About Amber Parks

Posts by Amber Parks:

Step Right Up! Strengthening the Muscles in Sentences


What’s the difference between these two sentences:  1. Kids are amazing and creative. vs. 2. Creative kids are amazing thinkers.

A: Sentence 1 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure.
B: Sentence 2 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure.
C: Both sentences are equally as strong and sophisticated.

The correct answer is B: Sentence 2 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure. Why is that the case? It has to do with the muscles of sentences: adjectives.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with sentence 1: “Kids are amazing and creative.” It’s just there is no power in that sentence structure: noun verb adjective conjunction adjective. Predicate adjectives are weak. They just so happen, however, to be the most natural and common way of speaking and so, by default, writing.

The structure of sentence 2: “Creative kids are amazing thinkers,” is adjective noun verb adjective noun. Now there’s a muscular sentence! Do you hear the power when adjectives precede nouns? Said simply, get rid of predicate adjectives!

It takes deliberate focus and practice for writers of all ages to learn the power of adjective placement. But, when they do, their writing can flex some major muscles!

Why visuals for learning?

As a student in my mother’s 8th grade US History the way I learned was changed forever. She began to use visual patterns of thinking as a way to show what thinking looked like. I vividly remember how I felt my brain transform as I became aware of how many different ways I could think about a topic and how the visual maps allowed me to actually see my thinking, my classmate’s thinking, and even my teacher’s thinking! Whether in history, a subject I loved, or even in math, the subject I loathed, the designs provided me a consistent set of visual patterns for thinking, which helped me understand, clarify, and connect information in ways no textbook or teacher ever had. Visual maps became a foundational component of my academic success throughout high school, my undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University, and my master’s work at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, the history and trends of visual patterns for thinking, concept mapping, and mind mapping has become an area of professional research and analysis for me, from Upton, Samson, & Farmer’s work in the 1960’s to the current wave of digital mapping tools including Mind42 and Gliffy.

As a teacher, I embedded visual mapping strategies into every aspect of my classroom, from assigning student jobs to teaching area and perimeter. Whether my classroom was filled with 5 year olds or 5th graders, whether my classroom was in this country or overseas, student learning was transformed by visual maps, just as mine had been. To watch students learn to think more critically and creatively by using the maps solidified for me the power of common visual designs in teaching and learning.

From my nearly 20 years of experience with visual mapping, I consider it a great honor to have experienced the power of visual mapping from both sides of the desk. It is upon this understanding that the work of The Learning Project is built.  The Mind Designs take visual mapping to new levels of versatility, applicability, and complexity of thought. Indeed, the Mind Designs cultivate critical, creative, confident thinkers.

Want to become a better teacher?

Then get out of the classroom! Get out into the world! Get uncomfortable! Get moving to experience new cultures, traditions, and places. My first experience teaching was in Bilbao, Spain, as an English teacher for Basque and Spanish children.

English, the community hoped, would be a uniting language for the two divergent cultures. For my second teaching experience, I found myself in the Nyanga township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. With one tap of running water for every 7,000 residents and no compulsory school, I often found myself with many more students coming to learn than on the roster. The picture to the right is of me with several students. In both places, while my title was teacher, I can safely say I was doing most of the learning.

I am forever grateful for my international teaching experiences not because they were easy (that certainly wasn’t the case!!), but because they were precisely the opposite. They made me uncomfortable. They challenged me. They tested me. Upon returning to the States, I was eager to share the riches of these places with more students.

Fast forward three years, I was feeling the need to travel and learn again. While teaching 4th grade , I was selected as an fellow for the Fund for Teachers Travel Grant, which granted me the amazing opportunity to travel to 11 European countries wit

h a colleague. My teaching was yet again forever changed because of what I learned outside of the classroom walls. Upon returning from my summer abroad, I found I was more creative, more patient, more global in my thinking. Of course this had a positive ripple effect on my teaching.

Here are a few sites to get you started in finding funding for your trip abroad:

Global Teacher Fellowship

Earthwatch Fellowship

Fulbright-Hayes Abroad Seminars

It is important as educators to never stop being learners, to holdfast to insatiable curiosity and a love of all things challenging and different. So get out there. Travel someplace that requires a passport. Eat strange foods. Visit unfamiliar places where English isn’t the predominant language. Your students will thank you.Happy travels!

When is the best time to start researching and applying for scholarships?

Yesterday. And since that isn’t an option any more, today, right now, as soon as you finish reading this post.

In last Monday’s USA Today article, “Rising Tuition Forces Spending Cuts,” this quotation caught my attention, “Families are figuring out how to pay for college kind of one year at a time. But we’d like them to be a little smarter about planning and looking at the whole picture.”

Just imagine what it would feel like to have enough scholarship and aid BEFORE you begin college to pay for all four years. With determination diligence, and an early start it is possible. Trust me. I did it (with scholarship $ to spare). How early is too early? There are competitions and essay contests available for middle school aged students. Here are a few to check out:

With outstanding student loans topping $1 trillion dollars last year (yes that’s a T) and tuition increasing on average 15% between 2008 and 2010 at 4 year universities, scholarships are becoming crucial to paying for college for most students. You don’t have to be the top of your class to win scholarships. Many are based on community service, extra-curricular activities, and even physical attributes. For example, there is a scholarship for being left-handed and another for being tall (over 5’ 10” if you’re female and 6’ 2” if you’re male).

Certainly the earlier you start to search for scholarships the more you can apply for. However, if you find yourself reading this as a high school senior or already a college student, it isn’t too late for you!

What is the first step? Go to these websites: Fastweb, Scholarships and Embark and fill out the profiles. You will have to weed through the advertisements and promotional contests to get to the scholarships, but they are there! Be diligent and disciplined and you will find them!

If students can say and write the words pretty and little,

they can say and write the words beautiful and stunning, minuscule and diminutive. Even when they are five. Even when they are two grade levels behind. In fact, especially then.

This sample is of a kindergartener writing about not a big dragon, but a colossal dragon. Colossal is not a word the child knew 15 minutes before she wrote it, but because of the activities she just completed to learn the word: orally practicing the word in isolation and in sentences she created, adding kinesthetic motion to remember what the new word means, and matching images to understand the meaning, in 15 minutes, she was using the word with confidence and a deep understanding of its meaning and sophistication.

Growth and sophistication of students’ vocabularies is not only crucial to impressive writing performance, it is essential to overall academic success, and, I believe, life success.

One of my education heroines, Heidi Hayes Jacobs writes, “Language capacity is the root of all student performance” (Jacobs, 2006).  Language capacity is built by expanding vocabularies. Expanding vocabularies are built by exploring and using sophisticated synonyms.

Zzzzz No More Snooze Writing

When writing is assigned just to check off the requirement, mindful cultivation of skills isn’t fostered. In those instances, students who are strong writers find the task easy and those who haven’t found their voices as writers find even the shortest written response intimidating. In both cases, students are pressing the writing snooze button, sleeping through the opportunity to hone their skills and refine their writing. It is up to teachers to sound the alarm when it comes to the importance of hiqh quality  writing, whether it’s a 3 sentence short answer response, a blog post, or a term paper. It is up to teachers, as instructional leaders, to select specific writing skills to focus on and guide students to explore and incorporate within their writing. Great writing isn’t developed within one class hour one day. Rather, through systematic, designed skill instruction, high quality writing can be cultivated in every student from kindergarten through high school. Writing with Design’s Skill Focus Areas provide teachers the specific skills and activities to wake students up to the possibilities of sophisticated, impressive writing. The alarm is sounding don’t press the snooze.

Writing and thinking change lives. Forever.

Critical thinking and writing are exponentially growing in importance as Common Core Standards upgrade and refine the skill sets students are expected to develop.

Kindergarteners and AP English students will utilize the same skill sets to think, read, speak, and write. The only difference will be the task’s developmental level of complexity.

How has your school vertically aligned skill development not only for school achievement success, but also to give students the thinking and writing skill sets they need to be successful in life?

Indeed, it is an exciting time to be a part of education in this country as the paradigm shifts away from content-driven activities and assessments, to what educators have known for decades matters most: thinking, speaking, listening, and writing.



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