Snapshots Preserved (Feb. 26, 2013)

A whiff or a tune is sometimes sufficient to displace me from the present and transport me to another time and place. I close my eyes and inhale the background bustle of crowds or of a blaring t.v. or radio, while a laughing image crystallizes before me: insomniac friends cloaked in hoodies and blankets at 2 A.M., belting out Broadway tunes with the accompaniment of a lavender gumdrop-sized CD player, while nestled inside the warm glow of a cozy haven bordered by dirty, peeling wallpaper, undisturbed by the drowsy slumber that blankets the rest of the hall, and unmolested by the grittiness of Flint, MI, as the darkness claws at the windows and echoes of humanity exchange shadows in the streets.

Purple afghan with trailing fringe
Black hoodie

The glow of warmth
Amidst blue-tinged fingers,
The momentary reprieve
From shivering.

Cloaks exhaustion
In a dreary landscape,
Bleakness eclipsed by soaring notes,
Fueling energy for another day.


The Science and History of Writing (January 30, 2013)

I loved every word in Don Murray’s essay “Getting Under the Lightning” (1985). I posted an excerpt on Facebook, yet longed to share the entire thing: reading it was an eerie out-of-body experience, because I have lived and felt and agonized and yearned and wept and starved and reveled in the dawn of realization spilling over my soul in encounters that so closely replicated Don Murray’s descriptions that my heart strings resonated in the sympathetic vibration of self-disclosure.

Stealing away to pause and reflect in the midst of the frenetic cacophony of life is foundational to writing: “Writing is primarily not a matter of talent, of dedication, of vision, of vocabulary, of style, but simply a matter of sitting,” (The Essential Don Murray, 2009, p. 74). Writing requires quieting. We need mental space to observe and chase down our whirling thoughts, to examine them, turning them this way and that way, noticing how the light and the shadows reflect off the edges, melting into the void of our unconscious, while we’re all the while stirring and tasting and sprinkling and adding and experimenting with inexhaustible combinations and variations.

Writing invites discovery, as our pen transforms our musings into another dimension, crystallizing our thoughts into unanticipated conclusions, panting on the heels of unexplored variables that shroud breathtaking insights and excruciating agony.

Writing demands discipline; she is an exacting, unsympathetic mistress. William Zinsser emphasizes the dedication essential to writing: “Writing is a craft, not an art, and . . . the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke” (On Writing Well, 2006, p. 4). Frolicking among our thoughts can be whimsical play, but until we pin them down there is nothing to show for our capers.

I write because I am bursting, and I cannot eat or finish brushing my teeth or run to the bathroom until I scribble my thoughts onto the nearest envelope or paper napkin–and then words trip over each other in their haste to run across the pages. In my rush to tie down all of my thoughts, the everyday demands clamoring for my attention fade into the background and my pen lopes across any scraps of blank space. Finally, in sputtering stops the last lingering idea is corralled onto a page. My stomach roars, I notice a(nother) drip sliding off the end of the toothbrush still jutting out of my mouth, or I remember my need for the bathroom, and I blink. Hovering on the edge of reality, I think I glimpse a wisp of smoke: the lightning struck.

Taking Stock of My Situation (FOKI-Post)

This FOKI-Post is for ECI 521, a graduate class at North Carolina State University.

Although I didn’t climb every mountain or ford every stream, I feel a similar sense of satisfaction and good tiredness at all I have accomplished through ECI 521. After 15 or 16 weeks of practice, I feel finally relaxed when participating in Second Life (although my avatar looks as sulky as ever, and her feet show through the soles of her boots); I can create videos complete with voiceover, background music, and special effects (i.e. transitions); I’m used to blogging and tweeting on a regular basis; and I’m dragging a boatload of tools and ideas for engaging students in the study of literature.

Let’s visit my original course goals (in black font) as a final assessment of what I’ve learned. My evaluative comments are in blue.

The Professional Self
One aspect I’m especially interested in learning through my formal training is each of the theories identified in the outcomes for the Professional Self, along with their accompanying terminology. I want to consider what developmental theorists and experienced educators have discovered about teaching and learning.

The Literature Review Lite was my favorite aspect of this course, since I got to research a subject that really interests me while gleaning from the insights of other educational professionals. I also very much enjoyed reading the newspaper articles regarding the importance of having rationales for the books we teach. Because we have often used and referred to literacy theories, I am much better acquainted with them than I was at the beginning of the course. It was also helpful to practice using ERIC and other academic databases; now I know where to go to seek the insights of developmental theorists and experienced educators.

The Literate Self
I realize that young adult literature can provide the perspective necessary for students to step out of the snarls of daily drama to consider alternate points of view; stories can be the most piercing way to transmit concepts.

The Literate Self outcome in which I’m weakest is definitely the “new literacies and media” method of response. While I want to use technology because it’s so engaging, I’m not adept at involvement on its cutting edge.

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier, was the most helpful book I read in this class because it introduced me to the existence and benefits of graphic novels as a way to engage reluctant readers and train students to see pictures in their minds while they’re reading. Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson, changed my perspective on nonfiction and gave me a plethora of ideas regarding how I can weave nonfiction into my language arts classes.

The other “new literacies and media” that instigated a paradigm shift in my life was the idea of a bookcast: I’m excited about familiarizing students with this interesting format for transcending merely regurgitating the plot of a story to express a personal response to what they read or studied.

The Virtual Self
The Virtual Self is undeniably the area in which I am weakest . . . I still etch notes on stone tablets and deliver messages through carrier pigeons, for Pete’s sake! . . . I’m excited about exploring how to develop a virtual presence online for the purpose of learning new ways to communicate more effectively.

Sometimes being thrown in headfirst is the best way to guarantee immersion in a subject, and this class was no exception! Every project required interaction with various forms of media, and for that I am grateful. Getting used to Second Life was my biggest hurdle, but now I feel comfortable jerkily propelling through the Bookhenge. I am also comfortable audio blogging, video blogging, and searching for images and music that are in the public domain.

I really like the idea of using blogging as a way for students to become comfortable writing often without the high-stakes pressure of formal writing. While I want to establish journaling/blogging as a regular part of my classes, I also want to concentrate on various common sentence errors and give students so much practice correctly using conventional English that they easily select the correct words and punctuation not only for informal writing (e.g. Facebook statuses), but also for formal writing (e.g. scholarship essays or job cover letters).

Professional, Literate, and Virtual Goals
Through ECI 521, I want to familiarize myself with various ways to establish an online presence which I can use to further my goals of setting academics in social, historical contexts, showing the interconnectedness of academic disciplines and “real life”, and presenting academics in understandable forms to students who are at varying levels of emotional intelligence and who come from a variety of educational backgrounds.

In addition, I want to appeal to various learning styles by using many forms of media, presentation, collaboration, and communication. I want to learn how to use young adult literature to appeal to students and to expose them to worlds and concepts which they otherwise might never experience.

Twitter no longer seems intimidating, I am used to blogging, and I like creating videos; I’m satisfied with the online presence I’ve established through this course. I’m impressed by the amount of relevant literature stuffed with ideas for engaging modern teenagers in the study of language, and I’m excited about exploring academic journals in my free time (I really do research in depth when I’m interested in a subject, and now I have ideas regarding where to look). Graphic novels, nonfiction, the Printz and Eva Perry book recommendations, and bookcasts have given me many suggestions for diversifying the study of literature. It’s stunning to realize that I’ve met all of my original goals for this course!

While that first step off a cliff is dizzying and my heart is in my throat, once I find my wings and start to glide, the panoramic landscape is exhilarating–the adrenaline rush is invigorating–the accomplishments are rewarding. Any time I have embarked on an adventure that seems nearly impossible in its complexity, it’s such an addicting rush when I realize at the end of my journey that I actually DID what at one time seemed overwhelming.

What a lot I have learned! VoiceThreads, Twitter, WordPress, Second Life, bookcasts, graphic novels, and interesting nonfiction are now as familiar to me as my home sweet home. I’m grateful for the encouragement and support of my cheering teammates, and I’m so glad I pushed through!

I’ve already stocked up on nonfiction library books and am plowing my way through them. My next conquest is to create a wiki for the study of American Literature (my favorite subject to teach)–maybe even organized by themes, instead of by my default literary periods–I want to imitate the Bookhenge course wiki, with its syllabus, assignment explanations, rubrics, helpful links, and exemplars in anticipation of a future class. I plan to integrate U.S. History, American Government, and English composition into this interdisciplinary study. (Don’t worry; I’ll tweak the projects based on my class.)

Meanwhile, I’m breathing deeply the fresh air at the summit and relishing the view.


Communicating Without Confusion

This Action Learning Project post is for ECI 521, a graduate class at North Carolina State University.

Although I would like to really concentrate on familiarizing students with corrections for common language errors, giving them so much practice that they choose the correct word/punctuation/etc. in their sleep and in their text messages and consequently have no trouble selecting conventional English for formal writing such as school assignments, college scholarships, and job interviews, for the purposes of my action research project I decided to focus just on one commonly misused aspect that has assaulted me through Facebook statuses, text messages, and submitted assignments: homophones—words that sound the same but mean something different depending on how they’re spelled.

My literature review found that students are skilled at communicating informally, such as through text messages, but they find it more difficult to write formally without errors. While planning my lesson, I looked for ways to present the formal aspects of language through informal modes with which students were already familiar: YouTube videos, songs, cartoons, online games, and texting.

Although I was also trying to involve as many senses as possible, it took the observation of one of my students to realize that each of the exercises and sites I used involved pictures. All of the students found the use of pictures very helpful for determining which homophone word to select—they saw the picture and knew which of the word choices in the homophone set accompanied any given picture.

Homophones are tricky: it seems that people need to just memorize which spelling is equated with which picture. Is there a way to teach homophones if studying the pictures doesn’t lock in the correct word with its meaning?

While the students found all exercises helpful, I think future students will benefit from ongoing reinforcement of these concepts, rather than expecting that one 90-minute lesson will solve the problem of trying to figure out which word to use when confronted with a set of homophones. Maybe in future classes I can focus on one common sentence error per week, weaving practice into the assignments every day while continuing to draw attention to and practice previous areas of attention.


Critical Reflection Post (Session 15)

This Critical Reflection post is for ECI 521, a graduate class at North Carolina State University.

A mosquito whines around your safari hat, dodging your menacing swats. Your machete, a case of water, and packages of granola bars and trail mix balance on the seat next to you. This Jeep can handle anything, and you’re ready for adventure. So you continue to sit in the driver’s seat, in the parked vehicle, in the driveway. And you wave away the mosquito.

In the Bookhenge on Thursday night, Dr. Marc Aronson painted a different picture than the one above; instead of passively waiting for nonfiction to find him, he “hungers for books that leave him in awe,” and he urged us to do the same. He pursues trails of interest as he simultaneously searches for sightings that will engage his audience. In his response to my questions about funding and finding fascinating nonfiction, Dr. Aronson urged me to “take risks” and to explore the various genres of nonfiction. “When you find an author you like, look for more books by him,” he advised. “Then look for more books by authors like him.”

I’m not getting any closer to my destination by sitting idly in a parked car, swatting mosquitos. So where do I start? Sugar Changed the World is already on my Christmas wish list. The next Aronson book that caught my eye was If Stones Could Speak, about Stonehenge; I’ve already checked: my library has it, and I’m on my way over to check it out. On the page for Stones, recommends Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age, by Cheryl Bardoe. When I find this book also at my library, I notice The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change, by Kirsten Peters. Archaeology, here I come! I can’t wait to start my Christmas break!

Instead of just sitting in the driveway of nonfiction, grab a map that identifies your interests, kick that Jeep into gear, and start exploring the trails and forging new pathways through the mysterious world of facts!


Critical Reflection Post (Session 13)

This Critical Reflection post is for ECI 521, a graduate class at North Carolina State University.

While the Aronson book Witch Hunt would be a thoroughly satisfying meal by itself, our goal in The Change Project, Part II, was to transform our anchor book into the succulent turkey of our educational feast. I liked the idea of expanding our focus from 1692 Salem to the 1950s McCarthyism to the modern dissension about the roles and privileges of illegal immigrants–all examples of when Americans have gone on frenzied rampages against each other. As our group discussed possible inquiry questions, this nagging thought persisted in relation to each selected historical event: “Why would a community of people suddenly vilify a segment of their community and systematically attack them?” This became our guiding question.

Pulling our Witch Hunts in America CCI from the familiar CCI format of blogposts and video creations, our group decided to scaffold our students’ collaboration to the next level: we split our imaginary class into three groups and assigned one of the above historical events for each group. Through individual research, synthesizing comments on classmates’ blogs who studied the other two historical events, and a project to construct modern relevance based on all three historical perspectives, our CCI became an inviting, flickering-candlelight-and-fine-china way to engage students in learning deeply about three different historical events, tracing the influence and consequences of fanaticism in America, and establishing a personal connection with the themes of their research.

For the tattered urchins who are shivering while peering through the windows at the merry celebration, I know I seem to be bragging in satiation. Far from languishing in lethargy, I’m actually capering in delight at discovering this fantastic format for engaging students in exploring a variety of historical contexts and synthesizing relevant applications and takeaways in a collaborative creative presentation. I can’t wait to try this recipe again and continue sampling and improving it!


Critical Reflection Post (Session 12)

This Critical Reflection post is for ECI 521, a graduate class at North Carolina State University.

My group’s Bittersweet question was “Do protests have value?” As we researched, I was surprised to consider that protests themselves do not necessarily make a difference; instead, protests create awareness of injustice. This awareness might instigate the domino-like series of events that eventually results in the desired change.

In my personal investigation of our question (this realization was later echoed in the Bookhenge), I realized that protests could be arranged on a continuum from raising awareness (e.g. reposting Facebook statuses or holding signs) to actually facilitating change (lobbying for a bill or rescuing slaves from the sex trafficking industry). As John pointed out during class, one’s level of involvement in a protest identifies the seriousness of one’s commitment to the cause (e.g. African-Americans who were sprayed with hoses and beaten, yet who continued to protest injustice in the area of civil rights).

The most important conviction that was reinforced to me because of our study was the necessity of involving myself with the issues that burden my heart. As this poem by Martin Niemöller confirms, it is up to us to act when we’re first nudged toward a problem. Somehow “I was too busy” or “I thought someone else would speak out” rings hollow in the wake of destruction that could have been prevented if brave people stepped up.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–

Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Here’s my group’s Bittersweet video: