Lost But Now Found

On September 15, 2020, Dan Martin (a professor at Central Washington University) ironically tweeted that “Academia is reading a book & then forgetting that book ever existed.  Regardless of what prompted this tweet, I’m guessing that most CRWP blog readers (myself included) would tend to disagree.  Nevertheless, I have recently been writing a reading memoir, which reminded me of all my forgotten books.

To jar my memory I’ve been constructing a list of every book I’ve ever read using the Goodreads platform. After two months of compiling books, I stand at 1125 books read and 90% forgotten.

While a book’s fate may be bleak, as Dan Martin’s tweet implies, I see forgotten books as a place for joyful or insightful re-discovery and the Goodreads platform has afforded me this place. My adult leisure reading of primarily mysteries and thrillers with a splash of science fiction/fantasy has a now vividly-recalled childhood base with every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden book read with a passion. Likewise, I see my adult interest in gaming has its foundations in childhood science fiction fantasy books, such as the Witch Mountain series, Tuck Everlasting, Gulliver’s Travels, and Rats of NIMH.

Interestingly, the Goodreads list has forced me to confront eight boxes that have been sitting in the garage for nineteen years. I had thought these boxes contained books from when I taught in Japan. In truth, I had avoided the boxes for nearly two decades because a few (filled not with books but with my grandparents’ vinyl records from the 1940s and 1950s) had been stolen during a 2001 move from Arizona to Michigan. I was in such grief, no longer having my grandparents’ beloved WWII-era keepsakes (along with some of my own vinyl records from the 1970s and 80s), that I pretended the remaining boxes simply did not exist.

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Decision Fatigue: Part 2

In her first blog post in this series, Megan Kowalski talked about the power of using templates with her middle school students to help them build confidence as writers. Drawing from They Say / I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, Megan taught her students first to use templates and then noticed over time that they began to move away from the templates and make their own choices. 

When I reflect on what happened in that process, I’d like to consider what I really did was address something called decision fatigue, which I will address in more detail below.  In providing them with a template to create a strong first draft, I’d removed a lot of the little choices they’d need to make along the way to generate text.  This freed up their mental energy so they could focus it more fully on developing their ideas in response to the prompt.  Instead of spending energy choosing between two words, students were able to spend energy exploring their own ideas and deciding how best to defend and explain those ideas.  

Teachers make a lot of decisions during a typical day. Some of these decisions are relatively minor (what shoes will I be most comfortable in today?) while others are pretty important (how am I going to address a student’s recent trauma?).  Students also make a lot of minute-by-minute decisions that feel huge to them, especially as they enter adolescence.  While teachers may be especially prone to decision fatigue, our adolescents are likely even more prone to this feeling because every decision they make feels equally important– in short, every decision matters an awful lot to them.  In really considering the idea of decision fatigue in my students, I realized that it might greatly impact their writing and that there might be a way for me to address their decision fatigue through templates.  Continue reading

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Decision Fatigue

I teach in an inner-city school and work with students who have a variety of disabilities including specific learning disabilities, autism, behavior disorders, and many other labels.  My students are smart and capable, but they’re not always able to display these traits without some accommodations.  Two years ago, I was assigned a caseload of 13 amazing, funny, and energetic students.  I had worked with many of the students for at least one school year and very much looked forward to working with all of them again.  

The hitch was that I was assigned to teach English Language Arts to this group of 11 14-year-olds spanning three grade levels and testing between kindergarten and fourth-grade reading levels in a 60 minute period, without being provided a curriculum source we could share.  Many of the things I liked most about these students (their big personalities, decisive natures, and an unending supply of energy and enthusiasm) also made them very demanding members of a class.  

I had spent the previous time we had worked together in much smaller groups spanning two or fewer grade levels and usually six or fewer students.  I had tried before to work in centers doing short mini-lessons and sending students off to work independently, but it just didn’t work well for students who wanted and needed my full attention.  In my previous writing assignments, I spent a lot of time consulting with students one-on-one, conferencing frequently, and helping them edit and revise every sentence until they produced a draft that satisfied them and me.  There was no way I would have time for this kind of one-on-one attention in my writing assignments this year.  Besides, many of my biggest personalities in the group would often capitalize quickly on my divided attention to joke around or otherwise stall to keep from working.  This kind of behavior was especially frequent on my most difficult assignments, suggesting that students were likely to misbehave when they didn’t feel confident enough to complete an assignment on their own.   Continue reading

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Standing Up for Students: One Middle School Teacher’s Urgent Plea against Standardized Testing during the COVID Pandemic

We have officially been in our “Stay at Home” order for about four weeks. In addition, Michigan schools will no longer meet face-to-face this year. During my time at home, I have been doing some processing and reflecting on education and where our education system is currently functioning, is going, and will be going after all this is over.

Image from Pixabay user F1 Digitals

There is one particular thought that keeps popping to the surface of my brain as I sift through all the chaos that is swirling. As states, educators, and parents push forward to ultimately guide our students for the rest of the academic school year, it is my professional and personal opinion students will not be ready for any type of standardized assessment for some time. We are essentially in survival mode and trying to get our students engaged and ready for the next school year. I have even made the plea on Twitter for there to be a call to postpone testing for the next 3-5 years. Only then will our students will be somewhat back in a state of normality and have a better foothold on academics. It is not an unrealistic request given that more states are shutting down for the entire school year like Michigan. Now is the appropriate time to reexamine the necessity of standardized testing and the need for it at all. Education advocate Diane Ravitch has been advocating for teachers and students for years to stop testing students and let teachers teach curriculum instead of teaching to the test.  Continue reading

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Routine Argument Writing Practices: Using Images to Spark Conversation

Students enter my classroom, milling about as they retrieve their writing journals from the bin, and make their way to their seats. While a few glance at the image projected on the screen at the front of the room, most ignore it (and me) and focus on each other. It’s a typical day in my seventh grade ELA classroom.

Kathy Kurtze uses speech bubbles to help students talk about what they see. Click to see more of these.

The bell rings, kids settle as I quickly record my attendance, and I turn out the lights.  I glance around to see that journals are indeed open, pencils poised, and I take a position in the front of the classroom, my journal and pencil in hand. The image is stage left of me.  Above me, posted on the wall in shiny plastic, are speech bubbles with sentence stems. I had drawn large, cartoon-ish bubbles with a wide marker, written phrases in each, and after laminating and cutting them out had posted them before the first day of school. We used them that day, and almost daily ever since. Phrases included the following: “I believe ___ because…”  “ I agree with X when s/he says Y, because….” I see what X is saying, but I think….” “I understand what X means when s/he said Y, but I also think…”   “I disagree with X when s/he says Y because…”.  Just a few short weeks into the school year, my students know which one to use when, and even stop themselves and begin again if they haven’t used one in their initial statement. Some even correct others who begin without one. I expect this day to unfold in the same manner. How did I get here, to this point of patterns being internalized? How did my students learn phrases so well that they could (and did) use them even in their history class when analyzing DBQs (Document Based Questions)? Let’s look at how a lesson unfolds, and see.

Several years ago, I attended a session at an MRA (Michigan Reading Association) Annual Conference led by a docent from the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts). Its topic– ‘reading’ images–intrigued me. I grew up east of Detroit, and visiting the art institute was a common family outing, so I was excited to see which of my favorite pieces would be utilized in this exercise. I came away with more than a rekindling of treasured memories. A few things stood out: with the lights out, students feel more anonymous, and are freer with their participation; the teacher keeps it simple with three repeated phrases:

  • What do you see? 
  • What does it mean? 
  • Why do you say that?

 The teacher repeats what each student says, framing the area the student is referring to with large hand/arm gestures, never making commentary (no “oh, good!” just simple parroting of what was said). I used this practice to ‘read’ images with my students for many years. When I learned about using images to spark conversations in argument writing, I adapted the questions slightly but used the rest of the same technique. Today is no different. Continue reading

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