On Ending the Year with Poetry

I try to leave enough time at the end of the year for a poetry unit.  I read a few “mentor” texts, and then I walk students through writing assignments that let them practice the poetry skills I’m highlighting.  For example – we read Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem , and then we write poems that lend themselves to metaphoric language.   Two poems we wrote in class this year were the “I Am” poem and the “memory” poem.

In my Specialty Center for the Arts 9th grade English classes, I like to include a bookmaking workshop and summative poetry reading as part of the unit.   In addition to the writing assignments and mentor texts, I show the students a slide show with examples of art journals, collage & bookmaking ideas.  Then I set aside a few days for bookmaking and poetry writing workshops.

IMG_2613The supplies I provide are simple … a variety of card stock covers, copy paper from the faculty workroom, heavy duty thread and needles to stitch a simple book.

Some students do just enough to get the grade they want, using the structured rubric I provide.  But I encourage them to make the assignment their own … to have fun with it and make something they’ll want to keep.

Here are some of this year’s examples:

I can’t take credit for their creativity.   But I LOVE this assignment.   Looking at their books and reading their poetry … it really is a great way to close out the year.

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Some of the best poems come from students who don’t consider themselves writers.  This one is really simple.   The student didn’t even consider it poetry … I think she thought it was a joke.   It made me laugh, but it’s not a joke.  Sometimes the best poetry really is simple.

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And very soon, exams will be over and my room packed up.   This summer – I plan to do some writing of my own.  Can’t wait.

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On Unifying the Teaching of Reading and Writing – Prior Knowledge, Purpose, Strategies and Skills

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On page 30 of Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools , journalist and teacher Carl Nagin disputes the widely-held premise that “reading should be taught before writing.”

Research shows that the two processes of literacy – reading and writing – are “intertwined.”   Intuitively, this makes sense to me.

“Numerous studies and assessments have shown that reading development does not take place in isolation; instead, a child develops simultaneously as a reader, listener, speaker, and writer. … integrating reading and writing has multiple benefits for development of literacy” (33).  Okay – makes sense.   I can see direct applications for preschool and elementary instruction, but how can I integrate reading and writing instruction in my secondary classroom?

Here’s one idea :
“Readers and writers use the same intellectual strategies.  …  The biggest difference between good and poor readers and good and poor writers is their strategy use, not their skill use” (32).

Here’s another :
“The reading and writing practices are similar.  The first step in both processes, for example, involves activating prior knowledge and setting a purpose” (32).

Prior knowledge … purpose … strategies, not skills …

Even though the examples Nagin uses are from early childhood education, I keep thinking about Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, who taught adult workers to read and write by having them write … then read what they’d written.   If I remember correctly, the idea was that they learned literacy faster using their life experiences as reading material. Giving them more agency and activating their prior knowledge made it easier for them to learn – at least that’s the idea that’s stuck with me.

You can read more of Friere’s theories of education in his 1968 book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which argues for a model of education that’s more empowering for learners.  It probably doesn’t sound as radical now as it did when it was translated into English in 1970.  American education has changed a lot since then.

So … prior knowledge … purpose … strategies, not skills …

 

In an interview included in Because Writing Matters, David Pearson, dean of the Graduate School of Education, U Cal, Berkeley, says  : “Another obvious synergy is that the texts we write in a classroom are potentially texts for you and me and our peers to read to one another. That’s a wonderful kind of expectation to promote in classrooms: what we write is written to be read”  (35).

What we write is written to be read. 

I think that’s the key.  Personal writing that comes out of prior knowledge, with the purpose of being read by an audience of peers – not just their teacher.  Perhaps even a more public audience.    Authentic audience would mean shedding the idea that writing is something you do in school for a grade, and embracing writing as a means of communication … which, of course, is what writing is.

“The biggest difference between good and poor readers and good and poor writers is their strategy use, not their skill use” (32).

It’s important to move beyond “finding a voice” with personal writing.   I’m a believer in process-oriented writing instruction … but I also know that all students need to learn to write well.  I do a disservice to my students if I tell them that punctuation, spelling, subject/verb agreement, sentence fluency don’t matter, because they do.   Standard written English is the “gatekeeper and language of power” (37).     Power.  That’s why grammar and usage matter … because writing is a sophisticated skill that allows students to open doors, to communicate clearly, to create choices for themselves.

The “difference between … good and poor writers” may be “their strategy use, not their skill use” … but I’m pretty sure effective strategies lead to the mastery of skills.

 

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Encouraging Schools to Embrace Writing to Learn

Sponsored by the National Writing Project and written by journalist and teacher Carl Nagin, Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools examines the teaching of writing in the U.S. and give examples of effective programs and practices.
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This book was written primarily for administrators and policymakers; most of the suggestions here are beyond my pay grade to implement.

For example – on page 104, in the next to the last paragraph of the book – Nagin writes “Meeting the writing challenge requires a paradigm shift from the limited view of writing as a discrete subject area or the exclusive domain of English language arts instruction.”  He argues for writing to be a method of learning in every subject – what used to be called “writing across the curriculum” or “writing in the disciplines.”

According to my google it research,  writing across the curriculum (WAC) has primarily been applied at the university level in the U.S.    I’ve heard of it – but never worked in a high school where it was systematically implemented.  Individual teachers certainly use the “writing in the disciplines” idea effectively.  As a whole school approach, my observation is that it comes and goes, seen more as a pedagogical fad than an long-term effective strategy.

To make his case Nagin quotes a 2003 publication of the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges called The Neglected “R” :The Need for a Writing Revolution at length : “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with details, wrestle with facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write” (104).

I agree – writing in every class.  Writing to think, writing to learn.  More than an interesting idea, it is one I use extensively in my classes.  Implementing it across an entire school or school system, however, would be hard to do well.  Writing instruction is messy, student efforts are messy and reading those efforts takes time and discernment – not what a lot of teachers signed up for.  Which is why it’s rarely done, I suspect.  And, as I said before, making this change is above my pay grade.  Honestly, I’m less interested in system-wide fixes and more interested in ideas for providing more effective writing instruction in my classroom.

Buried within this wonkish book are gems for my understanding of how to teach students to write better.   One idea I’m mulling over is how reading and writing are connected literacy processes.   But that’s for a future blog post.

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On the Importance of Scaffolding Lessons

 

From Chapter 9 – Ten Core Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing
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This chapter, officially called “The Wizard of Oz Would Have Been a Lousy Writing Teacher,” is where I found grounded wisdom about what works in the adolescent classroom.   Kelly Gallagher’s book is called Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentoring and most of the chapters have descriptions of activities to use with writing instruction.

In this chapter, he includes the core beliefs that drive his approach.   These are worth multiple blog entries – so I may return to these again – but for today I want to write about Core Belief 2: Teachers Should Scaffold Lessons That Help Stretch Young Writers. 

“Teaching a student to write is like teaching a student to play basketball,”  Gallagher writes on page 226.

Yes – I’ve called myself a coach for years.

More from page 226 (the extended metaphor is worth it ) :  “The student needs to see how ‘real’ players dribble, pass, shoot, set screens, defend, rebound, and move their feet. Coaches who stand on the sideline and scream, ‘Pass the ball better!’ are coaches who are not really helping their players develop.  Coaches who stop the practice, gather the players around, and demonstrate how, when passing, the ball should come off the fingertips are coaches who help their players.”

How is this done?   I think it might be easier in basketball.   Think how many types of “passing” different students are trying to do when working on a single writing assignment.     I find I do a lot of individual coaching – the “gathering around” doesn’t work as well.  Or maybe I’m simply not the performer Gallagher is.  And I do mean “performer” … the superTeachers who write books describe activities in their classrooms that leave me drained simply reading about them.

I do think, however, that demonstrating and allowing time for practice are necessary to writing instruction.   As Gallagher writes, “When we adopt an ‘I go, then you go’ approach to teaching writing, we take our young writers through zones of development.”

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On Modeling Revision

Chapter 8 : Polishing the Paper
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And here’s where Kelly Gallagher, in Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentoring , moves into the heart of writing.   Because “real” writers revise … a lot !

He writes on page 203, “As teachers we must recognize that getting students to dabble in these discourses [express / reflect, etc.] is only half the battle.  Getting them to take that lousy writing and showing them how to turn it into better writing is the hard part.”

After all, “one and done” is an effective life-coping strategy.   How do we get them to care enough to put in the hard and messy work of revision?

His answer : “model, model, model – and that includes the revision and editing stages.”

He uses an approach he calls RADaR,  taken from Writing Coach, a Prentice Hall writing program he co-wrote with Jeff Anderson (2012).

REPLACE … words that are not specific, words that are overused, sentences that are unclear

ADD … new information, descriptive adjectives and adverbs, rhetorical or literary devices

DELETE … unrelated ideas, sentences that sound good by create unity problems, unwanted repetition, unnecessary details

and

REORDER … to make better sense or to flow better, so details support main ideas, to avoid “bed-to-bed” writing (writing that’s too general, lacks focus)

So – how does this approach work in the classroom?    He uses revisions of his own work to show students how it’s done.

writelikethis003So – this is his draft.  He writes along with his students, and then he models revising his own paper.   I wanted to show the image because it shows his notation.  RP = replace. A – add. D = delete.  RO = reorder.   I don’t think in categories as I revise, so this would take a shift of attention for me.  It could work though, as a strategy / framework for student revision.

Getting my students to care, of course, would take a shift in classroom climate for a few of my classes.  Possible?  Maybe.  I’m only one teacher, and they’ve had 8-9 years of schooling to feed their current attitudes about writing.  Writing along with them might do it.

Gallagher is fond of writing “you’re the best writer in the room” – which is probably true for most teachers in most classrooms.  But here’s the thing – I am a writer.   I get lost in writing, the same way I get lost in reading.  That’s one reason I don’t read a book during my students’ independent reading time – I lose track of time, and an hour could pass without any direction or leadership from me.   If I REALLY write with them in the classroom, the same is likely to happen – more so, perhaps.  I do get lost in writing, and I get annoyed when I’m working on something and get interrupted.

I do think, however, that writing along with my students … and letting them in on my process … might move them past the “business-as-usual” attitude many have when they walk into my high school classroom.   My attitude toward writing, and my willingness to be vulnerable with the process, could make the difference in classroom climate.

Student choice is assumed in this approach.   That’s the other way to get around the “business-as-usual” attitude that keeps students from deciding to do more than the “one and done” attitude that keeps students writing poorly.

In some ways this approach is easier – more in the moment – less time outside of class preparing to control for every eventuality.   It reminds me of the simplicity of Reading Workshop … where I simply emphasize reading and create the space and time for students to read a book of their choice during class time.

What’s necessary is a shift in my ideas for how best to teach writing.   It is definitely worth a try.

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Express / Reflect / Inform / Explain – Writing Activities from “Write Like This”

Chapters 2-3: Writing Territories in Depth
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Chapters 2 through 7 in Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentoring are organized by the writing territories he outlined in the first chapter.

Each chapter begins with an anecdote or illustration of the writer’s purpose that is the focus of that chapter.  What follows are dozens of writing activities, classroom-friendly and student-tested.

Chapter 2: Express and Reflect

What is “Expressive / Reflective” real-life writing?

“When a student writes her feelings about her parents’ divorce, that’s expressive writing,” Gallagher writes on page 24.  “When she writes about what she has learned from having gone through the ordeal, that’s reflective writing.  The best writing comes when a student blends the two.”

One activity he uses to kick off expressive/reflective writing is the Treasured Object activity.  Students are asked to bring either a cherished object to class or a picture of it, if they’re worried about its safety.  Students write about the object, but more importantly, they “reflect on why these items hold deep meaning for them.”

An introductory expressive/reflective activity he describes is the 6-Word Memoir.

Here are a few student examples Gallagher shares on page 26) :
“My dream is what I’ll be” – Jackie
“Eat. School. Cheerleading. Work. Sleep. Repeat.” – Kiki
“Thinking of six words is hard.” – Dustin

Chapter 3: Inform and Explain

Or … as Gallagher writes in a subheading within the chapter … Moving Past Creating a Peanut Butter Sandwich.   This is, of course, a reference to an old standard in writing instruction … the “how-to make a sandwich” paper.

He begins this unit with his My Favorite Words project, “having each student choose a favorite word and conduct some research.”    This introductory activity sounds like an in-class warm-up activity, one that would be fun to try.  A writing notebook activity.

A more in-depth writing assignment is one he calls How Does _______ Work?   After reading and absorbing excerpts from David Macaulay’s book The Way Things Work as a guiding mentor text,  he and his students brainstorm possible answers to the following sentence: How does _______ work?

The writing assignment?  On page 79 he writes,  “I then require each student to pick one interesting question and go find the answer, citing at least two sources and including at least one visual.”

These are just two of the 18 writing activities he presents in chapter three.   The two I shared from chapter two are two of 23.   This book is packed with good classroom writing assignment ideas.

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On Convincing Students that Learning to Write Matters

Chapter 1: Moving Writing to the Front Burner
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Kelly Gallagher starts his book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentoring with the paradox that the ability to write well is more essential now than it has ever been.  The long-term success of young people in the 21st century is directly affected by their ability to write well.   And that more young people are graduating high school unable to write well.

“Writing well does not begin with teaching students how to write,” Gallagher says on page 7. “It begins with teaching students why they should write.”

This brings us to premise #1 of his book – “Introduce Young Writers to Real-World Discourses.”   His point is that English instruction needs to move away from academic writing and toward the range and types of writing students will need to do after they graduate.

He writes “if I want my students to work toward becoming real-world writers, I need to shift the focus of my writing instruction toward real-world writing purposes.”   The way he categorizes writing purposes and uses those categories to help students brainstorm more effectively is an idea I plan to put to use in my classroom.

Writer’s Purposes

  • Express and Reflect : reflects on own life & experience
  • Inform and Explain : states a main point / presents information
  • Evaluate and Judge : focuses on worth of something, judges “good” or “bad”
  • Inquire and Explore : wrestles with a question or problem
  • Analyze and Interpret : analyzes and interprets
  • Take a Stand / Propose a Solution : persuades others

“Much like painters who create different kinds of paintings, writers create different kinds of writing,” he writes on page 11.  “Giving students stacks of newspapers and having them hunt for the various purposes helps them begin to understand that not all writing is the same.”

I like this activity – having students hunt through newspapers for examples of these purposes.   Even better, this structure then lends itself to this class activity:

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Gallagher describes working with students to take a topic like “volleyball” and rethink how many ways they could write about volleyball.   He calls these categories “writing territories.”

In chapters 2 through 7, Gallagher takes each of these writing territories and gives examples of writing assignments that lend themselves to each purpose.  I’ll blog more in depth about some of those strategies in future posts.

In chapter 8, he shares “ideas on how to move students past lousy first-draft writing and into meaningful revision and editing.”  As he points out, “it’s one thing to get students to write in each of these discourses; It’s another thing to get them to write well in each of these discourses.”

Importantly though, in chapter one, he shares a second central premise – how important it is to provide students with extensive teacher and real-world models.

He’s a fan of relevant and engaging “mentor texts.”   But he also wants language arts teachers to embrace the fact that we’re the most skilled writers in the classroom and to model writing in real-time in front of students.

That’s right – he wants us to take the assignments, the prompts, the topics, and show students how writers write by writing and narrating our thinking as we write in front of students.

I have concerns with this – how am I to write from a fresh perspective if I have two or three sections of the same class in a row? What if I am too skilled a writer, and I scare my students as they hear me narrate my writing process?   What if I get stuck and can think of nothing to say … a public writer’s block?

It’s going to take courage to make myself vulnerable by writing publicly in front of my students, like a small-town Bob Ross, but I can see how it might be a more effective strategy than what I’m doing now.

So … here’s Gallagher’s first chapter summary … “there you have it, the formula that underscores this book : Teach your students real-world writing purposes, add a teacher who models his or her struggles with the writing process, throw in lots of real-world mentor texts for students to emulate, and give our kids the time necessary to enable them to stretch as writers.”

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