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:
- Writing needs a response to improve
- 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?
The other night, I heard a rumor that a school in the county may have lost its demonstration-site status for a program they were very proud of. To me, that's devastating news. Currently, I work in a school that is a New Tech Network Demonstration Site school, which means we get visitors. We received this honor because of our full-scale implementation of project-based learning, our 1:1 deployment of laptops for each student; and our continued dedication to a culture built around collaboration, trust, respect and responsibility. In a city that was very hard hit by the pull-out of manufacturing, this is saying something.
At the beginning of the year, we tell our students that they are in a special place. We go over the pillars that really ground us -- trust, respect, responsibility. We go over protocols on how to address visitors. We talk about outside parties coming in to evaluate their projects or presentations. And, well, they don't believe us at first. We tell these things to kids who, for the most part, would jump at any opportunity to get out of their home city and think poorly of their school. And then, through the presence of interested outsiders, we show them they have a ticket to a second chance that is so unique.
Last week, a contingent of some University of Illinois faculty and staff came to tour our school and see what we were all about. These days are usually my proudest days. And, I was certainly impressed with how my students engaged adults. My student ambassadors were fearless in walking up to these distinguished academians, extending a hand and inviting them to join their collaborative groups. (Little did my students know that they were engaging with some of my own teachers/mentors.) There is a power in having students talk about their work, their directions and "the difference" that a school like ours makes for them. As teachers, we can sell anything we want, up, down, sideways, with a song, with a dance, etc., but we are still seen as, well, teachers. To have an outsider come in and really say, "Wow, you're doing that?" with awe and interest to a student is tremendously powerful. What's fascinating to me is that talking to another adult brings out such a pride in my students. These interactions renew our culture and prove to our students that what they are doing is important and unique. I look forward to returning to that energy when we watch, as a class, the video reflections our tour guests were asked to record for us.
Of course, the students are not the only ones held up for examination (and I'm sounding way too scientific with that word choice). Our staff also participates in a panel that answers questions about the program and about our experiences. But after watching (with a proud smile) how much my kids want to show off to complete strangers, it never fails that the teachers, too, get a pat on the back for what we have done at our school. Last week, compliments were abound, and credit is due to collaborative efforts on all levels of our school.
Having outside visitors brings a whole new level of respect to your school. Teachers get too caught up in the fears of another adult; I embrace them. The horror stories about "helicopter" parents or distrustful administrators to me are buried. No other staff event for me has ever renewed my energy like a good site tour has.
If you are a school with something to share; do it. As I study more in my educational leadership program, I keep reminding myself of the power of the community that shares your common vision and mission. While I am sure the preparation work sometimes does not seem worth it, just the one day with a handful of visitors will prove to be the best payoff.
This morning, I woke to the a Google Alert on my name to find that I had been mentioned in a recent post by author Vicki Spandel on one of her blogs. I have written about some of Spandel's work and also used it as a basis for my argument in my New Tech Network Annual Conference (NTAC) Ignite talk on how to avoid FRACKing around with writing. (For even more FRACKing stuff, check out the page dedicated to the talk, complete with downloadables, etc..)
A fellow NTAC Ignite-er, Theresa Shafer, put together a very moving piece that I have used in my class and referenced at least once a week not that captures my fascination with this cross-country connection. In "Bridges and Fences" Shafer asks our NTAC audience whether we will build bridges to new experiences or to new people or whether we will box our minds and our hearts in. I am happy to say that this is one case where my bridge just made the world a bit smaller. Little did I realize this past summer how a response to a book would turn into a blog post... and then turn into a University of Illinois Writing Project (UIWP) teaching demo... and then into an Ignite talk... and then turn into a bridge to the expert author-consultants visiting throughout the year to help our high school develop better writing instruction practices across the contents. There's the power of blogging and social media for you.
Hopefully, this could develop into a lasting relationship that benefits my students. As a teacher on-the-ground, I'm constantly trying to translate the theory into better practice. Further curiosity in Spandel's Nine Rights of Every Writer turned into a SMART goal this year related to the culture of writing that I intend to build in my classroom. I'll be examining the first round of data from a Nine Rights / Culture of Student Writers survey I administered via Google Forms. It's not easy to teach culture per se, but perhaps knowing my students' thoughts will give me fuel for my continued pursuit of getting them to see themselves as writers, not just students completing another drone task. And now that I have the bridge over which to asks questions and dive deeper into reflection, my path will not be unguided.
Writing Our Communities: Local Learning And Public Culture works as a great handbook for brainstorming ideas for projects that engage students in the study of your local community. Formatted mostly as a series of unit plans, the book is a quick read. Each chapter is written by a teacher from a different school.
I see great value in this book as a product of a curriculum development project between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Writing Project. This book, without making any arguments, promotes learning in the field, whether that be with field trips, etc or by bringing artifacts in for further reflection. Research on culture of a community engages students as citizens and also helps prompt discussion as to what community means even inside the walls of a classroom. Active engagement with the community creates a sense of citizenship by showing that everything belongs in a place and with an appreciation. And these are values that we expect within our own classroom communities -- creating senses of belonging and appreciation are what can be used to show better respect for the dialogue about tough topics later in the curriculum or for the resources in the classroom.
My biggest take-away for the book, will be two units presented by elementary school teachers. The “Making the Classroom Our Place” unit by Leslie M. Walker, uses a children’s book, My Place by Nadia Wheatley, as a mentor text in order to show how you can go about documenting what makes a community. Her students then construct their own meaning by creating a classroom bulletin board for artifacts they write about. I look forward to adapting this activity and even the text as a wholesome activity that I can facilitate in the first few days of my own class. “Giving Students a Penny for Their Thoughts” by Oreather J. Bostick-Morgan presents to readers a great idea for an entry event -- handing out pennies to students and then asking students to conduct interviews with family, neighbors, etc on what was happening that year. This activity sounds like a great way for students to engage in a low-stakes field research activity, and one that can be used to build an appreciation for history or use as early scaffolding for later research on controversial issues.
My main critique of the book, however, is that it could use formatting or labels to incite more inquiry from the reader. The theme labels used by the editors coincide with how culture/community forms -- reclaiming displaced heritages; educating for citizenship; cultivating homelands; building cities; shifting landscapes, converging peoples -- would have deeper meaning if driving/essential questions were written for them as well, showing how the teacher went about presenting those themes to students. There is a good sampling of unit ideas that can be applied in urban, rural or suburban communities, so don’t be afraid that it will not apply to your part of the U.S. (thought all projects actually took place in Georgia). Also, documentary research or journalistic style are themes of the book while not being overtly discussed. A chapter spent on of how to scaffold students’ field research would certainly help initiate the reader into brainstorming his/her ideas while reading the afterword.
I recommend the book to any teacher looking to build more relevance into their social studies curriculum or any language arts teacher looking for ways to engage students in literacy tasks that involve their community. The book lists many great ways to make learning more authentic through constructivism. Check out the NCTE website for a preview of the first chapter if interested in finding out more.
This morning marks the first day of my experience in the University of Illinois Writing Project and probably of a new vision for writing instruction in my career. We opened with an activity where we drew out a visualization of a recent writing process that we experienced on a sheet of transparency "paper". My collage more or less tracked the process of writing responses to application questions -- writing that, for me, became associated with the emotional roller coaster that is job searching the past couple years. I don't remember a time that writing hit an all-time-low for me in my life. Sad, I thought, that this was really the memory of one of the last big pieces of writing that I wrote, revised, revised again and then finally submitted. But, while this blog stands as the depository for many of my reflective thoughts over the course my career, it is not a work that I am measured by. I've been proud of posts I've had here, etc, but I am still apparently healing from some of the trauma of trying so hard to put best foot first (so the saying goes) and being blind to how, where or when my career would start to bloom. These application responses betrayed much of of the enjoyment of my high school or college writing and soured the writing process that led me to become a teacher in the first place.
After presenting the visualizations, our discussions revolved around the common themes of our interpretations of the writing process. Indeed, we all saw how emotionally-charged the writing experience can be. With so many stages and so much thought, writing is quite an investment. Many of us agreed that, over the years, writing has also become so much more social. Of course, no discussion in a room full of teachers would not be complete without our sidebars of what's missing in curriculum, textbooks and even students' perceptions of this so necessary skill in our 21st century world.
What's been most impressive so far has been that many of our discussions come back to very personal experiences by either us as writers or our students as writers. You know you're in a writing-friendly environment when your discussion comes back to a call by many of us to re-ignite the joy in writing. [Insert graphics of fellow nodding heads...] Joy, as a single word, seemed to captivate us and encapsulate so much of what probably drew me and my colleagues here to the UIWP. Joy can communicate how we feel as teachers when valuable one-one-one feedback meetings result in growth in future student writing. Or joy can communicate that sense of adventure when a short story takes a turn the writer didn't see coming. Or, or joy can communicate that student work, that, thought it doesn't directly address a prompt, would tug at any reader's heart, whether it be for its deep personal connections or for its growth into a whole new meaning to the assignment itself. Or, or, or joy can communicate that final act of submission or making the deadline. Or, or, or, or...
As an adult, I do have a lot more power than some of my students to reflect and take control of my thoughts. So, I'm glad that I can and have now re-oriented my feelings toward writing back to where they should be -- in the joy. But, as I move into the future of my career, I need to stay focused on the joy of writing (and really of learning in general) being my central driving force. Otherwise, what's left in the quality of my work?
I'm obviously in the midst of some very passionate teachers, many of whom are not English teachers by focus. No doubt, then, that we will have a strong culture from which to expand our knowledge, improve our craft and ultimately deepen literacy for our school communities.
Well, I can't say I didn't see this coming. In fact, as you look around at your own situation, consider whether politics in our region or country will be able to overcome its deeply entrenched political lines to overcome our (growing?) adversity and jump back on top. I can not believe some of the institutionalized issues we have in education, not to even mention the attitude that so many students bring toward what they "deserve"...
There are some fundamental questions we need to ask ourselves with a report like this:
- Do we have the resources to overcome our problems?
- Do we, as a country (citizens included) have the right attitude?
- Can we sacrifice to overcome? Will people let themselves sacrifice anymore?
- Can we unify again?
- What is the role of our politicians?
- Have we seen "change we can believe in"? Or can that even exist?
- Can we eliminate our cultural dependence on debt?
- And with China growing on us, are we too "free"? What does that word really mean in a global mindset? And how has our image of what American freedom been translated into something new, globally?
- What will happen when our shows of force / global policing are financed by these other countries? Will we still be seen as the wizened leaders?
- Did 9/11 destabilize us enough under poor leadership to really have led us to decline? (perhaps the scariest...)
And these are only my most immediate questions...
If there is any 'bright side' to this evaluation, at least I already have my passport ready and I would look forward to visiting (for any length of time) most of the top ten.