How Online Professional Development Changed My Life

This post originally appeared on the NCTE Inbox blog. I happened upon it today and found myself reminiscing on the paths that I’ve traveled to get to who I am. I thought I’d copy it over to my site to make sure I didn’t lose it. I edited it to remove dated references

Chances are high that you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for online professional development. I don’t mean that in the clichéd “If you can read this thank a teacher” way. What I mean is that I would never, ever have had the connections that led to writing these blog entries if it hadn’t been for the online professional development opportunities that came my way.

People who know me may not believe it, but I kept to myself as a teacher before I found opportunities to connect with other educators online. I read a lot about teaching, but I rarely discussed teaching strategies with others. I had some connections in the department where I taught, and I was a fellow of Writing Project site that no longer exists.

And then I got an email address and found that other college composition teachers were out there discussing what they do in the classroom online. I signed up  Megabyte University, an email discussion list that was active from 1990 to 1997. There, I connected with other teachers who were interested in using computers in writing instruction, and I eventually found my voice and began participating–asking questions, sharing strategies, and planning projects. I found that the people who were names on the articles I read in  College English  and  College Composition and Communication  were kind, friendly folks who were willing to chat with a relatively inexperienced person like me.

To my conversations on email discussion lists, I added real-time chats on  MOOs  and  IRC. I attended online conferences related to the face-to-face  Computers and Writing Conference. Before I knew it, I had connections with colleagues in all corners of the country, and I had actually chatted with CCCC presidents and NCTE Committee Chairs. I even got up the gumption to send a personal email message to Peter Elbow to tell him how much I loved  Writing with Power.

Without any reservation, I can say that I ended up writing this blog because of those first connections that I made online in the early 1990s. Online discussion led to new jobs, new teaching opportunities, and new ways to support other teachers using online tools.

None of the resources I tapped when I got started still exist in the same form today. Computer resources have evolved, and we teachers have developed new ways to connect and keep in touch today. Today we have new ways of keeping in touch, like discussion lists, Twitter Chats, and Facebook Groups. You’ll find wonderful teachers who will share their ideas, listen to your strategies, and, if you’re just lucky, bring you opportunities that will invigorate your teaching every day.

More Important Things to Talk About

As stories of the National Spelling Bee flood the news, I wanted to repost a personal spelling story that originally appeared in the NCTE Inbox blog. It’s a story I carry with me as I respond to the writing of others.


When I was nearly 13, my parents gave me a pad of light blue paper with delicate yellow and peach flowers in the upper left corner, their stems stretching down the left margin. I delighted in the pad of stationery and the matching box of envelopes they gave me as a reward for watching for my younger sisters and brother while they did their grocery shopping.

I stared at the paper a few times everyday. Occasionally I ran my hand across the smooth surface. It felt like a perfect silk, almost too precious to even write upon. After about a week, I broke down and decided it was time to write a letter. I found the best pen in the house and carefully wrote a message to my grandparents, describing our recent trips to the public library, the Dolley Madison biographies I had been reading, and our trips to Wrightsville and Fort Fisher beaches.

When I finished writing, I sealed the letter in the envelope and carefully added my grandparents’ address. After adding a stamp, I carried the letter outside, placed it in the mailbox, and raised the red flag that would tell the letter carrier to start my letter on its journey from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Anyone watching this series of events would have thought I was participating in a formal religious rite. I paid no attention to my youngest sister and brother as they wove their tricycles around me. I had serious business to do. I was sending my words forth on that beautiful paper.

A week or so later, I found a small white envelope in the mailbox with my name on it, the looping letters telling me immediately that my grandmother had addressed this letter. I carried it inside the house and sliced the envelope open with my mother’s letter opener. Inside, I found a letter written by my grandfather. He told me how tall the corn was and about the latest Louis L’Amour novel he’d been reading.

I sat up taller at the kitchen table and crossed my ankles under my chair, like the ladies I’d seen on my mother’s soap operas. My brother and sister were across the room, playing with a Fisher-Price bus and a circus train. Such babies compared to me. I had sent out a letter and received a message in reply. Me. My perfect light blue stationery was powerful. It transformed me from clumsy pre-teen to young adult. I mused on how I would continue this exchange, sending letters back and forth just like Dolley Madison, writing letters to family and friends, and saving my letters for future historians to revisit so they could learn about my life. In short, I was euphoric, absolutely smitten with the power of writing.

I turned over the page to read the paragraph on the back:

You spelled their and a lot wrong. You need to spell right to do well in school.

I couldn’t look at anyone in the room. They’d all see what a faker I had been. I slid off the chair as silently as possible and went down the hall to my room. I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, which I tossed on my desk amid piles of books and old notebooks. I never read it again. I probably threw it away, but I have no memory of where it went. I put the beautiful blue paper at the bottom of a dresser drawer, where it stayed for months.

My spelling had betrayed me. I wasn’t really a letter writer. No historian would care about my letters in the centuries to come. It would be months before I wrote my grandparents another letter. A thank you note for a Christmas present, it included only the basic information. I neither expected nor received a reply. My mother said to write, and I did. I assume she mailed it with similar letters written by my sisters and brother. I didn’t save the details.

Whenever I begin to circle a spelling error on a student paper, I try to remember this story. Spelling matters, of course. But there are times when what matters most isn’t that spelling conforms to standard written English. The story. Sentence structure. Supporting details. The writer’s engagement and enthusiasm. Sorry, Grandpa, but sometimes thier and alot just don’t matter. There are more important things to talk about.

Black History Month Links for 2011

Virginia Civil Rights MemorialI gathered a list of links for Black History Month for the NCTE Inbox Blog in 2010. Lots of new resources have come online in the last year, so I’ve updated the collection with the most recent and best K12 and College resources for for African American Read-Ins and Black History Month celebrations.

As I wrote last year, click away, read, and marvel at these rich resources. There’s enough that you can visit a new site every day this month!

General Background Information

  1. African American History Month, from The Library of Congress
  2. Black History, from The History Channel
  3. Black History, from the National Archive
  4. Black History Month, from
  5. Black History Month, from EDSITEment
  6. Black History Month, from Thinkfinity
  7. Culture and Change: Black History in America, from Scholastic
  8. The State of Black Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy and Research, from the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library


  1. A Brief Chronology of African American Literature, from San Antonio College Lit Web
  2. African American Poets, from Famous Poets and Poems
  3. African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, from The Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library
  4. African-American Women, from Duke University Library
  5. Black History, from Academy of American Poets
  6. Twenty-Eight Days Later, A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature, from The Brown Bookshelf
  7. Black History Month, from Reading Rockets

Historical and Nonfiction Texts

  1. African-American Odyssey, from The Library of Congress
  2. African-American Quotations, from InfoPlease
  3. African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920, from the Library of Congress
  4. African American Cultural Heritage Tour, from the Smithsonian Institute
  5. Africana & Black History, from the New York Public Library
  6. American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology, from American Studies Hypertexts at the University of Virginia
  7. The Church in the Southern Black Community, from Documenting the American South
  8. Electronic Text Center: African American, from the University of Virginia (Includes texts about African Americans as well as by African Americans)
  9. In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library
  10. In Those Days: African-American Life Near the Savannah River, from the National Park Service
  11. North American Slave Narratives, from Documenting the American South
  12. Notable Speeches and Letters by African Americans, from InfoPlease

Personal Histories

  1. Experience War: Stories from the Veterans History Project, from the Library of Congress
  2. Oral Histories, from the National Visionary Leadership Project
  3. StoryCorps Griot, from National Museum of African American History and Culture

Photographs and Other Visual Images

  1. The Civil Rights Era in the U.S. News & World Report Photographs Collection, from The Library of Congress
  2. The Face of Slavery & Other African American Photographs, from The American Museum of Photography
  3. Images of African Americans from the 19th Century, from the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library
  4. Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, from the University of Virginia Library
  5. Pictures of African Americans During World War II, from the National Archive
  6. Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers, from The Library of Congress
  7. Portrait of Black Chicago, from the National Archive
  8. Through the Lens of Time: Images of African Americans from the Cook Collection, from VCU Libraries

[Photo: Virginia Civil Rights Memorial by john.murden, on Flickr]


Piecing Together the Copyright Puzzle

Copyright Symbol by Horia VarlanFiguring out copyright can be like piecing together a puzzle. You have a good idea how it’s supposed to work in the end, but all the little pieces can be confusing to piece together.

I’ve posted links to 15 sites on copyright and fair use that will help you move from scattered pieces to a full picture in this week’s NCTE Inbox Blog.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo of copyright symbol by Horia Varlan]

Fun and Painless Summer Learning

Giraffe Photo by Jon OvingtonUnsure how to help families sneak in summer learning without the kids staging a revolt? Encourage families to tie educational projects to the things they’re already doing and the events they’re already talking about. Whether it’s a trip to the zoo, the pool, or the museum, there are resources out there that families can use to connect family activities to summer learning.

I explain how to make summer learning fun and painless in this week’s NCTE Inbox Blog.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Jon Ovington]

10 Things You’ll Want To Read This Summer

Man using a laptop outsideWhether summer means time to read for fun or to prepare for teaching in the Fall, I bet you’re beginning to gather that reading list.

You probably know where to find details on the year’s award-winning children’s and teen books. You probably have a few articles lying around you mean to get to, and I bet you plan to check out the resources on ReadWriteThink.

Maybe you’re looking for something different though? Check out the ten must-read online resources I’ve included in this week’s NCTE Inbox Blog.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mr.Thomas]

What Do You Appreciate in a Teacher? (Inbox Blog)

This week in the United States is Teacher Appreciation Week, a time set aside each year to honor the hard work that educators do every day in the classroom and beyond.

Take one of the PTA’s Teacher Appreciation Week Polls and let me know what you think are the best characteristics of a good teacher!

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Wonderlane]

Helping Readers See Themselves in a Text (NCTE Inbox Blog)

Girl reading, CC Flickr photo by SanJoseLibraryAs a young reader, I wanted stories about young girls, about their accomplishments as women, and about the journeys they took from child to adult. I didn’t want to be bothered with stories of boys becoming apprentices, men fighting battles, or chopping their way through forests. I wanted to see people who were like me. I wanted to read about people who were like the person I wanted to become. Read more in my Inbox blog and learn how helping readers make personal connections to texts is related to El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) on April 30.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by SanJoseLibrary]

Inbox Blog: How to Move Closer to School 2.0

William Kist’s article “From Web 2.0 to School 2.0: Tales from the Field” includes vignettes of students using digital technologies to connect to one another and to the texts that they explore. How can you get to School 2.0? I outline three steps to using social networking in the classroom in this week’s NCTE Inbox Blog.

Using Wordle Images to Hear What’s Said

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day" didn’t really impress me. It was what it was: an occasional poem that tried very hard to sum up a moment of emotion and history.

The poem was quite suitable, but I wanted something that would make me cheer or smile or weep (even if it was with tears of joy). But the reading brought nothing. It was just a poet, sharing a nice little poem.

Maybe I’m spoiled. I worked in the same English Department as Nikki Giovanni when I was in the classroom. Nikki can knock you on the ground when she recites her poetry. That’s what I wanted, but the closest I got that day was that sassy benediction from Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.

Alexander’s poem didn’t give me what I wanted, so I politely tucked it away and made no plans to return to it. That was until I ran across the ReadWriteWeb post sharing word clouds of presidential inauguration addresses.The highlighted words in the Wordle images so clearly communicated a specific moment in time. President Bush’s 2005 address had to defend a war on foreign soil. Was it any wonder that freedom was the most heard word? President Clinton, the president who lead the nation into the 21st century, repeated the word century more than any other in his 1997 address.

My thoughts on the word clouds grew into my Inbox blog for this month, Wordle and the Inauguration. I found the text for four inaugural poem online and created Wordle clouds for each of them:

The way the words fell together for each poem was random. The size of the words is based on the number of times they were repeated, but the relationship among the words wasn’t something I controlled. The computer algorithm behind Wordle laid out the words in the "Half and Half" pattern. In other words, a relatively even number of words are shown with horizontal alignment versus vertical alignment:

Wordle: Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

When I looked at Alexander’s poem, I saw so much more than I had heard. Suddenly, I had a "love song" and thought of how we all "need words [of] praise." Or the poem might be a "song [of] praise"  for "love" and "need" and how the two are inevitably linked. Smaller words in the image told me, "Consider struggle, walking, patching, darning. Begin. Repair thyself, teacher."

"Aye," I thought, "repair yourself." I had dismissed a perfectly lovely and meaningful poem because  my first experience with it wasn’t monumental enough. Maybe it wasn’t a great reading last Tuesday, but it is a good poem for the moment. The Wordle image reminded me that there are deeper ways to read and things to see that a video or a single reading can never capture.