tinker with text
Literacy-Based Maker Education
I started teaching in September 1983 and my retirement date is December 2022. I’ve worked full-time, have completed a graduate diploma and a Masters degree, taught numerous workshops and courses, and served in various capacities during this time.
I don’t want to be one of those people who coast till retirement or remind everyone weekly when their retirement date is. However, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts lately. It’s this - what the difference between work versus job? It’s not a unique thought but it has given me a new focus and insights. Here’s what I mean.
Our job is what we do for the pay check. We are expected to perform certain tasks to the best of our ability, to upgrade our skills, to put in a certain amount of time and show up on time, and to behave in a professional manner.
But our work can be both in and outside of the job. Our work in the world might be to make it a happier or more peaceful place. It might be to advocate for a cause. It could be to raise children who will become valued, contributing members of your community. Our true work feeds our soul and aligns with our goals and values.
I have three years (give or take) left in my job and now, more than ever, I see the importance of keeping my focus on my work rather than the job. I don’t look at 2022 as the finish line but rather as 2019-2022 as a time of transition - a metamorphosis, a becoming. I ask myself what I will do to design a work life that sustains me emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and professionally and will create opportunities beyond that date.
I’m not concerned anymore about test scores, trying to impress anyone, or fitting in. My focus is on getting others (kids, teachers, family, friends, the community) excited about reading and writing. It might be by sharing poems regularly, giving away books, starting book clubs even if there is a low turn-out; and reading passages aloud and laughing, crying, or being amazed by the beauty and power of words. I intend to encourage others to write a blog or a speech, make time to give feedback to fellow writers, learn more about the craft and develop writing stamina, and use my writing skills to persuade, enlighten, or give pause to reflect.
In my Masters studies, I learned about poetic inquiry and tried to incorporate this in my thesis. Then, during my defense, I was asked by a professor if I lived poetically. I must confess that at the time I didn’t know what he meant and kind of faked an answer.
I’ve pondered that ever since and have finally come to an understanding of living poetically and what it means for my life and my work, especially in these next few years. For me, to live poetically is to:
This blog post is not so much about tinkering with text as tinkering with meaning and tinkering with the elements that make up a satisfying life and our work in the world.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
~ Mary Oliver
I've been teaching for over 30 years now, and I used to find testing, test results, and data analysis quite fascinating. I no longer do and here's why:
1. Test scores only show how a student is performing on a certain day at a certain time, and questions and even whole subtests can be outdated or culturally/socio-economically insensitive (imo), which skew the results.
2. Percentiles are often misinterpreted as percentages, and they are not the same thing. Percentiles mean how the student is performing in relation to their peers. So, while they are not keeping pace with their peers, they are still learning. It can be confusing to see percentiles not improve and even go down.
3. Only anecdotal notes, observations, and qualitative data can show that the children's love of reading, getting "hooked" on a book series or author, developing reading stamina, the ability to discuss literature in a meaningful way (and how books and the discussion of them can be powerful change agents in their lives), and the use of reading strategies (self-monitoring, sense-making, using context clues, etc.) has improved. These are also very important factors in helping children to have success as readers.
4. Seeing a table full of low scores can be very disheartening for everyone involved, including myself (students - whom I would never show these scores to; parents – whom I only show upon request and in person; teachers – who don't always understand how to interpret the scores and may take it personally, eg. "Why didn't they improve after all our hard work?").
5. Education is one of the humanities, not one of the sciences (medical/psychological/social). The root word of humanities is human and I would much rather look at the whole child than reduce their abilities/growth/potential to a number. It's my belief that how we relate our findings about a child should also be conveyed with a human touch.
I hope to continue to experiment with new, empathic, and more accurate ways of showing student growth in my last few years of teaching. Please share your ideas and strategies. I'd love to learn from you.
A new year started and I, like everyone else, had new dreams, resolutions, or goals. My goal was to get back into blogging and to blog every day for a year. I was into it. I was committed. I latched onto this idea of “learn, try, do.”
Then, I crashed and burned on Day 10! Haha!
I’m proud of the fact that I tried, and don’t feel like I failed. Most importantly, here’s what I learned:
I’ll still be blogging at Tinker With Text from time to time but I’d like to focus more on my freelance writing at this point. My new website is https://www.penandpage.ca I’d love it if you stopped by to take a look and refer me, if you would be so kind and know of anyone needing my writing services.
Thanks for being part of my blogging community and professional learning network! I’m honoured that you took the time to read my posts and connected with me on Twitter. My life has been richer and I’ve been so inspired by knowing you.
*This is a tribute to Mary Oliver (poet, professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, observer of life) on the day of her passing.
I live close to a creekside trail that I often walk along with my dog. The creek and trees, as well as the parks and ponds along the way, attract many birds. As Canada Geese would fly overhead, honking out their arrival or departure, Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese" would come to mind:
This poem has always held special meaning for me. I love the way Oliver intertwines the descriptions of nature with the landscape of our hearts.
A few years ago, I was going through a difficult time - too many changes, disappointments, and losses. I was feeling very lonely, and wondered about my place in "the family of things." It was hard for me to see the world offering itself to me in an exciting way. At the time, I felt only harshness.
In the spring of the next year, I began to hear a different bird's call. There are also many quail (a small, woodland game bird resembling a partridge) in this region. I heard a staccato call on my walks that I assumed was the quails’. It was a short-short-long, ti-ti-ta rhythm, like that which I had learned as a child in music class. My sub-conscious filled in the words almost automatically. "Who are you? Who are you?"
As the earth came back to life, so did I and I heard a new message in the birds' call, "God loves you, God loves you." Turns out, it wasn’t the quail at all. The bird that makes that sound is literally the harbinger of peace - the dove. There are actual doves in the trees here and they sing of God’s love to me. I laugh at the extravagance and magnificence of that! It amazes me still.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, we each have a place in this world. And the clear pebbles of rain, the deep trees, the wild geese, and the doves are all calling out a message to you and me.
Thank you, Mary Oliver, for your gift of words to the world. They have brought me to tears and joy and deep contemplation over and over again. You made a difference with your “wild and precious life.”
For a while now, I’ve been tinkering with text and have been blogging about it. It all came about around the same time that I learned about “make writing.” I asked all the instructional coaches in my district if they could point me in the right direction to learn more or connect with someone else who was doing this. Everyone thought it was an interesting inquiry but no one had any information for me. So, I took to Twitter and posed this question to Colleen Graves. Within five minutes, I got a response and she suggested looking into the work of Angela Stockman. That was about two years ago. I’ve met Angela in person twice since then, read two of her books, and have blogged about it for about a year.
All the research shows us that there is an undeniable connection between reading and writing. So, now I’ve been wondering how to bridge make writing with “make reading.” Is it a thing? Could it be? What does that look like? What are the roles of teacher and student? How might I connect the two in a way that’s meaningful and that ultimately leads to success in learning?
Today I was playing a reading game with some kids at school. It’s a game that I made up called Treasure Chest. I have an old toffee tin with a lock that looks like a treasure chest and I bought some “pirates’ gold” coins from the dollar store. It’s a simple game but kids love it and you can play for a long time before they realize that they’re reading and doing work. (As an aside, that’s why I prefer the term “word play” rather than “word work.”)
What did we make today? We made some children smile and laugh. We made the nerves go away for one little boy, who thought it might be too hard. We made reading fun and not a chore. We made emotional connections with kids and hopefully they will associate those happy feelings with words and learning. The answers to my wonderings are becoming clearer.
Before Christmas, I spent a lot of time planning the “perfect” first week back. I knew what both my CEA and I would be engaged in, and there were a lot of integrated and differentiated activities planned for the students. In addition to that, I had interviewed them to build a new interest inventories in order to personalize book selections. We also decided on learning targets for this term with the students. All of this was connected to the curricular and core competencies.
However … (haha) … in the words of Robbie Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men [and women] often go awry.” Well, they certainly didn’t go awry, but I knew that something had to change. I'm glad that I was paying attention and was able to adjust by Day 2 already.
I learned the Montessori principle of following the child yet again. Or as the author Christina Baldwin says, “Move at the pace of guidance.”
Even after over 30 years of teaching, I still over-planned and tried to hurry things up to fit it all in. I felt time-pressured (self-inflicted) to move things along quickly because I really only 8 weeks this term before I have to prepare for the next groups/schools in April. (Two weeks of testing, reporting, conferring, and planning in the first half of March; two weeks for Spring Break in the second half.) The result was that we all felt stressed.
Reflections on Day 3: Slightly adjusted plan, but not forced. Flow in the classroom today. Learning and connections taking place. Happy kids and adults.
Time will teach us many things - we can’t speed it up or slow it down. So, give yourself the freedom to let go of it and see how things evolve instead.
My Grade 4/5 writing group was playing around with OneNote in MS365 today. (The students in this group all have a learning disability in writing.) They dictated a “wondering” that they had into Google. Then found a suggested website which answered their question. Research is often introduced in these grades and yet it’s very challenging for them. The information on most websites is beyond this grade level.
So we created a section and and new page in OneNote. Then we copied and pasted chunks of text (about 3 paragraphs) from the website into their One Note page. From there, we tinkered with the text further by opening Immersive Reader (View > Immersive Reader). With this learning tool open, they could divide the words into syllables, change the colour of the background, create more space between the words, adjust the speed of the reading voice, change the line focus (blocks out other lines of text), and adjust font, font size, and line length. It was easy and they loved it! They all agreed that they could see how they might use this tool.
Tomorrow, we’ll tinker some more and extract information line-by-line to create their own paragraph within OneNote.
Immersive Reader can also be used within Word, Outlook, or Edge. It’s a great tool for LD or ELL students. If you have MS365 in your school district, it can be accessed by using your Outlook username and password. (Otherwise they’ll have to create an account.) I had my students open Microsoft Office Online so that they can access their information and work anywhere and on any computer. Best of all, it’s free!
(NOTE: This is not a paid endorsement for this product.)
Update: After writing this blog post, the fine folks at OneNote shared it and created this awesome graphic, including the custom bitmoji of yours truly. Thanks, OneNote and Microsoft EDU!
In 2014, Sir Ken Robinson gave a TED talk entitled “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” At a certain point in his presentation, he speaks of the difference between the task and achievement senses of verbs. Here he gives a powerful analogy between dieting and teaching and whether or not it is effective:
“You can be engaged in the activity of something, but not really be achieving it, like dieting. It’s a very good example. There he is. He’s dieting. Is he losing any weight? Not really.
Teaching is a word like that. You can say, ‘There’s Deborah, she’s in room 34, she’s teaching.’ But if nobody’s learning anything, she may be engaged in the task of teaching but not actually fulfilling it.”
As we head into the New Year, many of us are thinking about dieting. We have a plan - throwing out all the holidays treats and buying healthy food to replace it, or talking to a weight loss consultant. In the end, the numbers on the scale and the measuring tape should be decreasing. Our goal is to look and feel better. If none of this is happening, our diet is not successful.
This comes back to the idea of learn-try-do. As teachers, we need to look hard at what we are doing. If the students are not learning, we definitely need to try something new.
Liminal space is a time of waiting, a threshold, or the space in-between. It can be an advent(ure) filled with excitement, anticipation, anxiety, or turmoil.
Examples of liminal space are:
No matter what the circumstance, liminal space requires patience and sometimes courage.
The idea of learn-try-do has an element of liminal space to it. The trying stage lives in this space. We might try something new on a menu or try a new sport. We might like it; we might not. In education and psychology, we speak of growth mindset and it is acknowledging that you’re not there yet that we develop perseverance, open-mindedness, and character.
“We don't always succeed in what we try - certainly not by the world's standards - but it's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”
- Fred Rogers, commencement speech at Middlebury College (2001)
This year, let’s use the word ‘try’ more often in our classrooms. Rather than assigning students to finish a book by a certain date, can we invite them to set their own goals using the word ‘try’? For instance, “I will try to finish a chapter every other day” is more realistic for some students than “I will finish a book a week.” What if they don’t? What if they can’t? We’re setting them up for small failures in not achieving these goals. Asking students if they tried is more empathic. We can tweak the goals accordingly until the trying becomes doing. Let’s start using the motto “Just try it!” instead of “Just do it!”
The other night, I watched the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, which is about the life of Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers). Near the end of the film, they play a clip of a commencement speech to all the people who’ve been interviewed in the film. The speech is incredible and that segment of the film is very touching. Here’s that portion of his speech:
“Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person - and often many - who believed in him or her. We just don't get to be competent human beings without many different investments from others.
In fact, from the time you were very little, you've had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.
So, on this extra special day, let's take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they've always wanted what was best for you. They've always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let's just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.
One minute of silence
Whomever you've been thinking about: just imagine how grateful they must be that you remember them when you think of your own becoming.
We don't always succeed in what we try - certainly not by the world's standards - but it's not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”
Who is it that has “smiled you into smiling” or “talked you into talking?” Was it your mother, a dear friend, a memorable teacher?
It made me wonder if you can also read someone into reading? I believe so. Some of the ways we can do this is by:
And one day, perhaps a graduate will think of you during that minute of silence for giving them the gift of reading.
Vicki Den Ouden is an Elementary Reading Intervention Teacher from BC, Canada. She loves to dream, learn, teach, and create.