The Writing Revolution: Dealing with the bitterness

I spent a lot of time thinking about writing today.  The University of Illinois Writing Project held its fall miniconference.  While I was not presenting, it has been a good time to put new lenses on my writing instruction.

Earlier in the week, I was prompted by a Tweet to think more about what some writing initiatives look like in other schools.  Peg Tyre indicates in “The Writing Revolution” that a school struggling with true literacy — the reading and writing to learn type of literacy — could accomplish big jumps in test scores with a return to some of the basics as well as a building-wide initiative to get students writing across all of their content areas.  But the New Dorp initiative grew into more htan just a return to the traditional worksheet-driven grammar instruction; they grew a way of living literate in their school.

I commend educational leaders who respect the other end of literacy that has been neglected mostly thanks to No Child Left Behind.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative has made it clear that we need a new direction for our priorities.  With a greater emphasis on analytical and argumentative writing, the CCSS serves as an invite to think critically.  But, as Tyre indicates (and does not elaborate on), there are some true speedbumps that some teachers are not ready to make.

What’s missing in the “bitterly divided” school

What I think New Dorp desserves credit for is the process of inquiry that they went through in order to determine their students’ weaknesses.  Process is an important part of a teacher’s life.  With how predictable the bell schedule is, there is actually not much more we can rely on to happen regularly.  So, when New Dorp’s leader, Deirdre DeAngelis, pushed a writing initiative that involved all teachers, I would expect a “bitterly divided” staff at first.  What’s worth examining in division is the triggers where teachers commonly find themselves pulling into camps.

When you want to improve writing, you must recognize the culture that surrounds writing.  (The UIWP conference was well-timed in order for me to refresh some things before responding.  A big thanks to Paul Prior, whose presentation was an inspiration for much of this post.)  There are two values which I will argue 1) were probably part of their process or 2) could become part of their larger picture:

  1. Writing needs a response to improve
  2. Writing is done in contexts

Writing needs a response to improve

Have you been through a department meeting recently where a building-wide writing initiative was discussed?  How about one that is not an English department meeting?  From colleagues outside of English, I have heard these can be quite heated conversations in their own right.  In those conversations, there are a number of different statements re-used. “I’m not going to teach grammar” or “I don’t know how to teach writing” are very common reactions and probably were part of the basis for the New Dorp school feeling “bitterly divided”.  Through sustained professional development, the staff seems to have developed a toolbox for the latter complaint — teaching writing.  But the most common complaint that non-English teachers use to throw all the papers in the air is frustration with poor grammar.

We still have a number of good English teachers and other teachers of writing who are preoccupied with the “error hunts” when they sit down and grade papers. And this kind of response to writing is very troublesome.  You may sit down and make a comment in the first sentence to clarify or describe a phrase used…that is then only elaborated on in the subsequent sentence.  What should the author do with that marking?  Alternatively, you “code” your markup so that when finished with a paper the student has dozens of markings to attend to that will make him/her a better “writer”.  The student’s next steps, then, require a longer first step of first further translating the codes.  Teachers get caught up on this mentality and then have nothing to actually say about the writing — they presume a deficit in writing when they actually should be trying to promote deeper learning through critical response.  Students will never go back and fix all of these things you put so much energy into.  In all reality, you, as a teacher who wants a good author-reader relationship, does not want to be known for drilling the blood red out of their paper constantly.

What I see in the New Dorp story is a clear and focused effort on getting better responses to and from students before they sit down to write.  The teachers are creating a culture of writing.  There is goal-driven process to all of their conversations (and remember, conversation is a two-way path).  By creating a culture that uses the grammatical structures in discussion, New Dorp has built in the steps to drive students to more critical thinking — they have matched response to their goals instead of distancing it through excessive markings.  The meaning they put behind these grammatical/rhetorical structures is empowering to students because students know now that they have the capacity to explain their complex thought.  Shouldn’t that be the same way we mark up their papers?  Clear, selective and focused?

In the process of writing, there is a time and place for editing response, but it should not fall on the final draft.  Every teacher needs to remember that editing should be treated as an entirely different draft than the one that students will use to revise (that is, re-approach the thinking, planning or research they put into their explanations, arguments or narratives).  There are some practical things that teachers can do to ease up the struggle of the editing phase.  Many involve setting boundaries like only marking the first ten errors.  Students could set goals for or label their grammar after reviewing their mechanics.  My favorite (which I still have to try myself) involves picking at random a “G page” that you mark with a big G and then that is the only page you will use to evaluate mechanics.

When I see that New Dorp went through periods of bitterness, it was perhaps because of the implications that teachers will have more work to do.  But, they should be selective about it.  As Paul Prior puts it, don’t live in A.W.E. — assign, write, evaluate.  That is the trap that leads you to want to grade everything all at once.  Instead, take the time to go through the entire process and take steps to purposefully target areas of improvement.

Writing is done in contexts

Struggling school?  Transient student body?  Unsupportive parent bodies?  Concerted efforts on skills and curriculum are nothing without an equivalent balance on the culture that promotes and makes students proud of them.  You have to build positive culture into your classroom because its the only thing that will save you from submitted to deficit thinking yourself.

This semester, I have tried to focus on the culture of writing I give off in my classroom.  After each quarter, I will be getting a temperature gauge of where my students think I am at in establishing this culture.  (I am also expanding this survey to act as a data collection tool for my student portfolios… gotta collect that SMART data somehow!)  I try to reinforce this culture through tags or comments that I have students put on their writing before submitting it as a rough draft.  This type of annotation taps into their meta-cognitive skills and also starts the conversation for me, enabling them to feel empowered.

But where does the power begin in a school?  The final session by a fellow UIWP fellow got me thinking about the satellite view of any school’s culture, including my own.  (Social justice is about to peek its head out beyond more than just my leadership theory classes now.)  This presenter raised questions about which cultures have what capital and how we might tap into those in order to generate responses that reach students.  By bringing in some of students’ capitals — aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, resistant, etc — we might be able to bridge our instruction into the contexts that students see them in their lives.  This kind of cultural sensitivity could be the essential next step that New Dorp needs to embody for for any type of writing response, regardless of what type — argumentative, explanatory or narrative.

Which conversation is worth having?

Moving beyond what seems to be the easiest bitterness frees up a lot of energy to really consider the bigger-picture ideas.  Call those people hippes as much as you want, but I call them (as the National Writing Project does) teacher-writers.  Once we get beyond some of the trivial, there is so much that writing can do to help connect students with the world.  (Is that not the purpose of writing anyway?)  Only when we have the time to step back, see something working and ask the next question are we, too, modeling the critical thinking that CCSS and many other education reforms are now asking of our students.  So, what’s your response?

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