Sunday, August 24, 2014


Speech Bubbles- Artwork by Styven Magnes

I love to talk.

Talks Too Much was always checked my grade card.

Most teachers I know are talkers

I talk fast and furiously---and after being in my classroom for just a few weeks, so did most of my students

But there is talk... and then there is talk.

How do we harness the lively interactions, the verbal connections, the sometimes intense sparring, the discourse energy that exist in our learning spaces?

How do we create this necessary energy where it does not currently exists?

Socratic Circles is one popular and effective way that teachers are creating such talking spaces with their students. I used modified Socratic questioning and teaching in my elementary classroom with exciting results.  Students were able to successfully generate questions and facilitate conversations on a level much higher than might be expected, not only for their ages, but also considering my class included large numbers of  students learning English as a second language, as well as special education students.

I am in the midst of rereading Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School by Matt Copeland  as The Columbus Area Writing Project begins an inquiry group around this topic.

In older paradigms of education, the teacher owned all the information, and dispensed it as she saw fit. She governed the pace, determined the detours, and ruled the reasoning of most discussions.

Much of the talk in the classroom was the teacher lecturing, the teacher giving directions and instructions, the teacher asking questions, the teacher answering questions.....the teacher talking and talking and talking.

New paradigms, however, call for the teacher to be a facilitator of knowledge and learning, a guide and moderator in the ongoing conversations taking place in the classroom, and not the sole voice heard.

Students are now encouraged to collaborate with the teacher and each other in their own learning.

Often times the direction of learning and conversations are determined by students.

In Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom,  the last chapter clearly describes and compares characteristics of the old and new paradigms.  Click here to read this chapter and see a comparison chart.

In the last decades, as we have embraced the new paradigms this text reminds us:

We no longer stand in the front the room " telling" information.Rather, we engage our students in a variety of discovering and learning experiences that allow them to grow at their own pace, working with what interests them within the curriculum, making choices, collaborating and learning with others, as well as learning independently and individually.

One way we have made this happen is through intentionally designed opportunities for focused talk or conversations, in whole groups, as well as informal and formal small groups.

For me, it began with Annemarie Sullivan Palinscar and Ann Brown. Their work in Reciprocal Teaching led me to begin experimenting with student discussions and different ways of conducting small groups. almost 30 years ago.

While originally designed to intentionally guide and improve reading comprehension, Reciprocal Teaching also initiated my interest in student talk and the ways it promoted learning in general.

Reciprocal Teaching focuses on four areas

  • Summarizing-Identifying the important points in what has been read   (or seen or heard)
  • Questioning- Generating questions related to what has been read
  • Clarifying-   Clearing up any confusions in the text
  • Predicting- Thinking about what information the author will present next
As these four elements became focal points, not only for reading, but also for inquiry and discussions, my students and I began to learn how to engage in the talk that would further our learning in any area.    We  increased our ability to think critically, not just as we read, but as we engaged with any media, any conversation, and any idea.

Judith Howard provides a summary of this tried and still true reading comprehension strategy.
Anne Palinscar also describes her work with Reciprocal Teaching.

Group work, collaborative learning, and other guided talk became a norm in my classroom.  Students  learned how to take the lead in these endeavors and engagements,  how to question and challenge each other, how to support their ideas with concrete evidence from the texts at hand and from other texts, as well as from their own lives and experiences.

Classroom talk became more meaningful, substantive and authentic.

Building on this foundation, book clubs,  literature circles, and writing circles also became a necessary part of our days together.


For those teaching mathematics, I recently discovered Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions by Elham Kazemi and Alison Hintz,  a new book that encourages similarly focused mathematics conversations.

 As we further consider the talk in our classrooms, it is impossible to not consider  those who are not talking, those who remain silent in the midst of the many conversations.

Katherine Schultz encourages us to listen to that silence and rethink ways we witness and foster participation in our classrooms.

And finally, in Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford offer a comprehensive resource for teachers interested in introducing and facilitating effective talk in their classrooms.   This text will also support teachers in fostering strategies and communication knowledge that will guide students as they engage in conversations throughout their academic and professional lives.

 In their introduction, Zwiers and Crawford  speak to the power  of conversations:

Conversations are... powerful sculptors. They shape our identity, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.  We all have had intense conversations from which  we walked away (or lost sleep ) mulling over the ideas that we discussed.  Conversations can leave us pondering and processing ideas for hours, days, and even years.  These ideas, in turn, contribute to the inner dialogues that we hold in our heads, throughout each day...  More than we realize, we are the products of thousands of conversations.
What conversations are we having in our classrooms?  What talk are we facilitating?
What conversation will sculpt our students or shape their identities?
Which conversation will they fall asleep still pondering?

Related Post
Creating Community: For Writers and Beyond

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on the conversations in which you engage in a single day.
Consider the many types of conversation.

What moves these conversations forward?
What abruptly ends conversations?
Think about contexts in which you easily express your ideas?  Which contexts and conditions hinder communication?

Write a poem about talk.

Write an essay describing ideal talk spaces, conditions, situations and strategies.

Monday, August 18, 2014


The first day of school is coming... for some it has already come.

I always loved the first day of school---as a student and as a teacher.

The possibilities that hung in the air as we drew nearer to opening day.
The learning waiting to happen in those sparkling clean rooms.
The brilliance ready to sit in those empty seats.
The collaboration and inspiration ... the AHAs!

The anticipation  was such a grand and welcome feeling.

On the first day, we meet those who will be part of our learning community for the coming year.

We meet those who come ready to learn--those whose experiences until now have been wonderfully successful and encouraging

We meet those who are coming with years of negative  school experiences behind them--bringing their wariness and fear.

We meet those who are coming with worries and   baggage  from home-- those with nowhere to turn except you.

And we meet those eager to start anew, anxious to wipe the old slate clean and begin again.

The first day  brings all of these together.

As a teacher, how will you meet each one's needs?  How will you meet their collective needs?

How will your nurture yourself so that you can in turn foster growth and learning and unlimited possibilities for your students?

As we begin again.... or as we enter as new teachers for the first time into this magical space where anything can happen,  we know that  the teaching profession has become more challenging.

As we face economic and political roadblocks, as we face legislative and corporate demands, as we deal with new standards and old   scenarios,  we need ways to sustain ourselves and our work.

Meenoo Rami offers us this sustenance.  In Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching she offers practical and necessary ways we can  remain true to ourselves, connected to others, and able to deal with the vulnerability of being a new or veteran teacher in this century.

Rami suggests ways that we can combat the isolation of our own classrooms, seek and choose mentors, work collaboratively, online and  face-to-face, to build networks of learning and support, as well as advocate for, and empower both our students and ourselves.

She shares her own journey:
... the  sheer exhaustion from long days of teaching, grading, and planning that would leave me depleted...sometimes my best effort would not even be enough, and I would have this dreadful feeling that I was not even prepared to teach on that particular day.

She also shares how she
 discovered her own power to find meaning solve complex problems and make meaningful connections that inspire me to this day.

As I reflect on my own teaching career, I realize that I have been fortunate to have followed the path beyond survival to thriving as outlined by Rami.

From the first day of my first full-time experience, I have always had mentors who offered their shoulders to stand on--mentors who pushed me forward, pulled me back at times, and always had my back.

Mildred Dorr was my assigned mentor in my first assignment.  She remained my friend and advocate until the day she died.

As I was invited to join curriculum development groups within my district and also began to provide professional development training in variety of areas ( mainly literacy related), I also developed friendships with like-minded colleagues--several of whom I am still friends today.

Within these groups, I found folks interested in growing professionally in ways similar ways to my own interests. Our professional paths and training developed a parallel manner.

We challenged each other's thinking, theories, and practice.
We collaborated, wrestled, argued, laughed, experimented... and grew together.

I was fortunate.

In addition, I found, and continue find, support locally and nationally in formal professional organizations and their respective programs, including:

National Writing Project (NWP) 
The Columbus Area Writing Project (CAWP)

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
The Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (OCTELA)

International Reading Association (IRA)
The Ohio Council of the International Reading Association (OCIRA)

Reading Recovery Council of North America

To whom will you look as mentors this year?

Where will you look to establish networks of support and communities for collaboration?

What routines and disciplines will you  institute to empower your students and yourself?

What are your sources of new knowledge?

What will you do this year so that you and your students can thrive?

Related Posts

School Daze, my "first day of school post"  from last year.

Teacher Vulnerability

The Joy (and Burden) of Teaching

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on your profession.  What characteristics and conditions  are essential for  effectiveness and success?

How can you develop these characteristics and establish the necessary conditions?

Identify current or possible mentors.
List current and/or possible networks of support and communities of learning.

What are your goals this year?
Who can help you achieve them?

Write a letter to yourself outlining your plan to thrive this year.

Friday, August 15, 2014


 Statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama
 Photo by Robert Fincher

Emmett Till

Trayvon Martin

And now...
Michael Brown

And all the  boys
whose names we don't know.
All the maimed and broken men
whose voices have been silenced
mouths stuffed with their own manhood.

For all those who have died
for being who they are
from the minute the first African foot
stepped on this land

Black men driving,
just being alive
and being black
are in danger

It has become open season
open season on black men.

It has again become okay
to execute black boys
in the street.
for running away from
their certain fate.
(shot in the back)
for walking,
for standing
with their heads up
with their hands up
(shot in the head)
in front of many witnesses
who are then told
to remain calm.

Watch black boys die
and remain calm.

The executioner

We have seen it before
heard it in the past
Deja Vu


Only black families teach their sons specifically what to do when stopped by the police.
 No sudden movements. Hands in plain sight-- on the steering wheel or raised in the air.. Don't reach for the glove compartment, your pocket, the floor. Be polite. Yes, Sir.  Even tone. No raised voice.  Call us as soon as you get your phone call.   
 You get the picture.
That conversation does not take place at white dinner tables.

Only black mothers wait in the store instead of the car as their teen or preteen sons Christmas shop, in case there is an incident --in case their sons begin to " look suspicious."

In my family  (and most black families I know)--- every black male--- from my young nephew to my now deceased 87-year father-- has been stopped for driving while black
because he "looked like someone else"
because he "couldn't possibly legitimately be in that BMW or Escalade or Infiniti"

and even though no traffic light was run, no stop sign ignored, no speed limit exceeded, nor any other law infracted--- "he must have done something".

Yes-- it is open season on black men.
That season never really ended.

Those that say we have arrived because the head face
in the White House
is brownhave not walked the streets lately
with a black boy or man.

It is open season on black males.

* The police officer's name, Darren Wilson, was released after this poem was written.


Several books may be helpful in the healing.

These and other such books may begin the necessary conversations, instill the pride and encouragement, and educate people, all people-- ourselves, as well as people in need of walking in shoes that are not their own.

 What If?: Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue  by Steve Long-Nyugen  Robbins is written with the multi-ethnic work place in mind. However, the situations addressed are relevant to education and society in general.  The inspirational stories are accompanied by questions and exercises focused on key learnings with practical suggestions for applications and actions.

Walking in each other's shoes is critical.  Knowing each other's stories is essential.  Generating solutions is crucial.

Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing edited by France Payne Adler, Debra Busman, and Diana Garcia is the best collection  of writing dealing with a multitude of issues, including authors simply telling about their lives and where they are from, raising their voices against the silence, and speaking out and/or about race, gender, class, language, labor and employment, prison, health and the environment, and war.

Included are poems, stories, interviews and essays

The last chapter includes writing about social action writing and ways to initiate such writing in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

This book is an essential addition to the library of each person wanting to make a difference through reading and writing. The writing in this book will open eyes and educate, begin conversations, and inspire your own writing.

Additional sources that present questions we might use to frame the needed conversations are presented in the following blog posts:

What Do We Teach When Children Are Dying by Chris Lehmann (Practical Theory: a View From the Schoolhouse.)

Helping Students Make Sense of a Young Man's Death in Missouri by Juana Summers ( NPR ED Blog: How Learning Happens)

 For Young Black Men

The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life  by Kevin Powell is written for black men interested in shaping and reshaping their lives in positive ways. The collected essays in this book  address all aspects of life--spirituality, health, politics, violence, women and more.

In the same vein, are two books that also offer young black men  inspiration, advice and encouragement as they journey toward manhood.


 For Teachers 

The National Writing Project has recently released an important and timely report on, Teachers Voices: Teaching Young Men of Color , which includes thoughts on race, gender, role models, the role of school, and reform.
It also includes related assignments that may be appropriate for your students.

The National Writing Project also has shared Poetic Broadsides (Chapter 6 excerpted from Reading for their Life by Alfred W Tatum which suggest poetry as a way of engaging young black males-- poetry that uplifts, educates, acknowledges their varied realities and suggests solution

 As our classrooms become more diverse,  Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit remains a pivotal text which forces us to examine our own biases and prejudices as we teach the children in front of us.  The lessons learned transfer to all of our interactions in society.

For Children
Young folks of all colors must understand that there are powerful and courageous black men who have made a difference, who have changed the world, who stand as heroes and role models for us all. Andrea Pinkney has selected a representative ten of such men to present as positive images.

And the award winning book about Barack Obama's  hope and dreams as a young boy  have been inspiring to every child with whom I have shared it.


There are, of course, many books that could be listed here, many that would start conversations, begin healing---- and end the open season on black men.

There represent possible starting places.

Online Resources

In addition there are many online resources that can add in subtantive ways  to these conversations. These websites inform and educate, remind and make us aware---they make us think critically and read our world critically.

These are few of my favorites.  The resources below include a variety of articles, essays, photos and films,  and other writings, as well as specific teaching materials and lesson plans, which can be used in and out of classrooms. All also offer magazines, journals and other publications.

Rethinking schools

Teaching Tolerance: A Project ot the Southern Poverty Law Center 

Zinn Education Project- Teaching a People's History

My own previous post, Social Justice, may also provide you with food for thought, as well as helpful resources. At the end of the post is a list of additional related posts, all containing relevant texts and resources that may be useful at this time.

Social Justice-- Deeper Writing and ( Reading ) of the World

The healing must begin.
The conversations must occur.
The important thing is that we start-- now

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on the recent news reports about the shooting of Michael Brown by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. Think about all parties involved and consider the thoughts and actions of Michael, the police officers, journalists, bystanders and witnesses, the mother of the victim, his friend who was walking with him, and others.

Write a poem  about this incident.

You may want to present your poem in one voice or you could include many voices.

Write an essay about how to  end the rash of recent shootings of young black men by police officers.

Write a letter to the editor offering solutions to the mayor of Ferguson.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


 Nana, Mimi, Big Mama, Mee Maw, Gigi. Grandma—What ever you call your Grandmother, or Great- Grandmother- these women hold special places in our lives. 

In Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About The Keepers Of Our Traditions, Nikki Giovanni invited several friends and a group of writers in their nineties to share their thoughts on these special women.  In this collection, we find contributions by Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Naylor, Maxine Hong Kingston, and even Giovanni’s own mother.

Both of my Grandmothers were short with long mixed-gray hair which they each wore in a bun. They each wore yesteryear’s typical old-lady shoes—black tie-up oxfords, with thick, short  cuban heels.  Neither one of them ever wore pants—housedresses were their daily uniforms.

Although, to little-girl me, my grandmas seemed old, I am now the age they were then or older.

It sounds like my grandmothers were a lot alike.  That is on paper only.
Despite seemingly similar descriptions,  they couldn't have been more different, not only even in appearance, but in daily activities and personalities, as well.

Alma Reed Jackson
My paternal grandmother watched me daily—just as regularly and faithfully as she watched her afternoon stories (Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, and The Guiding Light.)  In the morning she watched Art Linkletter’s Children Say the Darndest Things, Queen for a Day, The Price is Right, and other game shows. She also watched Amos and Andy.

I played at her feet, literally—one of my favorite games was shoe store in which she would be the customer and I the helpful clerk showing her the latest shoes.  If her sister, my aunt Della, was there, I had another willing customer-- the store would be busy that day.

She seemed to be in that chair most of the day, except when she was getting my lunch.

I remember her house—much larger than ours –four stories of fascination—lots to poke into and explore. Surprisingly, I was allowed to play with her many knick-knacks – glass and porcelain items, fancy ladies, bowls, figurines of animals, and other what-nots.

This was where my father had been raised—where he had lived all of his life until the army.  There were traces of him everywhere—like the chunk of petrified wood that sat on the fireplace hearth in the parlor from one of his geology expeditions and the chemistry molecule set (that looked like round building toys, which is how I used them).  

He officially left this home when he married my mother and moved not far from his parents. 

On the second  floor were bedrooms, filled with homemade quilts and lacy sheets; they were perfect places for naps and sleepovers.  And the boarders who sometimes lived in the third floor attic bedroom were always of interest.

The dark, creepy basement was where all the fruits and vegetables that my grandma had canned were stored.   Several rooms were down there—each shadowy enough to set your imagination to working. You hoped you wouldn’t be sent to fetch a jar.
I don't remember specific conversations with my grandmother, but I know she was quick to smile and laughed a lot. I know I was happy and safe in her house.

This was my Columbus Grandma, my hometown Grandma. 
She died when I was six.

Hildegarde "Hilda"  Lyons Whiting
My New Jersey Grandma, my maternal grandmother lived in a small two-story doll house over 200 years old.   In 1976 there was a bicentennial plaque placed on her house, stating as much.  She soon took it down because she got tired of people knocking on her door wanting to see the inside.

Her house was just a mile from the Atlantic coast.  Sand from the beach crept into her yard and on into the house. We spent many fun days at the nearby beach with aunts and uncles and lots and lots of cousins.

She rarely sat.   I only remember her sitting to eat her meals, when we had visitors, or to watch an hour or so of TV in the evening--always Lawrence Welk on Sunday. 

She was always washing dishes, or cleaning, or carrying things upstairs, or cooking, or otherwise engaged.

Although I had to help with chores at home, this tiny, stern grandmother felt that children were inherently dirty and did not want us to help with chores until we were much older.  

She was particularly pleased if you were reading.  Don’t bother that child, Betty, she is reading.
Betty is my mother, her daughter.

Nosiness was not tolerated—and getting into grown folks’ business was a definite no-no. (although it one of my favorite  pastimes.)  She was quick to tell you in the midst of your inappropriate question Lay o’ for meddlers, which loosely translates Mind your own business. This conversation is not for children.

She was proud of us (and our parents) beyond measure.  She bragged on us often to her many siblings. We often receive her highest acclamation—Swell!

My New Jersey Grandma died when I was 29, living long enough to see me graduate from high school, graduate from college twice, get married-- and just generally be a grown-up.

Most of us have Grandmother memories and stories.  Most of us have learned lessons and shared conversations and special moments with our grandmothers .

There are many wonderful books that will help us think about, remember, honor and celebrate these special ladies. These are several of my favorites.

The youngest readers will enjoy The Grandma Book by Todd Parr. His colorful illustrations will inspire their own  colorful images and stories.

In the eyes of our grandmothers, we are beautiful and we are important. They teach us to look at ourselves with the same eyes.

Nana teaches this lesson in No Mirrors in My Nana's House: Musical CD and Book

Grandmothers, not only tell us we are beautiful, that we are special, and that we can do and become anything, but they also expose us to the "anything" we might do and become.

In Amazing Grace ,  by Mary Hoffman, Grace's grandmother takes her to the ballet, opening up new possibilities, and helping her gain the confidence to play Peter Pan in the school play.

In Saturdays and Teacakes  by Lester Laminack,  a young boy enjoys spending his Saturdays with his Mammaw, helping her do chores.

At the end of their work time together, he delights in helping her bake delicious teacakes-- their special ending to each special  Saturday.

Most of my friends are grandmothers.

One of the many special things they do for their grandchildren is take them on trips-- adventures in which they travel near and far, learning and experiencing new things, and just having fun enjoying each other's company.

And then there are grandmothers like the one in Abuela (English Edition with Spanish Phrases), who take their grandchildren on amazing  imaginary adventures that also fuel  many new possibilities in life.

Grandmothers are powerful women, teachers, and role models.

There is a movement afoot in which living grandmothers are actively working to change the world-- making it a better place of their grandchildren-- for all children.

In Grandmother Power, we find the profiles of activist grandmothers in fifteen countries on five continents who tell their compelling stories in their own words.

These courageous women are variously bringing solar light to their villages, fighting genital mutilation and sex slavery, sustaining weaving traditions, teaching children to love reading and books, fighting AIDS and more.  Across continents they are working for peace in their corners of the world.

For more information about this global grandmother movement click here.

 Indeed, Grandmothers are powerful.  

Although mine are both long dead, they continue to visit, guard, and guide me regularly in my dreams.
I recently wrote this poem, Grandmother Power about their night visits.  I continue to rely on them.

Yes, our grandmothers are special women.
We remember, honor and celebrate them.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Remember and  reflect on your grandmother(s).

How has she been involved in your life? How has that relationship changed as your grew older?

List important events, conversations, and lessons related to your grandmother.

Use my post above, the several  book sshared, and/or my poem, Grandmother Power, as mentor texts.

Write a short portrait of your grandmother or a poem to honor her, incorporating items from your list.

This may be the beginning of a longer piece exploring  her life or a portion of her life.