Learning Curve


I worked on the blog a bit this week though the changes weren’t all that noticeable. I added an image of a typewriter to the previous post for several reasons. First, because I love old typewriters, and this gives me an excuse to decorate with one. The second is because I didn’t know how to post a video of Don Graves. The video would have been a little off focus, but the new learning would have been way cool.  Finally, following a dictum of Donald Murray’s, the rules of the blog have made themselves known to me – every post must now have a picture.

I learned what a blavatar is and thought I had created one based on Sue’s card. It’s supposed to appear where the W is in the address line as well as serve as my avatar when I post on other people’s blogs. I found the video on WordPress’s website very helpful, but apparently I misunderstood how to apply it. I’ll try again in the future.

I did successfully add other WordPress blogs to my blogroll. I searched on the website for those that dealt with writing and education. Those that I liked I added. I read their blogrolls and added those that I liked that I found there too. I also added one I accidentally found when I Googled a Jen Bryant book and the Discover Writing Social Network after I obtained permission from its creator. I didn’t know the etiquette for this since it’s not strictly a blog.

I also added some categories to my posts. I’m still not sure how they differ from tags. I read the support page (where I stumbled onto blavatars) and on the forum. I asked around at the Writing Project. No one else seems to know so far.  I think this distinction is important to driving  people to my blog.

I’m still not sure if the RSS thing is working or not and/or if not, how to fix it. I also really like what Sheehy has on A Teacher Writes. He calls these super quick posts Miniblogs. I’d like to do something similar, but can’t figure out how. These would be perfect for the shout out I want to give Captain Sullenberger’s My Turn column.

As time goes on, I’ll let you know when I conquer these (How hopeful am I?) and other challenges. Stay posted.

Published in: on February 23, 2009 at 3:28 am  Comments (2)  

Well-intentioned does not equal well-designed



I’ve heard Donald Graves speak many times. I even hugged him once. I believe most of what he says like that of the other Durham Don, Donald Murray, to be gospel, but it’s his statement to a roomful of teachers that we should write our assignments with our students as “it saves a lot of stupid writing” that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

Last week I sat with a very recent former student, who when asked what I might do differently with my future students, advised me to spend more time on writing. I sat forward, puzzled. We had in fact spent a great deal of time writing. Did she love it so much that she wanted more? Sadly, no. What she thought I should have done is given her the formula to good paragraphs that her social studies teacher provided for her. “You know, I wish you had told us that every paragraph should have between seven and eleven sentences, and the order we should put the sentences in…”

I was flabbergasted. I tried to be diplomatic without undercutting my well-intentioned colleague. After all, here was a content teacher trying to teach writing, not merely assigning it. “Well, I disagree philosophically with that practice, but if that’s helpful to you, great.” We moved on to other matters.

This weekend I worked with a close family friend on a four-page research paper. Four pages doesn’t sound very daunting, but this articulate, well-read junior who rises at six on weekend mornings to begin working on homework sat stymied. Her English teacher had set so many parameters around this particular assignment down to detailing how many sentences should be dedicated to each of seven different objectives in her introductory paragraph alone that they overwhelmed this excellent student.

Like the history teacher I mentioned earlier, I believe the teacher who created this assignment and the one hundred fifty notecards it required to be equally well-intentioned. They want their students to write well, to prepare them for college and beyond, but are going about it all wrong. If they follow Don’s advice and complete their own assignments, they’d quickly see the error of their ways.

I’ve followed this advice and found to be wanting several times. Whether it’s not allowing enough time to complete the task well or commanding too many unnecessary preliminaries, each time I either revamped the assignment before I assigned it to them or did so as we went along with egg on my face. Either way we were both spared inauthentic and painful writing. I can assure you these missteps will not be my last, but at least I recognize them now.

Recently I wrote and submitted two grant proposals. Each required you to follow a format, detailing what material should be covered in each paragraph, word length, etc. While I appreciated having guidelines, I felt constrained as I argued why my particular projects deserved funding. I wanted more latitude to develop my case before the grantors. I’ll find out soon enough if I was sufficiently persuasive to earn the grants. If I don’t, I’ll always wonder whether my words or my projects weren’t strong enough.

I’ve written before on the necessity of teachers of writing to be writers themselves (see www.ncte.org/journals/vm/issues/v11-2 for the article if you’re interested), so I won’t go into that now. But if you can’t or won’t commit yourself to this, at least attempt your own assignments. You’ll discover what you’re really asking your kids to do.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Happy Birthday


They went everywhere he did for years. They were as ever present as one of our dogs in the truck beside him. So much a part of him, you didn’t even notice them any more despite the fact that no one else in this area carries saddlebags.  Not much use for them these days. Horses are ridden for pleasure not as a means of transportation. So the storage devices associated with them fell out of favor too. So why did John carry saddlebags instead of a knapsack or even just throw what he needed in the cab of his pickup? Because he saw life through the eyes of a cowboy.

“Be prepared.” Every good Boy Scout lives this motto as did every horseman. John’s saddlebags carried duct tape, a spare pocketknife, a length of rope, waterproof matches, a flashlight, a deck of cards, a book, a flare, and an extra set of clothes, including socks and underwear. Moreover, there is a flashlight in every room of our house in case of a power outage, payroll deductions go directly into our savings account, there was never less than half a tank of gas in his truck, and a generous supply of grain was always laid in to ward off storms. “Plan for the worst and hope for the best. That way you’ll never be disappointed,” he would often say.

Made of leather, saddlebags are incredibly dependable. In cowboy lore, your word was your bond. Whether visiting our elderly former neighbor on Sunday mornings after we’d moved away, dropping by to change the hard drive on Bobby’s computer, bringing one of our goats into After the Bell, or working with physically challenged kids at equine therapy Thursday evenings, if he said he would be there, he was – no matter the cost. He was such a good friend that there’s no absence of those ready to lend a hand now that he’s gone. But that dependability didn’t just apply to those he knew. He would stop to help a stranger change a flat in the pouring rain simply because he could. When hearing of a family that lost everything in a fire, he wanted to know where to send a check. Empathy was so central to his personality that upon his death, the KMS faculty started a scholarship in his name to honor eighth graders who demonstrate this quality at school.

Like many cowboys, John was fiercely independent. While he was the first to offer help, he was reluctant to ask for it. If he didn’t know how to do something, like how to install lights above the water trough in our barn, he’d read up on the task in question. Only after he knew the basic procedure, would he ask specific questions of others as he didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He didn’t like to be told what to do either. Once when an employer commented on the length of his hair, he replied, “Look. My hair and I have a deal. I don’t bother it, and it doesn’t bother me.” Though he could be stubborn, he was usually the model employee, arriving to work an hour early and staying until the job was done to his satisfaction. John didn’t believe in doing things halfway at the house either. He’d rather take his time to do something right or not do it at all.

Fun too was something to strive for. It was not something to leave to chance. If you’ve ever seen a rodeo, you know that cowboys believe in playing just as hard as they work. John loved horses and worked hard to keep them. He cleaned twenty-seven stalls a day to pay board for Jack, then CJ, and finally for Ziggy. When we moved to our farm, he cut back his hours at work to find time to implement what Doc had taught him about fixing fence, using his new manure spreader, etc. He bought Charlie, our one-eyed horse, and Danny, our pony, to join Ziggy and two of Doc’s retired foxhounds, Cricket and Blaze, to keep him company while doing chores. John also tracked down a Fainting Goat breeder to purchase Laverne and Shirley. About six months before he died, our goats gave birth to four kids. Our petting zoo was now complete. He loved bringing young friends over to play with our menagerie.

Overall, this particular cowboy made me want to be a better person. When I tired of grading papers, I’d look across the table and see him mapping out a plan for some new wiring he wanted to install, the sparkles from the many greeting card boxes he made for me, embedded in the table beneath his paperwork. I kept grading. When I was feeling put upon by others, I’d see him making stromboli for the students I tutored Sunday afternoons. This after visiting Herb and his parents in the morning. I didn’t feel so put upon. When I felt like I could never get done all that I needed to do, I’d hear him on the phone, looking up websites on miniature babydoll sheep with Erin. I wasn’t so pressed for time any more. When John died, I worried that the young people in our life – nieces and nephews and the children of friends who let us borrow them from time to time – wouldn’t have him as a role model any more. Then I realized I was the one who needed to pay attention to his legacy. There’s always time for what’s really important.

About fifteen years ago, we bought our first house. We were very lucky to have wonderful neighbors on both sides. One of them was Danielle, a redheaded three-year-old. When we asked her one day what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied immediately, “John.”  Though everyone laughed at the contrast between this sweet freckle-faced toddler and the six-foot tall cowboy towering over her, no one doubted the wisdom of her choice. Maybe someday, she’ll even carry saddlebags. 

Published in: on February 6, 2009 at 12:52 pm  Comments (3)  

Crocheting my understanding


Last week the women in my family began Crochet Club, an idea borne out of Kate Jacobs’ Friday Night Knitting Club. Barbara is an accomplished crocheter and the rest of us are not. We thought the rest of us should learn from her while we could and we knew we’d all enjoy each other’s company. So after a quick supper Barbara pulled out a few pattern books for us to choose projects from. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “How we will all learn if we’re all working on different things?”

Courtney chose a pocketbook made up of a fleur -de-lis pattern. (Not what it’s called in the crochet world, but I both don’t know what it’s called and wanted to give you a visual image.) Rosa chose to make circular potholders made with three different colored yarns. I decided on a poncho. Each pattern came with instructions, which we read, and we were off to the races. Barbara showed each girl how to get started. I was okay initially. I know a smidge more than they do, having worked on the same afghan for almost twenty years. What can I say? I get bored easily. But then I forgot how to perform a very simple stitch. I trusted my fingers’ muscle memory would kick in if given the chance. After a bit of practice, it did.

And did chaos ensue while we three worked on completely different projects, their only commonality  that they all started with the letter P? Of course not. Barbara as I said before is a master of her craft. She was able to step in and show us when we’d gone astray, answer questions when posed to her, and offer encouragement at our fledgling attempts. Because we’d each chosen something we wanted to work on, something we would be able to use in our lives, motivation for learning was high. Come to think of it. This happens in workshop classrooms all over the country. Kylene Beers in When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do says “A workshop approach does not mean the teacher doesn’t teach. It does mean that you provide specific information that students need to help them accomplish whatever they are working on at the time.” When given time, choice, a real reason to read and write (or crochet), and a knowledgeable teacher, deep learning takes place. If only we’ll let it.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me how well we all learned that night or how eager we all are to sit with yarn again. It seems I need to learn what I already knew over and over again.

Published in: on February 6, 2009 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hello world!

I am a confirmed technophobe. Some, including me, might go as far as to call me a Luddite.  Don’t get me wrong. I think lots of technology is way cool, but much of it seems over my head, and some of it, frankly, seems complicated just because it can be. But as I said to my husband this morning, “If you can’t beat’em, then join’em.” I hope as is true in most of the rest of my life, by attempting to create with technology, I’ll grow to understand more of it.  And if not,  at least I’ll learn more about my own learning, a topic that as an English teacher and professional development provider is near and dear to my heart.

The name of the blog is taken from an article I wrote a few years ago for  Voices from the Middle, a journal for middle school English teachers, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. In it I quote Mary Vorse, who said, ” The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”


A member of my writing group and no slouch of a writer herself, Sue Michel, created this card to congratulate me on publishing this article.

A member of my writing group and no slouch of a writer herself, Sue Michel, created this card to congratulate me on publishing this article.



So here’s the other reason for the blog. As a Fellow of the National Writing Project, I know that the best teachers of writing as those who write themselves. I do send some pieces out into the stratosphere occasionally, but this might keep me a bit more honest. Let’s see.

Published in: on February 4, 2009 at 1:21 pm  Comments (2)