Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I'll be giving a panel presentation tomorrow morning at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in New York City. In this presentatiion I'll be giving a streamlined version of the workshop on To Kill a Mockingbird that I describe in my entry entitled "martin luther and walt disney as teachers of reading." Since I've never typed out the Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson exerpts that I use in this workshop, I thought it would be helpful to do so in this entry. Following thse excerpts, I'll reproduce my most recent version of the agenda for this workshop. Here goes:

Dill Harris

Dill was from Meridian, Mississippi, was spending the summer with his aunt, Miss Rachel, and would be pending every summer in Maycomb from now on. His family was from Maycomb County originally, his mother worked for a photographer in Meridian, had entered his picture in a Beautiful Child contest and won five dollars. She gave the money to Dill, who went to the picture show twenty times on it.

"Don't have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes," said Jem. "Ever seen anything good?"

Dill had seen Dracula, a revelation that moved Jem to eye him with the beginning of respect. "Tell it to us," he said.

Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.

When Dill reduced Dracula to dust, and Jem said the show sounded better than the book, I asked Dill where his father was: "You ain't said anything about him."

"I haven't got one."

"Is he dead?"

"No . . . "

"Then if he's not dead you got one, haven't you?"

Dill blushed and Jem told me to hush, a sure sign that Dill had been studied and found acceptable.


"Dill, you ain't telling me right--your folks couldn't do without you. They must be just mean to you. Tell you what to do about that--"

Dill's voice went on steadily in the darkness: "The thing is, what I'm tryin' to say is--they do get on a lot better without me, I can't help them any. They ain't mean. They buy me everything I want, but it's "now-you've-got-it=go-play-with-it. You've got a roomful of things. I-got-you-that-book-so-go-read-it." Dill tried to deepen his voice. "You're not a boy. Boys get out and play baseball with other boys, they don't hang around the house worryin' their folks."

Dill's voice was his own again: "Oh, they ain't mean. They kiss you and hug you good night and good mornin' and good-bye and tell you they love you-- Scout, let's get us a baby."


There was a man Dill had heard of who had a boat that he rowed across to a foggy island where all these babies were; you could order one--

"That's a lie. Aunty said God drops 'em down the chimney. At least that what I think she said." For once, Aunty's diction had not been too clear.

"Well that ain't so. You get babies from each other. But there's this man, too---he has these babies just waitin' to wake up, he breathes life into 'em. . . . "

Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions. He could add and subtract faster than lightning, but he preferred his own twilight world, a world where babies slept, waiting to be gathered like morning lilies. He was slowly talking himself to sleep and taking me with him, but in the quietness of his foggy island there rose the faded image of a grey house with sad brown doors.



"Why do you reckon Boo Radley's never run off?"

Dill sighed a long sigh and turned away from me.

"Maybe he doesn't have anywhere to run off to. . . ."


This was as much as I heard of Mr. Gilmer's cross examination, because Jem made me take Dill out. For some reason Dill had started crying and couldn't stop; quietly at first, then his sobs were heard by several people in the balcony. Jem said if I didn't go with him he'd make me, and Reverend Sykes said I'd better go, so I went. Dill had seemed to be all right that day, nothing wrong with him, but I guessed he hadn't fully recovered from running away.

"Ain't you feeling good?" I asked, when we reached the bottom of the stairs.

Dill tried to pull himself together as we ran down the south steps. Mr. Link Deas was a lonely figure on the top step. "Anything happenin', Scout?" he asked as we went by. "No sir," I answered over my shoulder. "Dill here, he's sick."

"Come on out under the trees," I said. "Heat got you, I expect." We choose the fattest live oak and sat under it.

"It was just him I couldn't stand," Dill said.

"Who, Tom?"

"That old Mr. Gilmer doin' him thataway, talking so hateful to him--"

"Dill, that's his job. Why, if we didn't have prosecutors--well, we couldn't have defense attorneys, I reckon."

Dill exhaled patiently. "I know all that, Scout. It was the way he said it made me sick, plain sick."

"He's supposed to act that way, Dill, he was cross--"

"He didn't act that way when--"

"Dill, those were his own witnesses."

"Well, Mr. Finch didn't act that way to Mayella and old man Ewell when he cross-examined them. The way that man called him 'boy' all the time and sneered at him, an' looked around at the jury every time he answered--"

"Well, Dill, after all he's just a Negro."

"I don't care one speck. It ain't right, somehow it ain't right to do 'em that way. Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that--it just makes me sick."

Mayella Ewell

Maycomb's Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin. The cabin's plank walls were supplemented with sheets of corrugated iron, its roof shingled with tin cans hammered flat, so only its general shape suggested its original design: square, with four tiny rooms opening onto a shotgun hall, the cabin rested uneasily upon four irregular lumps of limestone. Its windows were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb's refuse.

The varmints had a lean time of it, for the Ewells gave the dump a thorough gleaning every day, and the fruits of their industry (those that were not eaten) made the plot of ground around the cabin look like the playhouse of an insane child: what passed for a fence was bits of tree-limbs, broomsticks and tool shafts, all tipped with rusty hammer-heads, snaggle-toothed rake heads, shovels, axes and grubbing hoes, held on with pieces of barbed wire. Enclosed by this barricade was a dirty yard containing the remains of a Model-T Ford (on blocks), a discarded dentist's chair, an ancient icebox, plus lesser items: old shoes, worn-out table radios, picture frames, and fruit jars, under which scrawny orange chickens pecked hopefully.

One corner of the yard, though, bewildered Maycomb. Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit a geranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell's.


"Miss Mayella," he said, smiling, "I won't try to scare you for a while, not yet. Let's just get acquainted. How old are you?"

"Said I was nineteen, said it to the judge yonder." Mayella jerked her head resentfully at the bench.

"So you did, so you did ma'am. You'll have to bear with me, Miss Mayella. I'm getting along and can't remember as well as I used to. I might ask you things you've already said before, but you'll give me an answer, won't you? Good."

I could see nothing in Mayella's expression to justify Atticus's assumption that he had secured her wholehearted cooperation. She was looking at him furiously.

"Won't answer a word you say long as you keep on mockin' me," she said.

"Ma'am?" asked Atticus, startled.

"Long as you keep on makin' fun o'me."

Judge Taylor said, "Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What's the matter with you?"

Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but she said to the judge: "Long's he keeps callin' me ma'am and sayin' Miss Mayella. I don't have to take his sass, I ain't called upon to take it."


"Miss Mayella," said Atticus, in spite of himself, "a nineteen-year-old girl like you must have friends. Who are your friends?"

The witness frowned as if puzzled. "Friends?"

"Yes, don’t' you know anyone near your age, or older, or younger? Boys and girls? Just ordinary friends?"

Mayella's hostility, which had subsided to grudging neutrality, flared again. "You makin' fun o'me agin, Mr. Finch?"

Atticus let her question answer his.

"Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?" was his next.

"Love him, whatcha mean?"

"I mean, is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?"

"He does tollable, 'cept when--"

"Except when?"

Mayella looked at her father, who was sitting with his chair tipped against the railing. He sat straight up and waited for her to answer.

"Except when nothin'," said Mayella. "I said he does tollable."

Mr. Ewell leaned back again.

"Except when he's drinking?" asked Atticus so gently that Mayella nodded.

"Does he ever go after you?"

"How do you mean?"

"When he's -- riled, has he ever beaten you?"

Mayella looked around, down at the court reporter, up at the judge. "Answer the question, Miss Mayella," said Judge Taylor.

"My paw's never touched a hair o' my head in his life," she declared firmly. "He never touched me."

When Atticus turned away from Mayella he looked like his stomach hurt, but Mayella's face was a mixture of terror and fury. Atticus sat down wearily and polished his glasses with his handkerchief.

Suddenl Mayella became articulate. "I got somethin' to say," she said.

Atticus raised his head. "Do you want to tell us what happened?"

But she did not hear the compassion in his invitation. "I got somethin' to say an' then I ain't gonna say no more. That nigger yonder took advantage of me, an' if you fine fancy gentlemen don't wanta do nothin' about it then you're all yellow stinkin' cowards, stinkin' cowards, the lot of you. Your fine fancy airs don't come to nothin'--your ma'amin' and Miss Mayellerin' don't come to nothin', Mr. Finch--"

Then she burst into real tears. Her shoulders shook with angry sobs. She was as good as her word. She answered no more questions.

Tom Robinson

Thomas Robinson reached around, ran his fingers under his left arm and lifted it. He guided his arm to the Bible and his rubber-like left hand sought contact with the black binding. As he raised his right hand, the useless one slipped off the Bible and hit the clerk's table. He was trying again when Judge Taylor growled, "That'll do, Tom." Tom took the oath and stepped into the witness chair. Atticus very quickly induced him to tell us:

Tom was twenty-five years of age; he was married with three children; he had been in trouble with the law before: he once received thirty days for disorderly conduct.

"It must have been disorderly," said Atticus. "What did it consist of?"

"Got in a fight with another man, he tried to cut me."

"Did he succeed?"

"Yes suh, a little, not enough to hurt. You see, I--" Tom moved his left shoulder.

"Yes," said Atticus. "You were both convicted?"

"Yes suh, I had to serve 'cause I couldn't pay the fine. "Other fellow paid his'n."


"Tom, what happened to you on the evening of November twenty-first of last year?"

Below us, the spectators drew a collective breath and leaned forward. Behind us, the Negroes did the same.

Tom was a black-velvet Negro, not shiny, but soft black velvet. The whites of his eyes shone in his face, and when he spoke we saw flashes of his teeth. If he had been whole, he would have been a fine specimen of a man.

"Mr. Finch," he said, "I was goin' home as usual that evenin', an' when I passed the Ewell place Miss Mayella were on the porch, like she said she were. It seemed real quite like, an' I didn't quite know why. I was studyin' why, just passin' by, when she says for me to come up there and help her a minute. Well, I went inside the fence an' looked around for some kindlin' to work on, but I didn't see none, and she says, 'Naw, I got somethin' for you to do in the house. Th'old door's off its hinges an' fall's comin' on pretty fast.' I said you got a srewdriver, Miss Mayella? She said she sho' had. Well, I went to the front room an' looked at the door. I said Miss Mayella, this door look all right. I pulled it back'n forth and those hinges was all right. Then she shet the door in my face. Mr. Finch, I was wonderin' why it was so quiet like, an' it came to me that there weren't a chile on the place, nat a one of 'em, and I said Miss Mayella, where the chillun?"

"Robinson, you're pretty good at busting up chiffarobes and kindling with one hand, aren't you?

"Yes suh, I reckon so."

"Strong enough to choke the breath out of a woman and sling her to the floor?"

"I never done that, suh."

"But you are strong enough to?"

"I reckon so, suh."

"Had your eye on her a long time, hadn't you, boy?"

"No suh, I never looked at her."

"Then you were mighty polite to do all that chopping and hauling for her, weren't you, boy?"

"I was just tryin' to help her out, suh."

"That was mighty generous of you, you had chores at home after your regular work, didn't you?"

"Yes suh."

"Why didn't you do them instead of Miss Ewell's?"

"I done 'em both, suh."

"You must have been pretty busy. Why?"

"Why what, suh?"

"Why were you so anxious to do that woman's chores?"

Tom Robinson hesitated, searching for an answer. "Looked like she didn't have nobody to help her, like I says--"

"With Mr. Ewell and seven children on the place, boy?"

"Well, I says it looked like they never help her none--"

"You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?"

"Tried to help her, I says."

Mr. Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury. "You're a mighty good fellow, it seems--did all this for not one penny?"

"Yes suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more'n the rest of 'em--"

"You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?" Mr. Gilmore seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.


Inquiry Question: How might we draw more effectively on different learning modalities to help all our students gain access to our core English curriculum texts?

4:15 - 4:20 participants read excerpts concerning Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell or Tom Robinson from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

4:20 – 4:25 participants write first paragraph of a character analysis essay on their assigned character

4:25 - 4:30 J Lovell provides overview of the sequence of activities & purpose of workshop

4:40 - 4:40 demonstration of 'cumulative graphic organizer' as a pre-reading strategy, focusing on courtroom segment of To Kill a Mockingbird (henceforth TKAM)

5:40– 5:05 watch courtroom segment from 1963 movie version of TKAM

5:05 - 5:10 gather in 'character’ groups -- Dill Harris #1 & #2, Mayella Ewell #1 & #2, Tom Robinson #1 & #2-- according to character you wrote about initially

5:10 - 5:25 create a visual symbol poster of your character and post it on the wall

5:25 – 5:40 BREAK!

5:40 – 5:55 ‘gallery walk’ of visual symbol posters in character groups; meeting in character groups to discuss questions you'd like to ask the other two characters

5:55 – 6:10 in 'mixed character’ groups of 3 or 4, students role play Dill, Mayella or Tom while the other two participants ask questions (5 minutes per character)

6:10 - 6:30 participants listen to same excerpts that they responded to in print form at the beginning of the workshop, this time from Recorded Books’ audio version of TKAM, while large print versions of these excerpts are shown on the overhead (shortened excerpts only to give the flavor of listening vs reading)

6:30 - 6:45 participants begin reflective writing on what they learned about their characters, and about themselves as learners, by experiencing this workshop.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

chicken soup for the professional delelopment soul

Now that you've all completed this summer's ISI, it may surprise and perhaps startle you to recall how difficult and challenging it was to persuade all of you -- twenty K-college teachers of writing -- to give up four and one half weeks of your hard-earned summer vacation to participate in this highly memorable and deeply inspiriting summer program. This difficulty in recruiting participants is true no matter what university or college a Writing Project site calls "home," or how consequential and long term its reputation as a Writing Project site. Having been the primary recruiter of new participants to the ISI's of the San Jose Area Writing Project over the past 18 years, I believe I know why.

Somewhat surprisingly, I trace my understanding of why K-college teachers need to be persuaded to participate in programs like the one you've just completed back to my mother: to behaviors in her that I both observed and to some degree inherited. She had what today would be called a "depressive personality," more usefully referred to as a "bi-polar disorder." More usefully because the visual image of bi-polarity does such a good job of conveying the most puzzling and vexing aspect of this mental condition: when you are living in one of its "polarities," say the exuberant or sunny hemisphere, you simply cannot imagine, or even recall in any concrete sense, what it feels like to inhabit the dark or depressive hemisphere. And similarly, when you're groping around in the dark, trying to remember what made you feel so buoyant yesterday and made getting up in the morning something other than a struggle, you simply cannot believe that a sunny "polarity" exists, much less that you were actually living there but "moments" ago. In its extreme form, such bi-polarity can be described, as I'm sure most of you are aware, as clinical schizophrenia: the inability of one "hemisphere" to recognize the other as part of itself.

While I would not wish this frustrating mental condition on anyone, it does have its advantages in helping me understand and to some degree anticipate the recruiting challenge I refer to above. It helps because it reminds me that, as teachers, we have all learned to cultivate what are essentially schizophrenic-like personalities. We are one sort of learner when we are in our own classrooms; we are generally an entirely different sort of learner when we are attending a professional development program. To expand a bit on this "classroom personality," it's one where we feel we have some control over the conditions and climate for learning that we create. This ability to create attractive learning conditions within the four walls of our classrooms, of course, is what brought many of us into the profession of teaching in the first place. However pessimistic our take on the possibility of rational and compassionate action in the "outside" world, we could create within our own classrooms an alternate reality of sorts, a sunny place. That's why teachers tend to find stories like Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" so deeply disturbing. Here is a teacher who had the responsibility to ensure that at least a short glimpse of the sunshine be afforded all her children, and yet she failed the one child--Margot--who needed this glimpse of sunshine the most.

In the latter--that hemisphere or state of mind I'm choosing to call the dark side of our schizophrenic-like teaching selves--we generally revert to being skeptics at best or grudging and dispirited followers of the wills of others at worst. We expect that the primary purpose of professional development programs will be tell us what to do, what "mandated curriculum" to implement, by those who claim to know more than we do about our kids, about what they need to learn, and how to reach and teach them most effectively. My favorite example of teachers in this skeptical "professional development" frame of mind comes from Among Schoolchildren--Tracy Kidder's account of the year he spent as a "big fifth grader" in the classroom of a teacher of that grade level in South Holyoke, Massachusetts. Attending an after-school "professional development program" on the textbook series the district had just adopted, he observed the commercial salesman for the series trying his best to extol its virtues to the K-6 teachers at the school. Midway through the workshop, the teacher in front of him turned to his partner, whispering rather audibly, "Yeah, right. And it also dices and slices."

The reason that the two hundred or so summer institutes of what is now the National Writing Project are generally not programs that can be ridiculed and dismissed as "dicing and slicing" in this fashion is both useful to know and somewhat surprising. When the Writing Project's founder, Jim Gray, was asked to conduct a summer seminar on the teaching of writing for high school teachers, he was asked to hold this professional development program on the UC Davis campus, using National Defense Education Act ("post-sputnik") funding for this enterprise. The federal government's expectation was that he would come up with a reasonably credible "slicer and dicer." He was the author of a short NCTE pamphlet on paragraph writing, after all, and employed by the School of Education at UC Berkeley as a university supervisor of prospective high school English teachers. Shouldn’t he be able to tell the eager applicants to his summer program what practices to follow, what theories to learn, in order to improve their students' writing abilities?

Very likely he could have done just this, but he chose not to. "You are all bright teachers," he wrote to them. "Collectively we know a good deal more about the teaching of writing than any of us, including me, know individually." So he urged them to come to the UC Davis campus that summer bringing a lesson they believed had made a difference to their students' abilities as writers. The content of their summer seminar, he told them, would be the teaching of these lessons to one another, followed by whole group discussions of what made these lessons effective. This was how the basic format of the morning sessions of the writing project's summer institutes began. The afternoon sessions evolved quite naturally when many of these same teachers became eager to try out, on their own writing, some of the practices they'd been introduced to in the morning. To quote from the title of Jim Gray's book on the birth and growth of the writing project, this quite unconventional professional development program began out of a desire to place "teachers at the center."

So keeping in mind this highly unusual and surprising history to the Writing Project, what can we say about our shared experience in this summer's Invitational Summer Institute? More particularly, borrowing a leaf from the conclusion of Ari Taub's workshop on developing more consequential curricula for our students, what practical and manageable lessons might we draw from this shared experience? And how might we apply these lessons not only to our classrooms but also to the professional development programs organized by the schools and districts in which we work? In considering this question during debriefing sessions following the third and fourth weeks of our program, Pam and I thought that one useful approach would be to deconstruct the summer institute itself, making its procedures and practices as transparent, and accessible to all of you, as possible. Just as we asked you all to reflect on both of our workshop demonstrations during the first week, asking yourself what helped make these workshops effective for you as professional development experiences, we would now like to lay bare what we consider to be the essential "inner workings" of the ISI. Here goes:

The first thing we wanted to do was to make sure that every participant in our professional development program felt recognized and respected as soon as he or she walked in the door. In the ISI this summer we began to create this climate of respect on our first day by asking participants to bring in an object, a piece of 'realia,' that indicated something significant about them. Our introductions to one another via these objects turned out to be insightful and at times startling. We learned about Juan's reverence for his mother as a cotton picker in Texas, about Becky's commitment to looking out for her own health, about Anne's being thankful for the sight she has rather then being embarrassed about the glasses she must now wear, about Mine's conversations in English with her Garfield stuffed animal, the one friend she had after recently moving from Ankara, Turkey to the San Jose area.

Beyond that, we asked you to bring in a prompt for your initial writing experience that we knew would be accessible to everyone: a family photograph. By asking you to share these photographs among yourselves in your afternoon writing groups (hereafter AWGs) prior to writing about them, we anticipated that everyone would not only have plenty to write about, but that the participants in the afternoon writing groups would begin to get to know each other. And that's the reason, of course, for using the AWGs to handle the majority of the "housekeeping" details that keep the institute well fed and functioning smoothly. By asking each of the AWGs to contribute directly to the "running" of the summer institute, bringing morning snacks and supplies and end-of-week potluck picnics, the members of the afternoon writing groups not only get to know one another in a variety of different ways, but also begin to see themselves as important and consequential parts of the institute as a whole.

This sense of the value and importance of each person's contribution to the group is directly related to the focus we place on the emergence of each participant's "voice" as a writer. This is the component of the Writing Project as a professional development program that sets it most distinctly apart from other "subject matter programs" and that gives it its greatest strength. That is, while we gradually involve participants in institute-running responsibilities that convince each person of his or her unique importance to the functioning of the program as a whole, AWGs are involved in precisely that same enterprise regarding each participant's unique and individual "voice" as a writer. For the past several summers we've enlisted the help of four former institute participants--one for each group--so that each of the AWGs can move as swiftly and effectively as possible to that quite magical moment when each member of the group not only contributes to but becomes almost viscerally embodied in the sound and the substance of the writing of each of its members. We do this in part because we believe that a writing teacher must be a practitioner of his or her craft just as surely as a violin or Scottish Country Dance instructor must be. Just as importantly, however, we focus on the development of each participant's writing because we believe that an authentic writing voice is an indispensable part of realizing the collective authority we possess as a "teacher-centered" professional development program.

Over the years, we've learned to respect and heighten the role that Scribe Notes play in the development of the individual voices of institute participants, along with their gradually increasing sense of their contribution to the group's collective authority. After having the two forms of Scribe Notes--one from notes and one from memory--modeled by the co-directors, the Scribe Notes themselves become the primary means for each participant to move from the more private writing space of the AWGs to the more public space of the institute as a whole. The responsibility of each institute participant to write one set of Scribe Notes from notes and one set from memory, and for reading his or her particular set of notes aloud to the group as a whole on their assigned morning, serves as a concrete and daily affirmation of two essential truths. This practice affirms that each of us has his or her own unique voice and way of transcribing or recalling events, and that this rich array of perspectives contributes enormously to our sense of the importance and consequence of the journey we are collectively embarked upon as we move from week to week to our final day.

Alongside the development of this belief in our individual and collective value as teachers who practice what we preach, whose voices are not only worth hearing but often highly entertaining, we focus simultaneously on the development of each participant's unique, and uniquely important, professional voice. The primary method we use to achieve this goal, of course, is to ask each participant to prepare and present a 90-minute workshop demonstration for the group as whole, generally starting after we've had several former participants model these workshops in the first two weeks of the summer institute. We added a new feature to this component of the institute this summer: a self-conscious emphasis on debriefing the elements of an effective workshop after Pam and I gave our "model workshops" on Thursday and Friday of our first week. It was especially important that we held ourselves up for critical analysis and collective scrutiny in this way, since we expected that everyone in the institute had something worthy to say, and we wanted to help each participant say it as effectively as possible. Since everyone knew that they were going to have their own "90 minutes in the sun," it was crucial to make sure that the process of planning and giving an effective workshop was clear and transparent. This would be similar to making sure that your students are given plenty of opportunities to practice and reflect on what constitutes effective performance before you evaluate them in a classroom setting. Because there is an even greater desire among summer institute participants than among students in a regular classroom to be successful in their workshop demonstrations, it was especially important to make sure everyone was set up for success.

As we were conducting these morning debriefing sessions after our workshops, we were simultaneously beginning our afternoon coaching sessions with each of our participants. Our objective here was similar to the fostering of personal voices that were promoted by the realia introductions, the writing and reading of scribe notes, the readings from Bird by Bird that began each day's session, and of course the writing and responding that were taking place in the afternoon writing groups. Our coaching sessions were devoted to listening for that teacher's voice that was both passionate and professional. Once we thought we detected this voice, our job was to reflect it back to the participant in a distilled form, filtering out the static, so that the person we were coaching could begin to hear himself or herself at a more essential and fundamental level. This part of the summer institute is always the most demanding for us, since it involves helping participants gain the confidence to amplify their own voice, rather than planning a workshop that "we," as co-directors, would like to "hear" them give. That's why it's both so hard and so necessary. While it's understandable that "good students" want to "please" their "teachers," what you need to do as a summer institute co-director is listen for the distinctive and essential voice of each teacher, the "honest" voice of the person behind the teaching, the voice that's so often buried or suppressed by state and district mandates or curriculum "guides."

But it isn't simply a matter of having your professional voice heard as a teacher that's important. It's just as important to have sympathetic but rigorous coaches help you structure the organization and delivery of this voice -- that is, your workshop demonstration -- so that it comes across as both "loud" and "persuasive." I'll use two coaching sessions with participants from this summer, to whom I'll ascribe fictional names and topics, as examples. Barbara started with a workshop idea based on the way she taught her primary students the "water cycle." By working with her, seeing the possibilities for an engaging jigsaw exercise based on teaching this particular content, we came up with a more compelling way for Barbara's "voice" to be heard. Similarly with Sharon: what started as a portfolio-keeping workshop that relied too heavily on a walk-through of the writing process became a workshop devoted to helping participants with their own portfolios. "What you want to provide participants with is a strong and compelling portfolio-keeping experience," we argued. "Until institute participants are led to experience portfolio-keeping as an engaging and compelling activity, they will not be motivated to figure out ways to provide this experience for their students."

For all our focus on the development of confident and persuasive professional voices among institute participants, however, the core of the institute emerges in its final days: participants own writing and their reflections on themselves as writers. By insisting that five pages of "finished" writing be submitted to an institute anthology just prior to the end of the institute, and that five to fifteen "portfolio pieces" be selected and described in an annotated table of contents on the next to final day of the institute, the writing project summer institute requires participants to walk the walk of practicing what we preach. But it's more than simply "going public" with one's writing and reflecting on one's sense of self as a writer that's at stake here. What participants' individual writing portfolios and end-of-institute anthology pieces declare most importantly is that we all have both professional and personal voices, that these voices have grown and matured during the summer institute with a lot of help from some very good friends, and that these voices will not be silenced. As we hear from the "one-pager" reflections that preface each portfolio on the second to last day of the institute, and as we listen in wonder, and not infrequently in tears, to the pieces of writing that have emerged from the supportive environment of the afternoon writing groups, what we experience is an almost magical transformation. A group that began four and one-half weeks ago as a collection of quite ordinary-seeming K-college teachers of writing has become something quite extraordinary: a chorus of twenty two voices, distinct yet interdependent, proclaiming both their marked individuality and their achievement of a collective voice and collective vision. This voice and vision give new life, I would suggest, to the promise and possibility of authentic and memorable professional development programs.

And to honor Ari's challenge of making such a transformation both manageable and practical, here are five things that each of us can do, this coming academic year, to change the way professional development is understood and practiced at our school site or district office:

• Before school begins, ask your principal or department head if you can begin your first faculty meeting with introductions of one another through personally meaningful realia
• At the beginning of the school year, show your colleagues your anthology and portfolio pieces; describe the institute experiences that led to these "documents'; explain their influences on how you plan to go about teaching writing in the coming year
• Initiate a faculty forum on writing by bringing drinks and snacks for colleagues interested in discussing this topic; begin by discussing what you learned from your ISI professional book; suggest forming a book club to meet regularly, with snack responsibilities rotating around the group, to discuss this book or related professional books
• Form a writing group with three or four teachers, selecting topics for writing in as open-ended a manner as possible; midway through the year, discuss what you are learning about writing and what implications this learning might have for your teaching of writing
• Discuss your practices in the teaching of writing with a teacher who teaches at a different grade level or subject area; figure out where you are similar and different in your practices and why; discuss your conclusions with your fellow teachers during lunch

Hope that's sufficient to munch on and mull over. Pam and I wish you the very best for an engaging, invigorating and perhaps even a transformational year with your departmental, school and district colleagues.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

the notion of exceptionality: pros and cons

The penultimate lines of Robert Frost's "Directive" read as follows:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.

Frost is referring here to a curious passage in the Gospel according to Mark that reads:

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times."

Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding'; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!"

(Mark 4: 1-12, text from the New International Version)

Scholars in the Jesus Seminar think the parable is probably genuine, although the interpretation Jesus gives to this parable shortly afterwards (the birds are Satan, the thorns are "the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things") probably not.

The focus in this gospel on what most readers would acknowledge to be a bizarre interpretation of this unusual four-episode parable, and the insistence this places on the effect of Jesus's speaking in parables so that "the wrong ones . . . can't get saved," embodies one of the most resonant and memorable examples I know of the notion of exceptionality.

The Jesus Seminar scholars believe the interpretation segment of the gospel was probable written in about 80 AD, when the early Christian church was facing severe persecution by the Romans, and believers who openly prefessed their belief were putting their lives at peril. This makes sense to me. One way to keep the faithful true to their faith is to convince them that they can hear what others were not meant to hear, see what others were not meant to see.

And of course there is tremendous power in this notion of exceptionality. It fairly leaps off the screen in the altogether arresting portrayal of Erin Gruwell by Hilary Swank in the movie "Freedom Writers." For exceptional teachers like 23 year old Erin Gruwell to overcome the barriers that administrators and long-practiced school routines place before them, they are almost required to believe in their own exceptionality: able to "hear" what others cannot hear, "see" what others cannot see. Where else could they derive the strength and peserverance to continue their uphill climb against odds that have crushed so many other initially idealistic and hopeful young teachers?

And yet there is a downside to this understandable and perhaps necessary notion of exceptionality. It's become apparent to me in the last few weeks because of the difficulties our Writing Project has experienced forming a long-term partnership with a charter high school in our area.

The mission of this high school is extremely ambitious: to take students, mostly Latina or Latino, who are scoring in the bottom third of their 8th grade classes and to prepare them, by the time they reach the 12th grade, for entrance into one or another of the campuses of California's "top tier" public universities. To bring them, in other words, from the bottom 33% to the top 10% in four years.

It's no wonder, given such an ambitious and altogether laudable a mission, that this school tends to attract young teachers who are a lot like Erin Gruwell--convinced of their exceptionality, convinced that their personal mission is to do what older and more "veteran" teachers have long given up on, or perhaps never thought possible at any time in their teaching lives.

But such singularity of purpose comes at a price, it seems to me. When we've tried to encourage this young group of teachers to join with us "wisened veterans" in working collaboratively to improve our students' academic writing abilities, they've looked on us with a more-than-skeptical eye. "What would you know," they seem to be saying, "about taking ninth grade students with 2nd to 5th grade reading abilities and whipping them into shape over a four year period for entrance into UC campuses."

And I have to all but bite my tongue to avoid responding that in fact we know very little individually, but quite a bit collectively.

"And you?" I'm tempted to respond. "What about you?"

Monday, March 12, 2007

dirty dog david: reflections on "whole class intelligence"

Lewis Thomas has a rather remarkable essay, I believe in Lives of a Cell, that he calls simply "Living Language." He starts the essay, quite improbably, by recounting some recently conducted research on the nest building abilities of termites.

It seems that termites have the most advanced building abiliities in the animal kingdom. Outside of humans, of course. Termite nests in South America can run up to ten feet in diameter and several feet deep. That's about the size, Thomas notes, of New York City, relatively speaking, to the size of an individual termite. And these dwellings are not simple structures. They have sleeping rooms, food storage rooms, a room for the queen and her retainers, and so forth. Yet individual termites have a miniscule brain--the original pinheads. So how do they know how to build these elaborate underground structures?

To answer this question, a researcher studied smaller and larger collections of termites under laboratory conditions. Turns out that when a few termites were placed in a small dish with soil and pellets, they would rush around moving their pellets randomly from place to place. More termites, more random moving about of pellets. But when 25 or so termites were placed in the dish, they'd start building columns of pellets, and when these columns were built close enough to one another, the termites would connect them with a neatly finished off arch. And that arch, of course, was the basic "building block" of their elaborate underground edifices.

Termites could not build these edifices individually, the researher concluded. There had to be certain number of termites before they could "discover" their collective intelligence. It's like the English language, Thomas muses in his essay. There is no one author of this magnificent "acheivement"--it's the product of many many individual intelligences working collectively, feeding intellectually off one another.

I think the same thing is true of classrooms of students. Certainly we all have had classes where one or two students stood out as particularly gifted or talented in one way or another--most often linguistically in English classes. But what's far more impressive to me is how intelligent classes can become when they are encouraged to perceive themselves collectively rather than as a random collection of individuals.

I play a "name game" with my students at the beginning of each semester. Every student must not only tell the class his or her name, but must repeat all the names of all those who have already said their names. To enable students to do this, I tell them to the class their first name, then follow this with something they like or dislike that begins with the sound of their first name's letter or letters. So Diana dislikes dinasours, Lizzie likes lizards, and so forth. The next week I have them do the same thing, but now with an alliterative phase or pair of words that begins with the sound of the letter or letters of their first name.

In week two of the methods class I'm presently teaching, Diana began the Name Game by telling us she disliked dirty dogs. They are smelly, she explained, and they make a mess of your carpet. The class nodded, and proceeded. We came round to the final student--an older student named David who had informed us a week earlier that he enjoyed hiking in Denali National Park.

"I'm David," he told the group, "and I AM a dirty dog."

Classroom intelligence/

Friday, January 26, 2007

martin luther and walt disney as teachers of reading

Because part of my job here at San Jose State is to serve as a university supervisor of beginning teachers of English, I've spent a great deal of time over the past 19 years observing students in classrooms at the middle and high school levels reading and responding to what they read. Often, as I observe these classrooms, it seems to me that teachers are behaving as if the Lutheran revolution is the only game in town. You know the general story: Luther directly challenged the whole notion of what reading was for and who should be allowed to learn to read. Prior to the Lutheran revolution, readers of texts were largely monks and priests, while the rest of the population acted primarily as listeners to the Biblical narratives told by this priestly class. These readings were frequently supplemented by visual versions of these same tales, often depicted as frescoes on the walls of the church.

Luther changed all that. "You must be a reader yourself if you are ever to understand your true relationship to God," he proclaimed. Even more somberly for today's students, he suggested that if you could not understand what you read, you were meant to damned. Damned eternally. Oh my.

As a student growing up in the late 50's, I was a child of Sputnik. Surprisingly, the sudden and quite unanticipated launching of this orbital satellite by the Russian government had the effect on American education of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Shortly after the launching of Sputnik in the fall of 1957, American students' reading comprehension began to be tested both systematically and frequently. Depending on our comprehension level, we were 'placed' the following year in either 'higher' or 'lower' classes: saved or damned.

The logical culmination of this system, at least for me, came in my senior year of college. I was taking a class in the modern British novel by a Professor of English that I greatly admired. All the group of us 'saved' students in English were sitting in the first two rows of the small lecture hall, laughing at the professor's jokes and nudging each other as we pointed to passages we'd underlined in our texts and comments we'd written about these passages. I chanced to turn around one morning to look at the back of the lecture hall. There on the far side of the back row, hunched down in his chair, was one of my classmates, a good friend and a fellow member of my residential hall. He was looking rather desperate, peering over the top of his book and clearly hoping that the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to attend Oxford and then Harvard Law School. What sort of system could lead to the conviction on the part of such a student that he was not among the saved, at least as far as the reading of works of modern British literature was concerned?

But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying specialized talents in diverse fields of study early in a system of schooling, then nurturing these talented individuals at the expense of those who were not 'meant' to be saved. The field of talented individuals, of course, got smaller and smaller as one rose up through the educational ranks. Eventually, in English studies, it became a matter of fewer and fewer people talking more and more loudly to one another.

In my third year of graduate school in English, as I was observing this process of increasing selectivity taking place, and wondering when I would be the next to be pushed off the gang plank, so to speak, I was asked to take over the leadership of an undergraduate seminar made up of English majors who had a different take on the purpose and value of the study of English. These were quite bright students who were not planning to pursue studies in English at the graduate level, but rather to enter post-BA credential programs in the state of Connecticut, where they were studying. Since I'd been a 10th and 12th grade private school teacher for three years prior to beginning my graduate studies, I was considered an appropriate instructor for this group of undergraduates. The questions they were asking in this seminar fascinated me: how should the field of 'English' be understood when it became the one field of study required of all secondary level students in each year of their public schooling? Even more importantly, how should one re-envision this field of study when the students one is teaching are there by law rather than choice?

And here's where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how kids 'read' when they are good at it? Wouldn't this give us a different perspective? What purpose was served, after all, by observing kids suffering through reading programs whose effect, if not intention, was to increase the disparity between "good readers" and "poor readers" in each successive year? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct course to a class in Children's Literature that these same students were taking, it was a relatively straightforward matter to turn from understanding 'reading' primarily in terms of decoding print text to understanding 'reading' as a matter of making sense of 'texts' that were both visual and verbal. Isn't that what any good elementary teacher taught: stories in which the illustrations gave the reader as much information as the words?

In pursuing this line of inquiry, we learned that prior to the creation of the first full length Disney animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937), it was widely assumed that "talking animated cartoons" could only sustain the attention of the average viewer for about ten minutes. Sound familiar? Disney and his animators challenged this conventional thinking, asking themselves what made viewers want to sustain their attention for longer periods of time. Telling a good story was obviously a key ingredient (hence the choice of Snow White), but equally imporant for sustaining the attention of the "reader" was the appeal to our universal delight in sound, song, movement and a bit of irreverence (hence the Seven Dwarfs). By drawing on these attributes of what made kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed "shortness" of kids' "attention spans" be significantly augmented? As we all know today, Disney and his animators proved the skeptics wrong. Kids could pay attention to what they were being 'taught' for a good deal longer than 10 minutes. It was all a matter of knowing in advance what might interest and engage their attention, then incorporating these elements systematically and consistently into this uniquely modern version of visual and verbal story telling. Were it not for the launching of Sputnik, perhaps this Disney "vision" of kids as diversely talented readers and viewers might even have prevailed in American education. Sadly, however, this vision of the later 1930's gradually faded as school once again became more 'academic,' more 'rigorous,' more relentlessly 'selective.' And so it is today.

In a workshop I've given for a number of years on the teaching of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, I return workshop participants to the world of the early Disney and introduce then to an approach to reading comprehension that draws on the many ways both kids and adults are uniquely talented. We start with the most traditional of exercises -- reading short passages that provide vignettes of the characters of Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson, then writing about what we understand about the characters based on these what these passages convey.

But we move from this quite traditional exercise in reading to a range of alternative ways of responding to these same passages. We start, in acknowledgment of Walt Disney, by viewing a segment of the 1963 film version of Harper Lee's novel. I introduce workshop participants to a way a pre-reading a visual text by "scaffolding" what one is about to see with a "cumulative graphic organizer" designed to help the viewer understand the roles played by the different characters they wrote about in relation to the larger society of Maycomb County, Alabama of which they were a part.

Then I have participants work in small character groups, creating visual symbol posters of the particular characters they have written about at the beginning of the workshop. We then do a "gallery walk" of these visual symbol posters, and I then gather participants together in mixed character groups of three, where each participant role-plays their assigned character as the other two members of their group asks them questions.

Finally, we re-experience the same excerpts that we read in 'Lutheran' fashion at the beginning of the workshop (i.e. silently at one's desk), but this time in pre-Lutheran mode, listening to them as excerpts from the Recorded Books version of this novel. I follow this final experience of listening by having participants write on their assigned character a second time, reflecting on what they learned by comparing their initial 'character study writing' with this final piece of writing.

By and large, participants enjoy these exercises and find them interesting and insightful. Not only in terms of their own sense of themselves as readers, but also as teachers of reading and writing who work with students with many different talents. The point I wish to make in this workshop is that we can all deliberately and systematically draw on the various ways we know our kids are smart. That is, we can draw on their various talents as readers, listeners, responders to and shapers of their world. In doing so, we can significantly enhance the experience of reading and writing for all our students, countering the drive towards year by year "progressive differentiation" that is, perhaps unconsciously, built into the systematically structured reading programs that are presently required in the great majority of California classrooms today.