Thursday, September 29, 2011

I Can See Clearly Now

In a teacher training focused on teaching children how to comprehend, an exasperated first grade teacher said to me, “I know visualizing is an important strategy to teach but my students just don’t get what I mean by it!”

As she spoke these words, I had a flashback to a third grade reader I met last year who, after listening to me harangue on and on about seeing pictures when you read, looked at me quizzically and asked, “Yeah, but how do you do that, see pictures in your mind?”

And then fast forward to the afternoon when I gathered another group of teachers to read “Beautiful and Cruel” from Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street in an effort to reflect on their own meaning making processes.  As we shared what we did as readers to make this piece make sense, one teacher declared that as she read, she visualized.   When she said this, I thought about the frustrated first grade teacher and the confused third grader and seized the opportunity to do some research so I asked her, “What do you see?” 

When I asked her this question, I caught her off guard.  She realized that this process was really automatic for her and while the image of a teenage girl was etched in her mind, she couldn’t speak with great detail about the picture that she saw.

This stopped me in my tracks.  Visualization is one of those strategies that everybody knows.  When I talk to kids (and adults) about the habits and practices of good readers, everybody notes “making movies in their minds” as something that they do when they read but what I am beginning to realize is that while it may be widely known and talked about, perhaps, in practice, it’s not as easy as we think to do.

When I talk to students about visualizing, very often what I will do is have them close their eyes and imagine.  I model by giving them a detailed verbal description about what I see when the words wash over me.  After reading a text like “Beautiful and Cruel” I will talk about a girl with jet black, frizzy hair that hangs below her shoulders and looks wild and untamed.  I describe her nose as wide and her eyes as deep brown, set closely together.  I tell them how I see in my picture a girl who is slightly overweight and she wears her shorts too short and her top too tight. 

Did you catch that? 

When I teach visualizing, I tell them what I see.

Perhaps herein lies the problem.  I am using sound, or the sense of hearing, to convey the sense of sight.  No wonder so much is lost in translation!  I am thinking that if “picture” and “movie” are the metaphors that extend our understanding of visualization, then what might work better in my mini lessons are sketches or Google images that I might flash up on a screen to serve as a backdrop to those verbal descriptions that I share with students to help them see what it means “to see” when you read.    

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sitting for the Test

As a prospective doctoral student, I’ve recently learned that universities require the GRE as a “gatekeeping” measure.  Despite my begging and whining about such an exam not being a reflection of anything I am professionally, my application will not be complete without it, so yesterday I took it for the second time in my life. I vaguely remember taking it the first time—it was a cold, Saturday morning in November, 1992.  I sharpened about five number two pencils and hopped the T to Roxbury, MA. The memory is fuzzy after that. I suspect, however,  yesterday’s experience will never suffer the same fuzzy fate. Taking a standardized exam in the age of high stakes testing dialed my empathy barometer way up and gave me a lot to think about going forward. 

I waltzed into the exam with a very cavalier attitude.  No way was I studying for this—I’m far too busy doing the important work of living than to have to spend time relearning algebraic equations and arcane vocabulary that might help me score a few points higher.  I went in thinking that my quantitative scores would be what they would be and I’d rock the verbal reasoning segment.

It turns out that I hadn’t forgotten as much math as I originally thought and I rather enjoyed puzzling through the problems that made sense to me.  The reality check came when I worked on the verbal reasoning segments, the ones I was so confident I’d ace, and found passages that flat out stopped me in my tracks. 

One passage read like it came straight from the Journal of Paleontology.  The article was a scholarly analysis chocked full of content specific archeological terms peppered with all sorts of erudite, multi-syllabic scientific jargon.  To put it mildly, I didn’t get it.  And what was worse, I didn’t get what the questions were asking me either—and there were three questions on this one passage!

I started to sweat a little when I got to this section of the test.  I read and reread that passage.  I heard my inner voice assuring me that I had all of the skills and strategies I needed to be able to do this successfully.  But try as I might, I couldn’t make it make sense and in thinking about why, the reason came blinking into my psyche like an alarm sounding in the middle of the night: BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE.  My boys skipped the dinosaur fascination and I never had one of my own.  I have zero interest in archeology and paleontology and know less than nothing about these topics.  I couldn’t make this make sense because I didn’t know a thing about what I was reading about. 

And that’s when I realized I had a choice to make.  I could sit there and invest all sorts of intellectual energy and time in these three questions and run the risk of still getting them wrong or I could start filling in bubbles and move on to questions that I felt more confident about answering correctly.  In the end, it was a no brainer.  Upward and onward.

But as I soldiered on, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of children taking the ELA.  How often are they faced with the same angst that I felt?  How much does strategizing impact the outcome of the test?  Would more students do better if they knew when to give up the battle and when to put up a fight?  And exactly what role does background knowledge play in the overall achievement results reported on these exams?  Is the real issue effective readership or is it an issue of cultural literacy?  Might students do better if they had a more well rounded knowledge of the world?

In spite of the fact that I provided ETS with all sorts of answers, the experience of taking the GRE raised more questions than could be answered in a four hour sitting.  But the biggest questions of all are these: How important are the answers?  Can we improve our schools without them?   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Talk the Talk but Do You Walk the Walk?

Over the past week I harnessed my resolve to do some serious writing and dove head first into what may (or may not) one day become my contribution to the literacy community. I first began by cataloging all of my old blogs.  I spent a lot of time reading and rereading the thoughts I have been collecting for the last three years. 

Once I finished that, I realized that my musings naturally fit into a variety of categories related to literacy.  I created a binder and decided that the category that I am most “on about” at the moment is book choice.  Maybe because it’s September and book choice is always a hot topic at the beginning of the year or maybe because my sixth grade son went through four different books in three days, I found myself thinking a lot about what we, as teachers, can do to support children on their quest to find good fit books and launch them on the path that makes them avid, voracious readers. 

Once I settled on my topic, I set to work organizing my ideas.  When I sat down to do this, I started with my binder of old blogs and a pen.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed more “stuff” in order to do the work of envisioning.  I found myself running around the house gathering supplies.  By the time I was really ready to start my project, these are the supplies I had collected:

As you can see, I needed post-its—in four different colors, highlighters, scissors, tape, markers, a white board, and space—lots of space because after all, these were big ideas I was dealing with.  I needed room to spread them out and move them around. 

From there I began the process of writing notes on post-its and identifying big categories of ideas and questions that I want to think more about.  I managed to tease out a skeleton outline of what I want to write and I am proud to report, that I have finally begun a draft.

As I have wrestled with this process, I have found myself thinking a lot about writing instruction. For years, I have been teaching the merits of the writing workshop and have guided scores of teachers and hundreds of children through the process of collecting, gathering, drafting, revising, and editing.  I have talked about paper choice and tools for drafting and editing but until this week, I don’t know that I owned any of this teaching. “Choosing a seed” and beginning a project has forced me to walk the walk and the journey has been eye opening. Writing doesn’t just happen because we decorate a notebook and jot down a few ideas. Writing is a meandering process that requires time—time to question and research and think and finally, commit words to paper.  

I know that my journey is just beginning but one thing I can say for certain is this: Being a writer has changed me as a writing teacher. Writing requires an emotional investment that vacillates between exhilaration and angst and this insight will help me to be more patient when working with young learners. The act of writing has removed me from the periphery and placed me on the field with my students and my learning curve is huge and that is why, once again I urge you to join me on the field.  Try doing some writing this week.  What do you learn about your process that will influence what you teach children about theirs? 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In the Face of Fear

Today, I’ve been working on organizing and outlining some of the ideas that I have for what I dream will one day become a book for teachers about teaching literacy.  Broad topic, I know.  But right now, I’m in the gathering and envisioning stage of my writing process.  I’m relishing going back through the volumes that I have been collecting over the years and reacquainting with my old thoughts and experiences as a teacher.  I find myself making notes in the margins and asking myself questions.  My questions prompt me to want to write more and when I do, I find myself thinking about things that surprise me.  Writing more leads me to new a-has and I get excited…and then worried because I wonder, where does this process end?  How could I possibly write an entire book if my thinking keeps changing and growing as I springboard from one idea to the next?  In some ways, the process is exhilarating and liberating but in other ways, it’s absolutely paralyzing.    I’m so scared, I want to put away my notebook and binder and pen and start scrubbing toilets.  Anything has got to be better than this, I think as I turn my head toward the bulletin board next to my desk and read the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt glaring at me from the center:
Do something every day that scares you.
As those words wash over me, I recognize the feeling in the pit of my stomach: fear.  I’m trying all sorts of new things this year webinars, videos, writing a book.  All of these things cause my body to surge with anxiety because they’re new and quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be good at any of them.  But when I hear the echoing voice of negativity, the trite old saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” pops into my head and I soldier on.  I am dedicating this year to dissonance and discomfort.  I am going to try these things that scare me.  My question for you is this: Will you join me? What will you do this year that scares you?