Friday, December 3, 2010

Why Twitter is Awesome...and why I need to check in more regularly

I haven't been using my @jenniferward Twitter account as regularly as I have in the past. As I'm on maternity leave, I find it a bit more difficult to carve out the time that I would like to read and respond to all the great teachers and resources that my Twitter PLN forwards my way. And, as I've been trying to build my brand/business with Babee Crafts, I've found myself using my @babeecrafts account more and more. But here's why I really should be checking in on @jenniferward more frequently:

PBS New Hour Extra likes me.

I discovered yesterday a tweet from @NewsHourExtra that mine was one of nine education blogs that they follow. I was included on a list with David Warlick and Vicki Davis. I idolize these guys! I realize this might sound silly, that a very specialized group of teachers and educational technology enthusiasts know who David Warlick and Cool Cat Teacher are, but seriously, they're celebrities! I can't believe I'm on a Twitter list with these folks. So thank you PBS News Hour Extra. I will certain try harder to live up to this honor.

This Much I Know...

We began our conversation last night with two things we know for certain. Gathered around a conference table were our two PA Writing and Literature Institute instructors and five practicing teachers, myself included. We've each been pursuing our own teacher research on areas related to teaching writing. As I posted earlier, I'm looking into how the principles of mastery learning and grading might help to improve student writing. Specifically, I've been looking at how feedback on writing assessments differs between teachers who use a more traditional, cumulative grading system versus those who subscribe to the ideas of mastery learning.

We were inspired by Dorthy Allison's quote about her Aunt Dot:
"Lord, girl, there's only two or three things I know for sure." She put her head back, grinned, and made a small impatient noise. Her eyes glittered as bright as a sun reflecting off the scales of a cottonmouth's back. She spat once and shrugged. "Only two or three things. That's right," she said. "Of course it's never the same things, and I'm never as sure as I'd like to be."

So, here's what I know so far from my research:

Progress in student writing depends, in part, on doing something with feedback. If you've taken the time to grade a student's work, if you've written comments on it, or made suggestions for improvements, you must give students time to do something with that feedback. If you don't, you have wasted a great deal of your time grading the piece and wasted the student's time by asking them to write it. If you're not going to do something with the feedback, then don't give feedback.

This is not a new thought. A great many writers and teachers of writing have been saying this for years. But, it was interesting for me to see it echoed through the interviews and surveys that I've been doing with both teachers and students. Students admit to stuffing graded papers to the bottom of their backpacks with only a cursory glance at the percentage or letter grade at the top, and teachers admit to not giving time in class for students to read, reflect, respond, and revise based on the feedback they've given. And both teachers and students responded that they continued to see the same feedback time and time again. And no wonder. If a student doesn't have an opportunity to reflect and respond to a teacher's feedback about a his poorly written thesis statement, he's going to continue to write bad thesis statements.

What was most interesting to me about this is that many of the teachers I interviewed talked at length about times when they were able to really connect with a student and help that student make progress. Each example recounted a time when a teacher was able to help a student specifically identify a writing skill to work on, and then work with the student over time on various writing assignments to improve in that area. The student had multiple opportunities to receive focused feedback and respond to it, revising and reflecting on that skill area in order to make progress. Hmmm...isn't this working toward mastery? Identify specific skills, practice that skill, both teacher and student reflect on the student's progress, make adjustments, and repeat.

Which leads to the no-duh moment for me, the other thing I know for certain: our curriculums must clearly articulate the skills students are working toward and not simply the texts that they will read. In talking with teachers and in survey responses from teachers not just in my district but from all over the country, I have learned that many English teachers are simply picking for themselves the skills they will help students in their specific classes develop. One ninth grade teacher will choose to help her students develop clear organizational strategies in their writing, while the ninth grade teacher across the hall is working with his students on commas. And although both items are listed in the state's standards for writing, there is little consistency from class to class, let alone from year to year. I'm not suggesting that English teachers sit down to rewrite curriculums by creating page upon page of skill lists. But we need a starting point, a common ground and a common language. And by articulating the skills that we want our students to work on, we will help students develop as better writers overall, and not simply as better writers of literary analysis essays in response to a specific text.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Calling All English Teachers

If you are a high school English teacher, I would love your help! I'm currently doing some research on what works when it comes to feedback and assessment of student writing. If you have a few minutes, could you please complete the survey below? Thanks!


Monday, November 8, 2010

A New Adventure

It's been awhile since my last post, but rest assured, there's more to come. My current coursework has me doing quite a bit of thinking about how to assess writing and how grading for mastery might be a more effective way of giving feedback. However, I'm also engaged in another adventure - opening my own Etsy shop and connected blog/Twitter. I'm learning all about the world of marketing via social networking. It's a whole new world.

Check out my new adventures at Babee Crafts.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Making Assessment of Writing Meaningful

Toward the end of our first quarter together, I ask my tenth grade student to begin thinking of topics for their culminating research project. Students select a current issue or problem facing a non-Western culture. In last couple of years, students have found issues to research rooted in the culture where their pen pal hails from. We've researched issues in Liberia, Morocco, India, Argentina, and Afghanistan.

Devon was a gregarious, outgoing student, always volunteering to help others in the class. He did not struggle to come up with an area he was interested in researching. He quickly decided to research women's roles in modern day Afghanistan. Given what he had seen on the news and heard about from his peers, he assumed that Afghani women were uneducated and had very few rights, with a majority of women suffering beatings and stoning at the hands of the family and loved ones.

He wrote up a research proposal, attached an article he found related to his research, and I approved his topic. Both he and I were excited to learn more about the real lives of women in this part of the world.

The way I teach research and writing has evolved as I've learned more about formative assessment and taken various writing courses. I've changed what I do in the classroom, how I grade writing. I've started to cut out my obsessive grading, instead finding more ways to give students opportunities to practice writing and get feedback without the pressure of a grade. This is how the tenth grade research paper is structured. There are steps. Students complete a proposal outlining their research questions, demonstrate their ability to find scholarly sources, cobble together a working outline, and begin drafting an essay. All of these pieces are rough drafts. They are not graded when they are initially turned in. My hope is that students find this liberating. It takes them a few weeks to realize that no grades means no penalty for lateness. By not putting formal grades on these initial drafts, students have an opportunity to revise without fear. They have an opportunity to practice writing. At least that was my initial thinking. Later on, when students turn in their final project, they have to include all their drafts with both my comments as well as peer and self revision marks which do receive a grade along with their publishable copies. I grade their effort, attempts, not the actual writing contained in the drafts. By giving students more opportunities to experiment, to change their ideas, and to revise, would both make for stronger writing but also cut down on plagiarism. I would see all their work prior to ever having to grade it.

But in the last few years, I still manage to have a handful of students like Devon. Devon was initially excited about his research, that is until he realized that he had some leeway with the due dates. Suddenly his outline was a week late, his rough draft two weeks late. And by the end of the semester when final projects were coming due, Devon had only cursory outlines of his ideas. I called parents. They knew of the missing work. Devon's quarter grade will hang on his project.

Devon turns in his final research project. The final essay is in large part cut and pasted from another's personal website. Devon didn’t even bother to make sure the font was all the same. He clearly cut and pasted someone else's words. Usually tenth grade honors students are a bit more savvy about hiding their plagiarism. Devon knew he would get caught, knew I had seen his work or lack of work up until the final project, so it seems like he didn't even try to disguise the fact that he had plagiarized.

In some respects, my initial thinking was bore out. By not initially grading the rough drafts and giving comment-only feedback, I had a better sense of what the students were accomplishing by the time we got to turning in the final project. But what do I do with the students who still choose to disengage from the writing process? How do I assess in a way that not only gives students an opportunity to practice and revise their writing, but more importantly, engage in their writing? How can I use assessment to engage writers?

One of the reasons that I had stopped giving letter grades on rough drafts was that I was hoping students would feel more empowered to practice their writing, take ownership of their writing process. As I wrote about a month or so ago in an earlier post:
"…teachers must leave space for students to demonstrate their progress. This means that teachers need to think about how they approach the grading of late work (does a lowered grade for lateness accurately reflect a student's mastery of a particular skill?) and giving students multiple opportunities to practice skills. 'Teaching accountability requires adherence to sound pedagogy, not just conventional grading practices always done because that's the way they've always been done. Assessment and feedback, particularly during the course of learning, are the most effective ways for students to learn accountability in their work and personal lives' (Wormeli 26)."

How can writing teachers assess the work of student writers in ways that are meaningful, ways that reflect the individual student's engagement with the process of writing? How might grading writing for the mastery of skills help emerging writers grow more confident and proficient?

Perhaps Devon saw an opportunity to get out of doing homework. The lack of a penalty for lateness meant that he could take his time on this assignment. The problem being that he never returned to the assignment once it slipped by him. As his teacher, I had moved on with the majority of his classmates to the next step. Once Devon got behind, it was hard for him to catch back up. The project, which started as a series of manageable steps, spiraled out of control. And I had moved ahead without him.

I thought that simply by eliminating the formal grading of rough drafts I would be giving students more opportunity to practice writing. However, very little else had changed about how I taught research. I was still teaching research in a lock-step manner: first you brainstorm, then you research, then you outline, finally draft and revise. But some people don't write like this. I don't write like this. I need to write in order to find my idea, my focus, my point. Some of my students need to do the same. So not only do I need to think about when I grade but also what grade.

If what I want is for my students to engage in the writing process, to discover how they write, then I need to be grading how well the students learn these skills. I shouldn't be grading an outline if writing an outline doesn't really help the student write a better essay. Instead, I should be giving students multiple opportunities to discover what does work for them, to experiment with new forms and ideas, and grading, in part, how well the students final work is a reflection of how much they engaged in the process of writing and of what they learned about writing from a particular assignment. Which means that I need to think more deeply about why I am assigning particular writing prompts, what I skills I hope students practice and learn from that assignment, make sure that I give students opportunities to learn and practice those skills, and then grade what we have actually spent time working on rather than what I simply hope they have learned by writing an essay.

So how do I engage students in their writing using assessment? Well, first I must design my assessments in such a way that the feedback and grades students receive accurately reflect what we’ve spent time working on, what we’ve spent our time engaging in.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Interesting Links on Assessment, Grading, and Mastery

On the Shoulders of Giants: Grading for Mastery in a Progressive Classroom
Sometimes teachers design such compelling learning experiences that students are able to forget they are doing a "school" activity. They derive genuine pleasure from the curiosity and intellectual engagement of the experience. This is what we want and, in my experience both as a teacher and student, leads to the highest levels of understanding. But it's not ALL we want. It's a necessary step in the learning process called exploration.

ARK-StudyGuideR_0.pdf (application/pdf Object)
A Repair Kit for Grading, by Ken O’Connor describes 15 ways to make grades and marks more consistent, accurate, meaningful, and supportive of learning (page 4). These are called 15 fixes. This study guide is intended for use in conjunction with study of the book. It suggests discussions and activities for each fix that serve one or more of the following purposes:
• Clarifying ideas
• Providing extra information on a topic, or where to locate it
• Thinking through and planning changes to try; we call these replacement strategies
• Posing common grading/marking dilemmas to solve

How to Grade for Learning, K-12 - Google Books
Ken O'Connor's book How to Grade for Learning

8StepsMeaningfulGrading.pdf (application/pdf Object)
Grades earned in traditional grading systems are usually based on a combination of formative and summative assessments. With standards-based grading, grades are based solely on summative assessments designed to measure content mastery.

Educational Leadership:Assessment to Promote Learning:Grading to Communicate
Throughout my career as an educator, I have experienced frustration with how my traditional classroom grading practices have influenced my students' learning. When I discuss this issue with colleagues, parents, and—most important—students, I find that I am not alone in my frustration. Paradoxically, grades detract from students' motivation to learn. It is time to reconsider our classroom grading practices.

Educational Leadership:Assessment to Promote Learning:Seven Practices for Effective Learning
Classroom assessment and grading practices have the potential not only to measure and report learning but also to promote it. Indeed, recent research has documented the benefits of regular use of diagnostic and formative assessments as feedback for learning (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004). Like successful athletic coaches, the best teachers recognize the importance of ongoing assessments and continual adjustments on the part of both teacher and student as the means to achieve maximum performance. Unlike the external standardized tests that feature so prominently on the school landscape these days, well-designed classroom assessment and grading practices can provide the kind of specific, personalized, and timely information needed to guide both learning and teaching.

Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform | Jason T Bedell
"…changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution – a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds…Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes." (Earl, 2003, pp. 15-16)

GullenHandouts.pdf (application/pdf Object)
Grading policies such as refusing to accept late work, giving grades of zero, and refusing to allow students to redo their work may be intended as punishment for poor performance, but such policies will not really teach students to be accountable, and they provide very little useful information about students' mastery of the material. Assessment and feedback, particularly during the course of learning, are the most effective ways for students to learn accountability in their work and in their personal lives.

Developing grading and reporting ... - Google Books
Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning
By Thomas R. Guskey, Jane M. Bailey

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Formative vs. Mastery

In doing some research on grading for mastery, I ran across this quotation from a recent Phi Delta Kappan article titled "Eight Steps to Meaningful Grading" by Heather Deddeh, Erin Main, and Sharon Ratzlaff Fulkerson:
Grades earned in traditional grading systems are usually based on a combination of formative and summative assessments. With standards-based grading, grades are based solely on summative assessments designed to measure content mastery.

So now I've come to a roadblock. I love what I've learned from Grant Wiggins, Alfie Kohn, and Dylan Wiliam about formative assessment, giving students multiple opportunities and venues to practice their learning. However, I also see the value in grading for mastery, that a student's grade should reflect what they've learned, not penalize them for the time it took the student to learn that information. So how do I reconcile what Deddeh, Main, and Fulkerson identify as two opposite ways of grading?

How do I practically set up my gradebook and assignments to reflect what students have learned in my class?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rethinking Assessment

"Students learn to find out what a teacher expects and write to those expectations – and the accompanying grades – instead of trying to internalize their own high standards for writing," writes Ralph Fletcher in What A Writer Needs. Given what both Ralph Fletcher and Alfie Kohn have written about the dangers of traditional assessment methods for emerging writers, how can teachers reconcile the seemingly opposite pulls for data driven assessments with the need for new writers to understand and grow their writing at their own pace?

There has been a move recently in many districts, especially elementary schools, to change from the traditional letter grade report card to a more skills-based reporting system. Such skills-based reports give both students and parents specific feedback on a student's progress in a number of skill areas rather than simply a vague comparison between letter grades. How could such a grade reporting system specifically help emerging writers?

Rick Wormeli is both a secondary teacher and an educational writer on this topic. In his article "Accountability: Teaching Through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading," Wormeli states:
"A grade is supposed to provide an accurate, undiluted indicator of a student's mastery of learning standards. That‘s it. It is not meant to be a part of a reward, motivation, or behavioral contract system. If the grade is distorted by weaving in a student‘s personal behavior, character, and work habits, it cannot be used to successfully provide feedback, document progress, or inform our instructional decisions regarding that student—the three primary reasons we grade. A student who is truly performing at the highest instructional levels with the highest marks, even though it took him longer to achieve those levels—for whatever reason—is not served by labeling him with false, lower marks and treating him as if he operates at the lower instructional levels just because it took him a little longer to get to the same standard of excellence...." (Wormeli 19)

By incorporating a more skills-based form of grading and feedback, students receive more personalized information on their strengths and areas where they might improve upon in their writing. Wormeli's work goes on to include so many of the suggestions that the NWP Summer Writing Institutes also advocate – writing prompts and learning situations must be meaningful, for real audiences, incorporate mentor and model texts, and rely on student choice. In doing so, students are better able to demonstrate their progress toward skills.

By establishing a grading system and criteria which evaluate student progress toward a set number of specific goals, both students and teachers are better able to understand how to best reach a higher level of achievement. Wormeli suggests that as a result of this changed focus from letter grades to skills, teachers must leave space for students to demonstrate their progress. This means that teachers need to think about how they approach the grading of late work (does a lowered grade for lateness accurately reflect a student‘s mastery of a particular skill?) and giving students multiple opportunities to practice skills. "Teaching accountability requires adherence to sound pedagogy, not just conventional grading practices always done because that‘s the way they've always been done. Assessment and feedback, particularly during the course of learning, are the most effective ways for students to learn accountability in their work and personal lives" (Wormeli 26). Assessment must be meaningful in order for students to grow. No place is this more evident than in the teaching of writing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Thinking About Assessing Writing

Lucy Calkins has struck a nerve. In her book The Art of Teaching Reading she writes, "If we can keep only one thing in mind-and I fail at this half the time-it is that we are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by 'what might help this writer' rather than 'what might help this writing'" (228). Although she is specifically addressing conferencing, this idea is applicable in a much broader sense to the whole endeavor of teaching emerging writers. In an era of state standards and high stakes testing, many teachers are either required or feel compelled to teach to the test. In essence, we are teaching writing for one particular prompt rather than teaching emerging writers. We teach our students over and over to write for this or that prompt rather than teach them to internalize what it means to be a good writer. As teacher and writer Ralph Fletcher points out in his book What a Writer Needs, "The cost runs high when we coerce students (through grades, praise, favoritism), however subtly, to shoehorn their emerging language into the narrow parameters we set for what constitutes 'good writing' in our classrooms" (25). So the question becomes how can teachers merge what seem to be the conflicting pulls of teaching writers and assessing writers? How can we help students come to understand themselves as writers, internalizing their own high standards for writing?

There seems to be is a disconnect between how we assess writing based on standards, whether it be for state testing situations or the high-stakes writing prompts like those found on the AP and SAT exams, versus the way that real writers approach the writing process. Because it is easy, teachers attach numbers and percentages to outlines and drafts, to three page essays with a thesis. But is this valid? Who and what do these numbers assess? Students read the grade at the top of the page and then bury the work at the bottom of the backpack, or worse, the bottom of the trash can. Even on the flip side, when we attempt to use more holistic rubrics like the PA Scoring Guide with its labels like Advanced, Proficient, and Basic, students, parents, tax-payers are more concerned with the numbers of students scoring at a particular level.

How can writing teachers assess the work of student writers in ways that are meaningful, ways that reflect the individual student‘s engagement with the process of writing? How might grading writing for the mastery of skills help emerging writers grow more confident and proficient?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hand-Me-Down Baby

I've heard the same comments so many times recently that I'm starting to repeat them.

“No need for new clothes. After all, they'll be the same season.” “Oh, how nice, you won't have to redecorate. You can just use your first son's nursery items.” “It makes it so easy and so affordable to have two boys instead of one of each.”

I feel like this is what I should say, what everyone expects me to say. But it saddens me to think that I will be raising a hand-me-down baby.

I'm expecting my second son in a few short weeks, two boys, a little less than two years apart in age. I imagine them running the neighborhood together as they grow: the older boy gregariously greeting all our neighbors with his little brother in tow. When I start to write down some of these hopes in my newest pregnancy journal, I realize that everything I am writing is tied to my first son. “When we first learned that you would be joining our family, we started to teach your older brother how to say 'baby.'" "At the first ultrasound, your older brother giggled when he saw your little shape moving on the screen.”

Prior to my first son's birth, I journaled weekly, posting my reflections on a blog for long-distance family and friends to follow. I reflected on my changing roles, my changing identity. I spent hours planning and painting the new nursery, picking out just the right organic bedding set, scouring through Craigslist for gently used cribs and rockers, strollers and gates, changing tables and toy boxes. The monitor was hooked up long before the baby's arrival. The new clothes, freshly washed and folded, were neatly stacked in the little dresser months before his arrival. And all of this is meticulously recorded in my first son's pregnancy journal, pictures, cards, ultrasound print-outs, and all.

And although I'm already 35 weeks along, I have very few pictures of my belly, of this pregnancy. My newest little one's pregnancy journal sits safely tucked away in our bedroom bookcase, a thin layer of dust on its binding. I pulled it out last around 22 weeks to record my weight and the date of the most recent appointment with our midwife. I've brought the old baby clothes out of a rubber tub in the basement. No need to wash them again. I did that before packing them away. No need to get a new car seat. The old one will do. Our new little baby boy will fit right in to his older brother's model. My hand-me-down baby will fit right in.

And that's when I started to worry. How do I make sure this new little life grows into his own person and not into the mold of his older brother?

But when I watch my nearly two year old son excitedly gobble down green beans, splash in the tub, contentedly sleep, I am reminded of just how unique we each are. My son did not learn to be gregarious from me or my husband. I'm pretty sure he was just born friendly. As much as I coaxed him to say “mama” or “dada” as his first word, he clear as day declared “cat!” soon followed by “bus” and “skkrrrl” (squirrel). He seemed to born with his own unique perspective on the world.

So although his younger brother will grow into the clothes his older brother now wears, I will find ways to honor our new little boy's unique personality and perspective. There would be no hand-me-downs if it weren't for this new little life, no one to hand down to. My first son would not be a brother without him. And so I honor this new little person by handing down what I learned from parenting his older brother. I learn from my mistakes. I hand-down my wisdom, my patience. I hand down my love and respect. I create spaces for him to share his unique view of the world. And I hand down my open heart to his open hands. I hand down the best of myself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More Links for Writing for an Audience

  • S.O.A.P.S: FOR-PD Reading Strategy of the Month - November 2008
    The SOAPS strategy can be used to teach students how to read and understand narrative and expository texts. Each text structure has unique characteristics and students can benefit from instruction on how "to read" and understand text. This becomes particularly important with implicit text and messages as many students have underdeveloped inferential skills. The SOAPS comprehension strategy includes the following: SOAPS- Speaker; Occasion; Audience; Purpose; and, Subject.
  • "The Structure of Advanced Composition" (article)
    Students must learn to distinguish between three separate operations: analyzing the audience, determining the effect they want to achieve with that audience, and taking the steps necessary to achieve that effect.
  • Audience Analysis.pdf (application/pdf Object)
    R.E.A.D. Your Audience
    Relationship: What is your relationship to them? What is their relationship to each other? What is their relationship with the topic?
    Event: How many people will you be addressing? Where will you be speaking? What part are you playing?
    Attitudes: What are the attitudes toward the topic? Do they want to be there?
    Demographics: What is their age? What is their gender? What is their ethnicity? Do they belong to any groups? What is their economic status?
  • How to Conduct Audience Analysis - wikiHow
    Follow this acronym and answer the resulting questions. Just remember the AUDIENCE.

    * Analysis- Who is the audience?
    * Understanding- What is the audience's knowledge of the subject?
    * Demographics- What is their age, gender, education background etc.?
    * Interest- Why are they reading your document?
    * Environment- Where will this document be sent/viewed?
    * Needs- What are the audience's needs associated with your document topic?
    * Customization- What specific needs/interests should you the writer address relating to the specific audience?
    * Expectations- What does the audience expect to learn from your document? The audience should walk away having their initial questions answered and explained.
  • English Composition 1: Audience Analysis
    Writing to your audience may have a lot to do with in-born talent, intuition, and even mystery. But there are some controls you can use to have a better chance to connect with your readers. The following "controls" allow any writer a better chance of communicating with the audience:
  • Writing for an Audience
    Once you know your audience, you are ready to begin writing. Knowing your audience enables you to select or reject details for that specific audience. In addition, different audiences expect different types or formats for texts. Readers of Environmental Impact Statements don't want to read rhyming poetry extolling the virtues of nature. Mothers getting letters from children don't want to read a laboratory report about the events of the past month.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I am a Hypocrite

It started as an inspired idea.

For their final writing assignment, I would have my tenth grade English students write an essay describing their writing process and how they had addressed their personal writing goals over the course of our semester together. What I expected were essays loaded with metaphors: “My process is like a trip on the tilt-a-whirl,” “I draft like an architect,” “I write like I’m trapped in a snow globe.” I imagined my own essay.

I am shoveling snow in the middle of a blizzard. The storm begins slowly, a few misshaped snowflakes land on the sidewalk and quickly melt away. Suddenly the skies open, and the ideas swirl and gather like a mid-February storm in Michigan. In its midst, I am trying to shovel, clearing away chunky, frostbitten language while new ideas are gathering on my sidewalks. I am attempting to carve out a shape and structure mid-thought, mid-process. It is a futile effort, I know this.

What I hoped to see in my students’ essay were revelations about how they made progress toward their goals over the course of our semester: “Ms. Ward, I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and realized that I needed to further explain quotations in order to show analysis” or “I learned how to infuse my voice into even academic writing through my diction and stance toward my topic.”

This did not happen.

Instead, essays were loaded with nearly list-like descriptions of how I had taught the writing process throughout the semester: I brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise. Some students attempted hesitating honesty and declared their propensity toward procrastination. For the most part, the essays lacked voice, weighed down by formal diction and predictable sentence structure. In short, their writing lacked life.

This is when the disconnect between the way I teach the writing process and the way that I approach writing personally became abundantly clear. How come I was able to come up with a metaphor for my writing process, but it was such a struggle for my students? It was then that I realized I am a hypocrite. If I don’t practice what I preach, if I don’t brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise in that order each time I write, how could I expect my students to follow the very linear model of writing that I had taught throughout the semester? I can picture my students slapping high-five’s and pumping fists over this revelation. I have been passing on an unrealistic model for writing, or at least one that does not work for every writer. It forced me reconsider how I teach writing process.


Ralph Fletcher writes in his book What a Writer Needs, “…no element of writing can exist in isolation.” When writing teachers compartmentalize the writing process into discrete steps, we suffocate the craft and the art that writing involves. Writing is recursive. We brainstorm, draft, and revise simultaneously. We elicit feedback and start again. We revise and rewrite again and again and again. As I heard writer James McBride say, “Writing is rewriting.” Very few writers find that they are finished with a piece once they have brainstormed, outlined, drafted, and revised just once. As a result, writing teachers, myself included, need to explode the writing process in our classrooms, giving students the opportunity to explore and find their own best practices. “Research on writing, and the words of writers themselves, suggest a far stranger, far less logical writing process than that. Less neat. It turns out that many writers actually discover what they have to say in the process of writing it,” suggests Fletcher. Instead of teaching a lock-step approach to writing, teachers need to focus on sharing a variety of strategies for thinking about and engaging in the writing process.

So when I next enter the classroom, I want to teach my students to shovel their own snow.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Links for Teaching Writing with the Audience in Mind

  • Getting Real: Authenticity in Writing Prompts - National Writing Project
    Summary: Teachers often strive to develop exercises in which students write "authentic" pieces for an audience beyond the teacher. Here Slagle demonstrates the next step: sending student writing to people outside the classroom.
  • Teach How to Write to Different Audiences: Students Learn to Adjust Vocabulary or Language for Specific Reader
    Writing to an Audience: The reason it is important to know the audience is because the writer needs to know how much explanation to give in a piece of writing. Depending on the expertise of the audience, a writer can use jargon of the topic with or without explanation.
  • JSTOR: Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr. - May - Jun., 2001), pp. 184-201
    Understanding how writers address and invoke audience may simultaneously enhance children's growth as readers and writers. Most research on student writers' sense of audience has focused on secondary and college writers. This study examines first graders' demonstrations of audience awareness in the context of Family Message Journal writing. In Family Message Journals children write a message to their families and receive a written family reply each day. These journals provide a fertile context for the study of audience awareness because of the existence of an authentic, responsive audience for children's messages.
  • ReadWriteThink: Lesson Plan: Teaching Audience Through Interactive Writing
    One of the most difficult aspects of writing is keeping audience in mind throughout the writing process. Developing lessons that support this strategy for writing is essential in the elementary classroom. This lesson supports first-grade students in learning about audience. Through interactive writing, students work together to create a genuine invitation letter for a group of their peers. In addition to the interactive writing experience, students work independently to create invitation letters for their families. Extension activities include conducting additional interactive writing experiences, reading books with samples of letters, and creating invitations at a learning center.
  • Audience Awareness: When and How Does It Develop?
    Many theorists contend that the purpose of writing is to communicate with an audience, which can be defined as actual readers or as the writer himself. Scholars also seem to agree on another point: "no matter who/what the audience is (from real people to fictional construct), writers adjust their discourse to their audiences. In other words, writers do things to bring their readers into their texts, to establish a community that includes themselves and their reader" (Wildeman, 1988). A strong case can be made for teachers to use audience-oriented teaching strategies that encourage children to write for a wide range of readers.
  • Educational Leadership:Giving Students Ownership of Learning:The Power of Audience
    When student work culminates in a genuine product for an authentic audience, it makes a world of difference.
  • A Collection of Online Publishing Opportunities for Student Writing - National Writing Project
    Writing Project teachers have always found authentic ways to propel their students toward writing to an audience beyond the classroom. This collection focuses on online publishing opportunities for students of all ages—including literary magazines, book review sites, and even jokes and riddles.
  • Lesson Plan: Writing for Purpose and Audience. Teach Students How to Write and Revise with Purpose and Audience in Mind.
    Cover the following points about writing for purpose and audience: 1) Your audience determines what you write, what examples and details to include, what to emphasize, word choice and tone. 2) Your purpose for writing determines what you write, the point of your writing, and how you will make your point. 3) Knowing audience and purpose gives your writing focus.
  • audience_purpose_classroom_activities_2009-04-14.pdf (application/pdf Object)
  • EJ0985Focus.pdf (application/pdf Object)
    Wiggin's English Journal article on Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter
  • Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom
  • Learning Through Listening | R.A.F.T. Strategy
  • Exploring Audience and Purpose with a Single Issue - ReadWriteThink
    Students explore the rhetorical concept of audience and purpose by focusing on an issue that divided Americans in 1925, the debate of evolution versus creationism raised by the Scopes Monkey Trial. Students first become familiar with the case by reviewing a newspaper article and other resources with details about the trial. They then identify the purpose and audience of a newspaper article about the trial, and explain how the purpose and audience for the article shaped the text. Then, students brainstorm a list of positions someone writing about the trial might take and the audience they might address as they consider how audience and purpose might shape other communication on the issue using an online Audience Analysis Inventory tool.
  • Engaging Audience: Writing in an Age of New Literacies
  • 50 Useful Blogging Tools for Teachers
    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.
  • Welcome to Great Source iwrite!
    Welcome to Great Source iwrite!
    Everything educators, students, and parents need to make the writing process work in the classroom and at home
  • Elements of Literature: Writing Resources
    Holt Writing Resources
    Interactive Writer's Models
    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.
  • 21stCenturyConcepts - 70 Tools in 70 Minutes
    A great presentation on Web 2.0 tools for teaching

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

    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
    Add an embeddable discussion to your PBWorks wiki (or other website) using 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 -
    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.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflection on Writing Mentors

Before my class begins at the end of June, I’ve been asked to read Ralph Fletcher’s What a Writer Needs. As I sit here reading and reflecting on the opening chapters, my one and a half year old plops himself at my feet, an arc of picture and board books around him. He’s thumbing through page after page, babbling words, trying on different voices. When I lay my pen down, he makes a grab for it so that he might mark his pages like mommy is marking hers.

It seems fitting that Fletcher’s first chapter is on “Mentors,” beginning with Haim Ginott’s quote:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”

My little one reminds me that even in our quiet moments we are mentors, modeling for our students our beliefs and expectations. It isn’t just what we say to motivate, engage, and encourage students; it’s about what we do. We pass on our love of reading and writing when students see us reading and writing.

Fletcher also makes the point that as writing teachers we are writing mentors and as such must take care to foster a relationship with our students that enables them to grow in their writing process. This involves finding the important balance of maintaining high expectations and encouraging novice writers. Mentors must be careful not to overly praise mediocre work while remembering that “Even in a ‘bad’ piece of writing, the mentor reaches into the chaos, finds a place where the writing works, pulls it from the wreckage, names it, and makes the writer aware of this emerging skill with words” (14). But what resonated with me most was Fletcher’s advice on risk.

By holding to a suffocating definition of what constitutes “good” writing or formulas for how particular pieces should (or shouldn’t) be written, we not only strangle the life out of our students’ writing, but we also deprive them of the joy that comes from playing with language. “You don’t learn to writing by going through a series of preset writing exercises. You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you” (4). Formulaic writing prompts only result in predictable, unimaginative essays written for the teacher to shred with the dripping red pen. What does this teach our students? How to write an essay for a particular teacher – one person. And although students do need to learn what how to meet a variety of expectations throughout their lifetime, isn’t it more important that students learn to write for more than one person at a time, to take a risk in their writing, and learn to appeal to larger audiences? The danger, as Fletcher points out, is that under such writing assignments our students learn to write for one particular teacher’s rules “instead of trying to internalize their own high standards for writing” (22). As writing teachers, writing mentors, we must find ways to encourage novice writers to play, take risks, and internalize their own high standards for writing.

Fletcher points to a wonderful quote by Patrick Shannon, “Risk allows children to outgrow themselves” (17). A writer constrained by the schema of right and wrong when it comes to writing will never find the “fluency and playfulness, the time and perseverance she will need over the long haul to become a skillful writer” (17). We must remember how we came to love writing and foster those moments, that environment, in our classrooms. My guess is that very few people remember one assignment or writing prompt that “turned” them into a good writer. Instead, good writers are grown in nurturing environments: fed with honest and compassionate feedback, allowed to stretch their writing limbs, to dig into their roots, and cultivated with creative and authentic writing experiences. Writing mentors remember that writing is a process not an end point, and therefore, we must nurture the journey.

Fletcher, Ralph. What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1993. Print.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Makin' it Real

This has been my favorite teaching semester.

Why? Because I've taught less.

One of my goals for this school year was to spend less time standing in front of students and more time learning right alongside them. Instead of dictating notes, I've focused on honing my skills as a facilitator, setting the stage for students to learn and discover literature concepts on their own. I've tried to find more ways to get my students in front of the classroom, teaching their peers about various grammar mistakes, about motifs from The Kite Runner, about themes from Asian poetry. I'm no longer afraid of open-ended assignments. In fact, I relish in them. I don't want to read 30 of the same exact essays on cyber bullying. Instead, students research issues that have meaning for them and find ways to adapt and share their research with authentic audiences outside our classroom. And in doing this, I find that my students are more engaged and more interested in delving deeper into our content. And as their teacher, I have an opportunity not only to learn more about my students but also learn about a topic that I might not have otherwise encountered. I've tried to find more ways to connect my students with authentic audiences as a way to encourage deeper, more meaningful reflection on the skills and content we learn in class.

In this past semester alone, I've been able to bring in a speaker from Penn's Middle Eastern Center and one from the South Asian Center, Michael Herskovitz spoke with students about his experiences in the death camps of World War II, and most recently, my students have connected with students from Kabul's Marefat High School in Afghanistan through our Ning discussion site. Students have been learning about history first-hand, an experience I hope to replicate semester after semester. There's something about learning from those who have lived through the experiences we've studied in our literature and social studies courses that cannot be replicated by a teacher standing in front of the room with a PowerPoint packed with notes. The connections, the questions, and critical thinking that such opportunities inspire make the effort of organizing them well worth it.

Over the last couple of years, I've tried to cultivate these sorts of opportunities in my classes. It has not come easily, and goodness knows, I've definitely made many missteps along the way. But more than anything, I've found value in learning from those faltering steps right alongside my students. It is such opportunities that make it enjoyable to come into the classroom, for students and teachers alike. And, with so many wonderful collaboration opportunities available through education oriented websites, it's even easier to bring the world into the classroom, to make literature come alive. So, I thought I would pass along a few of my favorites. Check 'um out:

Taking it Global Educators (TiGed)
What is TIGed? (from the TiG website)
  • As TIG's vibrant global community has evolved, educators inspired by its young members have sought to integrate its resources and focus on action-based learning into their teaching. This was made easier beginning in 2006, with the launch of the TakingITGlobal for Educators (TIGed) program. TIGed allows educators to leverage the resources of the world's most popular online community for youth who want to make a difference - - in ways that meet the needs of their learning environments.

    TIGed is a community of globally-minded educators interested in empowering their students to think and act as world citizens, a collection of resources that facilitate the inclusion of global perspectives in the classroom, and a virtual classroom that allows students to use collaborative technology in order to connect with people from around the world and learn about global issues.
A Community of Global Educators
  • TIG members who are actively engaged as educators can apply for an educator badge through their profile settings in order to join the TIGed community, a network of thousands of teachers and students from over 70 countries around the world. Collectively, the TIGed community comprises diverse perspectives, expertise, and knowledge and members can potentially learn a lot from one another. TIGed uses technology to make it easier for global educators to connect, share ideas, and work together.

    TIGed members can network, communicate, and collaborate in several ways. Having an educator badge allows users to search the member database for educators only, thereby identifying potential friends, allies, and partners. A discussion forum allows educators to share successes, challenges, strategies, and ideas with respect to integrating technology and global perspectives into education. A collaboration database of educators interested in partnering with other classrooms around the world facilitates international learning partnerships. Meanwhile, regularly produced TIGed blogs and newsletters help TIGeducators stay up to date on developments and events related to the TIGed community.


Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
Planning to take your students to worlds unknown? Partnering with CILC is a great way to start! Here you will find information and tools to help make your job easier and to enhance learning through the use of videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies.

BENEFITS: In addition to searching a variety of databases, membership in CILC enables you to
  • create a Custom Catalog aligned to discipline types and/or topics, audience type or grade level, national standards, and/or learning objectives

  • post collaboration requests in the Collaboration Center

  • Receive in your inbox weekly updates matched to your preferences, CILC e-News, published 5 times from September to May, e-Flashes sharing special CILC offers, usually once a month, and e-Updates explaining new website features, usually twice a year

  • access to manage your CILC member profile, view all your collaboration and/or class requests, and see all the Favorites you've marked as you searched
TAKE THE CILC TOUR: Learn where and how to access all your benefits.

The tour is a free, live presentation, accessed through the Internet at your computer, which provides a complete overview of View a variety of dates and times and REGISTER.


ePals: Welcome to the World's Largest K-12 Learning Network!
ePals is the leading provider of safe collaborative technology for schools to connect and learn in a protected, project-based learning network. With classrooms in 200 countries and territories, ePals makes it easy to connect learners locally, nationally or internationally.


People-to-People International
From the People-to-People International website:

People to People International's School and Classroom Program is a free service that connects teachers and their students with classes in other countries for pen pal exchanges and projects that improve cultural understanding and encourage friendship. Classes are matched according to similar age and number of pupils to form partnerships. Students interact by exchanging traditional paper letters or email messages supervised by their teacher, who receives a program manual for guidance. Teachers may form partnerships with classes in multiple countries and work together for one or more school years.

Primary, middle and secondary-school classes and youth groups (grades kindergarten-12) from all countries are welcome. To join, we ask teachers or adults, who supervise students, to register. Registration is open during July - October. Registrations submitted before or after this time will be held for the following semester or school year. We will contact you to discuss options.

Register here or contact


More Ways to Connect with other Teachers/Classrooms:

Try finding other teachers interested in connecting with your students using one of these sites:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Finding Voice

I’m in the process of discovering my voice.

I find this a bit ironic since this is something that I supposedly teach. I tell my tenth grade students at the beginning of each semester that one of the goals of our tenth grade writing curriculum is to help students identify and hone their unique writing voice, that by the close of the semester each student should be able to turn in a typed essay without a name at the top of the page, and I should be able to tell whose it is simply by the voice of the piece. In reality, they are just beginning to figure out who they are, who they want to be, trying on different personalities and styles, much like they do in their writing. And, at twice their age, I still find myself doing the same thing.

Maybe this is what makes writing engaging and exciting – it is always new. Perhaps good writers are always a bit unsettled, trying out new ideas and new styles. Perhaps this is what keeps writing fresh, what keeps us coming back to the blank page – the possibility. It is through writing that we are able to discover new possibilities in ourselves, in our lives, and in those around us. So perhaps it isn’t a bad thing that I haven’t been able to pinpoint who I am as a writer or nail down my own style.

Or, maybe this is just what I tell myself so that I don’t feel like I’m still floundering when faced with the blank, bright white screen in front of me.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my own writing and what it means for me to be a writing teacher. I was recently accepted into this summer’s Pennsylvania Writing Project Summer Institute where I’ll become a fellow in the National Writing Project. As part of my application and interview, I talked about my interest in engaging students in the writing process through more authentic writing opportunities like those that can be offered through collaborative web 2.0 sites. In fact, I just delivered a professional development workshop on this very topic this past week to a group of my fellow teachers. Each semester I ask my students to post to discussion boards, write and respond to blogs, and collaborate on wiki pages. I’ve found that when I ask students to write for larger audiences, when they write and post pieces knowing that their fellow classmates, other teachers, and sometimes the general public will be able to read and respond to their work, they take the writing process much more seriously. They are writing for an actual audience and not just a single teacher. They seem to understand better the need to be clear. They spend more time with the writing process rather than just rushing toward the end of the page. This semester, I’ve asked my students to write personal narratives and reflection journals as blog entries, post videos of speeches they’ve written and given, use a discussion board to connect with students in Kabul, as well as collaborate, create, and post online a variety of presentation materials. In short, my students have been working diligently on establishing their writing identities in a public space, online. But as their teacher, the one you would think should have the most experience with these sorts of opportunities, I’ve found recently that the writing I tend to do most is didactic, not the same sort of reflective writing exercises that I ask my students to engage in.

I don’t seem to be carving out the same time that I ask my students to devote to figuring out who I am as a writer. I’m not writing with my students. Instead, I find myself giving instructions rather than instructing, meaning that rather than modeling my expectations, I seem to just be dictating them. I think this is an easy trap for teachers to fall into. I get so caught up in wanting to make sure that my directions are clear, that my rubrics make sense, that my lessons are meaningful, that I forget that good teachers are also learners. Students need to see their teachers learning right along with them. How else will they understand that learning is a life-long process if the adults in their lives don’t model this?

I am certainly not an expert in writing. In fact, I have a very long way to go in order to figure out who I am as a writer. But maybe that’s okay to share with my students. Instead of getting so caught up in the directions and grading, I need to spend time exploring my writing voice right alongside my students. I have a feeling that they can teach me a thing or two about writing, about what it means to be open to exploring new possibilities in my writing. I need to be willing to find my own voice together with my students as they discover theirs.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Today's Interesting Links

  • Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC): Advancing ...
    The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) supports and advances education through videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies. A nonprofit, CILC offers access to quality professional development and student educational content, as well as consulting and technical assistance. This helps schools leverage technology to improve educational outcomes, while saving time and money.
  • GrowingWithGoogle - home
    Essential Questions:
    - Which Google Tools can help us to be more effective in our teaching and learning practices?
    - How can Google Tools be used collaboratively to transform teaching and learning experiences?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used creatively in classroom instruction?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used to organize documents, presentations and other types of materials?
    - How can specific Google Tools be used to create efficiency in teaching and learning?
    - How can Google Tools create rich documentation of teaching and learning?
  • Google Forms: Self-Graded Quizzes « Robin's Technology Tips
    Google forms can be used to create a quiz that can be graded automatically in the spreadsheet using formulas. To save you time, these instructions are for a 20 question (or less) quiz using the template with the formulas already entered.
  • — Any file, in your website
  • Wissahickon School District's eToolBox - pln
    Personal Learning Networks defined:
    * Personal - particular to a given individual
    * Learning - the acquisition and development of memories and behaviors, including skills, knowledge, understanding, values, and wisdom
    * Network - an interconnected system of things or people

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Write Online?

In his recent English Journal article, "Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter," Grant Wiggins elaborates on why creating authentic audiences for student writers can have such a significant impact on student writing. When creating online writing opportunities, keep the following in mind:

Ensure that students have to write for real audiences and purposes, not just the teacher in response to generic prompts.

Authentic Assessment Demands:
  • Engaging and worthy tasks of importance
  • Faithful representation of the contexts
  • Nonroutine and multistage tasks -real problems
  • Tasks that require the student to produce a quality product
  • Transparent or demystified criteria and standards
"Real writers are trying to make a difference, find their true audience, and cause some result in that readership," writes Grant. "...the point is to open the mind or heart of a real audience - cause a fuss, achieve a feeling, start some thinking. In other words, what few young writers learn is that there are consequences for succeeding or failing as a real writer."

Further Resources/Research on Creating Authentic Audiences:
In thinking about how to use online tools to connect students with authentic audiences, I put together this resource page. I'll be using as part of an upcoming session on how wikis, Nings, and Google Docs could be used in the classroom to foster such creative collaboration and writing for authentic audiences. I'll also be introducing a number of sites that teachers can use to connect with other classrooms around the world - TiGed, CILC, ePals, and People to People International.

You can join this session virtually on Tuesday, May 18th as I will be broadcasting it live via my UStream channel. More information and times to come.

Holocaust survivor bears witness to atrocities - News Of Delaware County - Delco News Network

Holocaust survivor bears witness to atrocities - News Of Delaware County - Delco News Network

By Lois Puglionesi

HAVERFORD TWP - Haverford High School English instructor Jen Ward has taught thousands of students about the Holocaust through books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” But Ward has always felt her classes have difficulty “making the connection between history and a real person.”

So this year Ward tried something different. With help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center she arranged for a Holocaust survivor, Michael Herskovitz, to visit the school last week.

A warm and affable man with a heavy European accent, Herskovitz, 81, described growing up in a small Czechoslovakian village where his religious Jewish parents owned a grocery store. Herskovitz said he never felt different because people treated each other with mutual respect.

But in 1943, when Herskovitz was 13, Nazi soldiers arrived and the happy life he’d known forever changed.Herskovitz described how within weeks synagogues closed, his parents lost their store, Jews were put under curfew and forced to wear yellow Jewish stars.

Stating that it was for their own “protection,” Nazi soldiers transported Herskovitz, his parents and siblings to a ghetto where they were given a tent to live in and fed once or twice a day.The situation grew even more ominous when soldiers took the family to a railroad station and put them on cattle cars crammed with 60-70 people. The train picked up many more passengers before reaching its final destination, Auschwitz.

Read more at the News of Delaware County

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.

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