Writing is Way Different Now.

There are about four tabs open in my browser right now that have to either with reading, being well-read, or books in some form, and each of them deserves it’s own space here. However, this just landed on my radar:

And now all of them seem a bit funny. When I think about writing now, I must think about the total package that comes with it. When I think about the writing my children will do (ages 6, 4, and 8mos) I can’t even begin to think of what they will create and how they will create it.

I’m floored. And I love it.

Insert Transformative Practices Here.

Consider this a fact-finding mission.

Here’s some context:  I am new to the district I work in, meaning I just started here in July.  I was hired to come in and supervise three departments, three departments that had not been supervised (in the traditional sense–whatever that is–) before.  Curriculum had been looked at, but a group effort to make it flow from K-12 hadn’t been attempted.

In New Jersey, schools are grouped according to something called a District Factor Group, which is a value consisting of wealth components and educational levels of the residents taken from the most recent census data.  The group we belong to is very close to the highest (on and scale that rates them A-J with A being the lowest, we are an “I”).  The top two socio-economic levels usually comprise most of the top performing schools within the state.  Withing that group, we rank near the bottom in most of the measurables society uses to gauge us.

Are the two items related?  I’m sure there is something to the fact that there hasn’t been an earnest evaluation of what we do in quite a while, and going through such a process is often painful the first time, but it must be done.

I’ve talked to the teachers, specifically in the English Department at the high school, and outlined a plan to change the sequence of the courses offered.  None of them liked it, and, in fact, most were opposed.  That plan is now being debated in public.  It’s equal parts structural/course sequence change and curriculum change.

But what I am finding I really need is more input.  Input from the teachers and students.  Input from the network out here.  How do re-arrange situations in which students don’t view their learning in certain “levels” with any seriousness?

I need models.  I need ways to help kids who don’t like to read and engage in “literary things” find value and meaning in what they do in their academic classes.  I need ways to make it come alive for them.

I also need ways to do this so that teaching these kids in this new way does not drive my teachers insane.

There are models I’ve looked at that I love.  I’ve read Readicide and am mining that for ideas and inspiration.  What else should I read?  Who else should I talk to?  What are you doing that is making this type of difference?

Can We Handle the “Truth?”

Yesterday, Grant Wiggins took a good sized whack at a hornet’s nest(Be sure to read all of the comments, too).  He boldly stated that fiction should be removed from ELA curricula:

No, I am not kidding. I think it is absurd that the bulk of reading making up the ELA curriculum involves fiction. There are few good reasons for retaining so much literature and many good reasons for dumping most of it. Plato famously banned poetry from The Republic. And who is the author of the above quote who agrees with me? None other than Thomas Jefferson.

The responses appeared across various networks faster than you can say Huck Finn.

I give Grant credit for raising the point in such a way.  If you’ve been in English departments in America over the last few years, the topic of including more non-fiction is one that we’ve been discussing at length.  Additionally, there have been myriad studies that show how we’ve created a void for male readers through our adherence to certain titles within the canon.  However, there is something that bears mentioning when we talk about the types of books we read in schools.

The person working with the students.

I work with a group of English teachers now who I know get students, both male and female, into the literature they read.  Could we do better at providing choice to them and providing access to texts that would suit them more perfectly?  Absolutely.  But recently, we asked our students what they thought about their English classes and an overwhelming majority came back to say that they really enjoyed the novels because of the teachers.  And, to further counter Grant’s point, 56% of our respondents were male.

Mary Beth Hertz wrote about this last night, in what I thought was a clear counter-argument that contained both an appeal to our emotions–because let’s face it, great fiction should create empathy within us– and a sober look at some of the things we can do to make our ELA classes more accessible to those we feel are disaffected by the canon.  She also pointed to Nick Provenzano’s post that looked at the yearly reflections on his curriculum:

The one thing that is really tough about being an English teacher is that ever year, the curriculum gets old. As it gets older, the students are slightly removed from it. In the curriculum for my district, the “newest” piece is Death of a Salesman. That is now over 50 years old. I think Death of a Salesman is still relevant to students today and the Dustin Hoffman movie is a great performance of the work. I still love teaching The Crucible and the kids cannot get enough of Holden and The Catcher in the Rye… It’s Twain and those crazy Romanticists and Transcendentalists that are losing the power they once had on students. Many kids cannot see the connection of Huck coming of age and Thoreau writing that people should be who they are no matter what others think. What next?

What Nick points to is clearly something, from my conversations with English teachers over the last few years, that is on the mind of those in the classrooms.  Can I still use the tried and true novels we’ve used and help students make connections between themselves and the characters?  Can they access these?  What I liked about Nick’s post is that he details some of the changes he’s made in his curriculum by including a class on the Graphic Novel, or Pictorial Literature, and other elements like pulling in new material to teach things like satire.

Strangely, though, as I conclude this and think about the words I just read and wrote about Nick’s practices, it goes back to the initial point: it’s the person working with the students that makes all of the difference.

Audience Trumps Structure Every Time

Last week, in my reading of Kate Glass’ article at ASCD Express “ReThinking Five Paragraphs,” I related to much of what Kate portrayed in her writing.  The staid structure of writing that we’ve all been exposed to as students, and perhaps perpetuated as teachers needs some close scrutiny.  When, other than on standardized tests, do we read arguments that wrap up neatly in five formulaic paragraphs?  This is, as Dan Meyer put it in his 2010 TEDxNYED talk, akin to an impatience with irresolution.  And Glass notes that:

Freedom can be a little scary. Kids sometimes even panic when they are told they can decide how many paragraphs their essay needs. It can be shocking for them to find out that, yes, sometimes a paragraph has only three sentences.

Without a doubt, writing in an unstructured form is scary for students struggling to discover their voices as writers, but it’s precisely what will make them better when coupled with guidance, coaching and support from a patient teacher.  However, by continuing to force a good percentage of student writing into that frame, we are working to stagnate their development as writers more than we are to foster it.

Glass further points that even after wrestling for years with the historical background of the format

I never missed an opportunity to remind my students that the structure was actually derived from Aristotelian principles of logic. Who better than Aristotle to endorse your lesson plan?

she came to the conclusion that teaching that format as default was doing more harm than good:

I finally came to the conclusion that the five-paragraph essay just no longer serves kids in the 21st century.


…not only were my students complaining that they found the structure too constraining, but so were the very college professors I’d be turning them over to when they graduated.

which is exactly what we found when we spoke to college professors who teach primarily freshman in the traditional freshman comp at universities.  The format has constricted our students abilities to see writing as thinking, because thinking doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into five boxes.  What they expect is that students can have original thoughts that have value; what they find they get are canned responses.

In workshops with teachers this summer, I used the work of Andrea Lunsford and the Stanford Study of Writing (Clive Thompson hits it better here though) to show that all hope is not lost for this generation of students.  One thing that Glass pointed to as paramount to her teaching and the teachers of writing everywhere was the ability to write for audience:

Of course, I still have to train my kids how to use the five-paragraph essays for standardized tests, but now more than ever, in this world of Facebook and Twitter, our students need to learn the crucial notion of audience.

Lunsford used a Greek word, kairos, to describe what she found in her study as the students’ ability to detect audience and adjust their writing accordingly.  I wonder where audience comes in when we talk about the idea of changing the definition of literacy in today’s day and age.  Regardless, it has to factor as prominent, and if we accept that, to whom are our five-paragraph essays aimed at?  What audience demands those other than the standardized test?

Something Practical

David Wees tipped me off to something interesting two weeks ago and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since.

When I was a kid, I read this book whose title I have forgotten, about a football team on the verge of going to the playoffs.  It was a choose-your-own-adventure-story and, well, I read the thing at least twenty different times until I made it to the Super Bowl.  Needless to say, I was intrigued by David’s tweet due to some nostalgic longing for that football book, but also for some other reasons that my more mature, adult “teachery” side found worthy of investigation.

When you walk into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum you are given a small card that looks like this one.  Inside of it is a story that will be told throughout your visit to the museum.

David’s idea pushed me to think of this as a writing exercise for students of the Holocaust, a topic usually covered either via a reading of Night, or by a run through on their way to V-E Day in their US History II class.  Take these cards or create your own characters and run with it.  Create a story that forces readers to make choices, choices backed up by historical evidence and write the outcomes that many faced, and do it using a simple form to create and track the choices that your readers make.

What else can we do with these type stories?  I was thinking of capitalizing on some of our students interest in FanFiction and allowing them to create stories in this format based upon popular novels, or asking students to create a choose-your-own-adventure for a classic like TKAM.  What would have happened if…

I’d love to hear from others out there who are using tools in a capacity that they were not necessarily meant for, but are giving their students some outstanding opportunities.

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.

The New Old School

Much research has been done on my part recently regarding how I work well.  Note, that is not how I work, but how I work WELL.  As much as I am fond, perhaps overly, of using digital resources for the scheduling, planning, mapping, sorting, sifting, and creating in my daily life, there is a threshold that I think I have reached in regards to what my limitations are with computing.  There are some things that pen and paper are just plain better for when it comes to my thinking.  Moving into this new space is going to require me to have some hard-copy places for my ideas and notes.  And, we don’t have universal wireless access where I am going yet–that presents a little snag.

When I was a freshman in college, I had these high school habits that were really hard to kick.  Transcribing every word the professor said into my three-subject, spiral-bound, loose-leaf notebook, retyping rewriting those notes the night before an exam, and absolutely tanking on any type of exam that wasn’t based on factual recall.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, two things had changed.  First, I recognized that my talents did not lay in the field of medicine, veterinary or human, and therefore this pre-med charade I was running had to end.  No two-legged or four-legged creature was going to be better off with the guy who couldn’t even make it to organic chemistry, let alone pass it, as their physician.  Second, the way I was handling information was all backwards.  In short, it was confining.  Now, by no means was I ever a doodler, but I also had very little business trying to fit my thoughts between lines in a notebook either.  I understood then that I excelled at making connections, and having information in several different “buckets” was inefficient, and even detrimental to how I learned.

So to begin that year, I hooked up with some of my artist friends and asked them where they got their sketchbooks–those hard-bound, non-lined, beauties with no lines to speak of–and sought out one, and only one for the semester.  I was no longer going to take notes in five different places.  If I was in Medieval British and Irish History or English and Textual Studies 201, I was using that sketchbook. I also marched over to my home college and changed my majors to history and anthropology.  That helped things immeasurably.

The data proved me correct on all fronts.  My GPA skyrocketed out of the gulley chemistry had sandbagged it into, and the connections I was able to pull were amazing.  Being unbound from linear notetaking and catapulted into the ability to annotate with images (some self-drawn and some inserted from “photocopies”) transformed me as a learner.

What kicked this post off was the fact that while waiting for Aunt Kay’s 90th birthday party invitations to print off at Staples the other day I meandered into the ever-shrinking art supply section only to find a Bienfang sketchbook that brought me way back.  So I snagged it, and appropriately named it after that first one I had back in 1994:

It’s acid-free, man, so my stuff will be around for ages.  Dig that.

“…as a man coming over the top of a hill singing.”

I’ve spent the last two days in workshops with teachers working with terms like instructional reading level, indepenendent reading level, running record, Six Traits, and guided reading.  We’ve spoken about the research behind why children struggle to read, why they succeed, and what characteristics great readers and writers have.

I’m spent.  The fact that I am writing now is a complete shock to me.

But I read something at the end of the day today that I didn’t mean to read.  I opened up Google Reader accidentally while trying to open another link, and the first item in my queue was William Zinsser’s weekly Friday colunm at the American Scholar, a piece title “Joyful Noise.”  Zinsser writes about the act of writing and its affect on us as writers, which I truly appreciate, because on the rare occasion that I am happy about thoughts I’ve put down here, I’ll fancy myself a writer.

“Joyful Noise” was used in reference to the feeling that we should exude while writing, to which Zinsser, quoting historian David McCullough‘s recent commencement address given at a small Connecticut university, gave the following from American painter Robert Henri: “You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing.”

We, better yet, I, forget this all too much in a rush to pull together something brilliant. Let me remember to write with the energy that Zinsser ascribes to McCullough.  Let me not “mail-in” the effort that writing deserves, regardless of the capacity.

Henri, Robert. (Artist). (1902). Snow in new york, 1902. [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/timage_f?object=42929ℑ=7629&c=

The Questions They Won’t Ask

In talking to Shelley Blake-Plock today, I continued my habit of ripping quotes from people and saving them for later.  From Shelley, I got this gem today:

We are probably the last generation that will make the distinction between being online and not being online

This was stated in response to a question I asked that I felt obligated to ask given the company in the room and their relative knowledge levels of social media and its use in the classrooms.  My question was as follows:

Considering the amount of time you now require your students be online, and considering some of the writing that’s been done (a la Nick Carr’s Google=Stupid work), do you feel that you are asking your students to spend too much time “online?” and do you get any pushback from teachers or students?

His response fits well, but, still, are we old-fashioned for asking questions like that, or better yet, do those questions need to be asked?

Just wondering…

Grey Matter, Grey Areas.

Jenna asked a poignant question of Drs. Hammond and Miller:

Outside of test prep, does the traditional 5-paragraph essay have any place in learning today?

It was great question to ask those who deal with our students and their writing once they leave us, and its answer is inherently obvious.  However, what can we learn about our system of teaching thinking from holding the despised format up to scrutiny?  I particularly liked Paul Hammond’s response when he proclaimed “how the hell did we get here?  We have seen the tool become the end.”  We have, indeed, seen the means to start students on the path to clear thinking become the end product.

Dr. Miller chimed in at this point in the discussion with a great anecdote about the history of the format.  His thought was that the five paragraph format is

driven by an anxiety about clarity.  You have to be able to be clear.  But it’s more than that.  You have to have something to say.

What followed next was nothing short of an epiphany for me:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

To repeat:

Let’s not refuse to go into places that are not clear.

That one struck me as squarely as did Jay Rosen’s Talk at TEDxNYED (see his entrance to “pragmatism” at about the :50 second mark).  These are the problems I want students stuck in the mire of—the types where they must reason their way not only out of their own thought-morass, but also of the writing quicksand they’ve stumbled into.  We have the honor of helping them figure out that there is a lot of thought and meaning that goes into the use of a semicolon in the midst of an argument.

We think it is our job to be teachers not of subjects or disciplines, but rather of curiosity.  It is our job to present really good problems to ourselves and our students, and go like hell to solve them.