Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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Write Beside Them: The Opportunities in a Writer’s Workshop

Write Beside ThemIn chapter 6 of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, the reader gets a glimpse into how a writers’ workshop might run.  The first thing I wished was that I had a writing class all year next year on a block schedule.  I really want to go out and try everything!  Based on the schedule Kittle outlines, she has 90-classes, and she also mentions A and B schedules, so my hunch is that she’s on an alternating block schedule.  Her writing course is a one-semester course.  My own school schedule is so complicated that I’m wondering how and when I can implement some of her ideas that I really liked.  For example, I would really like to try Sustained Silent Reading.  When I was a student teacher, the high school where I did my student teaching assignment had school-wide SSR two days a week.  Everyone in the school — teachers, students, administrators, janitors, everyone — was expected to read for that twenty minutes.  Magazines were OK.

Here’s what my schedule looks like:

  • Mondays: Block 3: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:21; Block 4: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 5: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 6: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 7: 2:12-2:57; Block 8: 3:00-3:45.
  • Tuesdays: Block 5: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 6: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 7: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 8: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 1: 2:12-2:57; Block 2: 3:00-3:45.
  • Wednesdays: Faculty Meeting: 7:45-8:30; Block 1: 8:35-9:21; Block 2: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 3: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 4: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 5: 2:12-2:57; Block 6: 3:00-3:45.
  • Thursdays: Block 7: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 8: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 1: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 2: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 3: 2:12-2:57; Block 4: 3:00-3:45.
  • Fridays: Block 1: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:19; Block 2: 9:21-9:59; Block 3: 10:02-10:42; Block 4: 10:45-11:25; Lunch: 11:25-11:53; Block 5: 11:56-12:36; Block 6: 12:39-1:19; Block 7: 1:21-1:59; Block 8:  2:02-2:45.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it did take me a whole year to learn it.  We rotate the schedule so that each class has one double-block per week along with three regular blocks and one day off.  On Fridays, we finish up at 2:45 to allow students who travel from far away to get home in time to prepare for Shabbat in the winter.

So given that I don’t meet with my students on a schedule that’s regular, my first thought was that Fridays would be a good day for SSR, but how long can I realistically devote to it then?  I could make the day when the class has double-block another day, but again, how long?  Is 10 minutes OK?

Another thing I took away from this chapter is that I need to work on writing conferences.  I do not allow students to do enough of the talking, and they are walking away trying to fix their writing to please me so I will reward them with a good grade instead of really learning to write well.  The good news is that I can fix it, and happily, Kittle provides models on the DVD.  I wrote Listen more!  Talk less! in the margin of my book.

Finally, it occurred to me that two of the suggestions Kittle mentions — publishing writing students wish to share on a shared drive on the school’s network and creating posters for units of study — could also be done and perhaps even more effectively on a wiki, even if it was a closed wiki that only the students could use.  The added advantage would be that students could keep adding to the information and writing pieces gathered, even after they were no longer students if they wished, and they could also access the wiki at home.  Wikis would also have the advantage of being hyperlinked, so if students wanted to link to an online editorial they found interesting for further reading, they could easily do so.  Kittle has mentioned the multi-genre research paper, but so far only in passing.  I hope we get a good picture of what it looks like because based on what I’ve read, it also looks like a prime candidate for a wiki.

I’m guessing I should be getting my Teacher’s Daybook any time now.  I need to start planning, and I mean really planning.

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To-Do List

I am having some trouble with my computer, so until I can get it checked out, I have to share with my husband.  We don’t have a history of being able to share very well!  We’ll see how it works out.  Unfortunately, if my hunch about the computer is right, it won’t be a cheap repair.

That said, my to-do list for tomorrow is to catch up in Write Beside Them, and when it’s my turn on the computer, I’ll try to post all my thoughts on the discussions at the wiki.

One benefit of having more restricted access to a computer is that I won’t be as distracted by the computer, so perhaps I can get more reading done.  However, if the computer can’t be fixed, I’ll need to purchase one for my IT program because there is no way we will be able to share if I have to do school work.  Ugh.

Anyway, if posting is even more spotty than it already is, well, you know why.

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The Teacher’s Daybook, 2008-2009

The Teacher's Daybook, 2008-2009I just pre-ordered my copy of Jim Burke’s handy planner, The Teacher’s Daybook, updated for 2008-2009. The planner will not actually be released until July 10. Usually, it is released much earlier, and I wonder if some of the changes made didn’t cause a delay in publication. The planners usually run from July to June of the year specified, so I can’t help but think there was a problem this time.

I actually mocked up syllabi for this fall yesterday. Why do I want to go back to school so bad when I just started my summer? The Folger Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute! I am really excited to teach three Shakespeare plays this year — Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, all of which, interestingly enough, are included in volume one of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free series. As a participant of the institute, I will be receiving a copy of this volume. I already have one, so I plan to donate the older copy to a colleague and keep the new one. I am not sure what the difference between the one I already have and the new one is (aside from the cover). Does anyone else know?

If you can only get one volume of the series, this volume is the one I recommend because it contains two of the most frequently taught plays — Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth — both of which are frequently anthologized in 9th grade texts and British literature texts respectively. It is my hope that if Folger produces another volume in the series, they will consider creating a unit for Julius Caesar, as when I have had to teach that play (twice), I have had difficulty in coming up with creative ideas, although it looks like there are some good ideas on the Folger’s Web site. There is a great idea for the scene when Cinna the Poet is attacked by the plebeian mob that we did at the Mini-Institute, but I don’t see an identical one on the Web site (here is a similar one).

Well, I need to tell myself to enjoy this break from teaching. I am twenty pages from the end of Wuthering Heights, which I am actually reading in its entirety for the first time (sorry Mrs. Keener — it wasn’t personal — I just couldn’t keep up with the reading schedule!) and Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them was set aside while I finished up with end-of-year business (and I mean “busy-ness,” too), and I feel I have not been a good participant at the wiki. And I need to read the summer reading books assigned to my students (or at least the ones I haven’t read yet) so that I can make assessments for the books.

Techy Addendum: I have been getting a 500 Server Error when I post to this blog that says there is a misconfiguration on the server.  No problems posting at all, so it must be related to something that happens after I post.  No problems when I edit posts.  I am not sure what is causing it, and trying to figure it out over the last couple of hours hasn’t been fruitful.  Please let me know if you are having problems commenting.  Comments are held in moderation, so your comment might not appear right away, and that is not a bug.  However, if you get a strange error message (such as a 500 Server Error message), please let me know.

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Write Beside Them: This I Believe

The main message I took away from the second chapter of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them is that writing teachers will not be effective unless they are also writers.  She says, “We don’t learn many things well just by following directions” (7-8).  However, it was this remark that struck a chord with me: “[T]he instruction has to come during the process of creating a piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.  That’s a crucial error I was making for years” (8).  I think perhaps focusing on the product and not the process of creation may be why students flip to the last page to look at their grade.

Kittle compares learning to write to teaching her son to drive.  Parents wouldn’t send their sons and daughters out on road without being in the car with them, modeling first by “talking [them] through [our] decisions” (7).  The important thing to do is model writing: “If we don’t model smart thinking in writing, our students will write like kids who’ve read the driver’s manual but still hit the curve too fast and just about send us to the hospital” (8).

It’s interesting — I recall modeling writing poetry for my students years ago.  I slapped a poem in progress on the overhead and walked through developing it.  I remembered that it worked really well, too, and it’s a wonder I didn’t try other types of writing, too.

What Kittle learned are three important truths about teaching writing:

  1. Teachers needn’t be writers — “just someone trying to write” (9).  The process of modeling and thinking through a piece was the important part.  I would argue that Kittle was mistaken in not thinking of herself as a writer.  Our students don’t, either, and that’s why they think they’re no good at it.  One of the questions I often ask on a writing inventory I give my students is “Are you a writer?”  Almost none of them think of themselves as writers.  We make these arbitrary definitions of words like “writer”: writers are published and other people (important people who should know) consider them to be good.  Writers are people who use writing to communicate.  Period.  We can all consider ourselves writers.
  2. The books we read are great models of the product of writing, but it is the teacher’s job to model the process of writing.  We don’t see the effort that went into selecting the words and stringing them together.  We don’t see the painstaking process of editing.  All we see is a great piece of polished writing.  No wonder it looks daunting.
  3. We can learn how to teach writing by doing the writing ourselves.  Think how much easier it will be to plan for writing assignment instruction if we’ve already struggled through the assignment ourselves.

A few years back in order to better teach my students how to write a research paper, I wrote one myself.  It was probably the most effective thing I had ever done in terms of teaching the process; however, it might have been even more effective if the students could have seen me do it.  If they had seen me locating resources, taking notes, putting my notes in effective order, and outlining my ideas, it might have been even easier for them to figure out how to do it.  Well, there is always next year, and with my next class, I will write research paper beside them.

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Write Beside Them: It’s a Wonderful Life

I began Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, and even though I am posting at the Learners4Life wiki, I wanted to keep my own reading journal here.  In this chapter, I felt Kittle outlined some of her core beliefs:

  • Standardized testing does not rule how she teaches writing in her classroom.
  • The single greatest influence on a child’s learning is the effectiveness of a teacher.
  • We don’t tap into our students’ passions; therefore, they don’t care about what they write.
  • Students try to figure out what we want and deliver it — they believe there is a correct way to write.

In some ways I am fortunate that my school does not used standardized testing to dictate curriculum.  It is important for our students to do well on the SAT and AP tests, but we do not have to contend with testing requirements of NCLB as a private school.  I am, however, glad to see that Kittle, who does have to contend with standardized testing, doesn’t let tests determine all of her instructional decisions.  I would argue, however, that if a good teacher makes sound instructional decisions that truly teach her students what they need to know to be critical readers and effective writers, then the standardized test scores will follow.  I think perhaps Kittle included these thoughts to appeal to teachers who might be afraid to try her methods and are used to teaching to whatever test they have to worry about.

Kittle echoes research I have read elsewhere regarding the influence of a teacher in a student’s learning.  It is both empowering and daunting to know that teachers can have such an impact.  Teachers have a lot of responsibility, and I think sometimes we feel helpless in the face of all the problems our students have, testing, and other constraints.

Why aren’t students motivated?  Why won’t they revise?  How come after all the time I put into commenting on that paper, he just turns to the last page to find the grade?

If you ask them, they’ll tell you.  We aren’t tapping into their passions. (3)

I could have written the first three sentences.  In fact, I have often lamented about the fact that students don’t read my copious comments and focus on the grades.  My students are motivated, all right, but too often it’s a grade that motivated them instead of a desire to be a good writer or to learn.  In fact, one of the reasons I was attracted to this book is that I hoped I might be able to learn how to tap into my students’ passions so that grades will no longer be the motivator.

Kittle quotes the literacy biography of one of her former students — a man who entered university to major in writing:

My childhood love of books fizzled when I entered junior high — all of a sudden I was in an environment where I had hours and hours of required reading, so much homework about boring subjects that I had no time to read what I wanted to read.  With this went the writing — we never had “freewrite” time anymore, I always had to write what the teacher wanted, the “right” thing, what needed to be done for the grade.  Creativity was gone. (4)

His comments could have been written by any number of high school students who once loved school and enjoyed what they were learning only to discover at a certain point that they had to basically play a game — figure out what the teacher wants so she’ll give me an A.

I don’t want my students to feel that way.  I want them to enjoy writing, but also learn how to do it well at the same time.

I have created pages for each chapter and student focus in Kittle’s book over at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us.  If you want to go ahead and start reading, like I did, feel free.  I have posted a tentative reading schedule that allows for members to obtain copies of Kittle’s book and still finish before school begins again.

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Write Beside Them: Reading Schedule

Write Beside ThemI created a tentative reading schedule for parties interested in reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us if you are interested in participating.

I received my copy of the book today, and it looks really good.  I am feeling kind of tired, so I don’t think I’ll get started on it until tomorrow or Friday, but I’m really excited to get going.  It looks like this summer might be as good as last summer for professional development.  Speaking of last summer’s professional development, I would still love to have more folks, particularly active folks (no offense to lurkers, but it’s been kind of quiet over there) at the UbD Educators wiki.

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Write Beside Them: Summer PD Update

Write Beside ThemAs you may recall, I am reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them as part of a professional development project along with several other teachers this summer.  I am very excited about this project.  Using my experience with the UbD Educators’ wiki coupled with this upcoming experience, I plan to present a session at the next GISA convention in November on using blogs and wikis for professional development.  It is not too late to join us in reading Write Beside Them.  Just come on over to the wiki and follow the instructions Lisa Huff provided.

I encouraged visitors to order their copies of Write Beside Them from Amazon because the book qualifies for free shipping, which would save buyers about $8.  However, after two weeks with no word on when the book would ship or even when Amazon would consider a book that was released on May 1 as “released” (the button still says “preorder”), I decided that if I wanted to be sure of receiving my book before the reading begins, I had better cancel my order with Amazon and order the book directly from Heinemann, which is what I did just yesterday.  I will let you all know when I receive the book so you can decide whether you need to do the same thing (links to Heinemann’s product information for the book are provided above).  Amazon is generally really good about orders, and I don’t really think this problem is their fault.  I suspect it might be Heinemann’s.  I can’t recall the particulars, but I seem to remember having trouble ordering new Heinemann titles from Amazon before.  I don’t know what the reason for the delay is, so I won’t speculate.

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Learners4Life

Lisa Huff has created a wiki called Learners4Life where those of us interested in exploring Write Beside Them (which I mentioned in my last post) can gather, discuss, question, journal, interact, respond, and all the other million things you can do with a wiki. In order to join up, all you have to do is

  1. Pick up a copy of the book. My order is being shipped Monday, according to Amazon, but your mileage may vary.
  2. Join us over the wiki, and follow Lisa’s directions there.

That’s it! I like love it that Lisa set it up so that we can use the wiki to discuss future books.

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Write Beside Them: Summer Professional Development Project

Write Beside ThemBecause I purchase The Teacher’s Daybook each year for my lesson planning, Heinemann sends me catalogs and fliers about publications quite often. In my mailbox today, I received a promotional flier for Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I was intrigued enough to check out the book’s page at Heinemann’s site. I watched the sample videos, poked around for a bit, and decided to make this book my summer professional reading project.

I started to order the book from Heinemann’s website and was pleased to discover that I would receive a small discount, but I was rather shocked at the high shipping price. With tax and shipping, the book was fairly pricey at over $38. I checked out the book at Amazon and discovered that while I didn’t receive as large an initial discount as I would have if I had ordered directly from Heinemann, the book was eligible for free shipping, which brought the price down to a more reasonable (for me) $30.80.

So… who’s in? Who wants to read this one with me this summer? We can have our own online professional development book club.

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