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What is a Book?

Twenty years ago, when I started working in classrooms, I never thought I’d ponder that question. But oh, how times have changed. Recently, I’ve been spending some time with iBooks created with Apple’s iBooks Author software. These are not books, in my opinion, they’re more like… I don’t know, exactly. I “booted up” two iBooks from Baobab Education: a math “book” and an “art” book. (Yay, art!) These are not traditional reading experiences, but they are very clearly learning experiences. Here’s what Baobab founder, and award-winning educator, Steeve Lemay says about why his company built an interactive math “book”: “Math has too long been accessible only to certain students. It’s time to regard math as a tool that helps students become informed citizens, capable of interpreting the world around them. We need to develop more effective ways of teaching math because only 12% of adults around the world are math literate.” I have always thought of interactive education software as an enhancement to traditional learning that increases engagement. But Steeve’s points are more interesting. Math is not highly accessible to many kids. And I think Steeve’s right about the connection between math and an informed citizenry. Traditionally, only literacy has held that distinction. So what is a book? Well, I still don’t know the answer. But if I think about the question now in terms of how book-like technology could help more kids understand material they might not otherwise be able to grasp, I think platforms like Apple’s iBooks move us in the right direction.

Medium is the Message

Perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right after all. If you haven’t visited, click over there and take a look. It’s nothing less than the world’s greatest blogging platform—and the most interesting aggregation of thought-provoking and informative writing I know of. This particular article, for example, is one of the best I’ve come across about simple ideas for clear and substantive writing. No matter what you teach, it’s well worth a read. But I’m putting it out here to get more folks over to Medium because the variety and quality of material I find there excites and amazes me. Blogging has a reputation for being lightweight communication often used for promotional purposes. But Medium features heavyweight writing, for all the right reasons, created by well-known and not-so-well-know people who all share a similar goal: using the “medium” of the Internet to spread good ideas far and wide. And because Medium is free to use, even regular folks like you and I can have our own platform for our own good ideas. In this way, Medium is an incredible force for the democratization of thought. I’m especially interested in how kids might be able to participate. One young writer I have come to know well is Jonah Steele. I think you’ll find his work interesting.

Instead of Opting Kids Out of Tests…

The national “Opt-Out” movement has crippled testing in some states, particularly New York. If enough parents deny schools permission to test their kids, the data the tests are designed to generate isn’t useful. I’m not a fan of the opt-out strategy, though I do understand it as a form of civil disobedience. But the question I always ask myself is, “What do kids learn from it?” (I’ll leave you to ponder the implications here for yourself; needless to say, I think they’re pretty serious, and they have nothing to do with test scores or accountability.) Here’s an alternative to opting out that I think is more constructive for parents and better for kids. I call it “besting the testing”. Tests are interesting opportunities to learn—about our schooling and about ourselves. Much as we may dislike high-stakes tests, there are ways of using those stakes to increase learning without increasing stress. Here’s an article with some science behind it that offers different ways to think about kids’ participation in high-states testing. And here’s a document I wrote with Justin Baeder of The Principal Center called, “The Declaration of Independence From Excessive Test Preparation.” Justin and I hope that these ideas promote a safe and sane approach to teaching and testing.

Simpler is Smarter

I know we’re always trying to get kids to bring more sophistication to the language they use in their writing. But this article takes a different position—and it has good science to back it up. Not only is simple writing easier for readers to understand but, ironically, writers who communicate with simple language are judged by their readers as being smarter than writers who use big words and fancy sentences. I feel like I’ve always known this, but haven’t practiced it as conscientiously as I could have. In the last few years, I’ve been trying to break bad habits I have of trying to be clever instead of clear. But I hadn’t thought of bringing this idea to kids in the classroom. Now I think about it all the time, and it opens up for me a completely different way of teaching writing that I believe is not only better but more accessible to more kids—especially reluctant writers and second-language learners. I’m working right now on the beginnings of a book with this mind. For me, this idea of simplicity has already improved how I teach. The teachers I’ve introduced this to are seeing success as well. At the moment, I’m calling it “Write Small, Learn Big” but perhaps a better title is "Write Simple, Look Smart". I was able to sneak some of these ideas into my new writing book for kids. But there's a lot more work to be done here that will, I think, benefit us all: teachers, students, writers—and especially those of us who feel like all three.

TTMS: The Book is Out!

NEW: My new book, Be a Better Writer, is now available at Amazon. It's a book for kids in the tween and teen years. But many teachers have used part of it and found it helpful both to them and to their students: "Want to become a better writer? For teachers of upper elementary, middle, and high school kids the answer can be found in Steve Peha’s newest book. As a fifth grade teacher, I connected with Steve over fifteen years ago when I was searching for strategies to help my students become better writers. Early on Steve introduced a variety of strategies that helped me with kids who struggled to get started."—Terry Steiner, Dieringer Heights Elementary School, Dieringer, WA.

You can, of course, "Look inside the book" on Amazon. But if you'd like a better look, you can download a free copy of Chapter One (and the full Table of Contents) as a PDF from my library of materials.

You can also pop over to my Amazon Author Central page for some discussions I'm starting about a variety of issues related to writing and kids. Learn about changes to the new edition. Talk with me and other teachers about how to use the book in your classroom. Find help for parents on how to use the book to support kids at home. If you're a writer, young or not-so-young, we can discuss anything you want to know about how to make your work the best it can be.

WEBINAR: On Monday, May 2, at 8 PM Eastern Time, I’ll be presenting the  fifth in a series of five webinars on writing instruction through EdChat Interactive. The series is called High-Leverage Strategies for All Kinds of Writing. The title for May's session is "Conventional Wisdom: Helping Young Writers Master Mechanics." I hope you’ll join me in EdChat Interactive’s fascinating virtual 3D PD environment. We've been having a lot of fun!

FREE: Here's the PDF of the slide deck from my last webinar on nonfiction writing. It focuses on leveraging kids' abilities with narrative writing to help them make quick progress with expository, persuasive, and argumentative writing.

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