Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My beef with "Word Crimes"

I know a lot of people have posted this new Weird Al video to their social media feeds and laughed about it

but I have to be honest and say that I've been stewing about it for the past two weeks. As an English teacher, I am programmed to notice things like symbolism, metaphor, and juxtaposition in everyday life. So maybe it was because the day before I saw this video, I had just read Kevin English's brilliant post about the notion of "bad grammar" and then the very next day I experience a heavy dose of the exact issue Kevin is cringing about.

I know I run the risk of being told I have no sense of humor here when I say I didn't find "Word Crimes" funny at all. I especially don't find it productive to share in a classroom full of students who are already likely intimidated by writing. Let's just give them more reasons to think they can't do it. Grammar Girl also concurs with my finding no humor in the video and explains why she finds it problematic:

Perhaps the most troubling thing for me is seeing teachers who say they are going to use this in class because kids will find it funny and it will make them care about grammar. The entire ending of the video is putting down people who have trouble writing. The video says it’s OK to call people who can’t spell morons, droolers, spastics, and mouth breathers. Really, you’re going to use an educational tool that tells your struggling kids that they’re stupid? It just blows my mind that any teacher would think that’s OK.

Maybe I'm just hypersensitive about this issue since I will be presenting at NCTE in November with some amazing teachers about how we can try to change this narrative of "students can't write" but I want to empower my students to feel like they CAN write, not give them yet another reason to feel like it's something completely out of reach for them.

I posted these very thoughts about this issue on Facebook and a spirited debate ensued, some teachers finding my stance problematic because I put little faith in students to "get" that it's parody, but thankfully, I had the wit and wisdom of my friend and fellow NCTE presenter Kevin English on my side, who always knows exactly the right thing to say, and how to say it much more eloquently than I could:

I believe that the moves we make in our classroom, including the clips that we share, should lift students up. I don't see a place for this in the classroom for the reasons Beth already shared. I work with many students who struggle with writing. What they don't need is to continue the idea that I, as an English teacher, am the keeper of the rules and the wielder of the red pen. There is value in their home languages and grammars, and language changes all the time. Should students recognize that their audiences might judge them because they don't adhere to rules? Yes. Should they also know that what they bring to the classroom is valued, important, and equally legitimate? Even more so!

The title alone bothers me. These aren't "crimes," even jokingly so. Students hear enough punitive language as it is. It reminds me of the time a student said he "raped" his test. There's a power structure at play here in language, but I don't lose anything when someone swaps "fewer" with "less." But I can lose my relationship with that person if I point out what people would consider a misuse.

What compounds this debate is that there are so many usage guides that disagree and all purport to be the authoritative voice on academic English. This is why I want students to think more like a linguist. Does it make sense? Is it clear in meaning? Are there any moments that could confuse readers as to what your intended meaning is?

A few days later, Kevin shared a link with me that took me to a blog post by Lauren Squires called 25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes" which urges teachers to do just what Kevin wants his students to do: think like a linguist rather than a grammarian:

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I've seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn't already know what a "preposition" was leave Weird Al's video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don't do things that way, you're a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these "rules" are what they are.

So I hope that if you are a teacher and you do want to use this video with students, you do it in a way that engages in a discussion, not only about the humor of it, but also why it is problematic. I pray that it isn't used as more fodder for grammarians to lecture students about how "improper" their writing is. Please read Lauren's 25 Questions for Teaching with "Word Crimes" before you show this video in a classroom.

Edited to add the following tweets as part of the conversation:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Storify archives curation -- July #nctechat and #titletalk

The past two Sundays I participated in some amazing professional Twitter chats. I wanted to post the tweets I saved from those chats as a way for others to see what worthwhile professional learning can happen in 140 characters or less.

The topic for last night's #titletalk was beginning school year routines.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Changing the narrative -- one story, one workshop at a time

The impetus for this blog came as the result of taking a class with Dr. Cathy Fleischer at Eastern Michigan University called Writing, Public Policy, and Public Writing. This week, I had the privilege of attending a workshop called Telling Our Stories/Raising Our Voices: From Anecdote to Action. This workshop took the material from the aforementioned class and condensed it into two days. One would think that since I already took an entire semester-long version of the workshop that I wouldn't feel the need to attend, but one would be wrong. Condensing the material down into two days really helped remind me of all the important lessons I learned in the class, and also motivated me to keep working at changing the narrative of how teachers are portrayed and treated in this country.

Working with all those passionate, proactive voices in the room reinforced in me the need for educators to speak up and speak out against the ways teachers are framed by the public.

Since the material was condensed, I will give you a shortened, bullet-pointed version of the things I learned, or had reinforced in the past two days:
  • There is another narrative of education out there other than what the popular media is selling and we as educators need to work to have that narrative heard. 
  • Marshall Ganz developed the concept of public narrative -- the story of self, the story of us, the story of now -- as an impetus for advocacy (to see a perfect example of public narrative at play, watch Obama's 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention).
  • Change starts with a single story (the story of self) and finds a way to relate that story to others (the story of us) in order to appeal an urgent need to the public (the story of now).
  • How we frame our issues to the public is important in how we are perceived -- taking an affirmative (rather than a negative) stance is always preferred.
  • Once you have an issue and know how to frame it, it's important that you cut that issue into something smaller and more manageable. For example, if your issue is the negative affects of standardized testing, which is a huge issue with many different angles, a way to cut the issue is to appeal to parents that it takes away too many weeks of valuable instructional time.
  • As hopeful and idealistic teachers, we want to tackle Big Topics, but starting small and gradually working toward making bigger change is a better strategy and more likely to lead to success. 

I shamefully admit I was really struggling with an issue I wanted to tackle in this workshop. I had a mind block that, "Well, I already did all of this in a semester-long class so I don't need to do it again," which was a really unproductive way of thinking since the last time I checked, the vitriol aimed at teachers these days is still going strong, if not getting worse. So I owe it to my profession to speak up and speak out.

Once I got passed that mind block and started to talk to my fellow workshop attendees, as well as a great conversation I had with our fearless leader, Cathy Fleischer, I decided that I wanted to tackle the topic of the need for administrators to see the importance of autonomous professional learning for teachers. In my role as social media coordinator at NCTE, I see this as an important issue because I know that so many teachers pay their own way to annual convention despite the fact that registration, transportation, and room and board is REALLY expensive on a teacher salary. But teachers pay those expenses because they know what a valuable experience it is to attend. I would like administrators to see why teacher-led PD as well as PD that teachers seek out on their own is much more valuable than district-mandated PD.

One of our tasks in this workshop (along with the class I took last year) was to create an "elevator speech." A 30-60 second quip about our issue and why it's important. Learning to be succinct can be a challenge when you're taking about a topic you are passionate about, so this was definitely a difficult but worthwhile exercise. This is what I came up with for my elevator pitch: 

An empowered, knowledgeable faculty leads to a student population that sees the value of education beyond the classroom. Part of the formula in empowering teachers is to not only give them autonomy in their classrooms, but in their professional learning as well. Rather than looking at professional development as an expense, what if we instead approached it as an investment? (1) The question many administrators might have then is, "What if we invest in these teachers and they leave?" My question to you however is "What if we don't and they stay?" (2)

Overall, the workshop was not only worthwhile but also encouraging to see so many educators who felt like they now have the tools to make their voices heard. As stated above, there is another narrative of education that deserves and NEEDS to be heard and we, the educators, need to tell it.

(1) Miller, Donalyn and Susan Kelley. Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
(2) I wish I could take credit for the cleverness of this last line, but I actually stole it from this tweet from Sharon Porter.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My how times -- and learning -- has changed

On this, the penultimate day of our EMWP summer institute, we celebrated with a few authors who came to visit room 320 at the Eastern Michigan University Student Center. One of the authors who came to visit was Marquin Parks, teacher and author of the Wrinkles Wallace series. He was gracious enough to read us a snippet of book two of Wrinkles Wallace and what I was immediately struck by, was that he didn't pull out a binder of printed pages or even a laptop computer from which to read to us. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone. I'm still in awe of how the landscape of reading and learning has changed so drastically in the past five years. To know that the depth and breadth of human knowledge can now fit inside your pocket is both exciting, but also a huge responsibility -- one that teachers can't ignore, and should also utilize in their own classrooms.

This idea hit home even further when, as Marquin was reading, he stopped and said in mock annoyance, "Hey stop tweeting! I keep getting notifications while I'm reading and it's messing me up."
Marquin reads to us from a draft of book two of Wrinkles Wallace... on his Smartphone

As we all laughed I started thinking how, despite its humor, this was also a really poignant moment at the same time. Marquin wasn't mad that we were tweeting because he thought we weren't paying attention. He was irritated because we WERE paying attention but due to our enthusiasm with wanting to share his wisdom with the world, his Twitter feed was blowing up and it was distracting him.

So the question is, how do we navigate those distractions while also honoring the value that these digital tools bring into our classrooms? It's an ever evolving process but one that we have to acknowledge. As a teacher, I understand that technology is a tool and not the curriculum and there are still ways to teach without it, but I also know that we need to meet students where they are, and where they are is on smartphones and tablet computers. I am shirking my responsibility as an educator if I don’t help guide students in living responsible digital lives. We should be helping them navigate this digital landscape, not setting them adrift on a ship all alone, left to their own.... wait for it... devices.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Thank you EMWP

I'm sitting here reading through the comments on my EMWP portfolio and trying very hard not to cry. I've never felt so empowered as a writer and as a human being as I do right now. I want to make sure I capture this feeling and transfer it to the feedback I give my own students. Thank you Bill Tucker, Shari Hales, and Erin Umpstead. You didn't just see my writing; you saw me.

The time I thought I couldn't...

My EMWP colleague, Erin Umpstead, wrote this amazing piece about how writing is like hula-hooping.

I have never been able to hula-hoop in my life. As a child I would put the object around my waist,
Erin's hula hoop
The hula hoop, it mocks me.
start moving my hips, and immediately it was on the ground. To help inspire her writing, Erin brought in her own hula-hoop to the summer institute for inspiration and it has remained in room 320, mocking me.

So as others in the summer institute were looking for writing inspiration, they would grab the hula hoop and go to town. I, however, looked at the object with great disdain and envied all my colleagues who could actually keep the hula hoop around their waist as they gyrated their hips.

But apparently a proper hula-hoop needs to be weighted. And it should come up to your belly-button as it rests on the ground and stands on end. These two things make all the difference and can change you from a hula-hooping failure (me) to a hula-hooping master.

At first I was dubious of this idea that weights and proper height could transform my hula-hooping ability (or lack thereof), but I decided to, in the spirit of the Writing Project, make myself vulnerable and give it a go.

And before I knew it...
Beth hula hooping

I feel as if I must add a reason to Erin's piece for why writing is like hula-hooping and it's true of what I've experienced here at the summer institute...

...because even if you think you can't do it, you really can!! 

EMWP Demonstration Lesson: Plagiarism, Emulation, and Originality

For the Eastern Michigan Writing Project summer institute this year, participants created a demonstration lesson in pairs rather than as an individual. At first I was a bit dubious about this idea, thinking that I would prefer to work on my own, but it actually turned out to be a really enjoyable experience. Since my partner Michael and I had completed projects on similar topics in another graduate class we had taken together (his project was on plagiarism, mine was on emulation), we decided to put those two ideas together and create this demonstration on Plagiarism, Emulation, and Originality.

The lesson starts off by looking at the famous William Carlos Williams poem "This is Just to Say" and then asking participants to emulate this poem. We then go into sharing an example of an emulation I came up with -- except I only changed one word from the original Williams poem. Then we shared the next slide in which I've only changed two words, and so on. This leads to a rich discussion about "OK, when is it emulation and when is it plagiarism?"

From there, the discussion moves on to emulation and theft in other art forms such as visual art and music, and then we talk about how having students emulate other writers can help lead them into their own original creations.

It was a pleasure to present with my partner Michael and I hope we have the chance to do it again sometime, either at another EMWP meeting or at a conference.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You are enough.

The day I was tasked with assigning the daily writing prompt during my time at the Eastern Michigan Writing Project summer institute, I decided to read the picture book Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison. The first time I read this book, I was so moved that I began to weep when I reached the last page. The message of Extraordinary Jane speaks to so many of us, and I think it speaks to all of the Writing Project participants. We compare themselves to others and feel like we don't belong among our brilliant colleagues. But we do belong. I do belong. And so after reading Extraordinary Jane to my colleagues, the writing prompt I chose was just three simple words:

You are enough. 

To talk back to that prompt, I decided to emulate the style of Harrison's text in her book, Extraordinary Jane.


Beth was ordinary
in a class of extraordinary writers.

She couldn't turn an everyday object
into a brilliant metaphor
like Bill
or weave a beautiful poem
like Lorena.

She didn't blow people's minds
like Michael
or make people laugh
like Amy.

Beth was just

She tried to find her writing niche
but poetry was a struggle
crot essays didn't make sense
(how can you write an essay with no transitions?!)
op eds made her brain hurt
and then there was that disaster of a novel
she tried to write once.

Beth was just

A solid, capable, all-around

And that was is enough.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A letter to my students

I wrote this letter on the second day of the 2014 Eastern Michigan Writing Project. We went on a writing marathon to various locations in the area and this piece came out of our first stop, which was at Whole Foods of all places. Now that I'm coming back into the classroom in the fall, I felt the need to let my students know just how much they mean to me. I don't think this is the final version, but I do want to read this to them on the first week of school.

To my students:

I want you to know that I believe in you. There are innumerable messages coming at you these days from people telling you that you CAN'T:

These students can't even identify what a verb is.
These students can't write.
These students just can't learn.

But through the sea of voices telling you what you can't do, I want you to listen for my voice across the din and hear me saying that you can. Let me be your beacon, a respite from the storm because you, too, serve as my guidepost, a constant reminder for why I continue to weather this storm. I hear the same discouraging messages, telling me that I'm not doing enough to make you "college and career ready." While you are being called "these students" I am being called "you people" and in one reductive swoop, informed that I want too much despite never doing enough.

But to me, you are enough. You keep me passionate and excited to come to work everyday even when all the other noise that surrounds me (testing, teacher evaluation, politicians, scripted curricula...) is telling me I want to quit. I did, in fact, quit for a year. But do you know what ultimately called me back? Each and every one of you. 

You make me happy.
You make me fullfilled.
You matter.
I believe in you.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The nErDcamp Revolution

Logo designed by Laurie Keller

"Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. When people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”  - John Green

When most teachers think of professional development, what usually comes to mind is soul-sucking, district-mandated drivel that doesn't really develop anything other than the desire to gouge out your eyes with a paperclip if it will get you out of having to sit through another mind-numbing in-service led by an "expert" who has never taught a day in her life.

But the encouraging news is that teachers are starting to take their professional development back in the form for Edcamps. An Edcamp is what is known as an unconference. Instead of writing proposals and having a committee of people to read through and decide months in advance who will present, Edcamps have no set schedule until the day of the conference.What makes Edcamps so revolutionary is that this is a small but mighty step in proving to the establishment that we're tired of being told how to do our jobs by people who aren't in the classroom. So instead of waiting for administrators to realize the necessity of teachers learning from each other, teachers have decided to stop waiting and just do it themselves. We're taking our profession back and telling the doubters, "Don't you worry; we got this."

nErDcamp is a spinoff of the Edcamp model with a literacy focus. The name nErDcamp comes from Nerdy Book Club co-founder Colby Sharp who, along with his wife Alaina and a slew of Nerdy planners and volunteers, began the first nErDcamp last year. This year's nErDcamp was even bigger and better, with two days of learning rather than one.

  • Day one comprised of planned sessions, ending with a keynote by Donalyn Miller. In the evening there was also a Nerd Run 5K.
  • Day two involved the main part of nErDcamp which were the unplanned sessions, followed by Nerd Camp Jr. in the evening.

I could only attend day one since I am currently participating in the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, but even that was enough to make me realize what a powerful force this new model of professional learning has become. Teachers from all over the country (and even Canada), descended upon Western High School in Parma, Michigan to learn from each other and to celebrate what it means to be a nerd. Nerdy teachers, as John Green pointed out in the quote above, are wholeheartedly and unabashedly enthusiastic. We don't hold back our love of learning. When you release us from our cages of stifling, dispassionate bureaucracy and place us in a setting with other Nerds, an explosion of Nerdtastic fervor happens. As evidenced by the fact that #nErDcampMI was a #1 trending topic on Twitter last weekend:
nErDcamp trending
Photo credit: Dan Spencer

As Colby Sharp pointed out in this tweet:
It's hard to believe the small town of Parma, Michigan could be the center of the universe, but for the 300+ teachers that came to nErDcamp and the people on Twitter who weren't there but wished they could be, so it was. If only for a couple days.

Mark your calendars because on July 6 & 7, 2015 nErDcamp will return for year three. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Nerdcamp 2014
Cindy Minnich and her son Bryson came to Michigan from Pennsylvania
There were pins from all over the U.S. and even Canada!
Nerd camp swag
Just a small sample of the generosity of publishers who provided books for the swag bags
Nerdcamp 2014
Colby Sharp introduces Donalyn Miller's keynote to a full auditorium
Nerdcamp 2014
Nerd Run 5K awards
Love these ladies! me with Cindy Minnich, Donalyn Miller, Niki Barnes and Kristin McIlhagga
Nerd camp Jr
Linda Urban talks about how to add detail to your writing to the kids at Nerd Camp Jr.

To see all I learned from Nerd Camp, check out my Storify:
#nErDcampMI 2014: Tweeting My Learning

EMWP: A day in the life

One of the things we are tasked with as participants in the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Summer Institute is to create a daily log for each day. Individuals sign up for a day and find a way to present their "day in the life" creations. Here is my daily log for July 9, 2014:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

National Writing Project: See What Everybody's Talking About

This week I started the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Summer Institute. Reflecting on my first week, I now understand why I have heard teachers speak of it in only positive and superlative ways. Since the institute is only three weeks this summer, I actually feel kind of cheated out of that fourth week now. I don't think I'm going to want it to be over after only three weeks. I have driven home from Eastern Michigan University each day this week feeling empowered and energized. Teachers, if you've never done the Writing Project before, put it on your bucket list. And don't assume that it's only for English teachers. Educators of all subject-areas and backgrounds participate. What we all have in common is a passion for our students and a need to better ourselves by continually learning and growing.

To learn more about the National Writing Project or to locate a site in your area, visit the NWP website.