Monday, January 30, 2012

Is There a Solution? "They Just Don't Have the Words."

My friend Non Talbot Wels tweeted my last post, "They Just Don't Have the Words" and asked, "Solutions, Kristen?"
I can always count on Non to ask good questions.
I've spent over twenty years trying to answer/address the diminishing vocabulary of my students.
The answer I have now is the same answer I started out with: that students gain the power of words, and thus ideas, through stories.
I know a lot of teachers who assign vocabulary lists. I understand this, but lists are of limited use without context. I do believe in the power of Memory. Mnemosyne is, after all, the mother of the muses, but muses need mortar, not just bricks.
Word immersion is better.
Word immersion comes from books, from stories.
And, initially, this immersion must come from a kid's parents and primary caregivers.
I think the Edu-speak term for this is "language-rich environment."
I think immersion in books is best served by keeping a kid unplugged for as long as possible. Listening to books in the car, going to the library, telling stories, having the kid tell stories, illustrate stories, and just playing are all good things.
Toddlers with iPads alarm me.
Babies in front of televisions fill me with dismay.
Teens who are always plugged in without respite or boundaries of any kind are the products of grossly irresponsible parents who have chosen the path of least resistance.
The Path of Least Resistance ends, at best, in mediocrity.
I say these things and people are puzzled. After all, my classroom is a computer lab.
Without the human, I tell parents, technology is dangerous.
I know people get mad at me.
It's okay. I'm not running for Homecoming Queen.
I'm just fighting to give kids real power, the power that creates realities which arise from a glad union of dreams and action.
Dreams and actions that begin with words.

Friday, January 27, 2012

"They just don't have the words." Two teachers share their sorrow.

It's the end of finals week.
Students and teachers are tired.
I have a colleague, and English and History teacher, who is one of the smartest men I know, as well as one of the most dedicated teachers I ever expect to know. We were roommates for two years, and the man never went to bed before two in the morning. He is a master of twenty-first century project design.
The students adore him, keeping in touch with him long after graduation.
If you were fortunate, you may have had a teacher like him.
I talked with him today about some of our freshmen.
"It is just so frustrating," he told me. "They just don't have the words to express ideas."
Ten years ago I read about a study that compared the vocabulary of students in the fifties with the vocabulary of today's students.
The study indicated that current students use about half of the words students in the fifties did.
I do not think it is an overstatement to say that this is a crisis.
A Word Crisis.
My friend and great American writer, Andrew Smith, talks about the connection between words, ideas, and creativity a lot.
For over twenty years one of my classroom mantras has been "Words are power."
Power to communicate, power to create, power to change the world.
"Choose to wield words for good and noble purposes," I tell them.
And when my heart is dark and weary, as it is tonight, I think of Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach", and ignorant armies, and I am afraid.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Another Step in the Revolution: Books and Technology

I teach high school, as you know. I teach a class that is intended to introduce not only industry-standard software but also real-life skills like buying a car, post-high school planning, and financial management.
I also emphasize the responsible use of technology.
Some people hear this and think it's all about how to play in the Tech Sandbox, and, to a large extent, it is. It's critical for people to respect intellectual copyright, send professional emails, and avoid flaming.
But--and here is where people get surprised--I talk about the absolute, unequivocal need to Unplug.
I teach about all things Digital Age and one of my main messages is to go Renaissance. In a sense.
I want kids to be able to function without external stimulation.
I want kids to have silence in their heads and see what happens in that silence.
I want kids to read books, ingest words, ideas, stories, worlds.
I want them to have the capacity to imagine and dream and create.
Technology has a vital place in the world.
Technology helps us to create, yes. It is an important tool. It is a marvel.
But the things that are make us human--imagination, spirit, soul--need to be nurtured and celebrated. We carry within us infinite frontiers and possibilities.
It's good for all of us to turn off the noise and unplug.
So pretty much the only homework I ever assign is reading a novel.
And it's so lovely to have a classroom library to give them choices.
Books--lots of books--in the computer lab.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding Hope in Kansas. Falling Off the Map.

Today I did a project with the kids that involved Google maps.
And I'm looking at this map and I see Kansas.
"Look," I said,"Kansas."
This was a non sequiter, which is kind of taboo in Education, which is one of the reasons for creativity decay.
"You know, I have entire weeks where I forget Kansas exists. Then I'll be looking at a map and--Bam!--there's Kansas."
They laughed. And we took a break from creating screen shots and making them into .jpgs and talked about Random Kansas facts.
I told my students that their ability to step up with Random Kansas facts on demand was an example of critical thinking in action, and everyone got a million points and was merry and productive for the rest of the period.
Just when I think I've fallen off the map, it turns out that I actually never left it and it didn't stop.
There's no place like falling off the map.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Whelm the Gecko.

Many years ago I became one of the Founding Mothers of a school.
This was an exciting and busy time, and I worked on the Revolution.
I bought a purple gecko with a shiny purple back at a toy store.
I named it Whelm, because that is a cool name, and I also wanted to have a school that was whelm, where the students could be whelm.
You know--not underwhelmed in a disappointing way. Not overwhelmed in stressful way.
Whelmed= interested, engaged, balanced, creative.
I also thought our mascot should be the gecko, because geckos have serious mad skills.
I did not get the votes I needed for Whelm to become the mascot.
Whelm should be a way of life. I need more whelm.
The world needs more whelm.

Monday, January 9, 2012

When Kids Recommend Books: The Rule

I am always glad when students bring books to loan to me.
I have two books right now from students.
One is called Entangled: Eater of Souls, by Graham Hancock. I had not heard of Graham Hancock before. According to the back cover, Mr. Graham is "an unconventional thinker."
I don't really believe in jacket copy. So I'm ignoring that part.
But my student who loaned it to me is, for true, an unconventional thinker. He is quiet and he observes. I was so thrilled that he communicated to me about a book that I was hard-pressed to stay calm and not bounce, because I knew he would be mortified.
So I'm bouncing in my head.
He told me all this cool stuff that he likes about the book. He wants to know what I think.
This is a source of deep joy.
Another student dropped off a book for me today. It is called Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. I had not heard of this book, either, but that is the great thing about kids handing you books. I didn't read the jacket copy on this one, except that I saw a blurb on it by Carrie Ryan and I like her books.
It doesn't matter, though. Whoever wrote the book, whoever blurbed the book, here's the rule:
If a kid brings you a book, you read it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Okay with the Zombie Apocalypse. And that's about it.

Today when I got home I had a thrill.
I got something cool in the mail.
When my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I wanted a Zombie Apocalypse tool.
He gave me a gift card for books. I understand. I think I scare him sometimes.
So I bought the Zombie Apocalypse tool for myself.
It's this axe-like tool with a serrated blade that hides in the handle.
If you don't have one, you need one. Now.
My husband is apprehensive about me and sharp objects, because I do have a history of slicing bits off my fingers and having to go to the emergency room to get stuff glued back. My whole life I've been scolded about being careful with sharp objects, and that I need to pay attention.
I promise that when a zombie attacks it will have my full attention.
Because there's nothing like being prepared. Having a sense of control of something in a world full of chaos and uncertainty is a cause for celebration.
I have no control over the economy,or the fact that in some circles tomato sauce counts as a vegetable, or the fact that standardized tests cause lobotomies.
But by God, when the Zombie Apocalypse happens, I'm ready.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happiness in 2012: Books Coming Our Way

I have a list.
I don't think of myself as a big list person, but I can make an effort for the Really Important Stuff.
Like these books coming out now that it is 2012.
These are not in any kind of order at all, because that would have entailed making a list and sorting.
But here it is. I won't even use numbers.

Passenger,the sequel to The Marbury Lens Andrew Smith

Never Enough by Denise Jaden, author of Losing Faith

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King, author of Everybody Sees the Ants

Fear (Gone #5) by Michael Grant
BZRK by Michael Grant
*Michael Grant is really cool.

Shadows by Ilsa Blick
Drowning Instinct by Ilsa Blick

The next Shades of London book by Maureen Johnson

Unraveling Isabel by Eileen Cook

Zero by Tom Levine

Kill Order by James Dashner

Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

And I live in hope for more books soon from Joe Lunievicz, author of Open Wounds. I know Sara Zarr has another book coming, but I don't know when.

And now for 2013. I know I should live in the present. I try. But you need to know these books are coming.

The End Games by T. Michael Martin

Winger by Andrew Smith

Trollhunters by Daniel Kraus
Scowlers by Daniel Kraus