Thursday, April 29, 2010

Writing for the World

Teaching is about helping students become more than just book learners. It is guiding them to be life learners. And that means that teachers, myself included, need to set up classrooms that are learning environments for everyone in that classroom - teacher included.

As a teacher, I believe that some of my best lessons have happened when I am also in the seat of the learner, learning right alongside my students. I've learned more about my own writing process as I've written with my students. I’ve learned that I have to commit to the writing process, not just to this or that essay, much like I ask my students to fully engage in writing as a process. I can’t just sit down at a computer and bang out a couple of pages, hurriedly assembled sentences and paragraphs. Like I ask my students, I need to remember that my written work is a reflection of who I am, of who I want to be. And so as I heard author James McBride once say, I must remember that “writing is rewriting.” As such, I must never look at a piece of my own writing as finished, and in turn, encourage students to return to their writing again and again and again. After all, aren’t the writers we remember those that looked at writing as a series of rewrites? Walt Whitman rewrote Leaves of Grass five times! Writing is a process that involves reflection, revision, and rewriting. Because I’ve recognized this in my own writing, I must open up space in my classroom for students to do the same. This means that I’ve had to stop assigning essays that students turn in only once, essays that I would labor over my commenting on but students either never read or did anything with the feedback.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed how I teach writing. Students can’t just turn in an essay to me. Instead, I ask my students to reflect on their writing goals following each writing assignment, contemplating how they addressed their previous goals with each assignment, reflecting on their progress as writers. Often times, I see essays multiple times, stressing each time that revision is not merely editing. And perhaps the biggest change to my teaching of writing involves who reads my students’ work.

Students are often asked to just write for their teacher. A single reader. What I’ve found is that the more I can open up my classroom to more authentic and meaningful writing experiences, the more invested my student writers are in the pieces they produce. The web has been immensely helpful in this process. Instead of turning in an essay on the themes of Elie Wiesel’s Night, I have students post their essays to our classroom blog site, where they can read each others’ work and give feedback. At the beginning of the semester, students write their own personal narrative essays on a core belief, in the style of NPR’s “This I Believe” program. I’ve found that when students share these essays with one another, post them on our class blog site, they generate an immense amount of feedback, and in turn, students ask to revise their essays. They ASK to revise! Later in the semester, I ask students to write editorials for our local newspaper, create web pages, and respond to each other using online discussion boards. When students learn that their writing is going to be seen by an audience other than just the teacher, they are more invested in the process of writing. They are engaged.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Interesting Links for Teaching the Holocaust

  • Classroom Resources for Teaching Night: I put this list of resources together for my students and fellow teachers. It includes a number of resources specific to the Philadelphia area as well as a number of excellent national sources. There are enrichment reading pieces and extra credit assignments.
  • Music of the Holocaust: Music of the Ghettos and Camps. Although the inhabitants were incarcerated, music was composed and performed giving voice to the indomitable human spirit within the ghettos and camps. Most cruelly, the large camps had orchestras and bands who were forced to play while their families, friends and neighbors were selected for death then sent to the gas chambers or firing squads.
  • Holocaust Related Music: This Hebrew song, written in the twelfth century, is by Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, who was a great religious philosopher. His Talmudic Psalm Number Twelve from The Articles of Faith entitled "Ani Ma'amin" (I Believe) was later sung by many Jews during the Holocaust, even as they entered the gas chambers. Maimonides' descendants clung to his words for hope for the future and for humankind.
  • Fragments of a Lost World
    Holocaust Resources and Organizations in the Philadelphia Region
    Courtesy of:
    Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education
    Seidman Educational Resource Center
    7607 Old York Road, Melrose Park, PA 19027

  • Holocaust Resources for Teachers: A wealth of resources for teachers!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Believe

It took awhile.

After teaching nearly 500 students how to write "This I Believe" essays, I finally got off my procrastinating hiney and submitted my own. Since writing mine, I've had the pleasure of reading and watching another 100 or so 16-year-olds present their personal narratives in my World Literatures class. And, I also helped bring the essay project to other teachers in my district. Now, all 10th grade students have an opportunity to share their beliefs with their peers and teachers. It is a significant lesson in the power of voice - for teachers and students alike.

I just found out yesterday that the essay I submitted was published to the NPR "This I Believe" website - http://thisibelieve.org/essay/70654/. And just like my students, I can't express the thrill I felt at learning my piece was published. I hope that I can find ways for the next 600 students I teach to experience that same thrill of having their voice heard.