Monday, December 3, 2012

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Thanks to the new books that I recently received (Crime and Puzzlement, recommended by Hillocks in Teaching Argument Writing), I'm ready to teach a new lesson on argument writing.  I hope to use one of the visual mysteries from these books to help students craft an argument based on evidence.

To help promote engagement (and to promote this type of writing among my colleagues), I want to try screencasting this.  In Hillocks' book, he describes several lessons where students and their teacher are collaborating on a text, a kind of think-aloud about writing (sometimes called the "language experience" approach).  I want to try this, and I want them to get deeply involved in the text that we are co-constructing.  So, I'm trying to blend all of these things together.

We'll see how things go.

For now, here's a demo of the tool that I want to try using:

Here's a link to the video on vimeo:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Common Core and Argument

So we've started the process of aligning our district standards (or "power" standards) with the newly adopted Common Core for Illinois.  This process is going to take a while, at least in my district, and it's a great conversation for teachers to have.

I have mixed feelings about national standards, and I understand that not all of the motives behind the national standards movement are wholesome, student-centered, and progressive.  However, the standards have been adopted, and they are not all bad.  There are a lot of good things about the standards, and a lot of potential for good outcomes.  I choose to look on the "bright side" here.  

For me, the best part of Common Core is the emphasis on writing.  (For example, consider standard CC.7.W.10: "Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.")  While I'm not a huge fan of "informational" writing, as a label, there is a general tendency in the standards for more sustained writing instruction.  I have always felt that writing instruction is the most challenging, the most important, and the most neglected aspect of middle school instruction.  As a high school student, I felt that writing was "easy," because I was exposed to so little academic writing, and I did well on the few assignments we were given.  It wasn't until I became a college writing instructor that I realized how little I really knew about academic writing, and how much I had yet to learn.  

Let me throw in some links here, before I forget:

Common core home page -

PARCC - the Common Core state test website -

Illinois State Board of Education standards page -

IL Common Core ELA resources page -

There's a lot out there.  I think, though, that a lot of the emphasis - at least in ELA at the 7th grade level - is on "argument."

Joking aside, it's a useful technical term that has fruitful links to colloquial understandings of the term. At bottom, an academic argument is not that different from a "regular" argument.  There are claims, moves, reasons, and positions.  Most kids are going to enter the classroom with a thorough understanding of the basic principles of argumentation, whether they can articulate those principles or not:

1.  State your position.

2.  Provide reasons or evidence for your position.  

3.  Provide counterarguments or refutations of opposing arguments.  

I like to think of "argument" as a bigger, more inclusive term than "persuasion."  TV commercials and used-car salesmen are "persuaders," but they also make arguments.  Argument is a Big Idea.

Where do we see the term in the standards?  Here are four explicit references to "argument" in the 7th grade standards:
CC.7.R.I.8 - Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims. 
CC.7.W.1 - Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. 
CC.7.W.1.e - Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented. 
CC.7.SL.3 - Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
I would estimate that at least half of the rest of the standards make reference to argument-specific vocabulary (such as "claim" and "evidence"), as in this instance: 
CC.7.R.L.1 - Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
I think the most important thing about this isn't just that students are expected to learn how to write arguments, as part of a large collection of things they are supposed to learn.  Argument becomes an essential part of all of the English Language Arts - these standards come from almost all of the various strands (reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.).  

So, learning about argument isn't just about writing instruction anymore (if it ever was).  Now, it's more explicitly tied to reading, speaking/listening, and synthesizing research.  

And that, I would argue, is a good thing.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Debbie Miller

I just posted a long discussion of Debbie Miller's book, READING WITH MEANING, on my other blog.  Here's a link to the post if you'd like to read more.  I created this other blog, as I stated before, to kind of develop my thinking as a teacher reading professional books and books related to teaching. So, I thought that would be the best place to post my thinking.

I hope to have more to say about other books I'm reading soon, such as a book about classroom discussion that I started today - Building Literacy through Classroom Discussion by Mary Adler and Eija Rougle.  I was planning to read a book about Socratic circles, but the book I have is rather dry and wordy - this one seems both more readable and more broadly applicable to contexts other than just a single instructional practice (Socratic circles seem like one approach, while this book - about discussion - seems to be about a larger family of approaches built around discussion.  Much more useful.)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Some Updates

I just created two new blogs here, attached to this account.  I hope to funnel some of my thinking there, and connect in interesting ways here.  I've started to feel like this is a nice, public place to think and reflect on teaching/reading/writing, but that it's not an appropriate place for some of the things that I want to write about.  So, I hope to post my thoughts on teaching, technology, literacy, etc. here, while my (perhaps less interesting) other thoughts will be posted in either of the other two blogs.  

I'm a weird mix of research instincts (from being an English Ph.D. student some years ago) and the urge to write (from being a wannabe novelist/writer/provocateur since middle school), and these things are coalescing around some obscure interests, like common shade trees.  Honestly, there's not a big difference between trees and Frank Lloyd Wright, really, except perhaps people are more interested in the latter.  

So, anyway, that's what's up.  I'm hoping to post a few things here soon, dealing with engagement and motivation, some new ideas for portfolios in my middle-school classroom, and some general thinking about literacy and technology.  Big, teacher-related things.  

So, thanks for reading.  

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Great video of "thinking partners"

I shared this on Twitter because I really like it as a model of effective use of student talk in the classroom:

I think that there would need to be changes for this to be effective with 7th graders.  Obviously, they might not be as fascinated in caterpillars as these kids are.  And you might not want to stop so often to model the thinking and talking.  But the physical modeling of appropriate behaviors is really effective and important, and would definitely help.  I think it's a nice way to create a mental picture of what they are supposed to be doing.  Too many students at this age just don't have an appropriate mental image of what effective collaboration and partnering is supposed to be like.  If they have an understanding of this, it is often misguided or misleading.  It always helps to solidify this - especially early in the school year - because it can be so useful later.  And I really think this is important for middle school.  7th graders are so peer-focused that any way to channel student talk in a positive direction is probably going to work.  (They are often much more engaged in what they say to each other than in what you say to them.)

Debut of my YouTube Channel

Check out my high-quality vid here:

I know, I know, it's super-stupid and slightly (!) boring.  But this was just a test, eh?  So please be patient.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Inquiry in the Reading/Writing Classroom - Units of Study

Last year, I was looking around for ways to use more inquiry in my Reading/Writing class.  I was in love with the idea as a content-area (science and social studies) teacher, and I wanted to use it more.  

It helped that I attended a Summer Leadership Institute with the Illinois Writing Project.  I met several teachers from other schools, and I found that another school had begun using Study Driven, a book by Katie Wood Ray.  The book introduces a way of teaching reading and writing in related ways, as part of a focused, intensive study of ("immersion" in) a specific genre.  

Let me explain by example.  Let's say that you choose to study memoir.  You flood the students with examples of memoir, as many as you can find that are appropriately leveled and (hopefully) engaging.  After they have read and studied several examples, you ask them to notice or discover what these texts have in common.  You articulate these common features, and you talk about the ways that writers can choose to adhere to these conventions or not, but that generally a genre will follow a certain set of conventions.  Memoir, for example, is typically told in first person and focuses on significant events in a person's life.  It is tied to specific contexts and settings, often to specific objects or people.  It is almost always intensely localized or focused on the minute details of the past.  

This is the inquiry part.  You are focusing students on a specific line of inquiry, and you are asking the big questions, but students are discovering the nuances of the answers.  Eventually, the goal would be to encourage them to branch out on their own, discover and analyze their own notion of genre, or even start to formulate an emerging genre (very cool!).  The end product, however, is for them to create a text that fits the genre they are studying.  

So, students are buried in examples or models of a genre, asked to study them closely, articulate the conventions of that genre as a result of that study, and then create a text that adheres to those conventions.  The text is created under the conditions of a typical writing workshop, with students choosing the particulars of how they will create the text and allowed to work at their own pace in an environment where they are supported and given time to compose and revise.  

The results were impressive.  Partly because I supported this with journals, and partly because I swamped them with models - all directed toward a specific, up-front objective - my students created some of the best memoir I have seen from 7th graders.  I read so many good examples that it was overwhelming.  

Part of the success comes from the choice of genre.  You can't study a genre like political satire or medieval mystery plays in a middle-school classroom.  You need good examples that students can connect to, and you need to be able to help them focus topics and sustain effort over time.  Many of my students were writing longer texts than they had ever written before.  And not every student wrote great stuff or tried their hardest.  That's something I will continue to work on, but it was not a Hollywood movie or a fairy tale, so it wasn't 100%.  But it was much closer than I have ever been before.  I was also successful with the "scary story" genre, and with shorter examples like the 55-word story.  (I found a book of examples of this - the number of words is not important, as long as they are forced to fit that example.  Like haiku, forcing them to shape their thinking into a certain conventional container can be challenging and fun.)  Odes also worked well - mostly because of examples from Pablo Neruda and past students.  We also had fun (perhaps a little too much) with tweets as a genre.

I'm working on units based on jokes, narrative nonfiction with "tension" (a concept from Donald Murray), tweets (a more organized version), and some kind of persuasive text (still searching for a good, authentic genre appropriate for this developmental level with engaging models of appropriate length).  

I was planning to also discuss inquiry and the teaching of grammar, but I'll have to post about that later.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Using Music in the Classroom - Cat's in the Cradle

I mentioned in a previous post that I like to use music in the classroom to help reflect and promote writing/thinking.  I used Harry Chapin's song, "Cat's in the Cradle" to great effect last year.  I had them watch the video, follow along with the words, and then write about family and how it can influence you.  The lyrics are not hard to find, and the video is kind of intriguing and quirky (clothes from the '70's?).  Here's the YouTube link:

Quick note: students who struggle with the text are not going to be able to watch the video and follow along with the words in any meaningful way.  I passed out the questions and lyrics (below) first, then had students read and think about the questions before watching the video.  This helps set a purpose for viewing the video and makes the review of the lyrics almost like a fluency activity, helping them adjust and correct the "voice" in their heads.  Having the lyrics in front of them after viewing, while writing about them, also helps them get specific and respond more directly to the language of the song.

This helped produce a lot of strong feelings, and a lot of strong writing.  I had at least one student crying during this (a "tough guy") - and while he wasn't able (or willing) to explain all of his thinking for this prompt, it created a sense of need or purpose for the explaining that might have been hard to establish in other ways with this particular student.

Here's the text of the handout I created with the lyrics, if you don't want to do it yourself:


Writing about Family 

Listen to (and watch the video for) the following song about a father and his son.  While you’re watching, think about the following questions/things to write about:

1.     How do you feel about becoming just like your parents?  Do you think you will be just like them when you grow up?  Is that a good thing?

2.     Tell a story about something interesting or funny that happened between you and your parents.  Try to tell it slowly and carefully, including dialogue (a good guess of the actual words you said to each other).

3.     If you choose to become a parent (in the distant future, 40 or 50 years from now), what kind of parent do you think you would be?  What kind of parent would you want to be?

4.     Imagine you are dating someone seriously (twenty years from now), and that person starts asking about your family.  What do you think you would tell that person?  What are the important things that people need to know to understand your family? 

Please focus on only ONE of the questions above, and explain yourself the best you can in the time you have.  Remember that a quickwrite means that you KEEP WRITING for the entire time!

Cats in the Cradle
by Harry Chapin

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin' 'fore I knew it, and as he grew
He'd say "I'm gonna be like you dad
You know I'm gonna be like you"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home dad?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let's play
Can you teach me to throw", I said "Not today
I got a lot to do", he said, "That's ok"
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah
You know I'm gonna be like him"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

Well, he came home from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
"Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head and said with a smile
"What I'd really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

I've long since retired, my son's moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind"
He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job's a hassle and kids have the flu
But it's sure nice talking to you, Dad
It's been sure nice talking to you"

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

Thinking about writing journals?

I'm starting to plan for my 6th year as a 7th grade reading/writing teacher at Chicago-area middle school, and I wanted to "think out loud" about writing journals/notebooks and their use in the middle-school language arts classroom.

There are several schools of thought on this, and a lot of powerful ways to use these things, as well as several possible ways to handle the logistics.

Here are some ways that I've used journals (let's just call them that for now) in the LA classroom:

  1. As a daily "Do Now" or immediate activity done at the very start of class.  This strategy is useful to reinforce management and get students seated and working.  It helps maximize productive class time.  
  2. As a less rigorously structured thinking or processing activity done at variable times during the class.  This might be something like, "Brainstorm a list of ways that you can use this strategy," or "Now that we understand what similes and metaphors are, write out some possible reasons that authors might use figurative language like this . . . ."  
  3. As a way to enrich classroom or small-group discussion, as a kind of preparation or planning ahead for a focused conversation on a specific topic.  "Before we discuss the end of the story "Seventh Grade" by Gary Soto, let's write out our thinking about this question: do you think it was okay for the main character to pretend to know French to impress the girl?"  
There is at least one other really cool way to use journals - as the "writing notebook," a kind of catch-all or "commonplace book" that writers use to gather their thinking and random ideas.  I think Ralph Fletcher and Donald Murray are the big proponents of this type of tool.  If used appropriately, it's a fantastic resource that makes composing much easier.  I'd like to move in that direction, and I'm going to be digging into this idea a little more this year.  If I decide to go ahead with journals again this year, I will probably try this.  

As far as logistical challenges go, there are numerous ways to provide students with notebooks to use for daily in-class writing:  
  1. Spiral, wire-bound notebooks 
  2. the slightly more expensive "neatbook" or bound writing notebooks with no wires
  3. A bundle of lined paper provided several times a year (through the district copying service)
  4. A stapled, pre-designed packet of prompts with space to respond
  5. Binders and loose-leaf notebook paper
  6. BYON (bring-your-own-notebook)
All of these cost money, and every year except one, I have provided these notebooks to my students.  One year I created a packet of prompts and questions, and had production make copies for me.  They not very sturdy, and the pre-written prompts often didn't feel related to the issues discussed in other parts of the class.  This also made it difficult (or cumbersome) to use longer response-type prompts, such as responding to poetry, music, or pictures (something that I began using this year with great success).  

I've been able to pick up dozens of notebooks during back-to-school sales, and the expense has been minimal.  I prefer this approach because it makes all the notebooks match (which makes stacking and differentiating them from others much easier), and it helps establish a positive climate at the beginning of the school year (here's a free notebook!).  It also makes me feel less guilty about collecting and reading them, and often keeping them at the end of the year.  

Notebooks as journals are more flexible than the packets, because it's easier to stretch to accommodate different-sized entries, and a notebook allows more creativity than a packet.  It also doesn't require a desk or hard surface for writing - students can take notebooks with them on "field trips" to other parts of the building or outside (a very intriguing and under-utilized feature, at least in my class).  I've never had a student run out of room, though students definitely vary in the amount of writing they do.  

I think the year-long tool is helpful, too, with year-end portfolios (it enables much greater scope of reflection), and regular use of the journal during daily required writing time helps build good writing habits (many students wrote that they felt like they grew a lot as writers because of the daily writing time) and writing fluency.  

I think the biggest surprise for me was the amount of room left over in the notebooks at the end of the year.  I think that regular feedback helps most students (some students were uncomfortable with me collecting and reading notebooks, and I did the "mark the entries you want me to read" approach at least twice during the year), and I think the lesson is that I should be using notebooks more often, and more closely tying notebook writing to grades and to curriculum.  I'm considering a weekly writing assignment, over-and-above the daily in-class notebook writing and workshop writing time.  

So, in the end, this whole thing boils down to one essential question:

How can I get my students to use their writing notebooks more, both writing more in the notebooks and using the writing for other things more often?

I'll be digging through some professional books in the weeks ahead to look for some answers.    

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Joining the Summer Throwdown

Okay, perhaps this is a bad idea, but I'm in for this:

Monday, May 28, 2012

YALSA Nonfiction Awards

Below is the text from the YALSA nonfiction awards, from

This is one award among many.  I encourage you to check out the whole list at their site.

Nonfiction Award
nonfiction awardnonfiction awardnonfiction award
The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a November 1 – October 31 publishing year. The award winner will be announced annually at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media Awards, with a shortlist of up to five titles named the first week of December.
Seals for the winning titles, finalist titles, and nominated titles can be purchased from the ALA Online Store.


2012 Winner

The Notorious Benedict Arnold
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery written by Steve Sheinkin, published by Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. ISBN: 978-1-59643-4686-8
Treating history as mystery, Sheinkin takes readers through means, motive, and opportunity as he outlines Arnold’s path towards treason. This well researched (with liberal use of primary sources) cradle to grave biography emphasizes the political, social, and military issues within the Colonial army and how Arnold ambitiously maneuvered his own career through grit and determination.
“In this illuminating biography, Sheinkin proves that spoilers don’t matter—it’s not whether or not Arnold betrayed his country, but why,” said YALSA Nonfiction Award Chair Jennifer Hubert.

2012 Finalists

Sugar Changed the WorldBootlegWheels of ChangeMusic Was It
Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science written by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 978-0-61857492-6
Blending facts with a fascinating personal narrative, this true tale of the sugar trail provides readers with an intimate and troubling portrait of the white grains that sweeten everything from their coffee to their bubblegum. The authors use both their own family histories and as many individual accounts as possible to demonstrate that sugar changed the course of commerce, government, slavery, invention and immigration. This complex and challenging history is supported by sharp black and white photos (with links to color images) and detailed source notes.
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition written by Karen Blumenthal, published by Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. ISBN: 978-1-59643-449-3
This impeccably researched account of the history of the Temperance movement provides an interesting look at the societal issues and historical figures behind the passage of the 18th Amendment. Blumenthal also describes the unintended consequences of gangsters (including the famous Al Capone) committing alcohol-related crimes, as well as adults and children ignoring the law to bootleg and smuggle during the 13 years it was in effect. Black and white photos, archival materials, and a glossary enhance this engaging and readable work.
Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) written by Sue Macy, published by National Geographic Children’s Books. ISBN: 978-1-42630-761-4
With the invention of the bicycle, women began by riding sidesaddle but quickly switched to riding astride sleek two-wheelers as they left their restraining corsets and petticoats in the dust with bloomers their preferred bicycling outfit. Adventurer or activist, young or old, African American or white, many women quickly adopted this new mode of transportation. As the period photographs, colorful advertisements, sidebars, and primary source material proclaim, bicycles empowered women to seek the freedom they’d long been denied.
Music Was IT: Young Leonard Bernstein written by Susan Goldman Rubin, published by Charlesbridge. ISBN: 978-1-58089-344-2
Rubin entices readers with her lively account of the challenging and passionate life of young Leonard Bernstein, beginning with his childhood in Boston and concluding with his brilliant conducting debut, at the age of twenty-five, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic.  A short epilogue relates the remainder of Bernstein's memorable life.  A timeline, brief biographies of friends and colleagues, a discography, a bibliography, sources of quotations, photo credits and permissions, and an index add to the informative value of this fascinating glimpse into the formative years of a musical genius.

Previous Winners


Winner: Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel
They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; 
Spies of Mississippi:  The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers; 
The Dark Game: True Spy Stories  by Paul Janeczko; 
Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw, published by Charlesbridge
Learn more about the 2011 award.


Winner: Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone,
Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justiceby Phillip Hoose, 
The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum by Candace Fleming, 
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker.
Learn more about the 2010 award.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Middle-School Guided Reading

I'm going to talk a little bit about Guided Reading, an old teaching model that has been used for years in elementary classrooms.  The basic premise is homogeneous groups, working with the teacher, while the rest of the class is working in "stations."

Here are some links to pages about Guided Reading:

Short Summary of the Strategy from Saskatoon Public Schools

Scholastic Publication on Research base for Guided Reading

Overview of Guided Reading from Michigan State University

Here's a quote from the last link (Michigan State University):

What are the Other Students Doing While I’m Teaching Reading Groups? 
There are a variety of options. Students could be reading independently or in small Literature Circles / Book Clubs. Or they could be working in center activities related to reading. Whichever you choose, it is a routine that needs to be taught well in the first few weeks of school in order to be successful.
To me, this sounds a lot like "As long as they're busy, it doesn't much matter."  This is the biggest criticism of Guided Reading as a whole, in my opinion.  I don't think that most teachers do this, but it would be easy to just give the rest of the class busy-work, and focus on the "teacher group."  As long as students were diligently working on the "busy-work," it wouldn't seem to matter much, would it?

There are criteria to keep in mind for stations to be effective:

  1. Station work has to be independent work, so it can't be new material or too challenging, or students won't be able to do it without interrupting the teacher (which is bad).  So keep it relatively easy.
  2. The work must also be engaging enough to keep students focused for the duration of the station, usually at least 20 minutes.  
  3. Some assessment of this station work must occur, and must occur consistently, or students won't put any serious effort into completing it.  
The challenge with middle school students is that they are both less patient and more perceptive than typical elementary students with work that lacks a clear sense of purpose.  For example, unless you have built value into silent reading (or if you have a class full of focused readers, a rarity in middle school), you probably won't be able to get a group of students to focus on reading independently for any length of time with so much else going on in the room, and without the direct observation of the teacher.  Designing a good station can take a lot of time, and it often produces material from the students that requires additional time to read and respond to.  

So, in a middle-school setting, what do you need to do to make this work?  Here are some things that my co-workers and I have found (or have learned from others):
  • Create a consistent structure for students to use in the station, and follow it for a long time.  For example, use a Making Words book for a vocabulary station, and have students complete a vocabulary activity several times over several weeks using different words.  
  • Pre-teach station activities as much as you can, so that students are comfortable with the work before they attempt to complete it in the stations.  
  • Students often enjoy the stations if there is a chance to work with peers, and adding even a small element of "fun" increases the effectiveness enormously.  Having students analyze picture books, for example, can be very effective.  
  • Grade only one station, but don't let students know in advance which station will be graded.  
  • Practice the procedures as much as possible early in the school year, and follow them consistently.  Follow the same procedure for grouping and rotations.  Groups should change (flexible grouping is important), but the way that you tell the students what group they are in and what they are doing should stay the same.  I also use a timer and a signal to announce a change in rotation (a $5 Wal-Mart bicycle horn).  
  • Make sure that you have a procedure for early finishers.  
  • Be creative with the stations.  Nonfiction reading, for example, can be a very cool station.  We had success with material from our science books that we never managed to get to - the books were readily available, familiar to the students, and reasonably engaging.  
I'm sure I will think of more to say here, and I'm not pretending to be an expert on guided reading in middle school.  But if you're curious or considering using it in the upper grades, it's a powerful instructional strategy when used well.  It just takes a lot of prep time.  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Web Hoaxes

I taught a lesson not too long ago about reliability of sources.

The web is good for this because there is so much that is unreliable.

Take this for example:

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus?  Really?  I had students who were ready to believe this.

I also showed this one:

If you click the other tabs, you'll see the modified photo of a pregnant man.  That usually gets them, even if they accept the notion of a rat with human intelligence.

If they still think the mouse and the man are legitimate, you can google the name of the supposed hospital, and you get articles about the author, including the following from The Daily Scotsman:
Yes, the whole thing – as you will know already if you followed the story at the time – is an elaborate “installation” by the artist Virgil Wong. According to the biography on Wong’s own website,, he is head of web design and development for New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, which would explain both his knowledge of medical jargon and the painstakingly professional sheen of the Dwayne Medical Center website. He is also an artist and film-maker whose various projects “all revolve around his interests in medicine, technology and the human body”.

I tried googling this in front of the students, where the students could see the computer screen projected.  The results are not entirely clear.  Consider, for example, the article in USA Today about this:

Dwayne Medical Center is listed first as a "hot site."  Is it true?  You can't really tell from this page.  In fact, I'm not sure if the writers at USA Today realized it was a hoax. is a good place to go from here - a website that helps you evaluate good (or bad) hoaxes and urban legends.  There are some good examples of phishing scams there.

The focus, of course, is on developing strategies to verify and cross-check what you read on the Internet.  It also segues nicely into persuasive writing and research.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Twitter in the Classroom?

So, I signed up for Twitter a few months ago, and I've become a big fan.  To my surprise, I was also given a school account by my district.  I was at a loss for how to use it at first, but then I thought about the hashtag concept.

If you aren't familiar, the "hashtag" is a way of making your "tweets" - the things you post on Twitter - instantly searchable.  If you tweet something with a hashtag that others are using, people can watch the feed for a specific hashtag, and they will see your contribution pop up as part of a conversation.  For example, a recent hashtag was #5words.  People tweeted a five-word phrase that they considered important or enlightening, and then tagged it.  Then everyone else could search for that hashtag, and follow the tweets as they came out.

So, it occurred to me, why not create a hashtag and use that to have an ongoing, synchronous conversation with another classroom?  I posted something about this on the English Companion Ning, and I had two or three responses almost instantly.  That was cool, but I had no idea what to do about that.  Now that I have the Twitter account, I don't know that I have the time to insert a text or unit that we can collaborate on with another classroom.  (As is usually the case, at this point in the year, I'm dumping cool ideas that I've been putting off, and trying to jam as many cool ideas and new ideas for next year into the classroom as I can before school is over.  Between the required stuff and the stuff I want, I don't have much room left.)

So, since that didn't work, I just started actually using it.  I felt like I had waited too long, and tried too many different propositions, and ended up wasting time.  So, I just started tweeting "cool sentences" on my school Twitter account.  Students volunteered these sentences, and I tweeted them.  I recently tried the #5words hashtag (though I didn't use the actual tag because I didn't want too much unwanted attention drawn to the school account), and that worked really well.

So, with five weeks left of school, I'm thinking about other ways to use this.

I think the goal for the next several weeks is going to be just tweeting as much student work as I can.  It should be - or it seems like it would best serve as - a student publication tool, of very short student texts.  So, I'm going to publish anything and everything that I can, without breaking district rules.

I would love to hear other ideas, if anyone has suggestions.

Friday, April 20, 2012

April is the cruelest month . . .

So I started something on Twitter that represents a kind of mental fungus that I've been dealing with for several years.  It seems like a lot of bad stuff happens in April.  Perhaps we can blame Eliot's The Waste Land for starting the idea, perhaps not.

Anyway, here is the beginning of a list of things (mostly bad) that happened in April.

April 1st
- Beer Hall Putsch (Hitler's first power grab)
- Marvin Gaye shot and killed by his own father

April 2nd
- Pope John Paul II dies
- Argentina invades the Falkland islands

April 3rd
- Bruno Hauptmann is executed for kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby
- the Unabomber is arrested

April 4th
- Assassination of Martin Luther King
- Second Battle of the Somme

April 5th
- Rosenbergs sentenced to death for spying
- Kurt Cobain commits suicide

April 6th
- US Declares war on Germany and enters WWI
- Oscar Wilde arrested
- Black Hawk War begins

April 7th
- Rwandan civil war begins

April 9th
- Civil War ends at Appomattox

April 10th
- Zapata is assassinated in Mexico
- Bataan Death March begins

April 11th
- Napoleon exiled to Elba
- Idi Amin is overthrown
- US troops liberate Buchenwald concentration camp

April 12th
- Civil War begins
- Franklin Roosevelt dies
- Galileo is convicted of heresy

April 13th
- Amritsar Massacre
- Apollo 13 oxygen tank explodes

April 14th
- Lincoln is shot
- Titanic hits iceberg
- US bombs Libya
- Soviets announce withdrawal from Afghanistan
- Major Dust Bowl storm strikes

April 15th
- Pol Pot dies
- Sacco and Vanzetti receive national press

April 16th
- Virginia Tech massacre
- Lenin returns from exile to Russia

April 17th
- Bay of Pigs invasion
- Ben Franklin dies
- Khmer Rouge seize power in Cambodia

April 18th
- Great San Francisco Earthquake
- Bombing of US Embassy in Beirut

April 19th
- Warsaw Uprising
- David Kuresh and the Branch Davidian compound burns
- Oklahoma City bombing
- Lord Byron's untimely death in Greece

April 20th
- Columbine High School massacre
- Ludlow massacre of striking workers

April 21st
- Battle of San Jacinto

April 22nd
- Germans are first to use poison gas
- Pat Tillman killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan

April 23rd
- Easter Rebellion
- Failed hostage rescue mission in Iran

April 25th
- Invasion of Gallipoli begins

April 26th
- Chernobyl nuclear disaster

April 27th
- Afghan president is overthrown and murdered
- First multiracial elections held in South Africa

April 28th
- Mussolini executed
- Mutiny on the HMS Bounty

April 29th
- Rodney King trial verdict announced leading to riots in LA

April 30th
- Hitler commits suicide
- Monica Seles stabbed
- South Vietnam surrenders

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Ah, research.  How the months have passed already.

I think that's the problem.  Other things happened, and now I'm rushing to finish teaching research methods and still have time for students to synthesize something from the research.

From this point, I'm starting to think about next year already, and planning how to start teaching research sooner.  Like most schools, sometimes there's a crush of teachers and students vying for computer lab time, and plans have to be modified.

I think the lesson here, for me, is that research is something that needs to be separated from computers, at least in part.  Too often research is seen as solely the province of computers, as if it can only be done with the aid of a computer.  Of course that's not true, since it was occurring long before we had these tools.  It does seem a bit cumbersome, though, to a generation of young people who conduct computer-based "research" so often, for so many things, on such a wide range of scales and projects.

Adding another layer to this shifting concept of "research," it seems, takes a little more careful planning and adapting than I had thought.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Andre Norton Nominees Announced

Here are the nominees for this year's Andre Norton award (an award from the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America for the best Young Adult Fantasy and/or Science Fiction book from the previous year):

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and FantasyBook
Usually these are good.

Here's a link to the SFWA site where this is posted.  You can also see the adult books that are nominated this year.  (Hate the innuendo there - stupid "adult book stores" have ruined that phrase.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

I just read this book, and it was pretty good.  I didn't love everything about it, but I was engrossed within a few chapters and wasn't able to switch to a different book.

It's a dystopian future, with a factionalized community living in the Chicago area, divided into "tribes" or groups based on the virtues that they prize above others - Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation.  The main character, Beatrice (who renames herself Tris), lives among the Abnegation, but switches to Dauntless when given her choice.  She struggles to survive the training, and succeeds in the end, only to uncover a plot to disrupt the factionalized system and take over the community.  It's kind of an interesting twist, the way that the community is divided.  I also like the bizarre and cruel way that the Dauntless faction trains its recruits and prepares them for the life they will lead.  I like that there are a lot of unanswered questions left for future books, and I might be curious enough to pick up the second book and continue reading.  But I'm not sure that this is anywhere near as interesting as the books that are becoming the gold standard for me - Hunger Games, the Chaos Walking series, and Fablehaven.  (Maybe Lightning Thief and Harry Potter belong in there too, but on a different level.)

It's surprising how many YA authors are trying to recreate this kind of book - I don't know if it was Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, or some other series that really pushed publishing and authors to consider this genre.  But it's exploding.  I can't keep up.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Anti-Coal Facts

Found this site from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Air Pollution from Coal:

  • 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary human cause of global warming--as much carbon dioxide as cutting down 161 million trees.
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain that damages forests, lakes, and buildings, and forms small airborne particles that can penetrate deep into lungs.
  • 500 tons of small airborne particles, which can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death, as well as haze obstructing visibility.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), as much as would be emitted by half a million late-model cars. NOx leads to formation of ozone (smog) which inflames the lungs, burning through lung tissue making people more susceptible to respiratory illness.
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO), which causes headaches and place additional stress on people with heart disease.
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
  • 170 pounds of mercury, where just 1/70th of a teaspoon deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
  • 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

  • Waste generated:

    Solid wasteWaste created by a typical 500-megawatt coal plant includes more than 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber each year. Nationally, more than 75% of this waste is disposed of in unlined, unmonitored onsite landfills and surface impoundments.
    Toxic substances in the waste -- including arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium -- can contaminate drinking water supplies and damage vital human organs and the nervous system. One study found that one out of every 100 children who drink groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal power plant wastes were at risk of developing cancer. Ecosystems too have been damaged -- sometimes severely or permanently -- by the disposal of coal plant waste.
    Cooling water discharge
    Once the 2.2 billion gallons of water have cycled through the coal-fired power plant, they are released back into the lake, river, or ocean. This water is hotter (by up to 20-25° F) than the water that receives it. This "thermal pollution" can decrease fertility and increase heart rates in fish. Typically, power plants also add chlorine or other toxic chemicals to their cooling water to decrease algae growth. These chemicals are also discharged back into the environment.
    Waste heat
    Much of the heat produced from burning coal is wasted. A typical coal power plant uses only 33-35% of the coal's heat to produce electricity. The majority of the heat is released into the atmosphere or absorbed by the cooling water.
    Environmental Impact:
    Coal mining
    About 60% of U.S. coal is stripped from the earth in surface mines; the rest comes from underground mines. Surface coal mining may dramatically alter the landscape. Coal companies throughout Appalachia often remove entire mountain tops to expose the coal below. The wastes are generally dumped in valleys and streams.
    In West Virginia, more than 300,000 acres of hardwood forests (half the size of Rhode Island) and 1,000 miles of streams have been destroyed by this practice.
    Underground mining is one of the most hazardous of occupations, killing and injuring many in accidents, and causing chronic health problems.
    Coal transportation
    A typical coal plant requires 40 railroad cars to supply 1.4 million tons in a year. That's 14,600 railroad cars a year.
    Railroad locomotives, which rely on diesel fuel, emit nearly 1 million tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and 52,000 tons of coarse and small particles in the United States. Coal dust blowing from coal trains contributes particulate matter to the air.
    Coal storage
    Coal burned by power plants is typically stored onsite in uncovered piles. Dust blown from coal piles irritates the lungs and often settles on nearby houses and yards. Rainfall creates runoff from coal piles. This runoff contains pollutants that can contaminate land and water.

    Water Use:
    A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year from nearby water bodies, such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, to create steam for turning its turbines. This is enough water to support a city of approximately 250,000 people. 
    When this water is drawn into the power plant, 21 million fish eggs, fish larvae, and juvenile fish may also come along with it -- and that's the average for a single species in just one year. In addition, EPA estimates that up to 1.5 million adult fish a year may become trapped against the intake structures. Many of these fish are injured or die in the process.

    Some Coal Facts

    From pro-coal industry website Fast Facts About Coal:

    • Nine out of ten tons of coal in the U.S. are used to generate electricity.
    • More than 2.3 million acres of mined land have been reclaimed over the past 25 years—that’s an area larger than the state of Delaware.
    • The United States has about a 235-year supply of coal, if it continues using coal at the same rate at which it uses coal today.
    • Montana is the state with the most coal reserves (119 billion tons). But Wyoming is the top coal-producing state—it produced over 400 million tons in 2010.
    • Texas is the top coal-consuming state. It uses about 100 million tons each year.
    • The average coal miner is 50 years old and has 20 years of experience.
    • Coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, is used as filler for tennis racketsgolf balls, and linoleum.
    • U.S. coal deposits contain more energy than that of all the world’s oil reserves.

    I found a really good article about the coal industry on the website of the West Virginia Gazette:
    Left out of the Daily Mail’s news coverage?
    There was no mention of another recent report (also not really peer-reviewed) by the folks at Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, which argued that coal actually costs the state government more money than it generates.
    And neither of their stories mentioned the growing body of work coming out of West Virginia University (hardly an institution that is out to get the coal industry)  about how residents near coal mining operations generally and mountaintop removal sites specifically show poorer health than those who don’t leave near mining.
    Good stuff.  Arguing about bad media coverage.