tinker with text
Literacy-Based Maker Education
*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.)
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.
The average attention span of “centennials” (those born between 2000-2020) is eight seconds, compared to twelve seconds in 2000.
During a rodeo event, a bullrider attempts to stay mounted for eight seconds in order for it to be qualified as a successful ride. The reason for the timing is that after eight seconds the bull loses adrenaline and, along with fatigue, their bucking ability decreases.
Recently, I overheard a colleague tell her student teacher that teachers nowadays need to be more interesting than a child’s favorite app.
Mr. Rogers delivered a college commencement speech in 2001, where he said:
“... 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.”
As an educator, I’d rather sing someone into singing than win an eight-second ride any day.
So, perhaps “learn-try-do” sounds a little like the Gradual Release Model (I do - we do - you do) to you. Maybe, but not really. With that model, we jump straight to the doing part. Is that okay? Of course! (I mean, seriously … how could I compare to such great educators as Fisher & Frey!) But what about the times that teachers have “winged it’ or teach things that we ourselves haven’t tried? For example, do you require your students to read every night at home? Have you tried doing that yourself? Or do we teach a lesson on writing poetry and then ask our students to engage in that without trying to write one ourselves? It’s not easy. I think if we did, we’d have more empathy and allow for more student choice.
Let’s start gradually releasing our ways of doing things at school in 2019!
Let’s take a deeper look at how learn-try-do might work. Say you want to learn how to snowboard - you might watch a few YouTube videos and sign up for some lessons. Then, you’d have to actually go out to the ski hill, rent some equipment, and try it. You haven’t fully committed yet and that’s fine. You might decide that it’s not for you. At this point, you might feel like you’ve failed but that’s not so. You learned something new and you tried it. Two out of three … awesome!
Consider this scenario though. You have a dream of publishing a children’s book. You subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine for inspiration, and you read a lot so you know the market and are familiar with various forms. Not only that, you teach writing … every day. But do you write every day? Do you share or submit your own writing? Do you carve out time to work on making your dream a reality? Sometimes we get stuck in the learning but never actually do what we want to be doing. In this case, it’s imperative that we get to the doing part of it.
Throughout this month, I’ll be explaining how we might use “learn-try-do” in our teaching practice. After all, teaching is only talking or demonstrating if learning isn’t involved and practice is nothing more than trying. Let’s do this!