I Love to Teach

There is something maddening about leaving a classroom and realizing that your objective was not exactly met.  Yes, it was close, and there were several bright lights lit within the room, but equally as many blew out the candle out of either frustration, confusion, or failure to see the relevance.

What I love about teaching, and education in general, is our ability to come out swinging the following day.  We can do better by our students through a bit of analysis and inspection.

Over the last week, I’ve been working with groups of teachers from Camden Tech in Camden County, New Jersey on student writing.  Here’s the workshop description:

Progressive and innovative educators everywhere have long pushed for a re-emergence of critical thinking skills within student work, and in our era of standardized testing whereby we tend to place an emphasis on being either right or wrong, our students sorely need to be able to break out of those boxes (or bubbles).  The constant cry of employers in the 21st Century has been for thinkers and communicators–they want those who can think their way through complex problems.  Are we helping our students to do that?  Of all the advantages technology has availed us of in the past few years, has it truly led us closer to understanding how students think when they write?  In this session, we will talk about how simple, free tools can lead us to a greater understanding of what our students are thinking when they write, and give us another tool to use when we conference with our student writers.

My original intent was to help them see how to use the revision history within Google Docs and things like PiratePad to show how you can follow the way in which students wrote the paper.  By clicking on the “Next” button in the revision history, you can track through a student paper.  This idea, gleaned from conversations with Drs. Miller and Hammond from Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University, lets you see whether students are writing from 0-500 words in a straight shot, or if there is some recursion going on.  Plus, when feedback is given in the form of comments, are students responding to it in a positive way.

However, after a conversation with Zac Chase while he was awaiting his last dinner in South Africa, he got me thinking about something altogether different through a series of questions he dropped into my planning document.  After taking a look at my description above, he asked me:

  • Ask about the writing they do in their daily lives (digital and not). Why do they do it? Where do you they do it?
  • What’s the point of asking learners to write? What’s the endgame? Is there one? Should there be?
  • Why do we give feedback?

Side note: I still think that skyping someone into your world from another continent ranks as one of the coolest things you can do.  Granted, Zac lives in Philly, but physically he was in South Africa.  Just saying.

So from that description I originally came up with, and taking into consideration Zac’s questions, I decided that the learners in this workshop would need to be driving the bus.  Zac and I talked about how his students needed to trust him before they would write for him in any meaningful capacity.   Think about it, would you go out on a limb and write with your best voice for someone you had no faith in?  Especially young writers struggling to figure out their writing voices.  Will they take compositional risks for adults they don’t think can handle it?

Working off of that logic, how can we expect students to write well in standardized situations, especially if we value voice and audience?

Zac’s push led me to these questions that I posed to all participants in both sessions:

  • How can we both develop student confidence as writers and give them timely and effective feedback?
  • What formats are the most fitting for student writing styles?
  • Which technologies fit well into my idea/purpose behind getting students to write?

Here is the slidedeck I used:

And here is the site I built to house the activities and resources I pulled from.

Friday, I met with a group of 26 teachers, Monday, 16.  I walked away from Friday’s sessions thinking to myself that I had about a 50/50 split, and the survey’s revealed as much.  I looked closely at the comments and realized that the order of the workshop could be changed.  Instead of spending the bulk of the time on authentic writing, which the Friday group really go into quickly and produced writing quickly, I altered the focus to spend time on creating environments where they could play with the feedback aspect of Google Docs.

Result?  Much better feedback and a smoother running workshop. My only wish is that I could have the Friday group back again.

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