the Top Ten YouTube Videos for the Classroom over at her Enhanced English Teacher blog. If you're a middle or high school English teacher, you'll find some great resources and insights there.

For example, those of you who have had the immense pleasure of attending my Teaching that Sticks workshop or my How to Teach a Novel workshop have heard me mention Joseph Campbell's "Hero Myth." The clip below features a discussion of the Hero Myth as it appears in The Matrix. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writersand Using Myth to Power Your Story takes over where Joseph Campbell left off. This snippet of video serves to set up this topic up for classroom discussion.

Thanks for the list, Tara! Visit her site and give her some suggestions for building it to a Top Twenty!

(Missed my How to Teach a Novel workshop? Visit my How to Teach a Novel lens over at for an abreviated run-down).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Trackstar: Staking Your Claim on the Internet

In terms of the Internet, Trackstar is old school. Many teachers, however, haven’t had the chance to see it in action. Basically, Trackstar is a collected set of websites framed by a table of contents which is always visible. As each site is selected, the heading above the site viewer changes to include the teacher’s notes about the site being viewed, as well as questions about its content.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, check out a couple examples that make it very clear. Stayin' Alive: How Plants and Animals Adapt to Air Pollution is a well constructed track with clear instructions and a variety of sites. In addition to the frames format of that previous link, you also have the option to see your links and notes in text form.

An example of how this application can be used for professional development purposes can be seen in Teaching Writers Right. Presenters or teachers forming collegial study group will find that this is an efficient way to organize sites and documents for group viewing.

Is Trackstar difficult to use? Not at all, since you don’t need to create your own tracks; you’re welcome to use the hundreds that have been created over the years. The homepage allows you to search by topic, author, or top tracks. Just be sure to check that all links are still working, and that the related heading content and questions are appropriate for your student group.

If you do wish to create your own, the process is simple, with ample prompts and sequenced steps.

Using Trackstar, teachers can

  • present students with online learning tasks within a controlled scope of sites;

  • assign individualized online tasks, differentiated by both web sites viewed and annotations added;

  • incorporate current events using the Trackstar’s monthly themes or the Track of the Day;

  • create modules that can be independently completed by students as homework or extra credit;

  • structure lessons which can easily be carried out by a substitute teacher or a cross-grade learning partner;

  • supply parents and students with a “virtual study guide” for upcoming tests;

  • store, categorize, and tag their own favorite sites for future use (all sites for one unit can be found in one location;

  • share their “best of” sites with virtual colleagues; and

  • collaborate with colleagues to compile sites and comments in using a “wiki” format.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Edu TechieGal

Edu TechieGal (I think I got the caps and spacing correct on that) is a once-a-week dose of cool tech tools for teachers. Now, I know that there are dozens of tech blogs out there (feel free to email me your favorites), but I found Edu TechieGal to be extremely simple, focused, and truly geared toward classroom users, at all grade levels. Plus, she doesn't go into too much detail about the sites; gives you just enough to whet your appetite, pats you on the head and says, "All, right now, off you go."

Some of my favorites from her site: Literactive, a colorful and friendly little site for the preschool and kindergarten crowd, Be Funky, a super-simple photo effects site, Tenement Museum (pictured on the right), a really cool interactive immigrant experience site (where the heck was this when my daughter and I were doing that Ellis Island project two months ago?), and Word Ahead, a collection of vocabulary video flashcards, perfect for students hoping to cram vocab in preparation for SATs and other standardized tests.

So check out her site, give her a word of encouragement, and definitely forward some links to other tech sites of interest to teachers.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Privileged Status of Story

"I have read that the mind treats stories differently than other types of
information. It seems obvious that people like listening to stories, but it’s
not obvious how to use that in the classroom. Is it really true that stories are
somehow "special" and, if so, how can teachers capitalize on that fact?"

The answer to this question is well worth a read for any teacher desiring to put the power of story into their daily instruction. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham addresses the topic of story in his excellent article The Privileged Status of Story, one of his many Ask the Cognitive Scientist columns at the AFT's American Educator.

Daniel first defines story using four features commonly agreed upon by professional storytellers (playwrights, screenwriters, and novelists). These features (sometimes called the 4 Cs) are Causality, Conflict, Complications, and Character. Even if a teacher chooses not to tell "stories" in the traditional sense, employing just one of these features can have a profound impact on every lesson, helping to create learning that is interesting, memorable, and easier to comprehend. (Are you hearing some of our sticky ideas?).

Although his role is to point out the theory and research behind the well-deserved status of story, Willingham writes like a practitioner, offering suggestions which are practical and simple to implement. For you fans of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, this article is a concise, highly accessible how-to guide for putting story to work in your instruction.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Sir Ken Robinson, best known for his TED talk of last year (see second video below), is on the web again, this time talking about his new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. For those of us who have heard or used the expression "in his element," we understand phrase to mean that he is "doing what he is best at," or "doing what he was born to do."

That's The Element in a nutshell: a bold proclamation that people can do best what they actually enjoy and are good at (no news there), but that too often they are turned from the pursuit of what will ultimately fulfill them by the dictates of others, the "realities" of making a living, and (you guessed it) schools that limit their choices and dreams. Not saying he's wrong, mind you, but we all knew that was coming. And that's probably bad.

A favorite part:

Finding a purpose in the work we do or they way that we spend our time which resonates deeply with who we think we are, is an essential part of knowing who we are. In a way, if you don’t know what you can do, then you don’t really know what you might be.

Our own lives are not linear. Think not of linear metaphors for human growth and development, but organic metaphors… that our lives evolve around the responses we have to the opportunities that meet us. We, in turn, reciprocate with them. We still run our education systems as if life is linear. We run them as if it’s mechanistic. This is one of the reasons so many things get phased out of education, because people say, "Well, you’ll never get a job if you do this." Things are dropped off the end because they don’t meet the linear assumption.
If you've got the time, this is well worth a look.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sticky Teaching in Action

I love to see a good "sticky lesson" in action. Check out this clip from Mr. Langhorst's 8th grade in Liberty, Missouri. See how many of the six elements of "stickiness" you can see spot (see the Teaching that Sticks sister site for a quick primer from Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

I love this approach! In my third and fourth grades, where I've taught the Revolutionary War as well, I've taken a slightly different approach. Students were presented with a letter from the school board, announcing that due to last year's low test scores several drastic measures would be put into place: extended school hours, summer school for all students below a 3.5 average, school on Saturdays, and no more Physical Education. Students became quite upset that neither they not their parents were in attendance at this meeting, and that they were being punished for last year's bad scores (purely fictitious as well). Seeing how distraught my students were, I graciously allowed them to draft letters to the testing coordinator (Mr. Itzall LaSham) expressing their feelings. Without fail, students created the most articulate, persuasive writing of their lives! When read aloud, the letters of protest were impassioned and convincing.

But then I wondered aloud, "I'm not sure if we should have done this. Perhaps Mr. LaSham will get upset, and call your parents. Are you guys really willing to take that risk?" Out come the erasers, but not for all. Most students are so adamant in their beliefs that they refuse to erase their names, no matter what the consequences!

It's usually at this point, although sometimes much earlier, that some student will exclaim, "This is exactly what happened to the colonists! We're being forced to live by rules that we didn't help to make." And eventually, of course, I do let students in on the secret: The letter is fictitious, and so is the testing director (Mr. It's All a Sham). We then discuss the similarity between their letters and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents express extreme dissatisfaction, but the latter is further expressing outright rebellion. Should the colonists lose this war, the bold Declaration will serve as King George's hanging list.

In nearly twenty years of implementing this lesson, students have been faithful to not share it with their siblings or friends, and each year's new class faithfully falls for the trick: hook, line, and sinker. But the real payoff is that years later, when students return from high school and college to visit, they'll ask, "Did you do the letter yet?" and they'll vividly recall every aspect of the lesson, including its point.

Now that's a lesson that sticks.

(If you're a social studies teacher, check out Eric Langhorst's blog for more great resources and insights. Thanks to John over at Teacher Toys for the link suggestions).

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How NOT to Teach a Novel

Some teachers, with all the best intentions, treat novels like pinatas, beating them with sticks until every last piece of sweet candy falls out. Those of you who caught my How to Teach a Novel session at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) Conference know I use that metaphor frequently. For good reason, trust me.

As Kelly Gallagher points out in his recent book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Readig and What You Can Do About It, teachers underteach books; that is, they assign chapters in extremely difficult books for independent reading, and students either choose not to read the selection, or they read it with little understanding. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are those teachers who overteach novels; they are not satisfied until the pages have been wrung out like dish rags, emptied of every teachable vocabulary word, allusion, metaphor, and simile.

In my How to Teach a Novel sessions I certainly point out that every novel should be read and reread with pencil in hand, in order to decide, "What's worth our attention?" or, more practically, "What's worth teaching?" (see How to Teach a Novel for a synopsis of this topic). That doesn't mean, however, that the teacher needs to teach it all!

Imagine that you're listening to the Motown classic My Girl on the radio. How frustrating would it be if every twenty seconds the DJ interrupted the song to examine its language, or to "enlighten you" with some historical background which places the song or group into a historical context?

I've got sunshine, on a cloudy day

(Does the singer literally have sunshine? Is this an oxymoron alone, or is it meant to, in some way, be metaphorical?)

When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May

(Who knows the origin of the name Motown? Right, it's related to the fact that Gordon Berry established his record label in Detroit, which is also known as the Motor City. But who can tell me the nickname Berry gave to Motown Records itself? Why don't we continue to pause the song while our listeners look that up?)

I guess you'd say, "What can make me feel this way?"

(Note the use of sentence variety here, and the way in which the singer directly addresses his audience. Is he expecting an answer? What do we call a question in which the speaker does not expect to receive an answer?)

I think you get the idea. When it comes to teaching novels, I wish everyone did.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Academic Genocide

In my role as blogger I realize there's an expectation for me to crank out some original content every few days. Hey, no problem, I'm up to it. But when another writer can express my feelings on a topic with equal passion and greater craft, then I will gladly surrender the stage. Enter Steve Peha, whom many of you met a few weeks ago through his Teaching That Makes Sense site. Steve recently fired off an editorial about what he terms "academic genocide." Strong words, but perhaps sadly and frustratingly accurate. It's what happens when teaching is oversimplified. Give it a read; I'd like to hear your reaction! Feel free to email me since I know the comment process is at times daunting!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Secret to Descriptive Writing

Either I’ve encountered a conspiracy to confound teachers of writing, or I’ve discovered an “obvious secret” of descriptive writing. It appears that verbs are, indeed, “what’s happening.”

I heard about the power of compelling verbs first from Ralph Fletcher in his recent visit to the Garden State. He explained that well-intentioned teachers encourage their students to use numerous adjectives to create interesting prose, which leads to detail-saturated writing which drags under its own weight. Simply unnecessary. In Ralph’s own words, “Nouns make the pictures, verbs make the pictures move.”

Flash forward to the New York State Reading Association’s Annual Conference held this past week in Saratoga Springs, New York (one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended). During the Author’s Progressive Dinner I had the pleasure of sitting with Steven Swinburne, creator of several wonderful nonfiction picture books including Lots and Lots of Zebra Stripes: Patterns in Nature and Turtle Tide: The Ways Of Sea Turtles. As he spoke with his guests about the creative process, he mentioned the importance of verb selection. When I asked why he had mentioned verbs rather than any other part of speech, he quickly replied, “The correct verbs are essential. Verbs are the motor which drives the sentence.” Now I’m thinking that I’m on to something.

The following day I enjoyed a conversation with Steven Krasner, author of Play Ball Like the Hall Of Famers: The Inside Scoop From 19 Baseball Greats and Play Ball Like the Pros: Tips for Kids from 20 Big League Stars. Through his Nudging the Imagination workshop, Steve explained, he creates stories with students on-the-spot in order to model the writing process. “A huge key,” he explained, “is helping them to find the verbs to really move the story.” Opening one of his picture books, he pointed out he crafted the precise, vivid verbs of the final draft during the revision process, replacing common verbs which served only as place holders in the early stages.

If three very different writers can agree on the importance of verb choice, then I think there are some lessons to be learned by teachers of young writers:

  • Encourage students to examine verb choice in novels, poems, and informational texts. I have even rewritten text selections using “common verbs” which students were then challenged to replace with more precise or colorful verbs.

  • Have students consider verb choices in their own writing, and work to find action words that are more exact.

  • Teach children how to use a print thesaurus or online reference source (such as the Merriam Webster dictionary) for assistance in locating more exact expressions.