Sara Primerano’s Blog

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Spoken word poetry April 5, 2009

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 1:17 pm

Writing in Rhythm: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Classrooms, Maisha T. Fisher

Fisher explains an interesting term and seemingly integral part of spoken word poetry – literocracy, defined as “literacy is an act of reciprocity; you pass on what you know, and all participants have an opportunity to cultivate their minds with the skills they bring” (p.5)

An authentic connection to students seems to be an integral part of the trust required for students to take that step into literacy and sharing their thoughts.  The students interrogate Fisher when she first joins their group, making sure that she understands their interests, their lives, and with good reason – it is difficult to trust someone else with your thoughts, your writing, your effort – it’s reasonable to want to know that their intentions are good, real, worthy.  This disconnect between teachers and their students might be at the heart of some of our disengaged students.

“The Power Writers redefined literacy to include mastering one’s life story and providing rich details about everyday life,” (p.68).  This sounds like a great way to involve students in their own literacy, instead of simply dragging them through academic literacy – making them read and write about literature chosen by their teachers, often having little to nothing to do with the real lives of the students.  Why is it so important to us to have them master other people’s life stories when we don’t focus much on their stories?  Why don’t we value their stories?

I love the product of a spoken word poetry classroom as both Fisher and Grimes create in their books.  I’m curious how I can create such an atmosphere and a product in my classroom – majority white suburbia with very limited racial diversity in my classes.  It’s not that I think white kids can’t create this type of poetry, or even that they won’t exactly, but how to move them from writing their standard five paragraph Regents essays to writing expressive, musical, radical spoken word poetry – it’s a daunting thought.


Technology Integration March 29, 2009

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 11:32 am

“Learning from Teachers’ Conceptions of Technology Integration: What Do Blogs, Instant Messages, and 3D Chat Rooms Have to Do with It?” Erica Boling

– I’m a fan of professional development workshops, at least the really purposeful and constructive ones, which is not something all teachers will say.  I was confused as to why so many of my more veteran colleagues were so intently negative about attending workshops.  I quickly learned that, perhaps rightfully so, teachers are wary of fads.  They get frustrated to put forth a lot of time and effort learning a new technique and initiative that the district pushes for a few months, maybe even a year or two, and then drops and never revisits.  Often the administration changes and brings in new initiatives, sometimes budgeting fails, or more often, interest just vanishes.  Then, fifteen or twenty years later, the same general ideas are repackaged under a new name, and the cycle begins again.  So I don’t necessarily blame my colleagues for their resistance and this is something that researchers, administrators and curriculum development specialists need to be aware of.  Training in new techniques or philosophies needs to be couched in specific pedagogical terms with clear guidelines and plans for continued support and training, some evidence that the information is “fad-proof” or teachers aren’t likely to commit.

It’s interesting though that Boling found that her study participants, a group of current and pre-service teachers, had already relegated technology to the status of a bonus or perk, an additional way students can express ideas after they’ve already mastered the skills of literacy.  So more than half of the study participants hadn’t even started teaching yet, and already they were adverse to technology, so the fad excuse doesn’t work there.

– I’m glad that Boling acknowledged the “added responsibility” that incorporating technology into the classroom can result in for teachers.  When we began our laptop program at my high school, or even now with the laptop carts instead of individual student laptops, a plethora of time-consuming almost administrative tasks came with them.  We had to instruct the students on proper use, monitor that they were not doing inappropriate things with the laptops, buy our own extension cords so students could remain charged (the school said it was the students’ responsibility to charge their laptops – not useful to teachers when students weren’t prepared). We had to go to training on how to remotely monitor their computer use, we lost class time when the laptops weren’t working, students lost time going to the computer technicians for help.  It became increasingly annoying and time-consuming, and worst of all, ultimately, student performance didn’t show any measurable gains, so it all felt like a waste.  This is probably what ultimately led to its downfall. But even now, we drag carts back and forth with minimal assistance.  What we really needed, and still need, is more training that shows how technology can be used in meaningful ways, not just for word-processing.

– I find it somewhat disheartening (as I imagine Boling did) that teachers were so resistant to using technologies even as they were enrolled in a Literacy and Technology course.  While I certainly don’t advocate using technology just for the sake of using it, I do believe that we as teachers can’t be resistant to change and to learning new things if we expect those exact things of our students. I think it’s important to reach students where they’re comfortable, and not all students are comfortable with pen and paper or with books, but some students might be more comfortable expressing themselves through different forms of technology.

– The last assignment in my ETS142 course requires my students to make a visual argument (using PhotoStory or i-movie) rather than write a traditional paper.

It is entirely possible to make a claim or an argument visually.  Selecting what images best express your viewpoint, finding music to enhance that argument, all of these things require a higher level of thinking than simply following an outline to write a standard essay.  While I wouldn’t expect exactly the same output of my tenth graders, I could easily modify the assignment to suit their developmental stage.

– Boling’s final discussion about the public nature of curriculum decisions and acceptance is a little more accurate than I’d like.  As I’m finding, repeatedly, at my own school, all it seems to take is a few outspoken people who are set on a particular format for instruction or who are resistant to change to make their voices heard, and others become resistant as well, either because they agree or don’t feel like subjecting themselves to conflict. It’s so important to keep looking for ways to motivate students and research best practices, and this might be difficult.  Finding ways to navigate the social structure of a school might seriously be equally tricky.


Digital Storytelling March 28, 2009

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 10:35 am

“Inside the Digital Classroom,” Dave Boardman

“Space to Imagine: Digital Storytelling,” Lisa C. Miller

Newkirk & Kent, chps. 14 & 15

“Giving the students a portal to the outside world seemed to change the idea that writing doesn’t matter” (p.164).  Dave Boardman is spot on here, for how many times have I seen students get back an essay with my editing comments, look at the grade, maybe glance at the comments (but most likely not), then ask “do I have to keep this?”  Despite my efforts to convince them to keep their work, take it home, put it on the fridge, at least keep it to study from for the final – more often than not, I find their essays casually (or maybe purposefully?) tossed in the trash.  Having writing matter to my students, beyond just getting the grade? Yes, please!

– How great would a classroom blog be?  We have a journalism class that produces our school newspaper, but how great would it be to set up a writing workshop in class that centered on creating a blog or website that covered different themes or topics each month?  Students could choose the topics.  Boardman’s chapter offers the following suggestions:

“Where are you going?” – narratives of graduating seniors

“What’s in your wallet? – getting different students to spill the contents of their wallets

“PDA” – not the technology but problems with public displays of affection

A team of three or four students could be editors for each topic, then the editing role would rotate to the other students, so everyone would share the responsibility.

I was introduced to Digital Storytelling this past summer at a professional development workshop I elected to take.  I had missed the end of the school year due to maternity leave, so I was attempting to ease my way back into schoolwork.  It was a perfect reintroduction – in fact, I couldn’t believe my school was actually paying me to learn this!

Digital Storytelling transforms the narrative – it requires you to choose very carefully what you want to say, what images best represent your story and what music will compliment your theme as well.  Then putting it together requires real attention to detail to make sure the story achieves the desired effect.

My first digital story was about my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter (surprise, surprise!)  It was incredibly emotional for me to put together and I was incredibly proud of my final product – thought it was an assignment I had to complete for this class, it was so much more than that to me.  Subsequently, I created a digital story to show at my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary party,  my brother’s anniversary party and my daughter’s baptism.  (It’s seriously addicting – my dad has even used them for business meetings!) Inspiring the same feeling in my students is certainly one of my goals, and digital storytelling is a great way to achieve this.


Emergent technology in the classroom

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 10:08 am

“Plugging in to Twenty-First Century Writers,” Sara Kajder

Newkirk & Kent chp. 13

– Kajder makes clear the difference between urgent technology – the automatic use of computers in the classroom just because they’re available versus emergent technology – use of various types of technology after a careful study of how they might compliment our current teaching goals.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  As I’ve previously blogged about, my high school instituted a very expensive laptop program maybe 10 years ago under the tutelage of a superintendent who loved technology and wanted to develop a cutting edge.  Five or six years into the program, it self-destructed, since suddenly teachers were teaching “laptop” classes with only technology-based support, not pedagogy-based support.  The students viewed the laptops as toys and many students’ grades actually went down since they spent much more time figuring out how to get around firewalls so they could play World of Warcraft during school rather than do their homework.  We’ve now rejoined the dark ages of outdated computer labs, looking for some sort of happy medium of responsible, productive use of technology.  It sounds as though Kajder’s description of emergent technology might be what we’re looking for.  Her two essential questions, are a great starting point.

1. What are the unique capacities of this tool? (i.e., what can I do with it that I can’t do with anything else?)

2. What does it allow me to do that is better (instructionally) than what I        could do without it? (p. 152)

– Using podcasts to invigorate student interest in and dedication to literature circle discussions is a great idea.  Still providing some guidelines, questions to consider like Kajder’s: “What questions were left unresolved? Which moments of the discussion were the most compelling? What parts of the discussion might help convince a peer to read it? Where did the discussion fall apart or fail? What are the key ideas emerging in your conversation of this text?” (p.155) will help keep students on track, but allowing a podcast to be the final product, rather than a rote worksheet could be a real asset in motivating students and getting them involved.  I could then play some of my favorite podcasts for the class before their next literature circle meeting so the other groups have some sense of what is going on with their peers and it will hopefully motivate each group to perform better each time.

– I really liked the three objectives listed for using literature in class:

1. to engage students in reading for an authentic purpose

2. develop the beginnings of an interpretive class community

3. explore the essential understanding that literature is a mirror of human    experience (p.156)

To make lessons and assessments authentic, to provide an audience for the students’ work and to motivate students using a different output, something as simple as building a wiki or recording a podcast, writing a blog or building a webpage is such a refreshing change from filling out a packet of comprehension questions.  This would also better prepare students for the future – these differing skills of analysis and uses of technology will be valuable assets in the future workplace.  Plus, from the personal standpoint of the teacher, how much more enjoyable might our classroom experience be to have students be actively engaged in their own learning in a productive, dynamic setting, rather than sit quietly in their desks and fill out worksheet after worksheet?


Are we listening to student voices? March 15, 2009

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 11:34 am

“‘Speaking Up’ and ‘Speaking Out’: Examining ‘Voice’ in a Reading/Writing Program with Adolescent African Caribbean Girls,” Annette Henry

Henry presents a powerful argument regarding the critical importance of voice.  even her introductory explanation of how many minority students are “voiceless,” made me think of how we often trivialize “multicultural” literature in high school curriculums. Teachers often understand the need for multicultural lit, understand why it is called for, but because it is out of our comfort zone – because it doesn’t speak for us, and maybe therefore doesn’t speak to us, we don’t really engage with this literature, we don’t give it its due, and go back to what we know, what we were taught in high school, the classic literary canon.  The “good” literature – the literature about us, by us, for us.  So where do minority students fit in that paradigm?  Do they fit in Crooks’ role from Of Mice and Men, the social outcast because of his race, or do they fit in Tituba’s role in The Crucible, the slave whose cultural practices deem her as evil? In tenth grade – I’m embarrassed to admit that outside of literature circles (Walter Dean Myers), a few short stories (Alice Walker, Amy Tan) and a poem or two (Langston Hughes) – all of which are choices, I teach them because I choose to, not because they’re required – we offer no minority voice. None. We offer Night, a Holocaust memoir, a situation entirely outside the students realm of experience. So why is that more valid than teaching Black literature? Or any cultural pieces?  Where are my students supposed to find their voice? Their mentor authors?

The same is true on a gender level.  The majority of our novels highlight male protagonists – Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, The Giver, Night, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, etc. We offer very few literary works that highlight the teenage experience, much less the female teenage experience (or any female experience outside of being married to the protagonist in many cases…)

Again, I’m frustrated that I’ve allowed such a gap to form between my incredibly impassioned time as a feminist/cultural studies scholar in college to a high school English teacher fighting a losing battle, but perhaps that’s because I’m not fighting hard enough.

– Henry speaks to this idea, however, at the end of the article: “There can be a danger for educators desirous of ‘transformative’ learning environments to feel that we have done our part by providing ‘culturally relevant’ texts or books with female protagonists. Indeed, such acts can go far in allowing children to see themselves reflected in literature and to make connections with their own lives.  In this project, I was reminded of how the complexity of social locations – language, socioeconomic background, gender, race, and national origin – all configure and are implicated in our identities and ideas in far-reaching ways. Thus, although I thoughtfully chose themes that were culturally engaging for this population of Black girls, their interests and ideas revealed a more complex web of socially regulated discursive formations” (p.248) So while I can attempt to remedy our gaps with regards to literature, it is perhaps through discussion and student-directed expressive writing that I can make more of a difference in my classroom.

“Their silence, or non-speech, is a text in itself” (p.236) – this is such a vital and central idea.  Silence is absolutely a text in the classroom – whatever the reason behind it, a student who doesn’t/can’t engage in the class is not likely to be successful.  And not analyzing this text of silence, when we analyze all other texts, is unforgiveable.


Awk. March 14, 2009

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 10:31 pm

“The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference,” Donald Murray

When Murray admits that early in his career, “No one escaped the blow of my ‘awk.'” I had to laugh out loud.  I’m sure he meant it to be funny, but alas, it’s funny because it’s true. Oh, no – my most trusty, reliable, oft used (and probably most frustrating and least helpful to students) comment…

I do think writing conferences can perhaps be more instructive overall than a teacher simply editing and handing back a piece of student writing.  I remember my first year of teaching a senior writing workshop class how frustrated I would get after I poured over drafts with my red pen only to get a very lightly-edited final copy handed back in.  And then my students were frustrated by their low grade. It was a vicious cycle, one that was vastly improved when I moved to conferencing.  My favorite part about conferencing, aside from actually getting to have a conversation with every single one of my students (which sadly doesn’t always happen otherwise), is that conferencing puts the onus on the student, it makes the writing something that belongs to him, not something that belongs to me as the teacher, because it is my assignment.

– Murray also makes this clear through his typical conference questions:

“What did you learn from this piece of writing?”

“What do you intend to do in the next draft?”

“What surprised you in the draft?”

“Where is the piece of writing taking you?”

“What do you like best in the piece of writing?”

“What questions do you have of me?” (p.15)

– Murray clarifies something for me in this article that I previously couldn’t articulate. “The greatest compliment I can give a student is to mark up a paper. But I can only mark up the best drafts” (p.17). I’ve been quite frustrated in the past when reading a student paper that was just a mess – grammar and mechanics errors galore, but more importantly, no claim, no logical sequence of argument – something major missing.  And without cohesion, without a point, it was difficult to really correct the errors or offer suggestions.  So I would hand back “bad” drafts without much writing, and yet I’d write all over “good” drafts – I felt like I was cheating the students who needed more help – but Murray’s explanation in terms of error correction as a compliment makes complete sense and I think I’ll use that explanation with my students as well.  I need to be given something complete enough to edit, otherwise, the corrections are in vain if the paper has no direction.


Audience. (hey, that’s you, right?)

Filed under: Weekly Readings — saraprimerano @ 9:56 pm

“The Meaning of Audience,” Douglas B. Park

Park discusses the often-used literary term audience, a term we all probably assume we can easily define, but as Park points out, the term is used in so many different ways that perhaps the definition is more elusive than originally thought.

– Bitzer’s definition seems like a good starting point, “a defined presence outside the discourse with certain beliefs, attitudes, and relationships to the speaker or writer and to the situation that require the discourse to have certain characteristics in response.” When we tell students to remember the audience on the Regents exam, for example, where the audience is often (according to the prompt) their classmates or the board of education, we reward them for writing at a level appropriate to that audience (appropriate references, level of language etc.).  However, really, their audience is the teacher grading that essay, so my job as their English teacher is to teach them how to write to the audience specified in the task, but also write to the teacher grading the test/standards set by the state. Yes, Park is correct – audience is more complicated than it seems.

– Park presents audience in dual modes – first meaning the actual people who will read a text, the other being the implied audience – the set of expectations, attitudes, interests, reactions, prior knowledge etc. that the writer must take into account with relation to each piece of writing.  This idea is complicated further by Park’s explanation that “‘audience’ essentially refers not to people as such but to those apparent aspects of knowledge and motivation in readers and listeners that form the contexts for discourse and the ends of discourse.” (p.249)

– This is a conversation I have to have with my WRT105 students when they first read a theorist like Friere or even Berger. We have to clarify who the intended audience is (other theorists, academics, linguists etc.) in order to allow the students to understand why the piece is written the way it is – stiff, repetitive, formal etc. – not the format they’re used to, but then again, high school students (or undergrads for that matter) are most certainly not the intended audience, and they know that by the second sentence.

– Four meanings of audience are offered, though the questions/statements that imply the different meanings are perhaps more readily understandable than the descriptions of each type of audience they imply.

1. “The audience applauded” – a concrete, discernable group of people. (uncommon)

2. “The writer misjudged his audience” – the intended readers, a semi-specific group (fairly common)

3. “What audience do you have in mind?” – a concept of a potential reader in the writer’s mind, who/what needs to be/should be involved in the discourse set forth by that piece of writing (constant)

4. “What does this paragraph suggest about the audience?” – features of the text that reveal expectations for the audience or creates a context (fairly common).

This article has me realizing that for students, understanding the complexities of audience can really be a tricky thing.  Writing appropriately for a given audience means knowing how much information/explanation your audience needs, and since teenagers are still figuring out what they know and how much explanation they need – figuring that out for someone else is complex.  They understand language implications for a given audience in terms of they know that text messaging abbreviations are appropriate for friends not for formal papers, but knowing which concepts they need to define in a given essay, for example, requires a higher level of thinking.

– The question of audience for blogging is particularly interesting.  Technically, if your blog is open to the public, anyone could be your audience.  At the same time, I’d presume that only someone interested in a. English Education or b. me, for some reason, would be interested in reading this blog.  And no offense, dear readers, but I don’t think about you too much when writing this – my main audience is myself.  I write to understand, and then share what I understand with public space, which others may partake in if they’d like.  That said, obviously I do think about my audience though, because I set up two separate blogs after starting this one so that I could discuss things I deemed inappropriate or unnecessary to discuss in this forum on those spaces.  And that’s something I did not only for my own peace of mind, but for my reader, whom I presume again is interested in English Education if s/he is reading this (I already ruled out the reading it because of me audience member, since I know that neither my mother nor my husband read this blog.)