At the deepest level, all living things that have ever been looked at have the same DNA code. And many of the same genes.
My twelve-year-old daughter, Lindsay, recently started using Pandora, a free Internet radio service billed as “the Music Genome Project” that allows listeners to customize playlists of songs by artist, song, or genre. Pandora creates a streaming music “station” that matches the search subject — music with “genes” similar to the kind of music a listener is interested in hearing. On my Pandora account, I have a Vivaldi station, a Thriller station, a Hawaiian music station, and a Guys and Dolls station, among many others.
When I asked Lindsay how many stations she had created, she reported that she had 12, and a quick inspection by me revealed that all 12 were a variation on the same genre — pop songs. I’m confident that I wouldn’t have to listen to more than three songs on any one of her stations before hearing a Justin Bieber tune.
Pandora encourages curiosity, inviting users to start with music they like, then mixing it together with songs listeners might not automatically recognize as having a connection to their preferences, but that are related in a significant way. Careful listeners are rewarded with “a ha!” moments as they identify similar attributes among tunes, thereby enlarging the library of music they enjoy.
Lindsay doesn’t embrace Pandora’s subtle mixing and matching, a fact I discovered one day when she was listening to her Pitch Perfect station. Working at my desk in an adjacent room, I could hear a song start to play, then silence, then a new song would begin, then silence. Finally, a song started and continued, but after five seconds, the volume went way down. When I asked Lindsay what was going on, she said, “I ran out of skips, so I have to listen to this one now and I don’t like it.”
It turns out that although Pandora can almost instantly pull together a station of songs with similar DNA, it also acknowledges that not all its selections on a station will appeal to a listener, a concession represented by the skip feature. If you don’t like a song, you can click on a thumbs-down icon and skip to the next song. What Lindsay learned the day she was forced to listen to a song she didn’t like was that Pandora enforces a skip limit. Listeners are allowed only six skips per hour per station, and then they’re stuck listening to whatever Pandora chooses.
I liked the idea of a skip limit because it’s a middle ground — Pandora recognizes that it won’t always get the mix and match right, but at the same time, has enough confidence in its music genome typing to eventually tell listeners, after six skips: Be patient. Trust us. There’s something here you’ll like if you listen a little longer.
Pandora’s skip feature would have been a great addition to the language of my writing workshop. When I taught fifth grade, I inevitably had a handful of writers who regularly gave me a thumbs-down when I asked them to broaden their writing repertoire by stretching beyond a favorite genre to try something new.
I remember Avis well — she was a poet. When Avis was a student in my fifth-grade classroom, she argued that she did stretch herself as a writer because she wrote lots of different kinds of poetry — haiku, ballads, rhyming poems, poems for two voices, even sonnets. She had a point in claiming a varied repertoire, but while my writing workshop was grounded in student choice, I grew to realize that “managed choice” was a better approach to ensure that all writers explored different kinds of writing. Another foundation of the writing workshop was using mentor texts to guide our craft, and, to Avis’s chagrin, we weren’t reading just poetry all year long.
Here’s where Pandora’s lingo would have been handy. The skip limit is basically another way of saying managed choice. I was willing to give my fifth graders some power to skip, but within reasonable boundaries. One scheme I used to put my managed choice philosophy into play was genre charts, where students were expected to record five types of writing they tried throughout the school year under the influence of a genre study we had done. For some students, our workshop was its own writing genome project. They believed that if they were just patient and trusted my genre mixing skills, they would discover a category of writing they enjoyed as much as a proven favorite. For writers like Avis, though, I needed to earn that trust by being more explicit about the connections among writing genres.
The happy ending to the Avis story is that eventually with my managed choice options, she decided to be brave and write outside her comfort zone. She saw the economy of language and necessity of careful description in writing a newspaper article. Avis discovered alliteration was a potent tool for breathing life into a science report. Over time, she came to understand that poetry has a home in many writing genres. My own lesson was that I was holding too tightly to one tenet of my writing workshop — managed choice is essential to developing well-rounded writers — at the expense of another, start where your students are. Avis was a poet; my job as her teacher was to help her recognize the transferability of her poem-writing skills to other genres.
In the classroom, teachers might take Pandora’s approach one step further. Build bridges between the new and the known by “teaching the genes”: making visible the attributes among genres to build writers’ confidence and stamina for new kinds of writing.
This week, we’re highlighting resources to strengthen reading and writing notebooks. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Suzy Kaback is an associate professor of literacy education at St. Catherine University in Minnesota.
Free for All
[For sneak peeks at our upcoming features, quotes and extra links, follow Choice Literacy on Twitter: @ChoiceLiteracy or Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ChoiceLiteracy or Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/choiceliteracy/]
Karen Terlecky discovers The Power of Read-Aloud Notebooks, and provides snapshots from throughout the year for helping build student skills in using them:
Are you in a rut with reading logs? Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan provide suggestions for Making Book Logs Purposeful for Students:
The Poets on Notebooks Quote Collection has many fun quotes to spark your imagination about possibilities for writing notebooks:
For Members Only
Ruth Ayres answers the question Why Write? for busy teachers who struggle to find time for their own writing notebooks:
Max Brand finds standard assessments don’t always give him the information he needs when working with kindergarten English language learners, so he develops his own tool for analyzing book handling skills:
In this week’s video, Franki Sibberson works with a small group of fourth graders who often abandon books. This is the first installment in a two-part series:
We’ve published a longer version of Suzy Kaback’s Teaching the Genes lead article, for teachers who want to delve more deeply into Suzy’s strategies for helping Avis move beyond poetry into other writing genres:
Finally, Megan Ginther and Holly Mueller continue their monthly series on using literacy contracts in middle school. The October Literacy Contracts have a theme of fear and conflict:
That’s all for this week!