Writing is Important-er-er


Spelling and Grammar: Important, Writing: Important-er-er

Many of my blog posts and LinkedIn writings contain spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. I love these little gems of reality. I need an editor of course. When I worked with an educational team or at the university I relied on a group of colleagues for peer feedback. Sometimes students volunteered to help with my less than fluent writing. The thing is, I love writing and I love writing wildly.

I love writing, not for the act of writing itself, but for the expression. Writing, like my digital art endeavors and videos, provides an opportunity to say something. Let a thought out into the wilderness. Unfortunately writing comes with a cost. It is not pure expression.

Too many short sentences in a row breaks a readers concentration. Too many long sentences slow down the pace too much. Repetitiously using the same sentence style drives folks batty. Referencing obscure puns while starting each sentence off with the same sound does not help the reader echo-locate their way through a passage. You said the the same article twice. An article in a sentence makes the writer a bat without flight…..

These are sneaky grammatical and spelling issues. Well, “the the” is really a typo. Typos and spelling errors are actually the sneakiest of writing stumps. Especially with spellcheck. Or is it spell check? Who knows? Spellcheck doesn’t spell check or check the spelling of spell and check. Does it matter? In a recent letter of interest to a position in equity education advocacy that I would dearly love to have – “the the” happened. It was supposed to be “to the”. I only noticed after my nerves calmed down post-application submission. Hopefully the-the reader “to the” letter will give-give me-me a break-break. Now I sound like juvenile. This letter mattered to me. So spellcheck or spell check – it does matter. Except on my blog and on my personal social media. Here I write for the wilderness.

Why do I love to write if my product is full of errors and open to so much criticism? Why do I love to write when my colleagues and friends have become inhibited in their writing? I think, in part, this was due to a teacher of English I met as a sign language interpreter. To them writing was artwork. Make mistakes. Discover gems in mistakes. Let students write wildly. Let the writing roam the wilderness for a few months. We can peer edit later, once the wilderness starts to pale.

I loved this philosophy and yet I hear friends state that they loathe writing. My belief is that this comes from the systematic education of our industrial age education system. Writing became, less art, more system. Education targets perfection in writing over art. Since when did perfection, grammatical soundness, or correct (and arbitrary) spelling have anything to do with expression?

Real English used by native speakers does not exist within the idealized written form. So why do we strive, and beat ourselves up for failing to achieve, the idealized form of English? “Standard Written English” is a consensus form of English. Over the years folks at the upper echelons of academic society (publishers, writers, educators and others) developed this consensus agreement of what is clear and proper for English writing. The idea is that a uniform standard of communication can be understood by all speakers and users of English regardless of differences in dialect, pronunciation, and usage.

My objection to this idea is that the consensus version of Standard Written English creates a class barrier. English educators, untrained in taking a social justice approach to sharing Standard Written English, often lay the foundations that inhibit potential writers. Happily, new training and conferences are slowly correcting this issue.

Recently, attending a social justice for teaching English style conference, I listened to presenters urge teachers to follow the critical reflection; six “re-s” of reflecting, reconsidering, refusing, reconceptualizing, rejuvenating, and reengaging as applied to lessons. As APPLIED to lessons! How does your writing assignment (not classroom culture but CURRICLUM!) support the diverse student body culturally? Does your approach to sharing Standard Written English perpetuate class barriers? Or break them down? Teaching for social justice is not just an act of student reflection, acceptance, and respect, but an act of teacher reflection, acceptance, and respect.

Let us not disenfranchise writers. Please do not oppress the writings of diverse people. Let them write into the wild – on blogs, LinkedIn, and other sources. Then, cautiously and with respect for the diverse wild creature of self-expression, show writers how to create and domesticate their works into the docile Standard Written English version of their writing. Grammatically correct sentences are important. Spelling is important. Writing is important-er-er.


Short Notes of a Book: How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools

Today I spent quite a while catching up on research articles themed around LGBTQ discrimination in education. Since I am taking notes I thought I might as well share some summaries here. Besides, LinkedIn and my Blog make for easy searching compared to the vast vault of my hard drive and Google Apps accounts.

Each of the articles includes a citation at the beginning and my thoughts following in italics.

Cover of the book: How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools: Use Social Architecture to Prevent, Lessen and End Bullying.Goodstein, Phyllis Kaufman. (2013) How to Stop Bullying in Classrooms and Schools: Use Social Architecture to Prevent, Lessen and End Bullying. New York: Routledge.

In general I dislike the use of bullying as a term to describe the marginalization of a student or group of students. First I will need to ignore this categorization as most articles will use terms, like bullying, that invite excuse making (my major problem with using terms like bullying and victimization. The categorizations of the forms the bullying (read: marginalization) and outcomes in the first half of the article are actually something I would love to build an infographic on. The language would be useful and easily translatable to a variety of audiences and facilitate greater dialogue. It was the second half of the article which I really found interesting.

Goodstein describes the use of social architecture theory and social scaffolding as a method for creating social change. Actually it is more of guide for educators and others. Teachers stand as role models and set up systems for pro-social classroom behaviors. There is also a description for bystanders and upstanders. The section on encouraging bystanders to become upstanders deserves more consideration as those models may apply to the design of a game intending the same outcome. To support teachers and upstanders there are two major components described by Goodstein: incompatibility and intervention. Incompatibility means creating such an environment of kindness, expectations, service learning, projects, and other things so as to make the school climate incompatible with bullying. Intervention focusses on making sure educators and upstanders, parents, and the community, administrators, and policy all take action when marginalization occurs as inaction relates to a lack of condemnation rather that “ignoring something so it goes away.”

I really enjoyed the metaphor of a broken window. If a window is allowed to sit without repair then additional windows will be broken. The same applies to marginalizing behavior. If no one intervenes and there is not a social stigma applied to marginalizing behaviors then what can be expected to occur? Maybe the broken window would be a symbol for a video game…or graffiti on a locker.


Why Leave Online Learning?

Many people know that I think online learning has a unique promise. Unfortunately I also feel that online learning at the K-12 level does not work as the sole source of learning for most students. Over the last year I had great experiences where online learning provided students with their first school successes. Students with immobilizing social phobias, bullying that turned their local school into a fearsome destination, and lives so mobile that they never stayed in one place for longer than a week while attending school were finally able to succeed. Simultaneously I struggled to engage students making a choice between education and familiar distractions. They sat at home, usually alone, choosing whether they should answer my call, log onto their computer, or even wake up.

Online learning works for students who are motivated and can see the educational benefit. Those who benefit the most are extremely well organized and highly motivated or have family members with those traits supporting them.

Schools are investing quite a bit of money into these programs. To get an experimental idea off the table one method employed by schools is to trial it as an after-school program or with at-risk students. Herein lies my dilemma. “At-risk” students are by definition unlikely to respond to a program that requires high levels of motivation and organization. So how do we test curriculum? How can we proof an idea when the motivated few set a curve (simply by reading material and completing assignments and succeeding on assessments) and then data gives a wide gap in the middle before landing with a swath of incomplete work.

I worry about the rigor of the work and yet at the college level students learn as much from online studies as traditional classes according to the Department of Education’s review of research studies. Some of those studies indicate that blended learning environments provide the best method – combining technology with traditional environments. Due to this last idea I have decided to take some time and reassess my professional goals. Whether I land in a regular classroom and work towards understanding this or continue online as an instructional designer I do not want to teach solely online. There needs to be a balance.

There are other issues as well. Households earning at the “lean” end of the economic spectrum tend to not have broadband access to the internet. Those at the other end tend to have much higher rates of broadband access. Minorities tend to use mobile devices and that segment of the technology market is growing so perhaps mobile learning environments will provide the best avenue for education. http://www.esa.doc.gov/ (Economics and Statistics for the exact figures).

So right now I am thinking I need to work on a plan that brings mobile learning environments into traditional settings. One problem – how to convince the teachers that they want their students to have their cell phones on during class?




Classroom Management Series: Use Humor to Diffuse a Conflict

Kids building a fantastic contraption.

Working with students we occasionally encounter defensiveness for one reason or another. Perhaps they did not realize that their behavior was disruptive and now they are denying their involvement. Maybe they think the failed a quiz. If a teacher was unwise enough (or tired – honestly this is the only time it happens to me) to become involved in a power struggle with a student this sort of deconstructive behavior can set in.

What do we do?

First off we avoid the aforementioned power struggle. The discussions of who is right and in control does nothing to help and focus students on their learning. Sometimes we can talk to students privately but with larger and larger class sizes and more requirements for out time this can sometimes be prohibitive. Often we send the student to the hall to gain some privacy but that action has its own onus. I always try to be ready to apologize – sometimes I inadvertently wrong or offend a student. Often times other students provoke the incident and I can impose consequences for uncivilized behavior on them which results in lowered defensiveness in the student I am working with. All these work well including planned ignoring but my favorite – the silver bullet to tense stressfull situations in my class room – is humor.


Intervening Through Humor

Using humor gives the teacher a powerful and positive tool to change disruptive behaviors. Getting a student (or class) to laugh during a tense situation breaks the cycle of the behavior and helps reset the stage of the classroom as a safe, fun place to learn. My one caveat for using humor as an intervention is that it should NEVER be directed at a student. Never use humor at the expense of a student. This not only fails to build a positive climate and destroys any chance of an effective intervention – using humor at a students expense  means the teacher bullied that student. The biggest bully in a classroom could easily become the teacher.

How does humor work? I interviewed a colleague, Mrs Sarha, who use humor to diffuse almost all ill-behavior in her classroom. Each use built upon other structures for managing her classroom.

She, like many teachers, uses a sound prompt to get her students attention. In her case she own a beautifully cartoonish bell in the shape of a turtle. She calls her bell Myrtle the Turtle. Early in the year she starts her high school students off by explaining to them that they must “Respect the Turtle!” What results from this is a bit of hilarity and anytime someone goes off task during a discussion another classmate with yell out, “Hey! Respect the turtle.” By turning her attention prompt into something entertaining and easily remembered she removed the focus from herself as the person desiring respect and, through Myrtle, turned the focus back onto the learning regardless of the source for an activity or information.

She also deals with disruptive student behavior in an entertaining fashion. Every teacher has a pet peeve. Sometimes it is the tapping of a pencil during discussion (something that immediately tells me I have a kinesthetic or  possibly auditory learner in the room) or something else that disrupts the teacher. Mrs Sarha had a screamer this year. Yes – a student who felt compelled to scream. To distract from the tension that built due to these behaviors she announced one day that, “Each scream means a multiple choice questions becomes an essay question.” By this time she had already established a caring environment and impressed upon her students that it was important that they all help each other overcome difficulties in class. They also knew her well enough to realize that she was unlikely to carry out this threat. What it did was show that the behavior was not acceptable and induced the entire classroom – including the screamer – to laugh. Occasionally the screamer will still blurt out but now the class groans and someone says, “Not another essay question.”

She also has a stock of directional phrases she uses that keep directions light-hearted but serious:

“Be nice or leave.”

“Respect the turtle.”

“Make a mess – clean it up.” – she uses this when feelings are hurt as well. Making a mess of someone’s feelings requires clean up as well.

Some of what she does may seem like sarcasm and she admits that she had a difficult time with that at first. Sarcasm does not help; especially if students do not understand the intent. I find that students respond best when I use humor where I make fun of my own actions or perform a bit of physical humor.

How do you intervene through humor? Feel free to comment.

Classroom Management Series: Start Strong

Kid starts strong to demoralize the competition.

Start Strong?


I have to say that I hate it when people say this but it really is good advice….if you know what they are talking about. Start strong? What does that really mean?

In my experience this does not mean start with a body-builder’s physique. I am sure that does something for the intimidation of students but that is not a goal I generally support. This goes along with the idea that you should not smile until December. You should smile on day one – not smiling is not starting strong but starting scary. Student fear and parental trepidation do not make the classroom an inviting learning environment.

Starting strong means setting higher expectations and following strictly to rules and procedures in an effort to make these guidelines clear. With this heavier handed start a teacher can always back off an untenable position. If a teacher starts off “soft” or tentatively; instituting strict policies becomes more difficult. Students rebel when they perceive that they are losing power or control. Also increasing expectations often result in confusion whereas allowing more freedom from a highly structured environment comes with an expectation that previous strictures’ reinstatement remains possible and even probably depending on student performance.

In my classroom I “start strong” with a week dedicated to learning classroom procedures and how their choices and activities in my classroom relate to school principles and values. Sometimes the experience can have a mind-numbing effect.

“How many times will I show them how I expect hand-ins handled?” 

“Do I really need to have them practice the ‘correct’ way to proceed from my room to the library?”

The short answer is yes. I do need to do these things. If I fail to emphasize these things in the beginning I get to spend the rest of the year explaining these procedures every time.

Later on in the year I can let go of the precise, “turn in your journals facing down as you exit the room with the spiral binding facing up,” to, “hand me you journals before you leave,” and expect students to easily revert to the previous method. This seems like a minor thing but in the course of a school year with all the transitions students need to make within the classroom – the little things add up!

So….start strong….but not like like the Hulk.

Bouncing: aka Kids on Errands

Sometimes called “Anti-septic Bouncing” and at other times called guided environment change – this technique serves me well in both brick and mortar and virtual environments.

Sometimes students just need a break. Learning, especially when you are pushing past your comfort zone like students do everyday in school, can be intense. This stress manifests in student behaviors that are often undesirable. Sending a student on an errand effectively gives them a chance to take a constructive break and diffuse their tension.

In a traditional school I use this regularly though it requires a bit of preparation in some schools and a bit of cooperation from other people in the building. At one school I worked out a deal with the librarian. Anytime I sent a student to her on an “errand” with a blue sticky note she knew the student needed a break and to give them something simple to do for five minutes. Sometimes she would just have them sit at the counter and talk with her. It really did not matter – the point was for the student to be away from a stressful situation.

In a virtual school this is a bit simpler with the exception that students have a harder time leaving the environment of their stressor since it is usually their own home. In this case I try to design an education related need for them to be outside. “Instead of writing this essay – go outside and write your observations of the clouds,” only works during a weather unit or if I have a way to tie the clouds into a creative writing assignment. Still my students are getting used to me telling them that they need to go for a walk before taking a quiz.

Why is this an intervention?

Students typically do not know how to read their own emotional state. Using this fairly unrestrictive intervention proactively helps them tune into their own processes and gives them time to reflect on learning without dwelling on the stress of a learning situation. Definitely my favorite intervention!