Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pupu platter

I fell off the writing horse last week, and now I'm picking myself up along with fragments I've been gathering this June.

There's this chestnut from Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer:“Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach” (3), which makes me aspire to be a life-long student more than the tritely alliterative life-long learner.

Marcia Tate reminded me of what ought to be cardinal classroom rule: "If you're not modeling what you're teaching, then you're teaching something else."

Kristin Kochheiser tipped me off to Noisli, a tool I suspect might prove useful when students ask whether they may listen to music while they work.

Kevin Croghan pointed me towards the Glossary of Education Reform, so I'll never (hopefully) feel mugged by school jargon again.

Katie Wolfson introduced me to an intriguing question matrix (see second page) that I suspect may support students in generating their own better questions.

Joe Marquez showed me a more elegant shortcut to split-screen displays with the Dualless extension.

Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, taught me: "Just as flight simulators allow pilots to train safely, stories safely train us for the big challenges of the social world." (58)

And lastly, I learned that southwestern North Dakota is crawling with ticks, which might just be a topic for a later slice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

YOLO: A Reading Wars Story

The school year that just concluded put the idea of implicit bias on my radar. (A sentence that still feels slightly oxymoronic.) Then, last week, I finished Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, nonfiction about recent scientific research into how readers acquire those skills. Among the author's claims: “People are unreliable narrators of their own cognitive lives… Being an expert reader doesn’t make you an expert about reading.” (4) And: "A good teacher has to be a good observer to be sure... [yet] What people observe depends on what they already believe." (261) See: Confirmation Bias. Seidenberg proceeded to kick me right in the biases by highlighting how I emphasize comprehension with middle-school readers over phoneme/grapheme know-how. In Seidenberg's analysis, those latter elements deserve more conscientious attention for many who struggle to read efficiently because so-called basic skills turn out to be both trickier and more essential to master than they're credited. Seidenberg's leading impulse leans conservative as he suggests spending less time and energy defining literacy in broad, multiple, multimedia terms and more time shoring up the phoneme and grapheme pathways that interact synergistically with semantic understanding in the most adept readers. He makes a compelling, readable research-based case. Even if making meaning remains the prime reading purpose, in my view, perhaps kindling sound-letter skills, even for tweens and teens, can feed their comprehension fire.

In contrast to the unsettling pauses Language at the Speed of Sight gave me, my next summer read felt like a cozy blanket: Renew! by Shawna Coppola. The focus here is on writing, particularly in multiple and multimedia terms. As Coppola writes, ""With visual composition becoming ever more ubiquitous in our world outside of school...wouldn't it make sense to collectively broaden our idea of what it means to 'write' within school?" (43) Even as Coppola draws on numerous literacy luminaries to make this case, I keep hearing Seidenberg's voice in my other ear, how the education system is dysfunctional because of how its “Allegiance to great theorists of the past obviates the burden of engaging newer research.” (260) I wonder: What if my efforts to coach students to write more broadly is shortchanging their writing fundamentals, paralleling Seidenberg's main claim about much present-day reading instruction?

Even as I hold that question in my head, it doesn't feel true. A feeling that could benefit from bolstering. Given that I favor both/and pedagogies over spurious either/or dichotomies, I'd do well to marshal some scientific research in service of my inner Seidenberg. I should be better prepared to justify why I work with students the ways I do, how I see our work progressing towards more powerful literacy -- or literacies.

With such notions tumbling around my brain, I came across these lines Sunday in Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: "There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." (6)

Which leads to me a likely next step: I've started to see this summer-reading-enriched blog draft as tracing the gist of a professional mission statement a la Joy Kirr. More writing and rewriting (and reading!) to come...

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence 5

File this under first-world problems or world's mildest rant: I'm on an airplane, and the seat doesn't recline; in fact, the majority of the seats don't recline, and my understanding is that reclining is now (at least on one airline) among the services that can command a fee -- along with carrying on luggage, receiving food or drinks besides water, choosing where and next to whom one sits, and having additional legroom -- which qualifies as a disappointing development, in any world, even one where I'm miraculously whisked thousands of miles in mere hours.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Soup's IN

I ate my first soup dumpling more than 20 years ago in New York City. It was a culinary locked-room mystery: a supple pouch sealing in gingery broth and a porky filling. "How'd the soup get in there?" my fellow diners and I marveled. (Newsflash! Secret's out.)

Our memorable inaugural bite came at a joint whose reputation was built on their xiaolongbao, Joe's Shanghai, so when I left New York behind, I figured that meant soup dumplings, too.

Still, in these western parts, my comestible radar has detected their presence three times in the intervening decades. Expectations have been high on each occasion, mostly leading to disappointment -- dumplings that were insufficiently soupy or not hot enough, even a little rubbery.

Third time, though, was the Goldilocks charm last week. A new place right around the corner from home offers the closest approximation of the savory deliciousness I remember. Eat your heart out, Proust! You can have have your Madeleines; I'll be in the corner slurping from a deep spoon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Win - win

Students and I are running through the semester's end game, reviewing expectations for what they're collecting in their digital portfolios and how their grades will reflect those components, when eighth-grader Thomas speaks up. "I put together this spreadsheet if any of you are interested," he says, or words to that effect. "Let me know if you want me to share it. It can help you determine what you need to do to reach your grade goals."

I follow up with Thomas, and he shows me how his table crunches together individual elements to demonstrate whether students' standard-by-standard performance is or isn't on track for their desired finish line. (He's made a grade-book sandbox!) If a con in this system is some students calculating to the fraction of a point what's the least they need to do to achieve what they deem success, I figure the pro is more students feeling like savvy, informed players of the game. I'm calling Thomas' ingenuity and independence, not to mention willingness to share his hack with others, a win.

A second win reveals itself in a conference with another eighth grader, Evan. He's describing progress he's noticed this year in his speaking skills, and he reminds me of a connection we had talked about earlier between performing music (a passion of his) and making formal presentations at school. He tells me how it finally clicks for him: how he can get in a speaking 'zone' that resembles how he feels playing music. When it's time to speak in school, he's now less self-conscious as he lets his words, gestures, and voice work together more freely to convey his message. Even without a guitar, he channels the feeling of being a rock star who commands the stage. I'm calling that win number two.

While the ends of school years are frenetic, they're also time to celebrate learners who continue putting valuable pieces together. (Another Slice of Life blogger reminded me of that today.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Series of Simultaneously Unfortunate & Fortunate Events

I'm on a cross-country flight, unexpectedly.
I'm reading a book when the flight attendant announces the onboard wi-fi system isn't working, so all passengers may enjoy complimentary DIRECTV by way of apology.
I decide I'll check out the in-flight movies to see what's on that I might've missed in theaters.
I settle on "The Post."
I watch actor Tom Hanks playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee say, "The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish."
I reflect on how that's not only true in times of political crisis but also in humble matters of personal writing like blogging.
I write this and press a button that says Publish.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Defensive thriving

My wife and I built two pieces of Ikea furniture last week. As a defensive pessimist, I entered the experience determined to keep my expectations comfortably low.

Forty-five minutes spent on hold trying to pin down over the phone a delivery time left me stirred up by dire recordings. Improperly anchored furnishings, I was told repeatedly, might fall and crush me or those I loved. (Turns out this direness may be deserved given the scope of a nearly two-year-old recall...) Thankfully, our low-slung models provided little or no danger.

I proceeded to a new gripe. "There'll probably be pieces missing," I scoffed. Turns out there were, specifically the mattress for the bed, but my wife's persistence rectified that glaring oversight.

Our woes proved to be predictable and easily overcome:
  • One poorly machined screw that we could hand tighten in an easy-to-reach spot
  • Two metal rails whose screw holes didn't align with the unintuitive diagram ("Why don't they use words?" my wife asked.) until we realized that we needed to reverse their sides in the bed frame
  • Fabric wrinkles smoothing themselves out as we speak since we skipped the optional ironing step
We finished our projects slightly ahead of schedule -- a daybed, a desk, and our relationship intact. (Yay, zeugma!) Defensive pessimism never felt so good, or at least not so bad.