Sara Primerano’s Blog

Just another weblog

special needs require special education (for teachers, too) March 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — saraprimerano @ 2:01 pm

“Lost in a sea of ink: How I survived the storm,” Andrew Sheehan and Cynthia Sheehan

“Students with Special Needs,” Richard Kent  chp. 22, Newkirk & Kent

While I’m disgusted with the treatment that Andrew and his parents received from his elementary and middle school, I can’t say I’m surprised.  I think his parents were quite wise in moving him to a different school, because I can only imagine that things would get worse if he moved into high school in the same district.  The even more disturbing thought – what if Andrew’s parents were not a psychologist and a guidance counselor?  What if they didn’t know how to advocate for their child?  If Andrew’s parents were unaware of how the educational system worked or what accommodations they could rightfully demand, imagine the situation Andrew would’ve been in then.  I’m saddened by the blatantly rude and dismissive comments from Andrew’s teachers, and while I’m sure some it can be attributed to the teachers being alternately uninformed and overwhelmed, it is still inexcusable.  I wish all teachers were as patient and had the foresight of Richard Kent. While certainly, we aren’t all like that, I do think that the vast majority of teachers aspire to be.  I find it hard to believe that anyone who is really dedicated to teaching wants to think students are lazy or unmotivated and not want to make accommodations to help them.  Such individuals exist, for sure, but I’m confident they’re in the small, tiny minority of teachers. Most of us want to help – we just need to know how.

The only reasonable solution I can see (aside from more educated, informed leadership in the form of administrators overseeing the process) is a more intricately involved relationship between the special education teachers assigned to special needs students and the classroom teachers.  Students like Andrew absolutely need advocates in the school beyond parents or classroom teachers.  Classroom teachers are responsible for twenty-five (or more) students at once, so they could certainly use assistance in modifying assignments and providing services to special needs students.  A team of people (overseeing administrator, special education teacher, classroom teacher and guidance counselor, at least) to help would be much more effective, and would greatly reduce the stress on each of the people involved, especially the student, hopefully yielding much better results.


Students aren’t the only ones who struggle…

Filed under: Uncategorized — saraprimerano @ 11:37 am

“Four Ways to Work Against Yourself when Conferencing with Struggling Writers,” Kathryn Glasswell, Judy Parr, Stuart McNaughton

– The article highlights four core activities:

– direct writing instruction including modeling and minilessons

– teacher-student conferences

– independent writing/work time for students

– opportunities for students to publish their work for real audiences to read

With regards to effective writing conference, the importance of offering children  opportunities to develop independence in writing, including taking responsibility for completing the tasks they are assigned. Also, good conferences should allow students enough time to consider the full range of writing issues, not just the given focus of a particular conference.

Making a writing conference truly effective can be difficult for even the most experienced teacher, as this article points out.  Here are the four most often-repeated mistakes:

1. Confuse Quantity for Quality.  This study found that struggling writers often receive more total teacher conference time than proficient writers but less sustained interaction time – which ultimately evens out.  Basic point – it’s what you accomplish, not how long you spend working during writing conferences.

2. Let Yourself Be Interrupted (More Often and for Longer) while You Work. Though conference times for struggling writers and proficient writers is basically the same, in this study, the struggling writer conferences were interrupted significantly more frequently.  The authors posit that perhaps because it is much more challenging to conference with an unmotivated or inattentive student, teachers allowed themselves to be interrupted more frequently – to the detriment of the struggling writer.

3. Place Your Major Instructional Emphasis Consistently on Low Levels of Text. Because struggling writers often have issues with basic or low-level grammar and mechanics, it is tempting to spend time working on those errors so that the students can progress to the next level.  However, if those mistakes are continually repeated and the teacher continues to focus on those errors, it takes away from time that could be spent on discussing higher level thought processes (goals, intentions, rhetorical concerns), as in conferences with more proficient writers.

4. Promote Their Dependence on You by Taking Responsibility for Their Actions.  Related to the previous mistake, spending too much time in teacher-directed conferences correcting grammar takes the responsibility for finding and correcting such errors off the student’s shoulders and puts it onto the teacher’s.  This unintentionally sabotages the teaching goals of having the student recognize her errors – why would she if the teacher constantly does it for her?

Turning the Unintentional to Intentional: four ways to turn mistakes into positives:

1. & 2. Ensure Focused, Sustained, Uninterrupted Quality Time. It is important for teachers to establish ground rules for conferences so that students, especially those who have trouble focusing in the first place, receive their due amount of uninterrupted attention.

3. Vary the Route but Do Not Shift the Goal Posts.  “If we want struggling writers to develop higher-level competencies with texts and to adopt reflective decision-making processes as writers, then the nature of our talk and actions must reflect this” (p.297).

4. Work Toward Withdrawing Support.  Just as it is the goal of a parent to teach a child what he needs to know and to develop independence, teachers must provide students with the tools they need and then take a step back, allowing the students to find their own footing.  Too much dependency will stifle growth.


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.


Assignment idea – book trailer

Filed under: Assignment Ideas — saraprimerano @ 9:49 am

Book Trailer

One of the newer marketing techniques that publishers are employing, especially for YA books, is releasing book trailers.  Much akin to movie trailers (which are always popular, especially with teens), book trailers feature moving sequences of actors (portraying characters), scenes inspired by the book, and still images of the book cover, character names etc.  These trailers are not from movies that have been made of the book, but rather are filmed mock-ups of the book before it is released – a coming attractions for books.  They’re often released on and to book bloggers and retailers before the book is released, creating hype.

This would translate well as a classroom activity and a much more engaging assignment for students than a traditional book review or even a book talk.

Start by showing students some book trailers, and maybe even movie trailers to get the point across.  Then, for independent, literature circle or even full-class reading assignments, assign students (in groups for lit circles and full-class reads) to create a book trailer.  Students can use programs like powerpoint, photostory, windows movie maker, i-movie etc.  A screening party can be arranged the day the assignment is due, and each student or group can show their trailer.  The class could then rate the trailers with movie ratings – thumbs up/down, how likely they are to read the book based on the trailer etc.

Some examples:


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.)


Fresh start. Suggestions? March 6, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — saraprimerano @ 8:04 pm

We’re attempting a rather rare feat at the moment at my school – we’re recreating the curriculum for English 10.  Several teachers are retiring and we have several new teachers, and our current curriculum has been historically inconcise and lacking a solid focus.  So, I want to take advantage of this opportunity.  What I’m asking is for suggestions – or even a wish list.

If given the opportunity to start from scratch, what would you set for goals for tenth grade students (reading and writing)?  What kinds of literature and writing pieces would you include?

If you have ideas, research, places I should check out, I am beyond open to suggestions – so please share!  I promise to share the fruits of our labor (if we ever finish – we also like to talk things to death, so don’t hold your breath… seriously.)  Thanks!