To Know Your Writers, Be a Writer

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What does it mean to be a writer?

It means the words that come flowing out of your pen are driven by your heart.

It means that you have a message, a story that matters.

It means that you value communication and though it may be seemingly a one-way street when you publish, you yearn for that communication as a result of your writing.

You value ideas, because isn’t all writing about ideas?

You struggle.

You think.

You pause.

You write.

You question.

You revise.

You push that publish button and your heart beats a little faster as you’ve given a little of your heart to the world.

You hope that they understand and value your message, your story.

How do I know this?  Because I write.

In chapter three of Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming a Literacy Leader, she talks about that moment that all literacy leaders worry they will find themselves in…the moment when you are standing in front of your colleagues, wanting to lead them to all that they are capable of, but your presentation is met with silence, lack of engagement, and withdrawal.  I know this feeling.  I’ve been there.

I love the rawness of this confession by Jennifer and I love her push to not give up after months of trying to move writing instruction forward in her building.  She did not give up.  She discovered the secret.

You become a better writing teacher by writing. She had not been asking her teachers to write.

After months of seemingly failed attempts at changing writing instruction, Jennifer began to ask her staff to write, write stories that meant something to them.  They then used the stories to practice revision practices.  It was after that moment that the staff began to talk about writing in the hallways. They began to share their stories. The staff began to implement those revision strategies in the classroom.  It was after that, that student writing began to change.

To be a teacher of writing and really know it, you have to write.  

You have to know the heart that goes into it, the struggle, the thinking, the questioning, the courage that it takes to communicate a message that matters.  This is what we ask our kids to do.  It goes way beyond teaching an engaging introduction or having effective transitions.  Those are the standards, not the writer. Not the heart of the writer.  Not the courage of the writer.

To be an effective teacher of writing, you have to know the writer.  Be the writer.

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Every Outcome a Process

A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process.

-Dr. Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

Right now I am waist deep in writing my new book on digital student portfolios. It will be out at some point in 2017 with ASCD. In this forthcoming text, the audience is teachers and how they can facilitate this authentic assessment process in their classrooms with success.

I’ll be honest – I have reached a bit of a wall. My experience as an administrator for the past nine years has left me with many experiences in setting up performance-based portfolios, developing curriculum that leads to essential understandings, and guiding a school to embed this type of technology initiative over time. What my experience has not provided is a strong understanding of using digital tools to assess student learning progress over time.

That means going back to the books. I don’t have the knowledge yet to write with confidence about the day-to-day growth students make and how a teacher might document this learning. Currently I am reading Digital Reading by Franki Sibberson and William L. Bass II. On my to-read list is Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Conversations by Regie Routman, and Inside the Writing Portfolio by Carol Brennan Jenkins. Two of these texts are steeped in technology. All are grounded in pedagogy. As I explore these resources, I plan on writing the prior and following chapters that bookends this topic. I’ll complete this part of the text when ready.

I’ve realized as an author that we don’t have to be the expert on everything we write about as educators. Yes, we should “know our stuff”. But when putting together a resource that might benefit a wide audience, I have found it unavoidable to encounter an area where my knowledge and skill are lacking. Am I not an expert now? Not yet…

With my last book, I received feedback that the fourth section (“Myth #4: Technology Improves Student Learning”) was the heart of the text. It was effective in describing how pedagogy drove the need for technology, which led to the technology enhancing and even redefining the pedagogy. What’s interesting is that this was the section I struggled with the most. The topic of blended learning was still somewhat foreign to me. I had to spend extra time in our school’s classroom that employed this instructional approach in order to write about it.

One wonders with any book we read how much the author was challenged to put into prose what they observed, knew, and wanted to convey for others. Writing forces us to stop when we aren’t familiar with something and reconsider what we yet need to know. Writing is a canary in the coal mine, alerting us to gaps in our knowledge and skills as we travail toward an acceptable outcome. Writing is a process independent of a worthy audience, and publishing seems secondary to the act itself. Our lives are better for the experience either way.

Acceptable Risk

During some of my classroom-school visits last week, I noticed the following:

  • A teacher was reading aloud an everybody book to her students, specifically a biography about a key historical figure from the Civil Rights era. This was happening at the end of the day, usually a pack-up-and-get-ready-to-go time.
  • 1st graders visited a local wildlife refuge. They experienced the habitats that they had been talking and reading about for the past couple of weeks.
  • The entire school engaged in a “read out”, where families joined their kids to read together in many common areas on school grounds. The local public library was also on hand, encouraging everyone to sign up for their summer reading challenge.

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Families read with their children in the hallway during our school’s read out.
What do all three activities have in common? That no one beyond our school walls was aware of these learning experiences until someone shared some form of media about them online.

Blogging, social media, and other forms of digital communications are becoming a necessary part of an educator’s life. It is pretty easy to do nowadays: Take a picture with a smartphone, add a caption, and post away. My goal is to get one share out a day, although lately I have been able to post only once a week.

Yes, there is risk. Risk in having strangers peer inside your school. Risk in being visible online which might allow someone to post a hurtful comment. Risk in posting content that comes across not as intended to the audience. 

But isn’t there also risk in allowing noneducators to make assumptions about the daily life in schools? The television shows currently out there that portray teachers, principals and students are usually not flattering, mostly archetypes to get a laugh. Pundits criticize schools as failing, knowing that the educators in those schools will most likely not respond. And if all our families have as artifacts of their child’s learning consists of a few conference nights and what’s in their backpacks, are we to blame society’s sometimes negative views about public education?

Having a presence as a classroom and school on social media is an acceptable risk. The benefits outweigh any negatives. So what’s stopping us? In my four years of sharing our school’s experiences on social media, I have found any negatives to be minimal, almost nonexistent. There is risk in whatever we choose.

As you make plans for the next school year, put “digital presence” on the top of your list of goals. The minimal risk will lead to many rewards, including improved family communication, teaching students digital citizenship, and having a bevy of artifacts to support our own instruction and leadership. It’s worth it.

Author Visit: Michael Perry

New York Times bestselling author Michael Perry (Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) visited Howe Elementary School today. He spoke with our 4th and 5th graders about his new book for middle level readers, The Scavengers. Perry shared his process for writing, including the research he does prior to starting a book and his methods for revising his manuscripts once a draft is written. The teachers I spoke with thought he gave an excellent presentation. “The students were totally engaged in his stories and insights – you could have heard a pin drop in the cafeteria,” described one teacher.

I had a school administrator meeting, so I was unable to enjoy the presentation. Fortunately, Michael Perry was speaking at our public library the evening prior. This was the main reason he was in town in the first place: McMillan Memorial Library hosted our first ever community book club. It was titled “Rapids Reads” and focused on three of Michael’s books (Population: 485, The Scavengers, and The Jesus Cow) to read. The author visit at the library was the culminating activity.

The assistant director of McMillan Memorial Library, Brian Kopetsky, introduced the program and the author. It was nice to hear the purpose and the expected outcomes of hosting a community read. “We wanted to create a dialogue around a story, and through that dialogue we can come to discover our values.” One of the activities hosted by the library was a youth writing contest. To my pleasant surprise, two Howe students were the winner and the runner up!

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Next up was Michael Perry himself. He started off by sharing that he was very shy by nature and did not naturally enjoy speaking in front of others. Perry’s preferred lifestyle is writing in his second floor office in his farmhouse in Northern Wisconsin. “I will spend multiple days not talking to anyone. This recharges me and allows me to speak to audiences such as writing groups and community programs.”

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Next, the author went into his life as a professional writer (and part time farmer). He specifically spoke about the revision process as something he really enjoys.

I am a polisher. I love to revise and edit my work. For example, I will play what I like to call “desperate literary solitaire”: I will print off my manuscript, cut up the sections into smaller pieces, and then move the pieces around until they make sense to me.

Michael Perry did not attempt to glorify the life of a writer. It is his livelihood. He finds joy in his profession as a writer, yet he does not wait to be inspired.

My muse is Mr. Jim, the bald guy nine miles away sitting at the Chetek State Bank who holds my mortgage.

With regard to generating ideas to write about (Perry also writes a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal), he finds the best ones derive from his everyday life.

A lot my stories come from phone calls from my brothers.

As I listened to the various stories he shared about his family and friends, I found that these narratives relied on the language and the dialogue of the characters. Their words revealed who they were. What Michael Perry does, in both his speaking and writing, is to pace the narrative in a way that allows for unique phrases to provide a big pay off.

I wasn’t able to stick around for the entire event – my wife had Zumba. Perry read aloud from some of his work and also shared some personal thoughts on the book that I am reading right now, Population: 485.

It is your classic “Can you go home again?” book. What I can say about this book is that I am very grateful that I was able to write it. I got the opportunity to work on something for two years on a topic that I love – the small town of New Auburn and the volunteer fire fighting department.

This post does not adequately convey Perry’s humor, modesty, and honesty that I witnessed in person. If you can bring Michael in for a community read in your area, or to speak with your students, I highly recommend it. His observations about writing, small town America, family and friends, and what it means to be a part of a community are not to be missed.

 

Three Technologies Every School Leader Needs

This is not hyperbole. As an elementary school principal, each one of these technologies has improved my life, both personally and professionally. Total cost is around $400.

TrackR bravo (Set of five for around $100)

Starting your day without knowing where your wallet or keys are can be frustrating. My family knows this all too well. This is why my wife purchased these coin-sized devices for me. You attached them to your keys via a ring or your wallet with an adhesive pad. Then, connect them individually via Bluetooth with the TrackR app on your smartphone.

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Source: Flickr

The peace of mind in knowing that your valuables are now findable through a TrackR bravo is worth the cost, even if you never have to use it. The company also suggests using their technology with television remotes, a purse, and even pets. In addition, you can “crowdsource” your valuables by making your TrackR bravo’s frequency public. If someone else with the same technology on their smartphone is in close proximity of your lost item, you will be notified via GPS.

Livescribe 3 smartpen ($200, which includes a notebook, sticky notes, ink cartridge refills, and extra stylus tips)

I’ve given up on using an expensive stylus with my iPad to take notes during instructional walks and other observations during school. The battery dies early. The stylus loses it’s connection to the tablet. My writing is not accurately translated onto the screen.

I think I have found the solution in the Livescribe 3 smartpen. What I write on specially designed paper is translated onto the Livescribe+ app on my mobile device. I can also record audio while writing, which is combined with my handwritten notes to create a “pencast”. This multimedia file can be saved in Evernote, emailed, or saved in the app itself.

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I have used this technology many times this school year. For example, when I do a ten minute instructional walk in a classroom, I can put technology to the side and focus more on the teaching and learning happening with only a pen and paper. I feel more present now that I am not trying to make a stylus work or typing on my laptop’s keyboard.

Also, the Livescribe technology has allowed me to conduct interviews for my action research project around literacy engagement. I can have a conversation with students and staff without feeling like I have to write every word they say down. Instead, I will write key words which connects to the audio recorded at the time.

WordPress ($99 for a premium subscription)

You didn’t lose anything important and you documented some excellent learning experiences during your classroom visits. So how do you celebrate? I recommend writing about it.

WordPress is the best blogging platform out there. I don’t know of any educators who started using this tool and then decided to try Blogger or Tumblr for writing and reflecting online. WordPress’s advantages include an easy setup process and writing experience, many design themes to choose from, and lots of options to personalize your site.

While you can use WordPress for free, I do suggest the premium option. First, you can create your own domain, such as “readingbyexample.com” instead of “readingbyexample.wordpress.com” (my first URL). Second, multimedia is a lot easier to embed within your posts through tools such as Video Press. See the following video of me shamelessly plugging my new book as an example.

No more embedding HTML codes from YouTube. Just record a video, upload it to WordPress, and you’re good. Communication is more than just words to be read.

What technologies do you find essential in your role as a school leader? Please share them in the comments.

 

 

 

Reading Your Own Writing

Today is a publishing party. Okay, not exactly a party (we’ve got school tomorrow), but certainly a celebration. Five author copies of my new ASCD Arias book arrived at our doorstep today.

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It’s a surreal experience to see your own writing at the publishing stage. And it is a stage. The spotlight is on your work. Maybe because of this sense of disorientation, there’s also a sense of distance between what you wrote and what is in print. I had a digital book published last year on digital portfolios, also exciting. But holding something you created in your hands is an altogether different feeling. It’s real. So much for the death of paper.

After flipping through the pages and glancing at the front and back covers a couple thousand times, I actually sat down tonight and read through the first part of my book. I realized two things: It’s a book, and it was worth writing. In my desk are the five drafts that preceded this final edition. Others will read it and hopefully find what I have to share applicable to their own classrooms and schools about thoughtful use of technology in education.

I can see how this type of thing could go to one’s head. What you created has a specific identification, in the form of an ISBN number. It will live for some time in the publisher’s catalog, on retailer’s websites, and in print on people’s shelves. You can autograph it (the first one went to my wife, of course). Feeling my ego already expanding, I compared the thickness of my book to one of my daughter’s early reader chapter books.

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Effectively humbled! Reflecting on my second writing journey has helped me realize how challenging it can be to take a project from an initial idea to being published. I think that is why I don’t rate books less than 3 stars on Goodreads: Even if I don’t particularly like a book, I can at least respect the effort and persistence of the author(s) in preparing their text to be publish-ready. This is an important note for readers who rate books based on their own system, but fail to understand the process it took to get to the product.

Having your writing published is a feeling I would want for anyone who has a passion for both a specific topic and for writing. Nothing should prevent them from this experience. There are services online through Amazon and smaller companies that will print texts out at a reasonable cost. If I was a teacher right now, I would be seriously considering this option. Having your writing available for others to take seriously and read with respect could be motivating for anyone to put forth their best effort.

What I share here is more of a ramble than an essay (otherwise known as a “blog post”). Appropriate, as my blog is where it all started: Simply posting my ideas about literacy, leadership, and technology online, and allowing my reflections and experiences to fill in the ever-expanding whitespace. No limits. I wonder what I’ll create next? Whatever I write, I look forward to sharing it with others to read.