Monday, July 31, 2006

the ash street inn revisited

Ellen and I are back at the Ash Street Inn in Manchester NH for an afternoon and evening before flying west to Buffalo NY and driving from there to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Canadian segment of our vacation.

It seems a good moment to reflect further on what thoughtful service providers do to provide a welcoming environment for their clients, and what we might learn from such attitudes and actions as we prepare for the beginning of the coming school year.

What strikes me this time around is how thoroughly our innkeepers, Darlene and Eric, have not only anticipated our conscious needs but even some we weren't aware we had. There's the coffee & tea, cookies & fruit on the dining room counter, as I've indicated. But once we reach our second floor room, there's also a comfortable small work table with a soft but bright energy-saving fluorescent light, a collection of "Ash Street Inn" ball point pens in a small round wire-mesh container, an outlet right by the desk so that I can easily plug in my computer and get right to work.

Now it happens that today is the deadline for my 'authorization' of the writing project data we've entered this quarter about our programs and participants. It's no small matter, therefore, that this comfortable and quiet little 'business center' has been set up in this room for use by guests, and no small matter either that the Ash Street Inn is a wireless environment that makes access to the internet both speedy and uncomplicated. It's small touches like these that allow me to enter the needed information, and check the data that's already been entered, with time to spare before the early evening deadline, when this particular online information system closes down for keeps.

That's what I mean by anticipating the unanticipated needs of one's guests. My guess here is that Eric and Darlene have had a number of business travelers who've entered this B&B facing similar deadlines, coming with a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes, wondering how they could possibly meet these deadlines. They prepared their room 'accommodations,' that is, with these guests in mind. The result is one feels a sense of support, and welcome and encouragement, just as if one has been given an unexpected 'leg up' on an arduous climb.

Now wouldn't it be startling if this was the environment and this was the attitude that greeted us as we walked into our first day of school? You have critical deadlines to meet, right? How can we help you meet those deadlines? You're worried about teaching that 9th grade SDAIE class you've never taught before, yes? What can we do to make you feel supported, encouraged to face this class with a sense of eager anticipation? You've been assigned a disproportionate share of special needs students, students who failed this class last year, or just all-around trouble makers, perhaps because you have a reputation for being an effective teacher for such students. How can we help you manage these students, how can we help alleviate your sense that not everyone is pulling on their oars with the same effort that's expected of you?

As my last two examples might suggest, I think that fellow teachers, and especially veteran teachers, can do a lot to promote such a welcoming and supportive environment. Certainly it would take some special effort and some special school site based before-the-school-year investigations. Which of the relatively new teachers has been given particularly challenging teaching assignments? What students have you had that your colleagues will now have, and what can you tell them about teaching these students effectively? What resources for English Learners have you discovered at the school and district level -- both people and curriculum resources -- that one of your colleagues will benefit from learning about? Might you tell your colleague that that especially difficult class at that particularly difficult time of day is one that you have also taught, and that you have survived?

I remember discussing approaches and attitudes such as these when I was co-teaching a series of workshops for the Northern Nevada Writing Project, for which I served as university-based Director from 1983 to 1987. The question we kept asking ourselves is how much time we could afford to 'sacrifice' from the content of our grade level specific workshops in the teaching of writing at the elementary, middle and high school levels for such 'community-building' or 'maintenance' activities. The conclusion we reached, after several years of offering these five-session-only workshop series, was that we never allocated sufficient time for setting the 'climate' for the under-appreciated, wary and skeptical teachers who attended these workshops. My conclusion now is that we could have and should have devoted one quarter of our time -- all of the first three hour session and the beginning of second -- to the sole purpose of making sure these teachers felt welcome, to making sure they knew we understood and appreciated the work they were doing, to providing them with a quiet and comfortable desk, easy access to the internet, and a wire-mesh basket of pens reading "Northern Nevada Writing Project -- a small gift to you for the great job you're doing."

Honestly, would creating such a welcoming environment at your school be all that difficult? Wouldn't the pay-off in teacher productivity and collegiality more than compensate for the time and effort spent on helping to bring such a opening climate of enhanced expectations into being?

Friday, July 28, 2006

anticipation and the ash street inn

When Ellen and I arrived at our B&B on Ash Street in Manchester New Hampshire yesterday afternoon, the innkeepers were not in. There was an envelope on the desk in the vestibule, however, reading "Ellen & Jonathan." Inside was a note, reading as follows:

"Good Afternoon Ellen & Jonathan: Welcome to the Ash Street Inn. Sorry we missed your arrival. We have gone to the coast [of Maine] to run some errands.

"Enclosed is your key, which will open the door in front of you, with the stained glass, as well as your room. Your room, #207, is on the second floor, top of the stairs to the right.

"At the end of the hall on the first floor is the dining room. There is bottled water in the refrigerator as well as snacks on the counter should you be hungry. Please make yourself at home. We should be returning by 4 PM, and will look forward to meeting you then. Darlene & Eric"

What struck me about this note, and the welcoming disposition it represents, is how frequently we encounter this attitude and this approach among teachers (more often those teaching at the elementary than at the secondary level, I will grant) as they prepare their classrooms for the coming school year.

What also struck me is how rarely we encounter such attitudes, such welcoming dispositions, among either teachers or school administrators with regard to their own colleagues or teaching staff. When was the last time you walked into a pre-school year inservice day and found a note from a school administrator reading "Dear [your first name]: Welcome back to school. There is bottled water in the refrigerator as well as snacks on the counter should you be hungry. Please make yourself at home."

We don't receive such notes, nor do we think of composing them for our teaching colleagues, because we do not see ourselves as "clients" for whom the school is providing a "service." We are the ones being paid, after all. We should be the ones providing services, we reason, rather than the ones receiving them. And so we prepare our rooms, we think about what we learned last year or over the summer that might be used to modify the learning opportunities our students will encounter in the coming year, and we prepare our school year curricula.

What would happen if we applied this same "disposition of heightened expectations" to one another? What would happen if school administrators brought the same anticipation of the year to come to their teachers as these same teachers routinely bring to the students they will be teaching?

Isn't the analogy pretty compelling? Prior to the beginning of the school year, we prepare our classrooms and our curriculum materials in the way we do because we anticipate that our students will be more successful as learners because of the modifications and alterations we make in their "learning environments." Why shouldn't the same be true of ourselves as learners? Wouldn't we also be more disposed to see the coming school year as an opportunity for learning something new, for change and growth, if we were regarded just as we regard the students we teach?

What might we do, among ourselves, to bring such beginning-of-the-school-year dispositions into effect? As a start, how about following the lead of Darlene & Eric and writing short notes to our colleagues, welcoming them back? How about talking with your school administrators about the activities they are planning for those inservice days prior to the beginning of the school year? Might everyone on the staff bring in a family photo and write about the event commemorated by this photo; might everyone bring in "something round, something funny, and something they have read" that has special significance to them, and create a short 'speech' about this artifact; might everyone bring in an object from their family's past that has been brought from some prior country and/or culture to their present place of residence, and write about the 'journey' this object has taken?

Why don't we routinely think of such 'community building' exercises as what we expect at the beginning of the school year? Can't we learn to regard our colleagues with the same affection, the same sense of heightened expectation, as we do our very own students?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

practicing what I'm preaching: the power of modeling

In response to my 7/24/06 post called " taking a shot at connecting the dots" (here's the link) Anonymous BR (Blog Reader) wrote:

"I find your idea of school-site-based blogs intriguing (especially the notion of "noticing and describing"), but difficult to enact. Here are a few thoughts:

"1) School's "egg crate" design make it next to impossible for me to see (and so notice and describe) what my colleagues are doing with kids that contribute to their achievement; I can only describe what I hear them say they are doing. I think that blogging on their self-reported actions might be more of a PR job than an inquiry that is really thoughtful and helpful.

"2) And you compare teachers at a site with teachers in an invitational summer institute. But this comparison has lots of differences. "Invitational" already alerts us to the fact that these teachers have a certain perspective and motivation that other teachers at their site don't have; ISIs involve a trust element that school-sites often don't have; ISIs are not all teachers from one site, which diffuses their common power; communicating with all teachers at your site insinuates a kind of power move which, in my experience, would not be welcomed by administrators.

"Edublogs are often anonymous, because of the problems with a teacher speaking out publicly. Do you have examples of school-site-based blogs where teachers are doing what you propose?

"I appreciate your interesting ideas and will continue to check back."

So having read Anon BR's comment above, I slapped my hand to my forehead. Of course! How does a any teacher go about enabling a student to accomplish a complicated and challenging task? She or he models that task for that student, of course. So given that the enterprise of creating school-based blog sites to strengthen teachers' capacities as advocates for educational change (read 'school reform') is a "complicated and challenging task," how would I go about modeling its accomplishment?

Here's what I propose. I've been working over the past academic year at Silver Creek High School in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. I've been visiting this high school about every two weeks for the purpose of supervising one of the Intern Teachers in English who has been and will be teaching there. A big part of my role as a university supervisor of beginning teachers is to do just what I've suggested that the postings on a school-based blog site might do--notice and describe what a teacher does that promotes her or his students' learning, and figuring out how that might happen more often for more students. Within the classroom, that is, the beginning teacher and I are working together to promote 'educational reform' at the 'local level.' in fact at the classroom level.

So what I propose is that I continue to do just that in the coming year, but that I enlist the support of other English teachers at that school with whom I've worked over the years -- Todd Seal, Laurie Weckesser, Debra Navratil -- visiting their classrooms every two weeks or so to do just the sort of 'noticing and describing' that I've been doing with the Intern teacher described above. And of course posting these observations, with the permission of the teachers I've observed, on our newly created school-based blog site.

It would be a start, would it not? I'm not sure at this point how such 'noticings' would be similar to or different from my "observational notes" of student teachers -- notes I've been writing and 'publishing,' by making photocopies for the department chair(s) and building principal every time I visit, for the past twenty-seven years. My guess is that they'd pay more attention to how the learning environment in a given classroom was either enhanced or impeded by various external conditions: such things as testing schedules, availability of textbooks and/or computer stations, consistency or lack of consistency of students' attendance.

And in discussing such 'external' conditions there would of course the risk, as Anon BR points out, that administrators will become uneasy at this voice for teachers speaking 'out of turn' in this rather public arena. But I suspect the risk is quite minimal -- not much greater than the risk I've been running for years when I've discussed such 'external' conditions in my photocopied "observational notes" on student teachers.

Compared to this risk, it seems to me that the potential gains are enormous. What administrator, and what teacher for that matter, would not want a more open and consequential discussion of what conditions promote and impede the learning of students in a given school setting? Even if the question were posed solely in terms of students' performance on statewide tests, wouldn't most teachers and administrators wish to consider what factors favored and which impeded higher performance on these tests? Not that I'm an advocate of using such tests as the primary measure of 'more effective' and 'less effective' learning environments, but it does seem likely to me that one consequence of improved learning environments generally is going to be higher performance on statewide tests. And I'm certainly not above using such arguments if the goal is a greater voice for teachers, a more considered and consequential voice, in those aspects of their classroom and school learning environments that most effect their teaching.

Shall we, perhaps, to begin?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

is there a hawthorne effect on the 'noticer'?

Having gone on and on a few blogs ago about how important it is for bloggers to cite their sources if they wish their arguments to be taken seriously, I'm now going to do just the opposite: rely on your faith in my recollection and basic integrity as a blogger.

Here goes.

A number of years ago Peter Elbow described an interesting experiment conducted by one of his colleagues in the composition program at SUNY Stony Brook, where he was then serving as Composition Program Director.

Seems this colleague wanted to know whether positive comments only, positive and negative comments, or negative comments only led to the greatest improvement in her students' papers.

This was classroom-based research at its very best, in my opinion: an interesting question, pretty clear ways to measure the results to the satisfaction of the researcher, and immediate consequences in terms of changed behavior, should the results conclusively indicate the value of one way of proceeding over another.

So she started by writing positive comments only on the papers of one of her freshmen composition classes, and a mixture of positive and negative comments on the papers of another of her classes.

The results: both groups of students improved about equally in their writing, and both seemed to value the types of comments that were written on their papers about equally. The difference was not in the performance of the students, but in the attitude of the composition instructor herself. "Writing positive comments only on one set of papers was the best form of professional self-renewal I've ever experienced," she claimed. I'd look forward to reading that set of papers as a challenge--even as a contest between me and the students in that class. Could any of them write one paper that was so bad I'd find nothing positive to comment on, at least with a genuinely positive comment?

"Each time I'd sit down with those 'positive comments only' papers I've have a sense of thrill, a sense of expectation. What would I encounter with this set; how successfully would my students try my capacity for discerning and writing about something genuinely positive in each of their papers?

This not-so-surprising version of a "hawthorne" effect (see July 9 post) on the teacher who is 'observing' her students has interesting implications, it seems to me, for the sorts of 'appreciative noticings' I've suggested might initiate a school-site based blog site. It suggests that there might be a value to doing this 'electronic noticing' even if you sent out invitations to this particular party and none of your school colleagues deigned to 'appear' at your electronic party.

More practically, this informal research finding on the ameliorating effects of making positive comments on the person making these comments suggests that there is a strong reason for doing so, whether or not one envisions or believes in the larger vision of educational change that I've argued for in previous posts. You should do so because you'll feel better about your job and your working environment if you do. And does anyone really doubt that a more positive attitude on the part of a teacher has anything but a salutary effect on her or his students' learning?

I'll end this blog entry with a post I just received from EdWeek, since it relates in such an interesting way to what I've been talking about above, and because it involves one of the teachers who has been doing, for many years, just what I have been suggesting with his classes. Noticing what goes right when things go right, and talking about it electronically (as well as, quite voluminously, in more traditional print forms). The teacher is Jim Burke, an high school English teacher at Burlingame HS in Burlingame CA (just south of the SF airport), and the site he uses to discuss his educational suggestions is (check it out!)

Dear Jonathan Lovell,


Getting Ready for the New School Year: Advice for Teachers

When: Wednesday, July 26, 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Eastern time

Submit questions in advance:

Join us for a special live Web chat for teachers on preparing for the new school year. Our special teacher-guests will take your questions on what to expect in the early weeks of school, what teachers need to before school starts, classroom-management and instructional strategies, and much more. This is your chance to get a jump on planning and get feedback on your ideas and potential problem areas.


* Jim Burke, an English teacher an Burlingame High School in California, is the author of "Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead" (Heinemann). He is also the recipient of the 2000 Exemplary English Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.

* Hanne Denney, a career changer starting her third year as a special education and social studies teacher at Arundel High School in Maryland, writes TEACHER MAGAZINE'S blog "Ready or Not." She recently received a master's degree in leadership in teaching. Read her blog here:

Please join us for this special discussion:

Submit questions in advance:

Monday, July 24, 2006

taking a shot at connecting the dots

OK, I know, I know. I wrote initially on this blog that school site 'hosted' blog sites might be used for those 'electronic indications of appreciation'--simple observations or 'noticings' by teachers of contributions to the improvement of the learning environment at the school--that contribute to everyone's sense of well-being, and in fact contribute directly to the improvement of the 'productivity' of both teachers and their students (see 'the hawthorne effect').

And then, before you know it, I'm arguing that teachers should be mounting the barricades, blogsites in hand as it were, to argue for school change at both the local and regional level. Teachers unite! You have nothing to lose but your learned helplessness! All power to those who are actually doing the work, teaching in the trenches!

Yeh, yeh, it's hyperbolic I know; not a little reminiscent of that stale sounding 60's rhetoric many of us have rightly learned to listen to with a wary ear. We've been there before, as I pointed out in my 'blogging and the isi' post, and we're not likely find invitations to return anything less than off-putting.

But might there be a connection between the low level 'electronic noticings' I spoke about earlier and the higher level advocacy role I've been suggesting for school-site based blogs in my more recent postings?

I'd like to propose the following: that as teachers get better at first noticing and then describing, in the semi-public forum of a school-site based blog, what genuinely contributes to enhancing the learning environments in which teachers teach and learners learn, they will be taking the first initial steps towards becoming effective advocates for local and regional educational reform.

I do realize, of course, that the first and most difficult step to take in that first one--committing yourself to making that first observation, that first act of 'electronic appreciation.' You don't want to look foolish, after all. And you don't want to end up sending out invitations to an electronic party, only to discover you're the only one in the virtual room. Right?

But here's where the ISI experience, or any other profound experience of heightened professional colleagiality with one's fellow teachers, can play a vital role. You know what it feels like to be in such an environment, yes? And you know how much this 'feeling' contributes to your desire to become an even more effective teacher than you already are. Right? And you even know something about how to describe what you're doing so that others will understand why you use the particular teaching strategy you do, yes?

So why not take the chance? Why not try setting up that school-site hosted blogspot? Why not try committing yourself to one of those 'electronic indications of appreciation' of one of your fellow teachers, and see what happens?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

I like links

My Netscape browser has issues with me when it comes to translating the writing I do in the preview boxes provided by into the smart looking published entries you see on my blog page. I click on the "publish post" button, and up pops that cute little multi-colored pinwheel thing and it starts circling. And circling. And circling.

Much as I enjoy watching the gyrations of this little pinwheel-like thingy, I eventually ask my PowerBook G4 to perform a "force quit" from Netscape, and I'm off to join forces with my friend Sam Safari. He's not as capacious in his abilities as Nick Netscape, but I find his simplicity reassuring, matching as it does my own.

One of the most important things Sam Safari does not know how to do is "code" my links on my blog posts. For that service I have my mentor Todd (see my previous post) and my own patience. I get to the point in my writing where I want you to be able to link to another text, just like in the sentence you read above, and do the following: I type a sideways carrot facing left, then a space, then an 'a,' than a space, then the word 'href,' then an equals sign, and finally a double quote mark. Now I'm ready to go search for the 'authenticating' text. When I find the text I'm looking for, I copy its url, bringing this information with me as I return to my 'create post' window. I paste the url in the space right after the double quote mark I described above, follow the url with another double quote mark, and end this part of the operation with a sideways carrot facing right. I then add the highlightable words you see on the blog--the ones that link you to the text I've selected--and I end with a sideways carrot facing left, a forward slash, an 'a,' a sideways carrot facing right.

What sort of pay-off could possible be worth all this bother? In my mind, the answer relates to what I wrote about in my previous blog (you guessed it) where I argued that the public accessibility of blog postings serve as an helpful form of discipline, reminding us of the unrealized potential for public advocacy at the local level inherent in the practice of blogging.

But this potential for advocacy, particularly in the area of arguing for the reforming of specific public school environments, will simply not be realized unless bloggers act with the same sense of public accountability as mainstream journalists.

I take that back. The potential of bloggers and blog sites to successfully advocate for fundamental change in specific school settings must rest on an higher and more informed sense of public accountability than we presently see, or are likely to see, in mainstream journalism. Newspaper and television news journalists are required by the extended nature of their audiences and the economic dictates of their bottom lines to paint with a very broad brush. Journalists in these media have neither have the time nor the incentive to pinpoint and promote changes at the local school site level.

Teachers do. And they must. But they will only be taken seriously if they are guided by the same accountability practices as their colleagues in the mainstream media, citing their sources and carefully allowing their readers to check out the credibility of their observations and arguments. This is done in the wired world by making it as easy as possible for one to 'follow' a reference made by an author to the source of that reference.

I like links.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

connectivity and the oh-no second

You're probably heard the joke as often as I have.

"What's the complement to the nanosecond it takes for your email message to make it from your keyboard to the screen of your intended recipient?"

"The oh-no second. That's the moment you realize you should never have sent that damn electronic message. What could you have been thinking?"

I've been considering this current anecdote lately because I've recently received a number of emails in which the sender wishes to comment on one or another of the blog entries I've written, but does not want his or her responses made 'public' by posting them as a 'comment' on a given blog entry. So instead they send their responses as emails to me.

Now this is fine with me. I'm just like anyone else in this. I like to get email from friends, especially emails that respond favorably to something I've written. I enjoy reading these responses and I try to be as conscientious as possible in responding, recipient to sender, to each and every one of them.

But it's made me realize a bit more sharply just how potentially radical a departure blogging represents, how interestingly different from more 'traditional' forms of electronic communication.

Now all this is quite surprising, given that electronic communication in any form at all is still so new, still so inchoate as a means through which we're all beginning to discover our 'expressive potential,' as the personal growth people like to put it. Why might it be that this new mode of communicating with each other has already developed such an interesting and distinct sub-group, with one camp of internet users using the internet for email only and the other using the world wide web not only for for email but also for 'hosting' and reading blogs (see "first some facts" in my blog post of two days ago)?

I think the answer lies partly in individual temperament, since blog readers and blog writers span such a wide range in age and cultural backgrounds. Blog writers in particular also seem to be balanced about equally between males and females.

But might the answer also lie in what we envision as the significance and 'place' of our writing in relation to our larger world? Teachers in particular have become accustomed to doing their jobs within what many have defined as a "worker-supervisor" environment. The idea behind such an arrangement is that the higher paid supervisors are supposed to be held accountable for the productivity of the lower paid workers. It's an idea that originated in this country between the two world wars, when it was believed that the only people who would be willing to teach the 'unwashed masses,' most from southern Europe and most poorly educated, would themselves be upwardly mobile young woman from those same immigrant classes (see A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century [1986] for one of the better accunts of this history; this report, prepared by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, led directly to the creation of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, still very much alive and kicking today. (see ERIC report)

This was why teacher training institutions like San Jose State Normal School were created, of course, and this was also why it was so important for those supervisor level administrators and teacher trainers to establish 'norms' for what students at different ages and in different subject areas would be expected to know and be able to do. Without these norms, how would these poorly educated but upwardly mobile young woman who were teaching these unwashed masses know what to teach?

Of course the idea was preposterous from the beginning. What young immigrant, male or female, would choose to enter the field of teaching when they would 'soon' be able, historically speaking, to enter the field of investment banking? Teachers tend to be drawn from a highly self-selecting sub-group of the population, and the economic backgrounds from which they come, in my experience, vary across the entire income landscape. What they share, not surprisingly, is a conviction that one's income level is not the most important determiner of the value of one's labor.

But there has been one unfortunate consequence of this historical legacy of being employed within a "field" that was defined by this worker-supervisor model. Teachers have grown accustomed to not being heard, not being listened to in matters of both their own working conditions and even, more surprisingly, in matters concerning what makes their classrooms condusive environments for learning. Teachers have become very good at griping and grumbling, at teaching effectively behind closed doors, at coping. They have not become good at formulating clear and convincing arguments for creating more conducive learning environments for their students. In a word, teachers have grown resigned to a sort of learned helplessness--they do not believe they can be convincing advocates for their teaching practices or their working environments at either a local or district level.

Now I'm going to suggest, of course, that blogging has the potential of changing all that. It gives us as teachers a little bully pulpit, a chance to try out our wings in the arena of public advocacy without having to be on a first name basis with the chair of our local school board. It allows us to hone our advocacy talents in a relatively safe environment, with just enough 'edge' to make us realize the potential consequence of what we write but none of the inconvenience of having to figure out just what length and tone of letter is likely to make it into the "letters to the editor" column of our local newspaper.

And what I say is, let's begin.

Friday, July 21, 2006

insider and outsider blog readers

In response to "blogging and the isi," Carol Jago writes that the "question that no one can answer [right now] is the extent to which this community of writers will stay engaged in the blog."

Kids like to blog because it give them a "chance to say what's on their minds in a private/ public space" Carol continues, but of course the experience of blogging is likely to be quite different for a "community of writers" that's made up of adult teachers.

And yes, I agree that using blogs in the way I've been suggesting in my past few emails is quite different from the norm. The blog would be a group blog rather than an individually hosted site, for one thing, and the purpose would not be for teachers to "say what's on their minds" but rather to provide a public space for those 'good noticings,' those 'electronic expressions of appreciation' that we so rarely receive as teachers, and that we so rarely provide to our colleagues.

So why do this electronically rather than simply stopping a colleague in the hall and giving him or her a compliment? Here I'd appeal to my own recent experience as a blogger. The fact that it's more public than a spoken comment would be, and the curious fact that it could be read by others not connected to or knowledgeable about the school serving as the blogsite host, brings an heightened consciousness to what one writes. Carol's response to ""blogging and the isi" is a case in point. The primary audience for this posting was the 20 teachers who made up this summer's 2006 invitational Summer Institute (ISI 06). This group would read this blog as a way of re-capturing the felt sense of that penultimate day of the summer program, a felt sense that JoAnn Freda's scribe notes are particularly effective in capturing.

But there is that larger audience, including Carol Jago, reading this blog entry from France, that will naturally read this blog for other purposes, making sense of it in relation to their own interests and concerns.

I would argue that it 'does a writer good' to know that both these different audiences are 'out there' capable of reading what's been written, if it's expressed as well as JoAnn's scribe notes are expressed, and capable of perhaps responding to what's been said. I think this double audience of 'insider' and 'outsider' readers has the capacity to nudge us toward making our particular 'local' observations more global, towards seeing and perhaps commenting on what might be generalizable to other school settings. Might this creative tension between writing for both insider and outsider audiences will make us, as teachers, feel we are participating in that sort of speculation/reflection that leads to genuine and lasting educational change?

"All politics is local," the expression has it. Might the same be true for genuine educational change, and isn't it about time we got this conversation going?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

blogging and the isi

This from our writing project tech liaison Todd Seal, the person who, half my age, has served as my mentor in the art and practice of blogging:

"Blogging daily not only makes me a better teacher; it makes me a better person."

Whoa. Hold on there. A little extreme perhaps? Yet another promise that we're just on the cusp of a brighter and more generous-hearted future? As us older and not necessarily wiser 60's types might say, "Haven't we been there before? Haven't we learned to be a tad more wary of the essential magnanimity of the heart, once the 'barriers' to its 'essential nature' have been 'removed'?"

Perhaps. But perhaps it might also be true that it's time to 'unlearn' those dispiriting post-60's lessons--the disappointments and difficulties that served as our primary 'teachers'--and to pay a little more attention to what those in their late 20's and early 30's have to tell us about blogging.

First some facts: 147 million Americans use the internet; about 1/3rd of these users read blogs; about 1/5th of these blog savvy internet users--12 million--maintain a blog (see today's front page article in the San Jose Mercury News for these figures and the following quotes). The largest percentage of these bloggers write about their "life experiences" and say the major reason they blog is to "express themselves creatively." And the great majority of bloggers focus their blogs on events and experiences at the "hyper-local level" rather than using their blogs to attempt to influence national policy.

What's surprising to me about these facts is that they bear such eloquent testimony to our individual and collective need to express ourselves, and perhaps the need we all have to maintain the enabling illusion that others 'out there' are reading what we write. "It's good to get feedback from people you don't know," writes blogger Christina Palsky, 'but even if I didn't get feedback, I'd still do it."

Why? My own answer is that blogging makes you a 'good noticer,' to use the term JoAnn Freda recently employed to describe my co-director Laura Brown and me in her account of the final on-site session of our summer institute. What she wrote is both compelling in itself and a good example of the 'heightened noticing' that daily writing in general, and perhaps daily blog writing in particular, can enhance significantly. I can think of no more convincing way to make the case for the potentially ameliorative effects of 'electronic acts of appreciation' than to quote her scribe notes in full. Here they are:

Scribe Notes from Memory, Tues July 18, by JoAnn Freda

"I have to be honest. I signed up for the very last slot on the scribe notes board with the hope that Jonathan and Laura wouldn’t notice we didn’t need a scribe for the last day because we wouldn’t be meeting after that. I really underestimated them. They noticed (good 'noticers') the mistake almost immediately and skooched everyone back a space to fix the 'problem' and restore me to my duties. So that plan really backfired and now I have the challenge of trying to come up with something fresh after our clever scribes have explored genres and exploited genres, created genres and corrupted genres and one member even tried to use every genre in one set of scribe notes. I thought about writing the notes as a love story (you were there today, it could be a love story) but it just wasn’t working for me:

"What can you say about an exceptional group of people
that are parting ways. That they were beautiful and brilliant?
That they loved Lamott and Spinelli , Cisneros and each other?

"The mood in the room is tense and excited and expectant. We’re not quite sure what to expect but we’re eager to get started. Our Bird by Bird reader is stuck on 880 and so Craig fills in. He reads the last page of the book. Lamott says we write because:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen our sense of life . . . When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or our life, our buoyancy is restored.

"Over the next few hours, this group of writers will prove the truth of these statements. But before we can get started we need to take care of business. Lina and Donna read their notes recounting Jay Richards’ completely engaging presentation. Next, in the most stunning display of patience I have ever seen, Laura endeavors to explain to the group how to use our new community blogsight. Using as many modes as she can, she walks us through the steps several times, never once letting even the slightest hint of irritation slip into her voice. She does everything but promise to make house calls to help us with this and still one gets the feeling that she’d have better luck teaching this procedure to her cat. It’s not you Laura, it’s just that many of us were working late into the night and we may have hit a wall. This whole exercise reminds me of the MTV show called “Boiling Point” where they put an unsuspecting contestant through some very trying and frustrating experience to see how long they can take it before they blow up and start swearing. Laura never reaches the boiling point.

"Undaunted, Laura tries another activity with us. She gets us to brainstorm ideas for our two Saturday sessions that will complete our obligation to ISI. I am in a dangerous situation. Given the state of euphoria and goodwill that I’m in, I would agree to do anything this group wants. Fortunately, Nicola interjects a bit of practicality and suggests we link our get togethers to the Super Saturdays.

"The moment has arrived. Jonathan explains how we are going to present our portfolios. He says that everyone will take a turn reading their one page reflection and we will take turns in a counter clockwise direction. Someone makes the obligatory “turn to the person on your left remark” (are you wondering when the statute of limitations will run out on this one Mary?) and then he tells us that we will just listen, no applause (to save time). Patrick is the first to read. Of course we can’t restrain ourselves and we burst into applause. We are admonished. We move on to Craig who reads his letter and we make a feeble attempt to curb our enthusiasm. Then Karen reads Sandy’s letter and even though Sandy isn’t here, we still feel like applauding her. Karen reads her letter and by now there is a palpable feeling of mutiny in the room. A discussion breaks out about the viability of the “no applause” rule but Jonathan is congenially adamant. Next is Erika’s turn and she points out that the “no applause” discussion is actually taking longer than applauding would. Erika reads her letter which is a beautiful explanation of her attitude toward “crummy” first drafts and how she had to reach back to her experience as a young musician to gain an understanding of the importance of being willing to do something imperfectly. We can’t stand it any longer. We are bursting with appreciation. We have to do something and so in a show of defiant obedience, EN MASSE we throw our hands into the air hokey pokey style and wave them wildly - even Jonathan. There’s no stopping us now, we wave wildly after each reading. Jonathan’s time-saving rule has set us back several minutes now and while we are in the middle of one our crazed hokey pokey waves, SJSU Provost Carmen Sigler walks in. This will surely make Jonathan think twice about ever making another unilateral executive decision. Jonathan explains the situation and asks the Provost how much time she can afford to be with us this morning. She says she would like to stay and listen to the four remaining participants who have not read their reflections. Catherine’s reflection compares her writing process to giving birth to an alien and we are all midwives. Tori does a great job of comparing learning to write to learning to surf. She goes on to tell us how difficult and overwhelming it has been for her to participate in the institute because of the recent death of her father. She isn’t the only one who cries during her letter. A pile of napkins is passed across the back row and several of us take one to wipe our tears. Nicola’s reflection tells us about the intense feelings about her son that surfaced during the poetry writing. Martha takes over the reading of Nicola’s letter and I am deeply moved by what she has to say. It is like Anne Lamott says when she compares writing to singing on a boat in a terrible storm. “You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

"Laura is the last to read her reflection. We are about an hour behind schedule. The provost presents us with our certificates, graduation style. Having had to show such great restraint during the reading portion of the morning, we go nuts applauding and whistling and high-fiving for our fellow writers as they receive their certificates. When Grant receives his certificate he takes a victory lap, Rocky style. The only thing missing is the beach ball.

"For the next 2 hours we read the portfolios in quiet reverence. The silence is punctuated by an occasional battle to get to a portfolio before Patrick can. We don’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. The room has been broken down, all that remains is Jonathan’s little island with his laptop and printer. Finally Patrick moves in . . . "

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the promise and curse of connectivity

Nelson G. writes the following in response to my "leading vs. listening" entry of two days ago:

"It strikes me that this was, in some ways, an especially apppropriate blog posting for invited responses. In a way, it's all about listening. I'll admit that when I received an email telling me that you had started a blog, I thought, 'Cool. I'll peek in at it some day,' and promptly put it out of my mind. The email was there in my inbox, but I had little inclination to follow the link because there are so many sources of news and reflection on the Web, I find it all a bit overwhelming."

Who hasn't experienced Nelson's feeling of being annoyingly over-supplied with an excess of 'wired' information? What's so oppressive is not simply the easy and abundant availability of electronic information, it's how tenaciously and maddeningly we are sucked into its electronic maw. When the Provost of our university came today to present completion of program certificates to our summer institute participants, she and I performed what must now be considered the academic ritual of bemoaning our email dominated world. "The trouble is the cc function," she complained. "Anyone can cc you on anything, and include attachments. Attachments they expect you to read. It's simply overwhelming."

The "o" word again. Overwhelming. Teachers in general and academics in particular feel they are drowning in electronic connectivity, and most are mad as hell about it.

So what does that mean for the use of electronic communication in the building of a stronger and more supportive sense of school community that I suggested at the conclusion of my entry of two day ago? I think it means that we have to be pretty patient at first, and pretty understanding of the many claims that are made on the time and attention of any reasonably conscientious public school teacher. We can no more expect electronic connectivity to 'transform' a school culture than we could have expected Margot's classmates in "All Summer in a Day" to believe her accounts of seeing and feeling the sun (see my earlier blog entry). What we can expect, however, is that thoughtful and attentive 'electronic' observations on the contributions our fellow teachers are making to enriching the life of the students they teach and the schools in which they work will gradually build an ever-enlarging audience of both 'authors' and 'readers.'

And is that really all that much to ask: one postive comment per day, posted electronically on blogsite 'hosted' by the whole school faculty, available to all teachers to both post 'electronic appreciations' of one another and to respond to or comment on those that have been posted? Might be worth a try, might it not? And who is going to try, if not you?

Monday, July 17, 2006

jay richards

I was talking with Ellen yesterday about which writing project teacher consultant we thought best represented that difficult balance between leading and listening that I touched on in my last entry. Our conclusion was quick and unanimous: "Jay Richards," we both said at once.

Jay begins his Guest Teacher Consultant workshop presentation today, the last workshop day of the institute, by telling us that, as an 8th grade language arts teacher, he does not really know "how to read a book" (the title of his presentation), but that he has some questions he thinks will help us consider our own thinking of this fundamentally important issue. But first a little personal background, he continues, flashing photos of his wife and three daughters up on the screen. "My wife Marianne is a kindergarten teacher; we're a couple that loves reading so much we named our first daughter Paige." A ripple of laughter. "Then we had two more girls and decided to call them 'Chapter' and 'Footnotes.'" Roars of laughter.

Jay has a way of talking the most vexing part of our English Language Arts curriculum head on--how we teach and measure reading--and making this aspect of our teaching life engaging and thought-provoking. He does this by presenting participants in the institute with activities that help them clarify their thinking about these questions, then listening very, very attentively as participant after participant holds forth on their often highly emotional experiences with school-based reading assessment. He reminds me a lot of my now deceased father. When you introduce an opinion or observation before the sometimes intimidating audience of your fellow institute participants, there is no question that Jay is treating your opinion or observation absolutely seriously. He tilts his head forward, hair falling slightly over his brow, and sits very quietly while you speak. "You are important," his body language tells you. "Your opinion matters."

As a workshop presenter of many years in settings identical with or similar to this one, I am in awe of Jay's ability in this area. And I'm not quite sure how he does it, quite frankly, since this seemingly open-ended approach to 'questions from the floor' would throw me hopelessly off my carefully worked out 'clock-time agenda.' This never seems to happen with Jay. He brings us back to our 'central questions' easily and effortlessly, and we return to these questions with an enhanced respect for the diversity of the experiences and opinions our fellow institute members bring to our collective understanding of these issues.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

leading vs listening in a wired world

True Story: I was out walking our dogs early this morning, and decided on a whim to follow the urging of our older dog--an elderly, mostly deaf german shepherd--and head downhill rather then uphill for my customary dog-walk around the golf course.

Part way round, this same elderly, sweet tempered dog urged me off to the right, on a road providing access to the golf course for a group of residential dwellings just south of the course. Quite uncharacteristically, I followed her lead.

Now you have to realize that my wife Ellen and I live in an age-restricted, golf-course centered condo-community of about 350 acres located about 20 miles south of downtown San Jose. We've lived here about eight years at this point, occupying a pleasant but small condo quite close to the entrance of this "gated'' community. We like the quietness of our surroundings, the well maintained and quite spacious grounds, the predictability of the place.

So it came as quite a surprise to me this morning when I followed my older dog's lead, heading southwards from our usual round-the-golf-course route. I'm a person of fairly fixed habits in such matters, and truth to tell I was mostly thinking about this blog entry--what to use as its title and what to include as examples. I was in that semi-distracted early morning state of mind that I am often in at this hour, that is, while performing this particular dog-walking task.

And it therefore came as something of a shock when I looked up, as it were, from my distracted state of mind and realized I was walking on a path I'd never walked on before. A stream was flowing to my left, the grass was sloping gently towards me on my right, the morning birds were chirping in the trees above me, and the sun was just beginning to brighten the landscape. It was exactly as if I'd borrowed Philip Pullman's "subtle knife" and cut my way through into a parallel universe (see book review).

Now of course what made this discovery especially dramatic, in addition to illustrating just how thoroughly distracted I can become, was that this lovely path along the stream had been there all along, just minutes from where I'd been living for the past eight years. It was not a parallel universe, but rather a very distinct and tangible part of the very universe I inhabited. I just had not paid enough attention to notice this 'part' of my reality before taking my walk this morning with my dogs. It had taken my elderly german shepherd to gently steer me in the direction of a reality I simply had not known existed: a reality right in front of me, wholly coeval with the predictable, 'ordinary' landscape I thought I knew.

Might this same 'alternative path' be there, in a similar way, in the school settings most of us will be returning to this fall? We'll be expecting to take our regular and predictable "morning walks," of course, politely paying our respects to the loquacious social studies teacher, nodding perfunctorily at the permanently pinched mouth of the next-door math teacher, avoiding the principal's office for fear of being asked to take on yet another we-can't-function-without-it responsibility. But what if, rather than gritting our teeth and setting our minds to simply 'surviving' another year, we take a leaf from Pam Cheng's book (see comment by 'spam') and remind ourselves that "it's often our [fellow teachers] that give us the confidence to believe in [our own] worth. This is the 'sun' [we can] take back to our classrooms and schools to share with our students and colleagues. Perhaps if we can reflect the best in those around us, they will be inspired to find it in themselves."

And might blogsites such as this one become wonderful vehicles for enhancing such acts of appreciation among our 'ever-so-predictable' fellow teachers? What if we all committed ourselves to making one act of public recognition per day, via a blogsite for all to see, of the contribution that another teacher had made to our understanding of ourselves, our students, or our teaching. What if we simply set that as our collective task, our collective responsibility, our collective commitment as a whole school faculty? Might we begin to see that that lovely stream-side path, with overhanging boughs, twittering birds and brightly lit sloping lawn, had been there all along, just waiting for us to open our eyes and realize that it was part of our seemingly 'predictable,' seemingly 'ordinary' workaday world?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

learning as remembering

Let's assume that the Grand Master of Ceremonies announced to me one day that he'd decided to make me a better dancer, but that for each ability in this area he granted he'd subtract one from my writing abilities.

I'd sign the agreement in a heartbeat. In blood, if necessary.

I started Scottish Country Dancing eight years ago, responding to a flyer from the local community center announcing that classes in this idiosyncratic version of eighteenth century ballroom dancing, with lots more hopping up and down, would be offered each Tues for the next ten weeks.

As a beginner, I was awful. I gave new meaning to the expression "dancing with two left feet." The fact that I was taking these classes with a friend who'd danced as a Martha Graham dancer since about the age of three months made my clumsiness all the more painful and obvious.

Why did I stick with it? Sheer doggedness for one, but also something less easy to describe.

The music reminded me of something. Something I'd once known but since almost forgotten. Each time the music for these Scottish Country dances played I was transported. There were certain tunes, like the one that Robert Burns set for his poem The Lea-Rig, that had so powerful an effect on me I simply could not move my feet. The disparity between what I heard and what my dancing body was then able to do was just too immense.

My sense of dogged persistence all changed, however, when I went to my first "monthly party," held quite conveniently for me in a Masonic hall just a few blocks from where I was then living. The moment I entered the hall, the excitement and energy were palpable. The music was live, and there seemed to be an almost magical connection between the musicians, the music they played, and the dancers who were dancing to this music. It just did not matter that I was still mostly dancing with two left feet. I could not stay on the sidelines while such music was being played, such dancing going on.

I kept at it pretty steadily over the next several years, dancing twice, thrice, and sometimes five times a week with different classes in different locations, and attending those magical and transporting dancing parties each month. I became good enough to join one the performance groups in the area, and as long as I didn't look at myself too hard in those long mirrors that line the sides of all dancing studios, I could convince myself that I was not entirely out of place. At this point, eight years later, I'm reasonably satisfied with where I am as a dancer, and, assuming the Grand M of C does not make me the offer I described above, I will most likely remain at this level to the end of my dancing days. The important thing is that I still hear that distant music. I still remember. And I'm still half transported each and every time I dance. And besides, everyone who's dancing is having SUCH a good time, it's hard not to smile oneself, hard not to simply take pleasure in being in the company of such joyful fellow dancers.

I think something very similar happens with the writing of the participants who enter the summer institute. Many enter the institute just as I entered Scottish Country Dancing, with two left feet, metaphorically speaking. They are frightened and timid and just hope that their 'deficiencies' will not be too painfully exposed. They are convinced that their writing abilities are 'fixed,' not susceptible to change, and they simply hope that this rather glaring weakness in a "Writing Project Teacher Consultant" will somehow go unnoticed.

And then they hear Patrick and Craig read their scribe notes. "I don't care how lousy I think my own writing is," they say to themselves, "I simply want to be in the presence of people who write LIKE THAT." Or if you are Mara, you learn to say "That's SOOO Partick" when you are in the presence of such moments of startling connection between voice and self. And so it goes, and so most participants' writing improves, and so we gradually all jolly one another into taking greater risks, having more fun, feeding off each other's successes and embarrassments. Laughing. Laughing a lot.

Some of us, like Catherine, hear the music of our own voices early in the institute and emerge as much better writers at its close. Others simply hear whispers and echoes of the writer they aspire to become, catch glimpses of this writer before he or she flits round the corner and vanishes from sight.

But the point is that it does not matter. What matters is that we share a common conviction and a common aspiration: the conviction that with patient listening we can begin to hear, despite years of doubt and the harsh judgments of others, the rhythms and cadences of a voice that is uniquely our own; the aspiration to remember those moments when we hear that 'click' between ourselves and the sound of our own voices--those "That's SOOO Partick" moments--and to nurture them, cultivate them, listen for them with an heightened sense of expectation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

learning from ray bradbury

Leah and others in the institute are greatly amused that I wear my sunglasses around my neck, hooked behind with a dark green Croakies strap, each and every day of the summer program.

"Like, ah, at any moment the sun might burst through the fluorescent lighting of our fourth floor classroom?"

Little do they know that I keep my sunglasses at the ready as an homage to our friend Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury has bracketed our summer program, beginning with "All Summer in a Day" on day #2 of our participants' presentations and ending, as you know, with Nicola's request that we read "The Long Rain" in anticipation of becoming Venusians on the final day of participant presentations.

This was accidental but fortuitous, since Bradbury's stories are about nothing so much as the difficulty of remembering the sun in times of deep, heavy, continuous rain.

Karen had us do a very interesting exercise with "All Summer in a Day." She told us, first, to select one of the symbols or similes we found in the opening paragraphs of the story, and to write down, quickly, the attributes of this symbol or simile. I chose Bradbury's description of the sun as a "coin large enough to buy the world," naming its attibutes "monumental," "memorable," "god-like," "overpowering" and "extra-ordinary." We then selected one of the characters in the story and described that character's attributes. I selected Margot, describing her as "timid," "shy," "an old photograph whitened away," and "ghost-like."

But here's where the activity got interesting. "Now, how would you link the symbol and the character you've selected," Karen asked. "What one sentence would connect the two?"

After some thought, I wrote "Margot held a secret within her: a coin large enough to buy the world." When Karen next asked us to expand our paragraphs into short essays, I wrote:

"Margot has a huge secret within her, a knowledge of a coin large enough to buy the world. This secret is too much for her increasingly frail body to contain. It separates her from her fellow classmates, makes her feel alone and even uncertain whether her knowledge is real or just imagined. Margot's recollection of the sun is like the knowledge we all carry of a world before our birth, a prelapsarian world of expansive plenitude, a world where we were part of a larger whole. It is this prelapsarian knowledge, and the confidence in this knowledge, that the other children--Margot's postlapsarian classmates--must snuff out."

While this seemed a wholly new perception to me at the time, an unexpectedly new way of looking at Margot in particular and "All Summer in as Day" in general, in hindsight it seems to have uncannily foreshadowed the great lesson that Bradbury was, as it were, trying his best to tell us all summer.

"You will have days of educational sunshine, many of them," he was telling us, "and it will seem at times to you as if these days will never end."

"But be wary. These days will end. The joy and camaraderie and great good humor you have experienced together these past four weeks will fade, leaving behind only the fleeting smile, the brief shake of the head in pleasant recollection."

"You will experience your return in the fall as Margot experienced her 'exile' to Venus: incessant and unrelenting rain, the drum and gush of water, the crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they will seem to you like tidal waves."

"Your 'classmates'--fellow teachers--will mock you and berate you when you try to tell them what it felt like to be in the sun. 'You're lying,' they will tell you. 'Such a place does not exist. You're making it up.'"

"So follow Nicola and Catherine's advice (see comment #2 sent 9:28 PM) , and follow it now: remember exactly what being in the sun of the summer institute felt like, what it looked like, what it smelled like, what it sounded and tasted like. Some of you will forget, and some of you will doubt. But collectively, you can remember. And you will."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

showing, not telling: the isi in action

It's the final day of the institute for participant presentations. Patrick is reading from Bird by Bird. Everyone is here--all 20 participants as well as two guests: Mariana Figueroa and her colleague Vivian, both from Christopher ES. Mara begins by reading her multi-genre scribe notes entitled "Notes that put the 'No' in Notes." All the participants follow along as Mara reads, smiling at the in jokes and laughing at what Mara has written and at her wholly animated manner of reading. As she reads "it is the waning of our companion days that make us sad," there is a quietness that settles over the group.

Sandy, who began the institute as an "elective non-writer," reads her scribe notes from memory. She reads "Upon climbing the staircase, we hear the happy sounds of talking in a classroom where people enjoy learning and all the grades are A's. There is no homework. Salivary glands moisten and we are fed rich fruittata, fruit, and pastry. All the food given to us has no calories and we can eat as much as we like. There are no negative consequences. It is a happy place: the table and this room comprise my happy place." Elective non-writer?

After a mandatory break for grazing at the snack table, Nicola begins her presentation on "Strengthening the Trait of Ideas." She comments on how another attendee's comment to her in the parking garage after our session yesterday was especially thoughtful. She's asked us to read Bradbury's "The Long Rain" for homework, and although we frown on such 'added evening assignments' in the summer institute, since they interfere with participants' writing time, it appears from the discussion that follows that almost everyone in the group has completed this one. Nicola was not able to begin her own attendance at the institute until week #2, since she was conducting a field trip to Montreal with her 8th graders during week #1. I can't help but feel that the group's conscientiousness about doing this homework assignment is a form of thank you to Nicola for her contributions to the group--a way of making her feel more welcome.

Karen and I brainstorm on the two topics Nicola has provided: "What does the planet [Venus] look like," and "According to the earthlings, what are some of the things we know about the Venusians?" Karen remarks on how carefully Nicola has set us up for this 'pair-share' by gathering our collective thoughts on the overhead before we begin this brainstorming activity.

Nicola then has us gather together in groups of four, asking us to get out of our chairs in order to do so. "How would the Venusians behave towards their earthling invaders," she asks. "I'd like you to act out your sense of these encounters in the from of a group charade." In our group, Karen notes how strongly she's reminded by the Bradbury story of Grendel rising out of the lake and attacking the 'earthlings' who lie asleep in the Mead Hall. This gives our group the perfect metaphor for our group charade. As I mime the Venusian in attack mode, smelling out his victim, Mariana mimes my earthling victim, and Karen and Vivian mime the arching roof of the Sun Dome. Lots of laughter as the five different groups act out their Venusian-earthling encounters. "I never allow my eighth graders to sit in their seats for long," Nicola explains. "We always have a lot of fun in my classes."

"So what do Venusians look like?" Nicola next asks the group, once again using the overhead to gather our collective thoughts on this quite intriguing subject.

"When my former brother-in-law was attending Union Theological Seminary a number of years ago, he had a professor he claimed looked just like God, only smaller," I observe. "So I think the Venusians look just like me, only bigger."

"I'll let that pass," says Nicola, continuing her instruction. "Think of all the senses," she tells us while giving out sheets of drawing paper. "Think of how the Venusians smell, how they eat, how they wreck the havoc they do on the earthling's Sun Dome. Draw and label at least 10 attributes of your Venusian." It's amazing how well Nicola's 8th grade teacher voice works with all of us. Everyone's busily drawing and labeling their Venusian, just as if we were in Nicola's 8th grade class. I turn from these notes to my own drawing, anxious to finish before Nicola rings her bell to signal the end of this activity.


Having completed my exceptionally clunky drawing, conscientiously labeling all 10 of the attributes of my Venusian, Nicola asks volunteers to 'share out.' Children's-book-author-illustrator-by-night/first-grade-teacher by day Leah is the first to share. "My Venusian has several tentacles which also serve as his feet: two of his tentacle-feet have Scottish ghillies on them," she explains as she holds up her drawing. "But he also has shoes for moving fast, a Stewart Dress Plaid tie to trick us into thinking he's professional, many arms for multi-tasking, a laptop that he uses as an earthling tracking device, an 'attack bell' for calling us to attention, special vision goggles, super water-resistant hair, and he's 20 feet tall!" Lots of laughter as Leah holds up her strikingly professional drawing and explains the attributes of this unusual vision of a Venusian.

Because Nicola gave a short workshop just yesterday to the participants in our open summer program on vocabulary, and because I asked if she might give a short precis or this workshop today, she spends the final 30 minutes of her allotted 90 minute time slot introducing us to the "vocabulary games" she uses with her 7th-8th graders in her French classes. True to form, the participants launch into playing Nicola's "Fact Review/M&M Game," her "Vocabulary Square Race" and her 'Solitaire Flashcards" without skipping a beat. After we write our evaluations--appreciations really-- of Nicola's back-to-back workshops, a number of participants cluster around Nicola, thanking her and asking her to augment the brief descriptions she provided of her vocabulary games.


Next up, Grant, a participant who is just beginning a second career as a composition instructor at the college level, has us debrief and synthesize what we've learned over the past four weeks. We start by getting in grade level groups and writing down the one teaching practice we want to 'take with us' from the summer as we head back to our school year classrooms, writing these ideas on sheets of easel paper with sticky backs.

We them perform a 'carousel' activity, moving from one easel sheet to the next, providing comments, queries and augmentations on what each of the other groups has written on their particular sheet. When we return to our initial places in the classroom, Grant gives us our instructions.

"Discuss your different 'must do' teaching ideas with others in your group," he tells us. "Then, on a clean sheet of easel paper, come up with a way of representing your particular 'must do' teaching practice with a visual symbol. Finally, after discussing your different visual symbols with one another, come up with a central visual symbol that represents what your three or four different 'teaching strategy symbols' have in common."

After the initial required period of confusion, questions, and puzzled looks, each of the groups bends to the task Grant has set for us. Twenty or so minutes later, six visual posters are on display on the chalkboard: a game maze, a flower, a closed fist, a heart, a 'safe box,' and a multi-feathered poultry animal mark the central visual symbols on each these posters. When Grant asks what unifies these posters, Karen responds "We're all committed to multi-modal instruction and we should start our own k-college charter school together!"

John speaks of institute participants' "collective refusal to accept the constraints we face in our schools today,'' while Sandy talks about the poster activity itself as an example of the power of supported learning in a safe environment. "This is the sort of activity we just could not have completed, either individually or collectively, at the beginning of the institute." she muses. "It's yet another example of why this model of learning--working together on activities that are various, challenging, and fun--is such an important aspect of what we've learned this summer."

"Aren't we all artists of instruction?" Marie asks.

"We have to be," Nicola concludes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

collegiality and the summer institute

When you visit a school and spend any amount of time observing the interactions of the teachers there, you notice that some of their behaviors resemble nothing so much as disfunctional marriages. You all know what I'm talking about, yes? The brittle sensitivities, the fear of saying that one wrong word, the long silences.

There are lots of reasons schools not only exhibit but even promote such relationships between teachers. A dearth of opportunities for sustained, honest communication between teachers and a history of isolation of teachers form one another, the denial to teachers of knowledge about or imput into how their classroom performance is being evaluated, and stressful and exceptionally demanding jobs in what are often an appallingly inadequate working environment are but three of these reasons.

So if the teachers attending the summer institute 'arrive' at the opening days of the ISI fresh from these non-collegial environments, why do these attitudes and behaviors so seldom carry over to the relationships between teachers in the institute itself?

I put this question to Laura Brown, co-director of ISI 06, and to Kathleen Cohen, SJAWP TC and coordinator of our current one week long summer "open" program. Here's what we three came up with as possible answers:

--there is no "pecking order" allowed in the institute: each participant receives the same stipend regardless of years of teaching experience or grade level taught, and each is expected to prepare and present a 75 minute workshop demonstration to the others in the institute

--in the institute's cross-grade-level environment, teachers command more attention when they give their presentations because only a few other teachers, at best, are teaching at their same grade level; participants command greater respect in the institute than they generally do in their schools because what they have to say about what they do is often entirely new to the majority of the other participants

--this same cross-grade-level environment, unique to the Writing Project and unique to participants' professional development experience, helps teachers 'place' their instruction in a continuum of learning from kindergarten to college

--being in the company of the sorts of teachers that are attracted to the institute experience makes all participants want to be not only better teachers but a better people

--the TIME FOR REFLECTION marks the most salient difference between writing project programs an most school inservice programs: in the morning sessions, time for reflection is built into most workshop demonstrations; in the afternoon writing groups participants are actively encouraged to reflect on what they've learned in that morning session, as well as what they are learning about themselves as an evolving writers

This is a start. A pretty good start. But I've got the nagging feeling that the three of us are missing something essential. Perhaps several essential things. Perhaps even something we can all bring back with us to those disfunctional school year environments I spoke about at the top of this piece.

I invite you to submit your own thoughts and responses on what promotes that unique sense of collegiality that so often pervades the places and spaces that provide settings for writing project invitational summer institutes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

the writing component of the summer institute

Given that the summer institute tends to attract participants who are at roughly the same level of confidence in themselves as teachers, but all over the map in their confidence or lack of confidence in themselves as writers, it's surprising that the institute places such a strong emphasis on participants' own writing. Doesn't this emphasis tend to create the same sort of division, distrust and dismay that I was complaining about in my last blog entry?

The answer is that far from increasing the distance between more and less confident, more and less able writers among the participants, the "afternoon writing group" component of the summer institute is consistently cited by past participants, at least in my experience, as the most memorable and important part of the program.

It certainly was for me, when I became a "full participant" in the summer program in the mid-90's, preparing and giving a 75 minute workshop demonstration during one of the morning sessions and writing and responding the writing of my writing group buddies in the afternoon.

Certainly the size of these afternoon groups -- generally from four to six participants -- helps to establish the unique feeling of almost visceral connection that so often evolves among the members of these groups. Their relative intimacy is heightened, of course, by the daily contrast that participants have of moving from the large group in the morning to the small group in the afternoon. I remember that on some days towards the end of my mid-90's institute experience I was actually irritated at the "slowness" of the morning session. I wanting it to be over as quickly as possible so that I could read the latest version of my "Floating" piece to the others in my small response group, and listen to where they had traveled in their own pieces.

Grant has introduced the radical idea that in fact the participants in a summer institute, or at least in this particular 2006 summer institute, are all closet artists more or less masquerading as teachers (see Grant's comment) and I must admit that he has some interesting observations and reflections to support this bold claim. As more of a dyed-in-the-wool-and-proud-of-it pedagogue than Grant, I'd make a more modest claim. I think the writing component of the summer institute helps us discover the artist we all long to be: that elevated being we occasionally catch glimpses of, or perhaps hear whispers from, as we respond to prompts, listen to other's writing, and experience the magic unfolding of pieces of writing we can hardly believe our modest selves were capable of ushering into being.

Monday, July 10, 2006

is the summer institute exceptional?

I did learn from Todd this afternoon how to include citations in a blog entry. Sort of. While it's more complicated than I'd anticipated, it's a coding system I expect I'll learn as I use it more frequently.

In order to put into practice what I've learned about how to use this code, I'll use this entry to consider the summer institute's "exceptionality," especially in relation to Laura's comment on my initial blog entry. While my reference to Laura's comment will simply appear as "Laura's comment" in this blog entry (linked to a page that includes both the original blog and the comments on it), it will appear in the "edit" version of this blog entry in all it's complicated glory. That way I can go back to the edit version of this third entry to check to see how to perform this rather convoluted operation.

So here's the entry:

Thanks to Laura's comment on my initial blog entry, I was reminded that teachers already experience something akin to the summer institute, at least occasionally, in their places of work. We all have memories of times in our teaching lives when "creativity, conversations with colleagues, room to experiment, community with a purpose, [and] trust that best practices are better than teaching to the test" were the norm rather than the exception. My sense is that these school environments are becoming more and more infrequent, however, as the "mania for testing" gradually invades almost every aspect of our teaching lives.

My attention in the next few blog entries, therefore, will be to isolate and describe those components of the summer institute that can be replicated most realistically in a traditional elementary or secondary school setting. I'm not suggesting these components are always absent from our school year teaching lives, but I am suggesting that we've forgotten their collective power and essential nature. These blog entries can be viewed a counter argument, that is, to the pernicious influence of "accountability" measures in education today, especially in the way these measures have had the effect of creating divisive and distrustful school environments.

I'll begin, in my next blog, with the writing component of the summer institute.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

the hawthorne effect

One of the most startling if predictable features of a Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute is how consistently it demonstrates the educational efficacy of the Hawthorne Effect. Here's a short description of the study from which this name derives:

That individual behaviors may be altered because they know they are being studied was demonstrated in a research project (1927 - 1932) of the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. This series of research studies, first led by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo along with associates F.J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson started out by examining the physical and environmental influences of the workplace (e.g. brightness of lights, humidity) and later, moved into the psychological aspects (e.g. breaks, group pressure, working hours, managerial leadership). The ideas that this team developed about the social dynamics of groups in the work setting had lasting influence - the collection of data, labor-management relations, and informal interaction among factory employees.

The major finding of the study was that almost regardless of the experimental manipulation employed, the production of the workers seemed to improve. One reasonable conclusion was that the workers were pleased to receive attention from the researchers who expressed an interest in them. (see research summary)

I've noticed over the years that participants in the writing project's invitational summer institutes tend to exhibit talents as teachers and writers in pretty direct proportion to how genuinely they are regarded as talented in these areas. It was no surprise to me, in fact, when Harvey Daniels and Steve Zemelman admitted in 1985 that they had no criteria at all for selecting the participants in their 'invitational' summer institutes. You were accepted by the simple fact that you were willing to spend five weeks of your hard-earned summer vacation 'talking shop' with your K-college colleagues (A Writing Project: Training Teachers of Composition from Kindergarten to College, Heinemann, 1985).

But the key word here is "genuine." Teachers in general and English Language Arts teaches in particular are a wary and skeptical lot, conditioned by the nature of their work to distrust hollow assertions and false promises. You can't simply tell teachers they are exceptional and expect them to believe it. You have to show them.

My next blog will be devoted to some of the ways we've learned to do this in the San Jose Area Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute. And hopefully by that time I'll have learned from our SJAWP Tech Liaison Todd Seal how to manage links to these blog entries, so it won't take me all morning to type just a few lines, including citations!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

why can't a school be more like the writing project?

Well this is my first atempt at a true blog entry so I'm a little uncerain who I'm addressing and how to go about talking to this somewhat inchoate audience. So I guess I'll sort of talk to myself and see if anyone ends up listening.

It always surprises me how much I look forward to returning to each session of the writing project's invitational summer institute. The groups of teachers who are attracted to this sort of opportunity (a four and 1/2 week workshop-based program focusing on participants' practices in the teaching of writing in the mornings and on the participants' own writing in the afternoons) seem to have a ready sympathy with one another, and to 'gel' surprisingly quickly. I think most experience what I experience--the longer the institute goes on the more we look forward to one another's company.

Now of course in most cases public elementary and secondary schools aren't like that. You come to school and you do your job. You enjoy some of your classses (if you're teaching at the secondary level) and you don't enjoy others. If your lucky you have a few rather close friends among the other teachers at your school, but in fact you rarely talk about your teaching with even these quite close friends.

The writing project summer institute is exactly the opposite. We start by talking bout teaching, both our own and that of others, and it's this talk that leads to the more personal, relationship building talk that quite frequently builds lasting friendships among isi (invitational summer institute) participants.

Sure we're a highly self-selected group. There are only so many teachers, after all, that would voluntarily choose to 'talk shop' for four and 1/2 weeks of their summer would-be vacations. And the configuation of teachers, representing those teaching at a variety of gade levels from kindergaten to college, is similarly unique in most teachers' experience. These two factors contribute a lot to the excitement of the summer institute, the eagerness with which participants look forward the getting together each day, sharing in each other's company and learning from one another.

But having co-directed this sort of extended summer institute for just about 21 consecutive summers at this point, I think it's time for me to step back and see if there aren't some "lessons learned" from these summers that could be usefully applied to the life most teachers live during the school year. A good friend once told me "the summer institute is an oasis in what is otherwise the desert of my school year teaching life." I don't think it has to be that way. In my next blog I'll begin to articulate some of the things we do, often quite simple things, that could reasonably be replicated in a school setting during the regular academic year.