Combining Launch Cycle with the Writing Process

The writing process has always been one of the core elements of my classroom instruction. Whether teaching Regents-level classes or International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or other college-level courses, using the ideas of Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins and the writers the the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking.

In the past year I’ve read A.J. Juliani’s Launch and Empower. Both books have pushed me to consider the connections between the design-thinking cycle and the writing process.

Both have much in common. They each begin in generating ideas, then developing drafts or prototypes, and moving through revision, before ultimately sharing that work with the public.

As contemporary composition research suggests that we should spend more time with students working with real-world audiences, the design thinking process puts an important focus into its process. It asks us to consider what problems we’ll attempt to solve, who we’re solving them for, and how what is being created will address the needs of that group. It’s for this reason that looking at ways we can bring this into the writing process can ultimately benefit students.

Every year, I start my English 101 class with an introductory lesson on the Writing Process. This lesson will get some tweaks by incorporating design-thinking vocabulary that my students and I will use throughout the year.

Below is my preliminary thinking about where the two processes overlap and what writing activities might be part of each part of these processes.

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Change is an opportunity to do something amazing, so let’s build a new school.

For the first week of season 2 of Innovator’s Mindset, I get to pour the metaphorical Legos out onto the floor, and build a new school.

Recently, I’ve written here about some of the things I’d like to see in forward thinking classrooms (A New High School Course), about some new models for writing (Trashing the High School English Classroom) and about how I’m working with students using Twitter to build connections to ideas they’re researching (Students, the Twitter-verse and Me).

When the IMMOOC prompts came out, I felt a little stalled, and to work through the block, just made some lists of practices I was trying to embrace as an educator and my reactions to the early pages of Innovator’s Mindset. I wasn’t feeling it, so decided to spend sometime engaging in design thinking and build a new school.

I’ve heard teacher re-frame the focus of education: “I don’t teach X subject, I teach children.” It’s, of course, an important distinction to make. The learners in classrooms need to come first, and before learning things like the quadratic equation, logos-ethos-pathos, the theme of Hamlet, or the parts of a cell.

However, I wonder, if we think of schools just in terms of the children, and that children are the only clients that we serve, we maybe do a disservice to the entire community. After all, teachers are there, and some will spend thirty or more years working in a building, the same can be said of the administrators, counselors, and other members that make up the service that’s done. Schools also function, arguably, to create functioning members of the community. Doesn’t a school serve, beyond its children and faculty, the larger community?

I’ve stopped saying, “I don’t English, I teach children,” to “I’m trying to engage in a practice that honors the humanity of all of those involved.”

By trying to make things better, and to engage in design thinking, I hope to honor the humanity of my students and my self. When I read Launch, last summer, my central take away is that when we are going to create, we have to start by asking questions that force us to consider those we are trying to create for. If we’re going to build better schools–both physically and in terms of the curriculum, we have to empathize with all involved.

Here are some things that I would do in the new school:

First I’d start with some questions. Here are some questions that need to be asked?

  • What kinds of environments do people feel most productive in?
  • What does psychological research reveal about the connections physical space, productivity, and learning?
  • What kinds of spaces exist on the cutting edge in industries such as tech, medical, automotive, business? What do they look like and why?
  • How can schools provide services important to people that move beyond the academic? For example, can we put medical clinics, dentists, legal aid, fruit and vegetable markets, DMVs, county clerks offices in schools for members to have access to?
  • What are the core experiences of our humanity? Community? Language? Cooking? Collaboration? Innovation? Creativity? Making? How can schools promote such experiences?
  • How do we create a school that will still be relevant in 5, 10, 20, 100 years?

Physical:

  • A range of classroom layouts that accommodate for a range of instructional styles: direct, project-based, small-group, rotational.
  • Outside classrooms designed and constructed so that teaching and learning could happen year round. Heated spaced, covered spaces.
  • A large, open communal space designed to be welcoming for all members of the school during the day, and for all community outside of school hours.
  • A movie theater.
  • Individual office space for each teacher. Space large enough for teacher and small group of students.
  • Labs designated for use not tied to classes: maker spaces, computer, media. Spaces where members are allowed to work, play, create.

Curricular:

  • A strong, developed, transparent, and rigorous system of assessment for all students. Assessments are generated or negotiated between teachers, students, parents, community members (hospital, business leaders, for example), allow for multiple approaches to complete, and involve all stakeholders in the evaluation of the assessments.
  • Emphasis on project-based learning, inquiry, research, interdisciplinary study.
  • Expectation that administrators work in classes; expectation that teachers perform administrative tasks.

What would I leave behind?

  • Assumption.
  • “This is how we’ve always done it.”
  • Budgetary restriction.
  • Peddling to the mediocre, average, and fearful.

I would love to hear about what your schools have done to be different and any questions you’d add to my list. I’m sure that I’ll be revising this blog. As soon as I post, I know that I’ll have something new to add to one of the lists above.

Now, off to read some great blogs and be inspired.

 

 

 

Students, the Twitter-verse and Me

Here was my vision.

Students would create an informational website with a white paper on their issue. They’d create a series of ads and flyers (using Canva) for both on-line and off-line ads to be distributed via a Twitter feed. They’d use Twitter and the ads to draw audiences to their websites, seek feed back on the concerns of the community, and then ultimately write a problem-solving proposal shaped on the feedback from the community. I’ll be posting later about how I rolled all of this out to students along with the resources I used. I was inspired to this vision after reading about such a sequence in Understanding and Creating Digital Texts: An Activity-Based Approach (Beach, Anson, Breuch & Reynolds 2014) and a parallel sequence of activities from the Michigan State University FYC. [If you would like to see my launch event for the project, you can see it here.] Although this is not the only reading I did. Both Troy Hicks (@hickstro), posts at Movingwriters , and the good folks at KQED Mindshift have pushed my thinking about writing, social media, audience and the use of Twitter. 

Laying the Foundation for Twitter.

So, really, this is the first in a series of posts about using social media, particularly Twitter, as a way to help students think about digital citizenship, to create academic and professional profiles using social media, as a tool for research, connection, and a new resource to bring us to texts to use as mentor texts, analysis and evaluation.

One step I took before building any materials, was to check in with my principal, who also actively tweets (@vtenney3) to make sure I had his support in this endeavor, and in my weekly email blast to parents, I let them know that we were going to use Twitter as part of the course.

Unfortunately, one thing I didn’t do, and I don’t know if it would have made a difference, was to check in the the IT department to make sure that Twitter was unlocked (as it should have been). On the planned roll-out day, my first period students couldn’t access Twitter through their network accounts. I pushed things off for a week to make sure after the filters had been changed, students could access.

Roll-out and Procedure

On the day I rolled out to students, I started with them reading an article, “Why Every Personal Brand Deserves and Early Start,” which had come to my attention through reading George Couros’ (@gcouros) newsletter. Students got links to the articles in a Schoology update and then had to comment on the articles. Here is a snapshot to give you a sense of the tenor of the overall response from students: 

student-responses
Several student responses to the launch article. 

So, I created a Schoology page with ISTE standards and my own learning objectives for why would be using this social media tool. The page provided students with the details I wanted them to use.

schoology-page-twitter
My Schoology resource page for my students. I wanted the use of social media to capture and focus their attention, and I also wanted to make sure I had formal purpose to our work as justification to administration and community.

 

For the first Tweets, I used the weekly KQED Mindshift “Do Now” questions. To help us all connect, I used a hashtag (#kpedz103). Using the hashtag allowed me to discuss the formal purpose of using hashtags as a way of search for conversations appropriate to research, as well as to help them aggregate their own research. 

As you can see, I most of what I did here was synthesized from a number of different sources and resources. Like what I was asking my students to do, I was using Twitter, links to followed Tweeters to aggregate information and put it together. I also had to employ a number of tools and resources to get this all to work.

At this point, students knew how to write a tweet, follow, re-tweet, search hashtags, and use a hashtag to help link tweets around a central idea.

We went on to start to use Twitter as a research tool. Students would need to find organizations that created content, research, writing, blogging about an issue that they were studying. We used a Gale publication and database on their issue, which provided a list of organizations to contact. I instructed them to see if these organizations maintained Twitter feeds and to follow them.

Where I’m headed…

Working from there, we will return to the Twitter feeds in the next day to evaluate the sources and the kinds of information these sources were providing to us through the Twitter links.

The next part of this, about source evaluation and teaching students to think about how Tweets are making arguments will be coming soon.

I started this post describing a vision I was working towards in my English 103 class that would bring in real-world writing, distribution of this writing, and working with audiences to shape writing products. Teaching Twitter as a tool became the first step in making this vision reality for my students.

Trashing the High School English Classroom

In the traditional High School English classroom, there two ways that essays come to be assigned and written. First, the class is reading of a novel, and at the end of the unit of study, it’s time to write an essay. Second, there is a unit of study–Argument Unit, Persuasive Unit, Research Unit, Personal Narrative Unit, Comparison Contrast Unit–and the students work to produce a product towards one of these modes.

I’m going to suggest 2 different approaches to writing and re-imaginings of these traditional approaches, one I’ve tried, and the other, not.

Re-Imagining #1

My first re-imagining, and one that’s probably not a re-imagining, but just a spin on writing workshop models, is the idea that students generate their own topics and ideas for writing. However, I’m going to go much simpler. Student need just one idea or topic to write about. From there, the teacher asks the student to use that idea again and again in different genres, modes, and media forms.

While I didn’t consciously take such an approach, it happened naturally for many of my students in the second half of my English 101 class in the past semester. We started by writing information-based essays on closely related topics such as industrialized process of food production, what makes food organic, the barriers to local food economies. From there, students revised and re-purposed essays into arguments, blog posts, podcasts, infographics. They moved from information-based essays to persuasive pieces, academic research to personal letters. They took eight-page essays and cut them into 30 second Public Service announcements. They created reflective essays on their processes and used their own work as models and templates for others, students in my future classes, to follow.

A student’s struggle, often with writing, is two-fold. The first struggle is to read and to master the content of what he or she is writing about. A second struggle is then to write about it coherently.

The single topic approach may cut away with the first struggle. After a while, there comes to be an intimacy with a topic, the conversations around it, a fluency with the conversations in progress, a knowledge of the details. They develop familiarity and comfort.

Thus, they can focus on the moves of the coherent communication.

Re-Imagining #2

In this idea, the English teacher has no responsibility to create writing assignments, to figure out what students should write about, or to do any of the other traditional approaches to writing instruction as I’ve described in the introduction above.

Instead, the other High School subject area teachers are required to assign reading, and set writing tasks associated with the reading.

In the English classroom, then, the teacher works with students on these assignments. Time is provided, perhaps, to write these assignments, to process, to conference, to revise and to rewrite and to edit. As a person trained in the writing instruction, something that High School teachers in other subject areas are not and a significant stumbling block to cross-curricular writing instruction and the idea with the Common Core that “All teachers are teachers of writing,”these teachers now provide instruction on writing in particular disciplines, towards different purposes, focuses lessons targeted to student needs.

At the same time, it also solves the “All teachers are teacher of writing” conundrum in High School, because it forces math, science, history, business and art teacher to think of assessment in terms of written products.

Advocacy

I am pleased to see the educational union’s efforts in many places across the country, including here in New York, working to stop testing as the major educational movement. Finally, we are seeing them engage in a political debate and mobilize its members around a common cause. While this is a movement, perhaps, come too late, their leadership could really help to set education on the right track. However, the fight against testing should come paired with concrete suggestions for improving the system that recognize the needs of our children, and ultimately, our society.

The national media is just beginning to look at a school such as Garfield high school in Seattle, Washington. There, the teachers are refusing to administer state tests and as a result face suspensions for their decisions. I would like to see our local media pick up this story up and place it into context of local examinations. Near to a million people live in the upstate, Rochester, New York area. How many students does that make? How many tests given?

There is a great deal of testing going on in our schools. Yet, I might think that the perception that we’ve adopted is one where classrooms are test filled and that students toil daily bubbling in scantrons and scratching out formulaic essays in archaic blue books. As an example of how I’ve adopted testing into my professional practice in my composition class, I assess students, and they may not be aware that they are part of an APPR assessment. The assessments are based in the real world content we’re immersed in. They don’t know that they are being evaluated, that their performance is part of my evaluation. They are engaged in the normal flow of assessment I’ve established.

The union should not simply move forward with its efforts to stem the tide of the culture of examination, it should offer the public, and the representatives of our government alternatives that will continue to push educational quality, teacher classroom readiness and student performance forward.

  1. Change the culture of examination with the culture of assessment. By this I mean we stop thinking about measures of student achievement that are simple test driven. We need to as teachers live in assessment. What do kids know before we begin to teach them, what are they learning as we teach them day to day, and what do they learn, have learned as we move through key bench marks. Assessment favors the learning and the progress of the students. An anti-test platform is incomplete without offering up a way that we’ll move forward, and this is paired with educating the public about what happens in the classrooms of the best teachers. Unions could smartly build a campaign to have the public understand how this change in philosophy could help our students.
  2. We cannot get rid of examinations, but we could build better ones. The union should name appropriate assessment tools that could track student progress. As one example, these could be portfolio assessments that reflect a body of the student’s learning in a particular subject.
  3. Unions should call for a moratorium, of a two-year time period, of value added assessment models. There should be a national panel set that completes the research and arrives at an evaluation model that is founded in sound research.
  4. Wait, Keith, a national effort, schools are a states-rights issue. Yes, but unions should advocate for a national system to evaluate teachers and students. Nationally, anyone involved in the educational world should be evaluated by the same standards. As a citizenry, we need to know that children in New York, Alabama, Wyoming and Oregon all achieve the same standards. Teachers in each state must be accountable to these children.

While I’m behind what the union is suggesting, I would be more comfortable with them not simply stopping at what is wrong but at what might we do about it. For too long we’ve let politicians, boards of industry, business leaders, and local Boards of Education control the dialogue about solutions for schools and teacher performance, when the real experts are teachers. If the AFT is really the union of professionals of teachers, then they can be far more proactive about the politics that we take on.

Contemporary Reads for Today’s Classrooms–Tenth Of December by George Saunders

 

The blogosphere runneth full of discussion after the feature New York Times feature article on George Saunders and his new book Tenth of December, which ran in the magazine January 3, 2013 by Joel Lovell. For me, the article was welcome news. I’ve loved Saunders’ fiction for years and the chance to read something new made me gasp, just a little. More of a quiet, internal spasm. Then when I saw the title of Lovell’s article, I again found pause. Really? Can’t be? A book of short stories? I read a lot, so when I preemptively believed that in December I’d find something that would trump everything else in the other eleven months of the year, well, I called bullshit.

But, Tenth of December is really that good. I’ll get into Kafka below, but Saunders maybe the modern day Kafka. His stories remind me of what it is to be alive and fighting in an era where our technologies, jobs, and patterns of existence try to disconnect us from our families, the people we serve in our work, and the actual breathing in and out of the world to have us, instead, micro-focus our energies in surfing for hours on tablets, in iTunes clicking wish list buttons, in swiping debit carelessly through scanners like coke addicts at mirrors, or in clicking the little shopping cart icon at Amazon. Saunders’ collection helps me deal with this disconnection. Reading it was like the axe to the frozen sea.

I’ve been a teacher who’s gone after some big names with my students in class. I’ve loved teaching Cortazar and Borges and Kafka, especially Kafka.

Of course, “The Metamorphosis” finds its way into most upper-level high school classrooms. However, I like teaching some of his other stories, namely “Above the Law,” “A Country Doctor” and most eminently, “In the Penal Colony.” What I love about bringing students to Kafka is their immediate discomfort at the stories, their continued displeasure at meaning’s illusive nature, and that getting Kafka means being satisfied with uncertainty. What is “Penal Colony” about? Is it a story about imperialism, about faith and Kafka’s questioning of Old and New Testament philosophies, about torture, or an ars poetica following a motif through many of Kafka’s stories about the tortured, tortuous nature of writing? Perhaps it’s all and perhaps none. But, that’s what’s so cool about this story for me as a teacher working with students.

In Saunders, we find a companionable neighbor to Kafka. They should live next door to each other and their children should play together on the weekends. Those who are looking to accomplish the kinds of thinking and reading goals for their students may wish to try to pair Saunders with their next reading/unit of Kafka.  And, if I were looking for a place to start, I would begin with the exquisite “Semplica Girl Diaries.”

I don’t want to give anything away about the story, and several good synopses exist—see the above Lovell feature from the Times. However, “Semplica” is a story that works on many levels. It’s a father-daughter story, a story of capitalism, consumerism, and imperialism. It defies, as do Kafka’s stories, easy explanation. But, so do our lives.

I’ll put forth in these blog posts for English teachers about using contemporary classics that our students must be placed face-to-face with the mirror image of our own lives for the reading to feel real and practical to them. The worlds in Saunders’ stories give that mirror, just a slightly warped, fun-house one that makes us look as if our heads are too big and our hearts too small, or perhaps the other way around. That’s the way the make us feel, too.

To my colleagues, take on the challenge of Saunders and Tenth of December. It’s great to work with a text that is new and fresh and weird.  It’s okay try to work with something serious, complicated and that defies the simple explanations of the world. Too often, teachers are tricked into providing writers such Rowling or Sparks or Picoult to create life-long readers, or at least, readers of the moment if at least the kids are reading. We should take Lovell’s best books headline at its word and know that we do disservice to students if we’re not trying to get this book into their hands. They’ll know the choice and thank us for it too.

Listen to me, believe me next week, and hate me later

Seniors,

Before I go on, maybe I should just tell you the rules that I tell my students about college essays. They are pretty simple, and as I said in an earlier post, I will be showing some models to you soon. These are the five key rules. While you may not like what I say, do it, get into college, and hate me anyway.

  1. It is always about you. The focus of the essay should be something you want to show about yourself.
  2. The essay is most easily written in narrative form. Tell a story about a time that shows you doing something that shows you.
  3. Notice the shows—show you doing what you’re passionate about.
  4. Find the unique. See my earlier posts about seeking good topics and try the Lish exercise.
  5. No more than 1 typed, single-spaced, 1 inch margin word document. If you can’t get an idea onto a single page, don’t bother. College admissions officers read 1000s of these essays. If you haven’t gotten out our idea in 300 words, you’re in trouble. And, I don’t care if the application says you can write more or you can write as much as you want. Only the foolish wander down that path.

Trust me!

Rattlesnakes!

Seniors,

Mine are rattlesnakes. Their yellowish-brown, curling, muscular forms. The image of them rearing to strike. Their sound of dry leaves running over stone. Completely unsettling. A deep fear.

What’s unsettling and fearful for you? When did you confront this? What happened? How did you find equilibrium and safety after?

I thought of rattlesnakes and fears while reading a writing exercise from editor Sherry Ellis’s Now Write! and thought that I might make some suggests that play off of this exercise for your application essay.

The rattlesnake exercise comes to us from writer Michelle Brooks. A friend found a rattlesnake one night in a dresser drawer getting a t-shirt for bed. She attempted to dispatch the snake with a shotgun, missed, destroyed the dresser, and saw the snake slithering off, not to be found. It so unsettled the friend that she had trouble sleeping for the next week wondering where the serpent had got off to.

Brooks suggests that writers think of their own metaphorical rattlesnakes, particular objects that force us to be unsettled. In a narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction, focus the arc of the story around some object that forces the narrator to stop in the tracks and reevaluate his or her situation.

Playing off of yesterday’s blog where I began to discuss the need for finding personal focus, I suggest that you start by making a list of objects and experiences that are unsettling, unnerving, fearful and make you break out in the cold sweat. Then, from the list, think about writing a story of the time that you dealt with this object, and most importantly forced yourself into evaluation of yourself because of it.

Good luck with the snake wrangling!

Common Application–First Essay Question

Seniors,

With the Common Application now out online and this year’s questions posted, I thought that I might discuss how to approach some of these questions.

The first question asks you to “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” In my experience, this is the most common question in college applications, the one most applicants can get a pretty good working essay out of, and probably the one with the most danger to it. It might look easy, but it’s easy to go astray.

The part that’s the most straightforward is the part of the question that asks to write about yourself. Finding something that happened to you might require some brainstorming and some gray matter to the grindstone, but usually you get it: a summer job, a trip, a visit, an encounter, a choice made. While I’m general here, finding these experiences in the context of your own life will come. Be as specific as you can: a time, a place, a person. Don’t try to cram it all in. Instead, the focus is on one thing. Tell us the story of this one thing.

Here’s several place where students can make some mistakes:

  1. You find something meaningful and that has had impact, but isn’t really about you. I’ve seen essays reflecting on a sister’s drug use, on the death of a beloved grandparent, the loss of a sibling. All of these are important and meaningful topics, but frankly, they don’t always show the student writer. To do well at this essay, your topic and your life event has to be an event that you were front and center in as an active participant and that shows something about your personality, character and individuality.Also, the above mentioned danger topics also draw a certain amount of pity to a candidate and can feel manipulative to the readers as such. Get into college by showing you and not trying to get an admissions officer to feel bad for you.
  2. There’s a second part of the question that is easy to skip over. It’s that first word, “Evaluate.” This means that they want to see that you’ve figured out what you’ve gained from the experience. What insights or lessons or perceptions have you gained. Again, it doesn’t need to be some Siddartha-esque awaking or Joycean epiphany. Instead, just say what you didn’t know before the experience.
  3. Make sure the experiences are unique. Too often students write about playing soccer, participating in band, or the coach that made them do 1,000 push-ups. It’s hard to find that independent thing about you, but the college essay is showing how you’re different rather than the same.

In the next few days, I’ll share an essay or two that shows some of successful ways other students of mine have gone at this question. Before then, sit down and brainstorm a list of some potential topics that might help you respond to this question.