I’m taking the Slice of Life Challenge by Two Writing Teachers. For every day in the month of March, I’m writing a slice of something that’s happening in my life. I’ll keep writing about teaching here, but I’m going to write about what it means to be a single mom and how my life is flip-turned upside down (in a good way, generally) with the birth of my son. If you want to read something completely different, visit me here at Single Mom So Far.
Tag Archives: writing
Looking for ways to teach argument in your classroom? Here are some good ones, including one I wrote about the counterargument from the National Council of Teachers of English’s High School Matters blog.
There are lots of kids in my classes this year. It’s only now that I think (think) that I know all of their names (a fact that is both embarrassing and infuriating to me because I feel I should have it down by now).
Getting to know them as writers is much harder, particularly given attempts to turn papers around regularly. I write fewer and fewer comments on their actual papers and encourage them to schedule a conference with me to really talk about their work.
Those conference slots tend to fill up around the time a paper is due, which is what happened this week. While we get some good discussions about where they’re stuck and what they’re thinking, for me, the most important aspect of the conferences are that I can actually get to know the kids. In those moments, when they shyly push forward sentences and paragraphs, make the apologies full of fears of their work not being “good” (whatever that means; I tell them we are all in a state of revision, no apologies are necessary), I ask them how the class is working for them, let them talk through their challenging parts…I take notes then we make a plan for next steps, which I make them write down, because they are young people and they forget and one-on-one conferences are intimidating, I know.
It’s amazing, too, because the kids who sit in class and are the quiet ones, or the ones that seem so self-confident, are so different in conferences. So open, I guess, so willing to engage in a conversation about how to improve their writing.
I learn as much about who they are as people as about what they need to do to strengthen their thesis, in those conferences, and I never regret having them. I also have my student teacher conduct ones with students to understand how to be kind, how to listen to kids, how to give pithy advice that will send them confidently on their way. I find that once students come for one, and generally find it useful, they’ll return for more, and their confidence develops, their questions about their work gets more complex and nuanced, and that growth helps me to understand their development as young writers.
I continue to keep in touch with students I’ve taught over the years (though after 11 years, it takes me a moment to remember where I knew a kid, given that I’ve taught in so many different places; I guess I need to do some more Sudoku). I recently worked with a student who I taught as a freshman four years ago. He’s a senior now, preparing to go to college. His mom contacted me, worried about what he needed to do, what she needed to do, to get him ready. So, I met him on a Saturday at one of the local public library branches to discuss the Common Essay application prompts. This is the prompt that resonated most with him:
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Apparently, he tried out for the high school basketball team as a freshman. Didn’t make the varsity or the JV. The following year, he didn’t make it as a sophomore, either. Ditto for junior year. I asked if he planned to try out this year and he nodded yes. What if you don’t make it? “I guess I’ll run track,” he said. Not bitterly, not quite resignedly, but factually. He wanted to do something that would keep him physically active and track seemed to be it.
We talked about what he learned over the years, when he didn’t make the team, and he said he kept trying out because he felt like he got a little bit better every year, and that people encouraged him to keep working. That this kid was willing to keep trying, even when there the chances of making the team are so small, was quite telling to me. He plays in local leagues, practices, hopes to make the team. Perhaps I’m even more impressed because so many kids would have just given up–heck, I would have given up, probably, after the second time. There definitely would not have been a third or a fourth time. Talk about grit, and perseverance and resilience…
“You have a great story,” I said. “Write it.”
I’d want that kid at my college. He seems to have the qualities that we want: being able to pick yourself up after things don’t go your way, to keep trying even when there is no guarantee of a winning outcome…and you’re 17 years old? Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine.
I never would have had the opportunity to be blown away had I not spent some time on a Saturday conferencing with a kid about what he learned about failure, and why he’s going to keep trying. Kids have great stories to tell and write; thankfully, I can listen and learn when I carve out time to sit beside them.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Random House Annual Educators’ Event in New York City, where, I started by saying that I refuse to be freaked out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I then was able to explain how I’m anticipating being able to be creative, to think broadly about texts, to help my students engage in complex, higher-order tasks around literature and literacy.
At the moment–and still–I believe that.
However, the problem is that the more I read about the CCSS–the vast amounts of money that are driving the initiatives, the stakes that are going to impact educators and students–I realize that staying true to the desire not to be freaked out, to hold on to those beliefs, is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.
- Complex writing tasks mean more people are going to need to be expert writing teachers. There are simply not enough of us in the field who feel confident teaching writing. Thus, we see lots of reductions of writing to acronyms, to numbers (paragraphs, sentences, words, whatever), and we move further away from what we know to be true about how to turn kids into powerful writers.
- Appendix B is a suggestion, not a mandate. I am excited about using it as a suggestion and building some unbelievable text sets that encourages intertextuality, synthesis, real writing. However, there will still be schools and departments that use those texts only. How can we expand our understanding of literature and literacy (as evidenced by my current reading of this fantastic book that I highly recommend) if we only use Appendix B?
- I have become interested, of late, in text-dependent questions (TDQ) because, as I’ve stated before, I’m a much stronger writing teacher than I am a lit teacher, so I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve my craft. TDQ drive students back into the text, which makes sense, right? What makes you think that? Where in the text can you find evidence to either support or refute those ideas? But, there are formulas for these things, too (related to generating questions. This site made my head spin). I worry that in our quest to make everything systematic, or “accessible” or whatever that we make it too uniform. Why not have kids create their own TDQ? In all of this desire to get kids “college and career ready,” I don’t see a lot about how teachers can systematically teach kids to take control of their own learning in the classroom. I usually teach them how to ask questions, we spend time (most of the term) generating, critiquing, revising questions for ones that do what we need them to do. I don’t know…I am not optimistic that that independence is quick to come for kids.
- Time, the need for so much time to understand what is coming. And time is the one thing we simply do not have. Currently, I’m fretting about systems, how to create peer review that works, how to reduce the amount of direct instruction to allow for more time for kids to master the content through hands-on work, but most of all, I’m worried that since my principal lifted the caps for class sizes, next year, I could very well have three sections a semester of 30 kids in a class. How will I be an effective teacher with classes that are this large? What kind of teacher will I be if I don’t have time to read papers, give feedback, conference, etc.? Will we have time for those moments–those in-between moments–where the learning happens?
While the above concerns are all relevant, I think the last one is the most perplexing for me. I have never taught classes of this size, though I have many colleagues who do. I worry that these adjustments, of the class size, will force me to change my practice in ways that concern me.
As I said, though, I refuse to be freaked out, and I’m pretty good at finding end runs around potential road blocks.
And, it is summer, after all.
Thus, I’m thinking about systems. I’m pretty sure I can get kids to work in groups for writing feedback and I just need to get better about rotations of due dates, what I will grade, what counts as indicators of learning. I’m also going back through what I need to teach and making myself justify what’s important (not interesting; sometimes, I get caught up in what’s interesting and shiny, pretty, things) and only do that. Only do that. That’s kind of fun for me and my neuroses. It’s also the only way I can contend with being able to be in control of the situation rather than the situation controlling me.
When my students submit a draft, I ask them to give me some areas of particular growth that they’d like my feedback on. Here, a couple of my comments in response to a student:
After reading her draft: I would like to see your writing become more sophisticated. I think one place to start is with sentence variety and sentence length. You have lots of choppy sentences that are just…boring. From this draft, I can tell you can write. Now, you have to push your limits. Go.
She asked, “Can you detect my voice in my essay?” [Side note: what a brilliant, BRILLIANT question from such a young writer. My heart, my smile…VOICE?! Remind me to write about what Keith Gilyard said about voice that made everything crystal clear-ish to me about that].
Me: It’s there, hidden underneath some dry language. You actually have a voice that is quite poetic. You’ll develop it this term. It will be fun.
Indeed, it will be–and is–fun. I needed a reminder of the joy I have working with my students. March attempts to wring it from me as it marches forth (ha), but there is such joy in this work…
Once the first semester ended in mid-January, I had exactly a weekend to turn around and start teaching the same couse to a new group of sophomores.
After reminding myself about the need to just keep breathing, I also had to remind myself that the new kids who entered my classroom, filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and dread (thanks to their predecessors who told everyone they knew about how hard the class was, how much they learned but mostly, too, how glad they were that the class, for them, was OVER), were just that: new kids.
That’s why summers are so great when we teach: we end the year more than exhausted, but we have the summer to forget how difficult it is to break in a new crop of students. We forget that we have to teach them procedures, that there are days when it feels like we’re caught so deep in the muck that a thesis statement is as foreign to them as learning…I don’t know…insert something that’s difficult; that there were plenty of days when discord tiptoed around the edges of the classroom, threatening to overtake whatever it was that was supposed to be happening at any given moment.
Instead, as we laze (ha!) through summer, we instead replace those real memories with fond ones of kids who hung around and wanted to share their poetry (that was actually good), the reflections wherein students waxed about how much they learned, the thank you notes that parents and students were nice enough to write.
Revisionism is a beautiful thing, particularly when related to teaching. And it’s not, necessarily, a horrible thing, because it enables us to hold dear to the various meanings of success we see in our classrooms over the course of a term. And it probably enables us to muster the courage to come back in the fall.
Let me repeat that, though: over the course of a term. It does not happen overnight.
And so, this George Washington quote–this fantastic quote that Jim Burke uses to begin a chapter in his incredibly useful book What’s the Big Idea–resonates with me now more than ever, particularly as I begin to grade the first papers from new kids in a new term.
“Well, we must take them as they are and make them into the soldiers we need them to be.”
Thank goodness for an unexpected snow day, that allows me to read through the papers with more leisure than I am usually permitted. I had to remind myself, again and again, that these were new students, that they had not been privy to the writing workshops, the practice, the expectations that we are all writers, with important things to say and that good writing takes time. Thus, their theses statements would not be as well developed, their language not as sophisticated, their analysis not as through and interesting, their voices still clanking along in essay voice.
And that’s okay.
More than anything, I think I’ve finally reached the point where, after giving fond farewells to the old kids, I can open the door to the new students and be excited about who they will become, the powerful readers and writers I know they can be.
My class is hard. I’m not going to lie. I ask kids to do a lot of reading, writing and thinking, and they complain but they generally do their work. That fact–that they always do their work–has taken some adjusting, as I tend to get about 80-95% of a return on my assignments in general if I’m lucky. Now, I’m probably always going to get 100%.
What I’ve found is that the kids of color and the low income kids are struggling mightily. I’m starting to (warmly) demand that they schedule conferences to talk about their work, checking in with them more frequently, encouraging them to stick with it. I need them to realize, through my words, my actions and my beliefs, that they can do this work. It’s gonna be hard as all get out, but they can do the work.
It’s discouraging when I give out grades and one student’s score has moved incrementally. I want to rage with her, at me (are you really doing right by these kids? I often goad myself). But then, just when I’m at the point when I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into and if my approach is wrong, the literature gives me an answer.
In this case, there were a few minutes last week before all my writing conferences began, and three of the kids were hanging out (I think one had intentionally “confused” his conference time and wanted to chat sooner rather than later; I obliged). I asked them some questions about their lack of participation, and one brave soul admitted that she felt intimidated by the vocabulary her peers were using. I told her that half the time, they weren’t even using the words correctly; rather, what mattered was that they were trying. That’s how you learn, I said. You got to get the words into your mouth, turn them around, so that they begin to feel like your own. Most of this work we’re doing, I continued, is about a willingness to try, and to know that yes, in the beginning we might all feel like we’re clueless, but at least we keep trying.
We’d just talked about post-colonialism and Othering and the Other, and I said something to the extent of, “You’re letting them Other you. You can’t let that happen. In a way, too, you’re Othering yourself because you think you can’t do it. Don’t let your fear win.”
But that’s what it was, othering, on multiple levels: their silence building, their fear of not knowing preventing them from even trying to speak at all. After that conversation, I became even more aware of interactions and discussions and creating spaces for kids to enter into the talk of a classroom. (Funny how I forget my own hesitancies and reluctance when I’m talking to kids. I know exactly what it feels like to sit in a group and sweat and worry about how to interject, how to disagree, how to offer something new to the conversation. That’s why I’m trying to figure out how to get them involved.)
This week, we’re about to celebrate the National Day of Writing and a student’s father, who’s a poet, is coming in tomorrow to do some reading with us. He’s asked kids to read an Adrienne Rich essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Writing,” as well as having them read several versions of a poem. I asked him to show them his process, of how a draft moves from an idea, through revision to a momentary final poem. He’s agreed, and I’m so stoked to see this all play out tomorrow.
I gave the essay out yesterday (Wed.) with the instruction to read it in preparation for Friday. One student, of the three that stayed behind last week, came into homeroom and said she was up all night reading Adrienne Rich.
Um, stop. Rewind. HOLD UP. She showed me her thoroughly annotated essay, pointing out places where she agreed with Rich, bold paragraphs marked to indicate where she was moved and inspired.
“I have lots to say,” she said. “I’m going to speak up. I can’t wait.”
And I still need to unpack everything that happened in that moment and I’m sure after tomorrow, when they blow my head open with their talk I’ll have to unpack even another suitcase, but here we were, a teacher who was quickly running out of strategies and a student who sincerely doubts herself, and there’s Adrienne Rich, offering us a way through.
Much of teaching is about trust: can you work with students, create a community that encourages them to take risks, to listen to each other, to try new ways to write, to read to think. I’ve also found that it’s about just telling them when you make a mistake (sorry, that timeline I proposed was entirely unrealistic. My class is not the only class you’re taking; let’s rethink); that you’re off your game (yup, I was up grading so I’m not going to get that other thing back to you today); that you don’t know (seriously, I’m going to have to look up this punctuation rule; I just don’t remember it).
This truth is incredibly freeing, and the start of something meaningful.
Rich: Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.
Maybe this is the beginning of their truth, too.