Kudos for Great Bio Sketches

I've finished grading the Bio Sketches and I must say I am very impressed. Many of you invested a lot into your work and it shows. And while all of them had a lot of good things, these ones stood out.

I hope that many of you will take the time to read these and offer feedback. Also, they may give you ideas for your own work and you may want to add something to yours. And while these are ones I thought deserved attention, if you have the time please scan as many of your classmates' as you can.

Anyway, Kudos:


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My stance on language's chicken and egg debate

During one of our staff meetings this week, I found myself discussing effective literacy pedagogy with one of my colleagues. Most of the discussion on my end was an internal dialogue because much of what I was listening to didn't exactly vibe with my views, and I didn't feel like complicating the interaction by offering my dissent. That and I was actually interested in what he was saying.

Anyhow, the discussion centered on students not being able to write a "complete" sentence. For him, not being able to write a complete sentence was very important because, well, if you can't put together a coherent idea within the boundaries of a sentence, how can you then string together multiple coherent sentences and communicate effectively? Simple logic, and it is very sound logic, and while I later argue against this I agree. Just not in degree of importance.

I disagree with the notion that communication requires a rigid grammar: a set of rules that must be followed in order for the communication to be effective and successful. Obviously, some basic rules need to be met, and it is certainly true that complete sentences are pretty basic. However, where is the line? What is most important? Is it absolutely necessary to concern our efforts with "fixing" a sentence that lacks a typical subject-verb-object (svo) arrangement if it is still readable? Especially when the quality of thought requires revision?

I fall into the whole language philosophy that asserts that meaning is constructed through organization of thought and that communication is effective so long as ideas follow a logical and interpretable path. Then once that is established we can focus on the sentence, punctual and word level to clean up the writing and make it clearer.

Thus my colleague's primary concern of laying bricks, so to speak, didn't exactly seem as important to me. To continue my metaphor, I believe in setting a foundation first -- with thought and ideas being that foundation. Obviously this is an example of the ongoing debate over whether language creates meaning or meaning creates language -- or what is the foundation? I subscribe to the latter and believe my colleague subscribes to the former.

Reasons I believe meaning creates language are evident in how people speak everyday. People can say "brb" or "lol" or any other sort of Internet speak and meaning is created. The grammar exists even if it isn't the "preferred," traditional grammar. Thus grammar shifts and is context dependent.

Furthermore, if you really think about it, the preferred grammar can be more confusing. For example, would you say "To whom did you speak this evening"? or "Who did you speak to"? The "preferred" is the former and, as I'm sure you would agree, you're more likely to confuse someone with that sentence than you are the latter. Besides, today's language is much more fragmented given how new technologies have changed how we communicate, and I would argue that complete sentences (at least in a super rigid construction) are closer to extinction than fragments, so why focus so heavily on "fixing" them? I believe our challenge as literacy teachers is to use the way people speak and think everyday and teach students how to use language effectively.

The relevance to my teaching is that many of my students (particularly my ELA kids) might not write the most eloquent sentences, but I believe they are learning to think and are becoming effective at creating and organizing thought through language.

The obvious problem with that is standardized testing doesn't exactly focus on or reward that approach. It does to an extent (if you read many of the CSAP rubrics it does focus first on quality of ideas and then the "nitty gritty"), but because testing still is still too focused on sentence-level meaning teachers are almost forced to teach it first and foremost. Worse yet, this sort of Testing dogma convinces teachers (like my colleague I believe) that good writing must have good sentences. Obviously, I don't agree. Good writing can have terrible sentences and bad writing can have terrific sentences.


This line of thinking always brings me back to one of my favorite essays: Politics and the English Language by George Orwell. In it he discusses how people create and prefer a sort of super-yet-sloppy language that disguises and distorts thought. Through bad writing we convince others and ourselves of nonsense and hide it from everyone -- including ourselves.

One example Orwell discusses is the word "Utilize," which is a pet peeve word for me. Do we ever need to use that word? Is there ever a case where the word "use" isn't more appropriate? I've had this discussion with many people, and some will defend the word with a litany of examples, but I am never convinced. That word is only used to make someone pretend they are using a "bigger" word and, as a result, sound more intelligent. "Utilize" (as well as other absurd words) often disguises a flawed or sloppy logic -- or, simply, someone is trying to bullshit us. And (oops I started a sentence with "And") I think it is no coincidence that this word is a favorite among politicians and bureaucrats.

Like Orwell, I believe language is the instrument of thought, and when communicating it is the thought that matters first. Thus, when teaching, I try to show students how to think, make meaning and use the language effectively considering the audience. If students use fragments, the wrong tenses or subject verb agreements, I am not freaking out that they are not writing well. Obviously (to consider audience) those things matter because our society judges people not by their quality of thought and how well that thought is organized, but through a mastery of sentences and the accepted grammar. For that reason I believe sentence-level concerns are important -- just not that important.

I'm aware I'm dancing a fine line, but it is a very important line for me. I teach the English language arts because I want students to use and create language, not utilize language to please the "preferred" grammatical norm.

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My Writing Process
Click image to make larger

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BIO-SKETCH: Barack Obama
by Vincent Adams

He seems pretty normal.
He loves to play hoops to unwind. He loves the Chicago White Sox and, in fact, he wore his favorite Sox cap the day after he won election to the country's highest office.

But he is not your everyday hoops-playing, Sox fan.

Starting Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama will become nation's 44th President, and in process he has inspired millions of people.

Growing Up

Obama's road to the White House was not easy. His father Barack Obama Sr. was a Kenyan immigrant and his mother Ann Dunham grew up in Wichita, Kansas. They divorced when Obama was 2 years old and his mother raised him as a single parent.

Obama wrote in his memoir, The Audacity of Hope, about the difficulties he had facing stereotypes of being a Black man and being half white. But Obama often credits his grandmother Madelyn Duhnam for "being the backbone" of the family and helping him learn about himself and his unique heritage, and she also helped him do well in school and beyond.

Sadly, Obama's grandmother died a week before he won the presidency, marking another personal tragedy for him -- his mother died of cancer in 1995.

Road to the Presidency

It seems Obama's past made him ambitious. Inhereting a strong sense to give back, Obama worked as a community organizer from 1985-1998 on the South Side of Chicago. He worked to help improve the lives of many poor people whose lives are plagued by crime and violence.

In 1996 Obama became an Illionios State Senatar, but that was only the beginning. In 2004 he ran for and became a U.S. Senator for Illionios, and in 2006 he began his run for president. Obama ran a tough campaign against Hillary Clinton before he won and became the first Black major party nominee for president.

Then on Nov. 4, 2008 Obama won the presidency by defeating John McCain, causing many people to celebrate his historic run. Obama became the first Black man to win the office, but he was also the first non-White man to win.

This inspired millions of people who before never thought they could be president. Many of these people believe that someday, if they work hard and overcome like Obama, they could be president.

Important Dates
  • 1961 Born Barack Hussein Obama in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • 1985 Moved to Chicago
  • 1985-1988 Community Organizer in South Side
  • 1988 Started Harvard Law School, met Michelle
  • 1990 First Black Editor of Harvard Law Review
  • 1992 Married Michelle LaVaughn Robinson
  • 1996 Elected Illinois State Senator
  • 1998 First Daughter Malia born
  • 2001 Second Daughter Sasha born
  • 2004 Elected U.S. Senator from Illinois
  • 2008 Elected President of the United States
Source: Barack Obama. Biography.Com. Dec 10, 2008. http://www.biography.com/featured-biography/barack-obama/bio3.jsp

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Learning Targets for 11/24-12/28

  • I know the main features of a Bio Sketch
  • I can write and publish a memoir
  • I can research, organize and document important information about my Bio Sketch person
  • I can use mentor texts to support and inspire my writing
  • I can write effectively for my audience to meet my purpose

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New Student Materials Needed for Next Term

Here is a copy of the important items from the letter I sent home Nov. 24

  • Students will need TWO new notebooks (approx 70 pages each) and a large three-ring binder starting after Winter Break. The reasons for this are 1) the notebooks they’re currently using are finished, and 2) I want to reorganize the notebooks. Finally, 3) the three-ringed binder is for the students’ portfolio, which will be a project students put together starting Jan 5 when we return.
  • Students have been publishing their work on their blogs, so ask your student to see it! Going to their blogs is a break way to find out what they’re doing and to take active participation in their learning. I highly recommend you check out your student’s blog and talk to your son or daughter about his/her work. It excites students because people are actually reading what they are writing!
  • Speaking of Blogs, you can visit mine to see what we’re doing in class and to contact me if needed. I intent this to be a helpful resource for both parents and students. The address is <vincentalanadams.blogspot.com>
  • I want to apologize for the confusion over grades and them not being posted on the progress reports. I had turned them in but apparently not the correct way. Accurate grades should not be available on Infinite Campus, which is linked from the East Middle School homepage. <http://apscms.net/schools/east>\

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For Today's Research!

1.Google person’s name and put “bio” at the end of it
~ For example, Barack Obama bio
2.Answer the basic W’s! Who is this person? What has s/he accomplished? Why did they do what they do?
3.Also, find at least one interesting fact that you find interesting fact
4.Use your KWL chart and answer the questions you asked in “What I want to know” in the “DRAFTS” section of your writer’s notebook
5.Make sure you also write down the site’s URL
~For example, http://www.aliciakeysbiography.com/

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Exemplary Standards for a Memoir


  • Memoir focuses on a single event or a sequence of smaller events that is true

  • Memoir expresses a clear, direct lesson/im or offers it using strong clues for inferencing

  • Memoir arranges story details to solve a problem, which usually is the lesson and occurs at the climax

  • Memoir uses images, dialogue and other techniques to develop story

  • Evidence of revision -- multiple drafts and participation in Peer Review/Workshop
  • Limted sentence-level and grammatical errors
  • Published


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Up and Running

Now that students have blogs and are connected, we can use this darn blog for what it was intended.

This week our focus was getting these blogs put together and getting us all connected. Obviously we hit some snags along the way with Blogger being weird and glitchy, causing just about every problem possible. But now we're set.

So, while I wanted to have the memoirs done this week, it is looking more likley they will be due next week (11/14) after parent-teacher conferences (which are slated for next Wednesday at 4pm and Thursday at 3pm).

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Learning Targets (10/6-11/21)

  • I know what features make something a memoir
  • I can use mentor texts to help inspire and support my writing
  • I can write and publish a memoir
  • I can write effectively for my audience to meet my purpose
  • I can revise and publish my persuasive essay
  • I can write and publish a written text of my choice

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Learning Targets

Learning Targets are designed to focus student learning on specific goals. These are written explicitly for students in student-friendly language and are a place for students to reflect on their learning and internalize the learning goals. Thus, these Learning Targets are not just discussed everyday in class; rather, they are a place for students to reflect on and come back to throughout the learning process so they, parents and teachers can track their growth.

There are daily Learning Targets (which are posted, written in Reader's Notebooks and discussed everyday) and quarter learning targets (which are also posted in class). Daily Learning Targets build up to the larger quarter targets, and assessment is based on how well students met these Learning Targets and reflected on these targets. So student work in class helps inform how well students met the Learning Target.

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Starting From Somewhere Other than Scratch

I have deleted the previos posts because I am starting anew -- kinda -- and trying to find a new role for this blog. I am now a teacher at East Middle School and am elated at the opportunity to work with students who have been, in large part, abandoned by the system. But while I am new to this school (and middle school), learning and teaching never starts from zero, so in celebration of prior knowledge, here is a slideshow from my time at POLARIS.

Expect more to come as soon as I learn more about the relationship between blogs and photoshare sites.

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