Teachers study reading, writing, relaxation

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Many Alaska teachers took the weekend off from grading homework -- and started doing some themselves.

About 154 teachers from around the state gathered at the Kenai Princess Lodge in Cooper Landing last weekend for "Time to Reflect, Retreat and Connect," a literacy conference sponsored by the Alaska State Literacy Association and the Kenai Peninsula Reading Council.

As the conference title suggests, the weekend was in part a retreat -- three days full of yoga, massages, focus walks and good meals.

But it also was a time for learning, as participants sat in on reading and writing sessions presented by Ellin Keene and Ralph Fletcher.

Keene is a former classroom teacher, staff developer, adjunct professor at the University of Denver and director of the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. She also is the author of "Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehen-sion in a Reader's Workshop" and currently is involved in the Cornerstone Project linking reading, writing and research at the University of Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, Keene discussed reading research with conference participants.

"We have to be articulate advocates for researched-based practices," she told the teachers. "We have to be able to say, 'I am going to do this and this and this, and there is a reason.'"

Keene continued by laying out some current research on how people learn to read and comprehend language -- and how that knowledge needs to be incorporated into classrooms.

Specifically, she discussed the six strategies in understanding written language -- three are surface-level strategies such as sounding out words and recognizing words from memory when reading, while three are deep-level strategies dealing with meaning on a word level and social level.

"Kids are approaching reading with a single strategy because that is all they are taught," Keene told the participants. "Whether we're 4 or 104, we're struggling with the simultaneous use (of these strategies)."

Not far away, Fletcher was discussing writing with another group of teachers.

Fletcher started his career as a professional writer and is now a nationally recognized figure in the teaching of writing. He has visited schools in nearly every state to help teachers find better ways of teaching writing, and his works include books for teachers as well as fiction, nonfiction and poetry for children.

Saturday morning, Fletcher was talking about the writer's notebook, a tool for improving writing both for children and adults -- and one he uses himself.

The notebook is essentially a blank book where students -- or adults -- can "breathe in and breathe out" through writing. It is a place to record memories, artifacts, ideas or questions and to practice writing about the world in new ways.

As Fletcher shared anecdotes, writing from students across the country and some of his own work, he also helped the teachers brainstorm ways to incorporate the notebook into their classrooms.

For example, he pointed out that girls tend to be more willing to engage in diary keeping sorts of activities, whereas it helps to encourage boys to collect artifacts in their notebooks.

He also suggested letting the notebook be a teacher-free piece of work -- one with no expectations, requirements or grades.

"It's tempting to organize them for the kids, to the extent that the notebook becomes your thing," he said. "It's most powerful when the kids are writing for themselves. That's a legitimate audience and they learn to take pleasure in their own writing."

And, he said, the best way to help students get excited about the project is for teachers to do it themselves.

"It's so important for teachers to model this," he said. But, he added, it can't just be for the classroom.

"It's not just for the kids, but for ourselves. The kids can tell the difference."

Between the sessions, the teachers had time to write in their own notebooks and to discuss what they were learning -- and that was the point, said Carol VanDerWege, a librarian at Tustumena Elementary School and one of the planners of the event.

"It was a brain-based conference," VanDerWege said. "What brain-based research has taught us is that if you don't get time to talk about new learning, it disappears."

The small size of the conference allowed plenty of time for just that. As one teacher said, at many conferences, participants have to choose between a number of different sessions and often feel they are missing out on something else. The weekend retreat, she said, brought no such stress.

"We're learning how to get excited about teaching reading and writing in the classroom," said Laura MacDonald, a kindergarten through second-grade teacher at Cooper Landing Elementary. "But more than that, it's a great opportunity to share with colleagues, get ideas and be rejuvenated so that we can be better in the classroom."

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