Tag Archives: students

Trust Your “Primary Wisdom”

What role can and should intuition play in a teacher’s decision-making process? Since first hearing the phrase “data-driven instruction,” I feel like the importance and credibility of teacher instincts have been downplayed and denigrated. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that intuition is the “primary wisdom,” and I tend to agree.

I have quite a few years of teaching experience to draw upon, so when my gut tells me something is the right way or the wrong way to proceed, I feel that impulse with a pretty high level of confidence. Most of the time, I’m able to articulate a rationale for why my instincts are good, but I never have much empirical data to go along with that rationale.

So what role does “data” play in my decision-making? Well, how do we define data? If we’re talking about statistical reports based on conflicting research projects, I don’t find that very helpful. Far too often I’ve seen researchers generate conflicting data. Far too many times I’ve seen objective data cherry-picked and used subjectively by leaders who are bent on imposing a specific philosophy or agenda. I can’t count how many times data has been presented to me as gospel when it was generated in very different contexts from my own.

Data based on traditional research models has never been very helpful to me in solving real-world problems. The best data I receive is when I ask students, either individually or as a class, “So, did this work for you? What helped you understand? What seemed frustrating or irrelevant about this activity?” What they tell me is golden. I consider it, sift it with my own perceptions, and almost always end up learning something that I can use next time.

Although I respect the research process, the truth is that most classroom teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to properly frame and conduct a valid research project. We’re sort of busy doing school. Unfortunately, that leaves us with either accepting data that comes to us from other sources—some of them with shady track records—or relying on more subjective, qualitative, anecdotal forms of data to inform our decision making. Even if we had the means to conduct more empirical research projects in our schools, the findings would be most applicable to our own settings and of more limited value anywhere else.

Am I right to trust direct reports from my students and my own instincts over empirical data derived from other contexts and presented to me by people who have obvious–and what I might consider misguided—agendas? If my intuition is unclear, or if the situation is new to me, I’m perfectly willing to consult other sources. I particularly admire Robert Marzano’s work in synthesizing the results of research projects with similar focuses in order to hierarchically organize the most important findings of those projects.

I invite readers here to join me in trusting your instincts and the words of your students. Those sources are not wrong. They’re important “primary wisdom.”

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The Mariner and Me: Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: ‘God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?’

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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What If Students Write for Themselves?

writer“You can write your way out of dark places. I know because I’ve done it.”

My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.

Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.

If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?

In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.

Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.

What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.

Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.

Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?

I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”

Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.

A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.

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“Can We Use I in This?”

47134_floral_i_smA recent writing assignment in my college composition class involved telling about a change experienced or witnessed by each writer. One student told about an interesting situation (too personal to be detailed here), but her language was convoluted and highly formal. I almost felt like reading it required wearing a tux.

I told her, “I can’t find you in here.” She said, “Well, maybe it’s because I took out all the Is.”

“Didn’t you have to flip a lot of these sentences to get the Is and mes out of here?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I didn’t know we could use I in this.”

“Can we use I in this?” is a question I’ve heard many times as students begin to frame a new piece of writing, even writing that is obviously personal in nature, such as a reflection on a book or passage, or a college application essay. The question always baffles me.

Why would it not be OK to use first person pronouns? How can anyone write about his thoughts or experiences while avoiding first person pronouns? Why would anyone want to read something personal by a writer who can’t refer to herself?

When I write, I’m using my words and my ideas. I claim them. So referring to myself, either in passing or at length, requires using some form of I or me, unless I want to resort to the kinds of linguistic contortions and hyper-formality contrived by my well-intentioned student.

When I tell students it’s fine to use I, they don’t trust my permission. They’ve heard too many times that I should not be used in writing. Or at least they think that’s what they’ve heard.

To help me understand how this issue looks from their perspective, I asked my students, “What is your understanding of the rules about using first person pronouns such as I and me?” Here are some responses from high school seniors and college freshmen:

“You can’t have Is in papers that are for classes.”

“One of my teachers said that other people can’t relate to it if you use I.”

“Using ‘I think’ takes away from the power of what I’m saying. If I state my opinions as facts, they are more powerful.”

“It’s not your own thoughts anymore when you have to reword it to avoid I.”

It is true that some teachers forbid the use of first person pronouns. Maybe it’s because many schools and teachers are emphasizing research-based writing and seem to be biased against narrative or other personal types of writing. That narrow approach can strangle the voices of young writers.

I’m sure that most teachers have explained the first person pronoun dilemma correctly: Using first person pronouns is fine in some situations, and using first person pronouns is not fine in other situations. But many students process that as “Too complicated. I can’t risk it; therefore, I will never use first person pronouns.” The result is that many high school and college writers are walking around with the idea that using I in their writing is wrong.

The primary consideration, of course, should be the purpose of the writing. If the purpose of the writing is to be personable, we’re going to have to use some Is. If the purpose of the writing is to be completely objective, then we won’t use first person pronouns. (If the writing is persuasive in nature, I still think it’s OK to use first person pronouns. An opinion’s merit isn’t weakened by presenting it as an opinion.)

Sei_Shonagon_artist_unknownIf we want our writing to be formal, even when talking about ourselves, we should probably use the third person one instead of first person pronouns. Writing in the 10th Century, Japanese ur-essayist Sei Shonagon said, “I have been very shocked to hear important people use the word ‘I’ while conversing in Their Majesties’ presence. Such a breach of etiquette is really distressing, and I fail to see why people cannot avoid it.” Interestingly, in this passage Shonagon uses I, apparently opting for informality and granting something less than magisterial status to her readers.

Let’s look at this from a perspective larger than pronouns. The most important ability we can help develop in young writers is decision-making. A writer takes stock of her situation by considering her purpose, audience, and goals. She then makes decisions about how to best capitalize on the contours of that rhetorical situation. When it comes to writing, good decision-makers will follow the right rules for the right reasons. Otherwise, writers will become stuck in their development at the point where their decision-making is trumped by rule-following.

We should guide student writers to become better decision-makers and not concern ourselves too much with guiding them to be rule-followers.

Thanks for sharing your advice about how you help student writers navigate this issue.

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“Does This Need a Title?”: Helping Students Generate Titles

baby-names-268x300Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”

But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?

I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable to posts on my personal blog just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)

Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)

Examples:
Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems
Lilacs and TwitterArt
Schools, WAR, and Froggy DeMaestri

Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.

As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.

Examples:
The Good Start: Twelve Targets for New Teachers
Today’s PLC Meeting: What Have We Learned?
Writers Week: 17 Years of “The Best Week Ever”
Stephen King: An Appreciation

Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.

Examples:
Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)

Dramatic or Funny Image:
Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.

Examples:
Extenuating Circumstances
The Brave Faces
Catch More Fish

Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!

Examples:
Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals
Brit Lit: Reading, Writing, and Relevance
Trust Teachers

Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
– Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
– Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
– Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.

This is cross-posted, in slightly different form, on What’s Not Wrong?

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When Young Writers Get “Worse”

oopsIn most school subjects, the learning is linear and cumulative: Students learn a concept, and then they build on it. And then we add more complexity. But when it comes to acquiring literacy skills, especially in writing, things work differently. The path is not straight; it’s more like a slanted spiral. This means that sometimes young writers will get worse on the way to getting better.

Let’s consider a young writer we’ll call Ted. Ted isn’t cognitively ready to process thoughts that require much complexity, so he uses mostly simple sentences. He has no personal frame of reference for punctuating more complex sentences. His simple ideas require simple sentences, and simple sentences require simple punctuation. But as Ted’s thinking and ideas become more sophisticated, he needs more complex sentence constructions in his syntactic repertoire. If Ted didn’t grasp those sentence-formation rules when they were presented in class—because he wasn’t developmentally ready for them—his writing is likely to have some sentence-formation problems.

Ted had no sentence-formation errors when his thinking and writing were simple, but now that he’s operating on a higher level, he ironically has sentence-formation errors. Has Ted become a worse writer? If we simply count up his errors, Ted’s tally might look like he’s getting worse when in actuality he’s getting “worse” on the way to getting better. When the complexity of Ted’s ideas syncs up with his understanding of how to correctly form more complex sentences, he’ll be a stronger writer and thinker. And then this recursive process will resume from Ted’s new level of expertise.

The same dynamic is true of young writers with a growing vocabulary. The first time Rachel uses a new word, she might use it wrong, either grammatically or in terms of its context or connotations. After she learns the new word’s contours and correct usage, she’ll probably use it correctly for the rest of her life. But if we take a measure of Rachel’s writing while her acquisition of that word is still forming, we may see a stylistic or syntactic error that is actually the result of new growth. If Rachel’s vocabulary wasn’t growing, she wouldn’t be making that error. Paradoxically, her error is a result of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary.

All of this is a long way of saying we must be very careful with summative assessments of writing. At any given point, each student is developing new abilities; trying new words, phrasings, ideas and constructions; and experimenting with every aspect of writing. Because writing is so multi-faceted, some aspects will be farther along than others, and some may appear to be going backwards as trial-and-error takes place. While some mistakes are simply mistakes, others are missteps resulting from important experimentation that will soon result in helping the writer become more versatile and articulate.

Just as every piece of writing benefits from going through a process, every young writer is also midstream in an on-going developmental process. Learning to write is the most dynamic, recursive academic process a student is likely to experience. Let’s be sure we see “errors” as a healthy, predictable part of that process and not allow stand-alone assessments relying on static measurements to characterize any student’s ability.

Assessing a student writer’s growth with accuracy and validity requires multiple check-points across a long period of time. Any other approach carries a high risk of catching a student in the act of getting worse on the way to getting better.

Thank you for reading this. Your comments are welcome and appreciated!
AlbertEinstein4

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Zapping Apathy with College Application Essays

If you want to see college-bound upper-grade students take a writing assignment seriously, help them with their college application essays! Writing college essays as a class assignment provides an authentic audience, extreme personal relevance, and an opportunity for introspection—in other words, all the makings of a meaningful writing experience. Students appreciate the advice and guidance, not to mention receiving academic credit for something they would otherwise be doing on their own.

Without guidance, many students approach college essays in a collaborative fashion, which isn’t a particularly good idea when they’re trying to set themselves apart from other applicants. They ask their friends, “What are you writing about?” Then the pressures of conformity set in, and they end up writing formulaic, predictable essays that echo themes and even the events discussed in the admission essays of their pals.

Although well-intentioned, parents are also not always the best advisers when it comes to these essays. It’s completely understandable, but parents tend to see these essays as the time to talk about the activities that they have been “sponsoring” since childhood: “I paid for all those years of ballet/riding/skating lessons, and you are going to by golly write about them!” Those activities might be good topics for the college essay, but it’s not automatic.

The first step in teaching college application essays is to focus on the concept of audience. Emphasize to your students that their essays need to be unique. Help them see college admission officers as actual human beings who might be reading their essay as the 49th file of the day, and the last one before lunch. How can they write engagingly with this audience in mind? This video From The College of William and Mary can be useful to help students shift their thinking about who will be reading their essays.

Many students do not feel like their lives have been exciting enough to generate a unique college application essay. Pshaw! One student told me, “My suburban life has been nothing but boring. I was smuggled out of Poland as a baby and nothing exciting has happened since!” Needless to say, she ended up writing a dramatic and important college essay.

I help students zero in on a unique, personal topic by asking them to consider their lives’ most meaningful moments and the broad themes of their lives’ narrative. For the meaningful moments, students can simply draw a line with an arrow on both ends to form a timeline. Then they add the dates and events that they consider formative. Be sure to suggest that some important events may have occurred before they were born. For example, events that affected their parents may have set in motion important influences on individual students. For the broader themes, I suggest playing around with 6-word memoirs. I wrote about that in a previous blog post.

After students have considered their lives from these macro and micro perspectives, it’s a good idea to share some successful models from previous students. Some excellent examples are available in Chapter 11 of Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice (EMC Publishing). If you haven’t already started a collection from your previous classes, be sure to start this year! These models can show students various ways of opening, organizing, and presenting college essays.

As students set off to create their individual, unique, personal college essays, please be sure they have these big ideas in mind:
• Use the essay as the opportunity to spotlight something that isn’t obvious from the other materials in a student’s application file.
• Show instead of tell, especially when writing about emotions. Describe the event and situations, but don’t tell readers how the writer felt. Show details, and the emotional impact will follow.
• Write in a sincere voice—not too understated and definitely not arrogant.
• The essay should reveal how the writer’s heart and mind work.

You may ask students to bring in drafts of their essays for peer review. This is a good idea, but consider asking students to practice thinking about their audience by looking at each other’s drafts through the eyes of a college admissions officer: Based on the essay, do you have a favorable opinion of the candidate? Why or why not? What concerns you about this candidate? Questions like these can then be followed by talking about the details that were most compelling, and any unclear sentences or phrases. As always, the writer should consider this feedback open-mindedly, but each writer has the right to accept or reject any suggestions as they craft subsequent drafts.

Students writing college application essays are frequently concerned about word count. Some colleges request essays of 250, 300, or 500 words. Here’s my advice to students about wrestling with word count: Write it big. Then revise to fit the word count. Students will frequently write a brief draft, check the word count, then add a little more, gradually sneaking up on the word count. This tends to result in weak, tentative writing.

If, on the other hand, a student writes the essay boldly, thoroughly describing everything and showing how his heart and mind works, without too much regard for length, the result is likely to be stronger writing with better verbs and description. Of course, it will be too long, but we can help with that!

Most writers have a hard time discarding words that they have labored to bring into existence. Students are no different. During this past week I’ve said to at least a dozen students, “I’m going to do some surgery here. I’m not making your writing better; I’m making it shorter.” They understand.

When editing student writing for word count, look for repeated ideas, extra adjectives, passages that can be easily lifted without affecting the overall structure or message, and any use of very or really. (I tell students that if they are using very or really, the next word probably needs to be stronger.)

For example, here is Jenny D.’s first draft that came in a little too long:

Out of all my extracurricular activities and clubs, Peer Ministry through my church has given me the greatest sense of fulfillment. I have loved building relationships with the kids by helping them with problems and answering any questions they may have. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will all be worth it.

The decision to become a peer minister myself was not a hard one because I had already gone through the two year program which prepares students to make the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation. I felt by being in religion classes with older peers aiding the class that I was truly able to connect with the material and the rest of my classmates. Part of the reason why I chose to become a teen leader was to help other students get the most out of the class. When the students have questions about the Confirmation ceremony or about the sacrament in general, I am always there to help them as much as I can. I am very glad I have had great opportunities such as this one to show me that helping others is just as important as helping yourself.

By being there for the students and helping them it gave me a sense of accomplishment and was very gratifying. In return though, the students received advice from an experienced peer and felt comfortable talking to someone who could relate to them.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. One boy in my class started attending the class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is truly “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I finally saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class.

I hope that the students get the amazing experience that I did when I went through the program.

Jenny is obviously a good writer and a thoughtful person with relevant experiences. These facts come through pretty well in this draft. But at 514 words, it’s about 40% over the school’s required word count of 300. So we went to work on it, taking out any repetitive material, and focusing on one idea. We left in two specific situations emphasizing Jenny’s main idea that the most rewarding aspect of teaching is helping people. We cut the sentences that told about emotions and focused on the details that revealed those emotions. We made sure the beginning and ending were strong. This final version is exactly 300 words:

I love building relationships with people by helping them with problems and answering their questions. Out of all my extracurricular activities, my church’s peer ministry provides the greatest sense of fulfillment by allowing me to make a difference in the lives of my classes.

One day during school last year a girl from my peer ministry class looked distressed in the hallway, so I approached her and asked what was wrong and if I could do anything to help. She told me her grandmother had passed away unexpectedly and she just needed someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on. Listening to and supporting my student in that moment made our relationship grow. Another student started attending our class simply because his mother made him. He pulled me aside one day and asked me some questions about Christianity. He then told me he used to hate coming to church but he now looks forward to our Sunday night meetings because it’s somewhere he feels is “safe” to express his feelings. At that moment I saw proof that I was accomplishing something with the class. I kept in touch with the kids in my class throughout the summer and now that it has started back up again we are closer than ever.

Seeing the passion in the students’ eyes is so gratifying, and now I understand why teachers enjoy what they do so much. Being there for the students and helping them gives me a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one of their lives, it will be worth it. Serving my community by being a peer minister at my church has been a great form of service for learning, building relationships, and rediscovering what I love so much about teaching.

Helping students with college essays is one of my most gratifying activities of the school year. Students actually care about their writing. They think deeply and well and try their best to express their most important ideas. They see value in feedback, editing, and revision. The “reward” is not a grade but an intrinsically satisfying, powerful piece of writing and—hopefully–college admission.

If you’re working with younger students, plant the idea of college application essays early and often. If a student writes a piece that could morph into a college application essay, write a note saying, “This is a keeper! It could be a college essay in a couple of years!”

Your advice, stories, and input about helping students with college application essays are welcome ! And thanks to Jenny D. for permitting the use of her writing here!

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Our Creative Writing Class

Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!

When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.

Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.

The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.

As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.

The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony, fanfiction.net, Figment.com, or TeenInk.com, a more-elaborate-than-average Tumblr.com post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.

I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.

We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.

So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.

A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.

Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:

1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.

Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.

Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry

English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.

Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.

Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.

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Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals

What do I like best about the daily journals used by my Creative Writing students? Probably the surprises.

Each day I write on the board: “Today’s journal topic,” followed by a prompt that comes to me or that I adapt from other sources. I tend to draw the prompts from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Susan Shaughnessy’s Walking on Alligators, our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice, or from a variety of sites that I find through Googling “high school writing prompts,” “journal prompts,” “writing ideas,” or some other similar search terms.

Each journal prompt also goes on Twitter so that absent students can get the day’s prompt. A happy by-product of the tweets is that quite a few people see them, use them, and chime in with ideas. In the past, I’ve used the hashtag #journal, but that one has become sort of busy and distorted, so this semester I’m using #E307, our school’s code for the Creative Writing course. Feel free to follow along and join in!

When I write the day’s journal prompt on the board, I always add “ … or ? …” The idea is that students can use the prompt or not. I tell them that when it comes to the journal prompts, they are free to explore or ignore. Why should students be tied down to my idea when they might be more compelled to delve into their own ideas? The goal is to explore their own depths and imaginations, so it’s 100% OK with me if they never use my prompts, but at the same time, I don’t want anyone to struggle with “I don’t know what to write about.”

Sometimes it takes a minute or two for the writers to settle in, but then it becomes almost eerily quiet, with pens and pencils scratching across paper and the occasional quick flip of a page the only sounds. The air in the room seems to change as everyone, including me, focuses for ten or twelve minutes on whatever we’re writing about.

After about ten minutes, I say something like, “OK. Can we please bring that in for a landing?” All of the writers find a way to come to a stop within about a minute. This is followed by, “Does anyone have anything you’d like to read today?” On most days, several writers will share something from their journals.

When I check the journals from time to time, I always get surprises. In my most recent class, I was surprised that several students wrote poetry every day. Sometimes the poems were on the day’s suggested topic, sometimes not. I also had a couple of pairs of students who wrote to each other, trading their journals on alternate days. This resulted in some rich back-and-forth on a variety of topics with each response at least a page in length. One student wrote in red every day but never used that color on her other work. Many students wrote about their own writing projects or referenced pieces written by other students.

I’m still in the process of learning from my students’ journals, but so far I’ve learned this:
• No one is brilliant every day, but everyone shows brilliance from time to time.
• Quantity begets quality. As the semester continues, the writing gets stronger as stamina improves.
• Students will write thoughtfully and energetically when they trust the environment and feel like they have something to say. Teachers can provide motivation for both of those elements.

Over the course of this one-semester class, students write at least 75 journal entries, each at least a page in length. They use their journals to reflect, have fun, question, rant, problem-solve, and think deeply. When I read what comes out of their minds and pens, I’m always inspired to be a better, more disciplined writer.

Your thoughts and experiences with using journal in class are welcome here! Thanks.

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Tips for Helping Struggling Writers

Students struggle with writing for many reasons.  Can you offer a tip for dealing with a specific obstacle that has worked for you in helping a struggling student writer?

For example, I had a student who had no conception of what sentence means.  He thought that a sentence was whatever was on one line of a piece of paper.  So, I tried this.  As he wrote, I asked him to make his periods way-big.  Ginormously huge.  My thought was that if he took the time to make a really big period, he would also be using that time to consider why he was putting it there.  I only had this student for one semester, and he showed some progress during that time.

If you use this strategy, please let me know how it works for you.  Thanks.

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The Brave Faces

My heart is with kids who say to themselves:

• I try but I still fail, and I don’t know why.
• If someone in my family doesn’t get a job soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
• I don’t like to read. I know most of the words but they don’t connect.
• My teacher has favorites. I’m not one of them.
• I go to a school with thousands of students and hundreds of grown-ups but no one talks to me.
• My parents check my grades every day and always find something to complain about even when my grades are all good.
• My friends are bad influences but I don’t know what to do about it.
• I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. Am I normal?
• I’d like to go to prom but we can’t afford it.
• My classes don’t teach me anything I need to know.
• I try to be friendly but people act like I’m not there.
• If my parent goes to prison, I’m not sure what will happen to my family.
• I’m angry and afraid I’m going to hurt somebody.
• I don’t have a computer at home so I can’t do certain homework like other kids.
• My teacher doesn’t like me and I don’t know why.
• I’d like to have friends but I don’t know how.
• I don’t understand math the way other kids do.
• Everybody tells me to take advanced classes but they’re so hard that it’s ruining my life.
• I don’t see where I fit in at school.
• When my teacher calls on me I’m afraid to answer in case I’m wrong, so I always say, “I don’t know.”
• I think I’m depressed but I don’t know what to do about it.
• My boyfriend hits me.
• My mom hits me.
• My dad hits me.
• I’m going to graduate but I know I’m not ready for college.
• There are people in my school who scare me.

Those of us who work in schools are surrounded by brave faces suffering in silence. Today’s challenge: Say, “Hello. How are you doing?” We might get an answer; we might not. Either way, a simple exchange like that can do more than the words convey as we let students know they are not alone and not invisible.

We can’t solve all the problems, but we can smile and say, “Hello.”

 

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