Friday, June 18, 2010

Stop the Regurgitating!

I was one of those students who was very good a regurgitating.

I would listen to what teachers would say in class, go home, essentially just paraphrase what they had already said, and viola! A letter “A” would be passed back a few days later. No originality, no creative thinking. I was good at regurgitating. It is safe.

Ralph Fletcher's book (mentioned in earlier posts) has me thinking about my formative writing experiences. When I think about my own primary and secondary experiences, I don’t really have a teacher that comes to mind. Unfortunately, I think I came from a system that rewarded students for being able to spit back what we were fed: lots and lots of plot-driven book reports. In fact, I was shocked by the C- on my first college essay.

It really wasn’t until undergrad and beyond that I found connections with people that helped mentor and mold my writing. The biggest of which, so sorry that this is going to sound cheesy, is my husband. In college we would read each other’s papers out loud in order to hear the phrasing, listening for vague descriptions and repetition. Any time I have something important that I’m working on, I still take it to him this day (12 years married this Sunday!) so that he might read it aloud back to me, and together we collaboratively edit.

In undergrad, I had a wonderful English education professor, whom I’m still in periodic contact with today, that also helped shape my writing and teaching of writing through reminders that it’s about the content. What I say is more important than how I say it. I have to be clear on my idea, focus, content – whatever you want to call it – before charging ahead to write a piece. I hope that I am are more concise, clearer writer thanks in part to his encouragement.

As a result of my early writing experiences, I find that I look for shadows of myself sitting in my classroom. Try to work with them to break that cycle, encouraging them to take risks, to be personal. I don’t feel that I really learned to start to write until I had teachers/mentors that called me lack of originality. So now I challenge myself to not only help students find their unique writing voice, but design lessons and assignments that encourage such writing.

The book report is banned in my classroom. There will be no regurgitating here!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"The bigger the issue, the smaller you write"

This past Saturday, I attended the orientation session for my summer PA Writing Institute course. Not only did we have some time to get to know the other teachers participating in this summer invitational, but we also had an opportunity to learn, discuss, and write about voice. And what we discovered is that as veteran teachers, we all seem to struggle with how to define voice in writing.

It is one of the hardest things to grade, let alone teach. Voice in writing is more than simply an author's diction or sentence structure. I must admit that I'm not a fan of how the PA Writing Rubric boils voice down to the simple "choice, use and arrangement of words and sentence structures..." Voice represents the art and craft of the writer. By paring down a definition of voice to something that we can easily dissect from a piece of writing, we lay waste to what makes writing an art, to what makes writing so powerful and moving. Voice is the subtle nuance that a writer brings to the page, to his or her subject. It comes through in the tiniest of details, in the smallest turns of phrase. We know a strong voice when we read it. We can literally hear the writer's words, understand how the writer wants us to say his words aloud. Voice in writing is that quality of a text that speaks to the heart of who we are.

We had an opportunity to play with this idea of voice in a couple of different writing activities. One of our morning presenters shared with us some writing activities she used with her students to get them reflecting and writing about their own voice. The first being a "Where I Am From" poem.

The directions are simple: students complete a series of six quick writes in which they gather details about their surroundings, their families, and memories. The idea being that, as Ralph Fletcher describes, "The bigger the issue, the small you write," meaning that the voice in our writing becomes clear when we focus on the unique, peculiar details. "Put forth the raw evidence, and trust that the reader will understand exactly what you are getting at." This exercise has students focusing on the "raw evidence" of their lives, what makes up their voice.

Students begin by brainstorming lists of what someone would see upon entering the door to their house, what a stranger would see outside their home, what they would see in the neighborhood, as well as descriptions of relatives, favorite foods, and memories of pivotal moments. Each list becomes a separate stanza in the poem. By combining elements from each list and beginning them with the statement, "I am from...," students begin to write about who they are and also about what they bring with them into their writing.

Taking to heart Fletcher's advice - that "writing becomes beautiful when it becomes specific" - I tried my hand at this exercise.
I am from Skippyjon Jones
left open in the middle
of the living room floor, holy guacamole!
I am from a home hit hard
by a two and a half foot tornado.
I am from pillows pulled
from the couch,
piled neatly about the floor,
covered in little wet O's where Harry,
open mouthed,
flung his face.
I am from picture and board books,
balls and blocks.

I walked away from my morning orientation energized and excited. It reminded me writing is fun, it is personal, it is specific. And, given that, I need to find ways to make the writing in my classroom similarly engaging. Writing shouldn't be about rubrics and grades and grammar. Writing is about discovering one's voice.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Voice and Choice

"Voice is connected to real audience. We have to create classrooms where writers have a wide, sympathetic audience for their writing. We need to encourage students to meet their audience in authentic ways - not just by sharing sessions with their peers but also by going public with their writing in other ways beyond the walls of the classroom: complaint letters, articles, contests, etc.," -Ralph Fletcher, What a Writer Needs (72).

It was the perfect week to read Fletcher's chapters on establishing voice. My tenth grade students are diligently working on adapting their research essays to a specific audience outside of our class. Since the purpose of research is meant to change people's attitudes and behaviors, rarely, except perhaps in secondary schools, are research papers written for only one teacher to read and grade. Instead, research is meant to evoke change. So as part of our tenth grade research on a current issue facing a non-western culture, students have to share their research with an authentic audience.

And, having done this project with students for the last four years or so, I've have found Fletcher's observations to be spot on. Students do write with more voice, more conviction, and with more investment when they know they are writing for a larger audience. I currently have a student who has organized a fundraising campaign to raise money for Afghan Relief Organization's TEC fund to help students in Afghanistan gain access to technology. He's written and revised four versions of a letter explaining his project. He's adapted email letters for the entire staff in our district, another version for just students, another version for our morning announcements - he's learned to adapt his voice to suit his audience. Other students in the class have taken their research on everything from health care issues and education in Afghanistan to debate over oil in Argentina's Falklands and adapted it younger audiences, going into our elementary and middle schools this week to teach students about the cultures and issues they studied. On their own, students have researched best practices for teaching younger students, lesson plan activities, and have even been writing objectives! By opening up the research writing process, students have an opportunity to infuse their writing with voice.

Fletcher writes, "As students get older, the audience for their writing undergoes a shift. As they approach adolescence, they tend to become more self-critical, particularly in terms of writing. This internal shift gets reinforced by tougher demands from the outside world. The supportive writing environments in the primary grades, often flavored with child-centered or developmental philosophy about learning, yields to upper-grade realities of grading, book reports, grammar dittoes, writing tests, the five-paragraph, essay, etc." (73-4).

By giving students choice in their research writing - the choice of who and how to adapt their writing to a particular audience - they have been in the position of figuring out for themselves how to write for others. Their interest drives who they write for, whether that be the audience of the local editorial page or their peers throughout the world using social networking sites like Facebook. And it is this journey of discovery, which at first they think of as only yet another research project, that leads them to also discover how to write for others. And isn't that they purpose of writing?

Opening up the doors of my classroom, finding ways for students to write for more than just me, has been such a pivotal change in my writing instruction. The more students write for real audiences, the more they write period. They are more willing to revise, to change content and not just mechanics, more willing to enlist the help and suggestions of others, and look for models of good writing. In doing so, students have started their own discovery of who they want to be as writers.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Today's Interesting Links and Tools for Teaching Writing

  • FactCheckEd.org
    This is what we offer:
    Many of our Lesson Plans are topical, presenting students with a message, such as an actual political or product advertisement, and guiding them through a process of discovery leading to the facts. Another group of lessons teaches some of the core concepts of reasoning, giving students the building blocks to help them parse others' arguments and strengthen their own. Using clips from Monty Python and other popular films and television programs, our lessons explain deductive versus inductive reasoning, how to pick out logical fallacies, the power of visual rhetoric and similar tools of critical thinking. Resources is our go-to directory of Web sites, including synopses of what they offer. Official government sites can be terrific fonts of facts. So can think tanks and issue advocacy groups; we give rundowns on their political leanings and reliability.
  • ProfHacker
    Great post of Google Docs in the classroom
  • Embeddable Forums by Tal.ki
    Add an embeddable discussion to your PBWorks wiki (or other website) using Tal.ki. No account registration needed. Your forum will be integrated with Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other services so members can skip registration. Engage your website's visitors. Turn passive blog and content readers into participating members, contributing content.
  • 50 Useful Blogging Tools for Teachers - TeachingTips.com
    Blogging is becoming more and more popular in the classroom. Teachers can blog to stay in touch with parents and students or they can incorporate blogs from all of the students as a learning tool. The beauty of the student blog is that children from Kindergarten to high school can blog. No matter how you use blogs in your classroom, these tools will help you get started, enhance your experience, or bring the students into the fun.
  • Great Source - iWrite
    Everything educators, students, and parents need to make the writing process work in the classroom and at home.
  • Holt Writing Resources
    Interactive writing models for middle and high school students. Analyze the elements of good writing with these interactive writer's models. Each model includes annotations and tips to help you be a good writer yourself.