Opening the Floodgates

We are reading Readicide as a department this year, which is something I’ve wanted to do now for two years, ever since Bill Ferriter announced that he was profiling the book on his site and interviewing the author, Kelly Gallagher via Voicethread.

Today was the first meeting of one of the groups within the department, a group of middle school language arts teachers.  We met to discuss the first two chapters of the book, which, if you haven’t read it, delve into the definition of Readicide and the statistics he examined to coin the term.

Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Gallagher also talked about something I’ve noticed since I have been in elementary buildings and secondary buildings: a gradual decline in curiosity.  Gallagher called it enthusiasm for reading, but today one of the group really summed it up by saying that by the time these students reach the upper grades in a middle school, much of their natural curiosity has been mined from them.  They don’t necessarily hate reading, but they don’t see any purpose behind it if it doesn’t either serve to get them a grade, or is required for something within their class.

My question in response to everything said today was a variation on the protocol What-SoWhat-NowWhat in that I wondered aloud that if we take what we say about our students and their inherent lack of curiosity, or their lack of attention span, or their penchant for reaching for SparkNotes when confronted with an outside reading novel, than what now?  Do we look the parents of these students in the eyes and say, “Well, what we’ve done in the past just isn’t working well here, so, I’ll just keep doing it.”

No.  And that is why I think Gallagher’s book really has legs.  We are only in chapter 2 and we are already seeing glimpses of what he prescribes as the cures to readicide, and what he is offering so far sound less like individual classroom fixes, and more like a school-wide committment to textual immersion.

Which I dig.

More to come as we get deeper into the discussions.

Image Credit: “Overwhelmed,” from Kozumel’s Photostream.
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I Think, Therefore I Write.

Today I spent the afternoon in the company of Dr. Richard Miller and Dr. Paul Hammond from Rutgers University.  I had asked Dr. Miller to come speak to our English Department regarding the shifts they saw in writing, composing, and learning.

In my conversations leading up to today with Dr. Miller, I found out that the Expository Writing Class at Rutgers is a course that nearly 85% of all Freshman take, with only those testing out via AP exams the exceptions.  Miller and Hammond have a unique advantage in that the changes they make to that class are ones that could have a profound effect on the quality of the writing experience that the students have in their undergraduate years.

I am really into the styles people use when they present after witnessing the excellence of the speakers at TEDxNYED, so I paid close attention when the two of them started today.  Miller used the backdrop of the Geocentric View of the Universe to introduce the idea of saving appearances; when the data coming in to astronomers was no longer fitting a clean model of the Earth as center of the universe, the scientists simply changed the models to fit the data, thereby increasing the complexity of the Geocentric system.  They had no choice–there was no way to save the appearance of the system without completely blowing it up.  When Copernicus’ Heliocentric model of the universe arrived, it was a paradigm shift entirely: new model, new ideas, new M.O.

Miller compared this to what is happening now.  We are seeing industries that have long been immune to changes in market or information flow completely decimated by what is occurring now.

Newspapers.  Automakers.  Education.

Our systems are not set up to handle the types of thinking and information flow that are occurring or will occur shortly.  Not our physical structures, not our time structures, not our curricular or assessment structures.

The ground beneath our feet is shifting and we are clinging to the idea that we must save the appearance of credibility.  It’s flawed thinking to believe that we can design school buildings, curriculum, school schedules, and syllabi in a manner that is best described by saying “it was good enough for us, why shouldn’t it be good enough for them.”

A few years back, Hammond and Miller set out to rethink they types of writing that were focused on during the Expository Writing class at Rutgers.  Their goal: “get behind the writing.”  Taking the philosophy that we’ve also latched onto here of writing as thinking, the two decided there needed to be more focus on getting students to think deeply and do so in an active capacity through writing.  How do you do that?

It was at this point in the presentation that Hammond and Miller broke out four case studies of student writing and peer editing via Google Docs.  In a move that I am truly going to steal for any one of my future presentations, they used the revision slider in Google Docs to illustrate how students built drafts, and how their editing partners added comments.  Essentially, they were showing the progression of thinking in the students’ writing.  One student plainly just wrote straight through to the end of the draft (until, as Hammond stated, he hit the number of words he needed) without any recursion to earlier points of writing.  Others, he noted, without prompting from peer editors, continually made edits as they wrote, jumping from later parts of the writing back to earlier parts.  Each case study brought forth a clearer picture of what goes on in the minds of young writers today.  We are no longer holding on to the idealized image of the solitary writer plucking ideas from his own imagination solely towards a much more social and conversational form of writing as thinking.

We can use the technology we have to get behind the writing to see the thinking that constructs it.  (at this point, the slide rotated from a screenshot of a completed Google Doc to a an image of it’s negative, thereby revealing that we were literally and figuratively, behind the writing–a truly great effect)

There’s more to come from this presentation, as I haven’t even touched on the conversation that ensued when one of our teachers asked about the relevance of the 5-paragraph essay in the college environment, but the length of this post is rapidly becoming offensive.  Soon to follow…

Writing and the Relevance of High School

In an effort to continue to bridge the gap between how we are preparing our students for future studies and the world beyond, on April 13th our high school will be hosting Dr. Richard Miller, Professor of English and the Director of the Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University.  Dr. Miller is the author of As if Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education (1998) and Writing at the End of the World (2005). His articles have appeared in the journals College English, CCC: College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Advanced Composition, WPA: Writing Program Administration Journal, and Pedagogy, as well as in the collections Composition Studies in the 21st Century: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, Teaching/Writing in the Late Age of Print, and Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together. He is also the co-editor, with Kurt Spellmeyer, of The New Humanities Reader (2nd edition, 2006) and co-author of the web site newhum.com.

Several of his presentations have been recorded and viewed by thousands via YouTube, including This is How We Dream (Parts I and II) which were made at the National Conference of the MLA, The Future Is Now (made to the Rutgers University Board of Governors), and The Spirit of the New Humanities.

We will be inviting other colleagues from our district, and Dr. Miller will feature several of his current undergraduate students in his discussion.  We will be live streaming the event via this Ustream Channel, and tweeting the link out to as many as are interested.  More information will follow in the coming days regarding some of your preferences in what he will discuss.  We are very excited for the discussions that will follow this.  Please Join us!