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.

Infographics: One Genre with Multiple Uses in the Writing Classroom

A year ago, I wrote a blog on my first foray into having students create infographics in one of my courses, and the benefits of those texts as part of synthesizing sources before writing longer, source-based essays.

A year later, I’m back in and kicking it to the next level. Since then, I’m coming back having done some further reading and work on teaching this text. In terms of research to prepare for this, here’s what I read:

In these sources, the authors put forth a convincing case for the power of using infographics for their malleability to a variety of writing situations and purposes. I would highly recommend them, and I say this as I am quickly shredding my copies from overuse.

Back to English 101:

For several weeks, students are reading and watching sources on food systems in the United States in preparation for writing an essay with the purpose of informing. I use the infographic as one step in a process–it brings students to synthesize their sources around a focused topic.

Returning to this assignment for the second year, I made several upgrades to the assignment. First, students would ultimately produce these digitally. Second, I used our LMS, Schoology, to create a page of resources and suggested process for my students.

On this page, I included a mentor study with accompanying texts, Youtube videos on design principles and using PowerPoint to create these texts, as well as links to other free web tools for designing. The page breaks the creation of the infographic into (suggested) discrete steps, with check-in points at each stage so I could monitor student progress. I made a significant design change to this page, which I’ll discuss later.

screenshot-2016-12-15-at-12-16-51-pm

My Schoology page for Infographics

 

We spent a little less than a week working through the creation of these texts. Here are some of the products:

infographics

illegal-immigration-

101obesity-101

Moving on:

I was pretty pleased with the assignment, the process I laid out, the resources students were accessing to help them.

I decided to assign this as a task in my elective, Media Maker, as one part of an unit on the Role of Technology in education. Students had already written blogs on their ideas of the value of on-line classes and coursework, engaged in creating various media texts on this subject. However, I wanted them to keep going, and to have them re-purpose their largely text-based writing into new a new form. The infographic would push them to think about how to convey information visually.

However, in this class, students got quickly lost in the steps laid out on my Schoology page. Quick fix: I turned each step into an assignment in Schoology, with something concrete to submit. I also added one element to the student assignment. Because we’re a class that functions completely digitally, we created survey questions, and used student’s social media to distribute the questions, collect responses, and create drafts of the graphics in Google Slides.

What I’m seeing in working with infographics as a student-produced text is that we can use them at any part of a writing process. They can be a formative tool used to synthesize information before turned to more in-depth, formal essays. Or, we can really see them as a valid summative assessment tool that students produce at the end of research, or a way for students to repurpose or re-genre their work.

 

 

#edmakercamp

Inspired this week by Katie McFarland’s (@Katiemc827) #slc2016 Maker Challenge, and reading George Couros’ (@gcourcos) The Innovator’s Mindset, I arrived at a major brainstorm, which I’m calling #edmakercamp.

As 21st century educators, we read educational books, create Professional Learning Networks through social media such as Twitter and Pinterest, we attend workshops, we read blogs by other educators who reflect on their practice, we attend edcamps. We spend a great deal of time collecting data and information on educational practice, it becomes and kind of research where we hope that one day we can put it into practice.

Sometimes we do actually find the time to integrate that stuff into our classrooms. We write curriculum in the summer. We spend August creating a new unit. Often, we find ourselves saying, “When I have time.” We spend a Saturdays and evenings writing new lessons or making activities that evolve from our research. But, it’s not easy.

File_000 (4)

I’m making a call for “#edmakercamp,” and here’s the idea. Pull together a group of your educational besties–those teachers who you work well with, but who will also hold all members of the group accountable for actually doing work and creating. Then, go find a work space–perhaps some classrooms, a computer lab. However, try to get away from it all and find a place for a retreat, a place where everyone can work without interruption. Fill it with laptops, cameras, paper, markers, scanners. Fill it with maker items. Stock it with everything teachers need to create for a day.

Then, fill it with teachers and administrators who are looking to make.

At #edmakercamp, the purpose is to take all the stuff you’ve been reading and learning about with education, and do the stuff you’ve been looking to do.

If you’re in need of time to think about your practice and want to grow through self-reflection, spend time writing and then blogging. Been wanting to make some Schoology resource pages for your department, do it. Looking to retool that unit on “Revolutions” in your Global class. Looking to implement the PBL in the first semester of your IB Biology class, use #edmakercamp to do it.

It’s not a research and learn time. It’s a time to put those thinkings and ideas, and to create the stuff to implement, so in the next day, weeks, months, next school year, you can pull it out and use it.

Use the group. In bringing people together, spend the first part of your edmakercamp to share, discuss. Get ideas out. What are people going to work on. What will be each campers outcome at the end of the day. Use the first part of your time to get the gears primed for work.

But then, stop the talk, and move into work time, and work as a group to be focused. Commit to quiet work time. If you’re working in groups, great, but be focused and assign someone to keep the group on task. You may need to create quiet spaces and semi-quiet spaces. Have all participants decide on a how long this block of time will be, say “We’re going to make for the next two hours.” Set a timer. Then, at the end of the block, come out of it, grab some snacks, share and discuss. Talk about what you made. After a brief rest, back into work time. 

Bring to your #edmakercamp some people who aren’t making. Bring some helpers. Some people who can scan items, take pictures. If you need a video file converted, that person can do it. This role could be played by a couple of tech-savy students, or a media specialist who sacrifices his or her work time for the benefit of the campers.

We need time as educators to not only read about innovation, but also time to prepare for those innovations and to create the materials that will be put into practice. We need to give ourselves time to reflect through our blogs and share those innovations with our networks.

Infographics, Synthesis and Informational Writing

As part of my FYC, English 101 class, my students read a wide range of sources, provided by me, about the industrial food system. We’re reading Pollan, Schlosser, Moss to name a few.

Once we’re through some preliminary discussion, which happens both in writing and as part of full-class discussion, it’s time for some assessment. I want to know what they’re thinking, and how they see these sources in conversation.

This year, as part of a formative assessment in reading and synthesis assignment, I’m having my kids create info-graphics to meet these needs. This is the assignment I came up with:

Infographic Rubric

I took a couple of weeks to design this and it owes a great debt to the work on Kathy Schrock’s webpage. Anyone who is thinking about working with infographics or is currently work with them, should check our her page. There’s almost too much there.

 

What I Left NYSCATE Thinking

I went to NYSCATE thinking I’d get great information on the best new apps, web tools and information on innovative LMS systems, technology roll outs for the uninitiated.
Instead, the conference spoke to a theme that’s been running through my mind over this school year: How do I make a classroom that fosters a culture of both independent and collaborative learning preparing students for the 21st century? And really, how do I continue to evolve as an educator after almost 20 years in the classroom?
Here are some of my walk-away points from this year’s conference:
1. Ask kids what problems they want to solve and not what they want to become. This came out of Jamie Casap’s key note on Monday afternoon. By asking students what problems they want to solve, we encourage auto-didactic thinking and practices. When we ask kids what they want to become, we ask them who they want to work for, and really, we turn them into consumer and commodities.
2. The technology really doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong! I’m still a proponent of 1:1 integration, adopting LMS systems, full access to a range of social media for students. However, I’m reminded that technology isn’t going to fix the issues we have. Yes, it will stream line our classrooms, help with collaboration, ease assessment and grading practices. But, it won’t fix the lack of creativity we extend to our students, the lack of autonomy we give. If we don’t use it well, then it will only make more rigid our systems of standardization.
3. There are lots of new apps, web-based tools, Google hacks that I can’t wait to try. I’m not trying them until I have a bigger picture in place.
I’m thinking now about the kinds of cultures I want to create, the kind of teacher I want to be for my students, the kind of teacher leader I can be to my colleagues. As part of a District Technology Committee and a subcommittee on adoption of an LMS, there’s a lot of exciting work ahead.

Opening Revolutions

For the past several years, I’ve started my first day of classes with a simple focused, free writing exercise: What are you passionate about?

This year, I made a switch.

For the first week of school, I’ve decided to focus solely on academics. In my freshman composition class, we’re looking at concepts of rhetorical situation, inquiry and writing process. In my IB English class, we’re looking at the evolution of the depicition of war and soliders in films from WWII onward.

I was worried about this change. I certainly don’t feel like I learned anything personal about my students. Instead, I privileged their intellectual and academic selves, and perhaps, learned more about what they would actually bring to our class: their ability to speak lucidly about a subject, their ability to talk to one another and not just the teacher. Also, I wanted to respect the introvert, those students who would be threatened by personal sharing on the first day.

My move, I thought, was a kind of heresy. For almost twenty years, I did some kind of get to know you activity. Most English teachers I know, or have read about, do something similar. It seems common pedagogical practice in the ELA classroom. Yesterday, walking around the building, I heard people starting Faulkner, teaching parts of speech, getting going on readings that would lead to synthesis essays. Heresy? I wasn’t being burned at the stake.

I’ll get back to my personal free-writes next week, for sure. Don’t despair that student, student interest, student passion needto find other rooms. They’ll be back next week with a secure academic disclurse in place.

Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

“Together they were going to heighten consciousness by dumbing down an already dangerously dumb constituency”

Mother’s Milk

Edward St. Aubyn

Last week, I read an insightful piece in the August issue of Rolling Stone by Janet Reitman about suspected Boston Marathon bomber Jahar Tsarnaev. Reitman tells a compelling story about Tsarnaev from his adolescents in Boston and his shift to radicalism in the facing of failing American dreams.

Many of you may have seen the controversy that emerged in in July regarding the cover which depicts Tasrnaev as youthful, child-like, and innocent. The general cry from the public was that Rolling Stone committed an insensitive act that insulted the families and the loss of life that occurred in April in Boston. On seeing this controversy on the local news, I immediately went to the store and tried to get a copy both because I wanted to read the piece but also because I wanted to defend Rolling Stone for their freedom to make such a decision with some of my money. I couldn’t find it in the Canandaigua Wegman’s. If they made a decision to pull the issue, they certainly kept it quiet.

This piece isn’t about what’s in the article beyond what I’ve written just above. I would encourage people to go read it to find out. It’s to say thank you to its Reitman, the magazine for opening my world a little more. It’s to say thanks for the children in the community who Reitman interviews and who made the choice to speak up to give us insights about their friend who is now accused of crimes and may very well lose his life for it.

While so much of today’s journalism and media is meant to please its readership. And what so many people seem to do is find the media outlet that best adheres with their world views. I’m certainly guilty of this—I read the New York Times and the New Yorker, but wouldn’t be caught dead with The New Republic. I listen to NPR but know that I’ve died and am consigned to the third circle of the Inferno if Fox News is on the TV. Kudos to Rolling Stone and its cover photograph for making the kind of thought provoking choice that asks its readership to reexamine their perception of an individual that the public has deemed guilty before the trial.

To my teaching friends and colleagues, I would recommend it as a compelling piece of journalism, storytelling, and a piece that would be nicely paired with a reading of Death of a Salesman or Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The loss of life and of limb, heath and well-being is not something to treat with lightly. Our sense of national security, our deepest anxieties about the loss of security, these are things which we must acknowledge. But they are nothing when we lose our humanity, which means that we need to remember and acknowledge that our killers and our villains were once children, brothers and sons, students and friends. There can too often be in our culture a cult of compassion in which we attempt to say because this verges on insulting someone’s loss and tarnishes personal tragedy we cannot touch it. Or, as Edward St. Aubyn says in describing two of his characters, they “corrupted each other with the extravagance of their good intentions.” But this kind of thinking is a cult, because it both narrows and radicalizes what is right. While it’s intentions are humane, it block us from that humanity as well.

Simple Ways to Get Kids Writing in the Classroom

Stressed science, math and technology teachers, no fear writing help.

Writing is thinking on paper. We don’t know what we think until we write it down.

These maxims and premises are essential if we want to turn learning and inquiry over to our students and stop being the sole knowledge-holders, then the quickest, easiest way to do this is to have kids write.

I’m not talking about whole-class write-a-thons, quarter-long research projects, but instead short, purposeful exercises that can get kids thinking. The upside: a very simple technology. No smart boards, laptops, computer lab required. Paper and pen are all that is necessary.

Here are five simple ways that teachers could integrate writing on a daily basis.

  1. Knowledge Inventory. Teachers begin by having students thinking about what they might know about a particular topic. Instead of simply asking them to think about it, have the students write down what they know. If students write these on index cards, they can be collected at the end of class, then written on poster paper and place at front of the room. As students move through the unit, these first writings can be used see growth. I actually buy the chart paper with the sticky edge for easy adherence to the wall and stacks of 4×4 lined Post-it notes. These two supplies make this kind of writing easy to do.
  2. Private write. My ideas on this form of writing are shaped by Shannon Marshall’s essay, “A Case for Private Freewriting in the Classroom.” I would strongly encourage it to those who willing begin to make this part of their routine; beyond this, one of my favorite bits of it is when she writes about how it helped her students, “ground out the ‘static,’ for sure, and it gave them a way to subdue their anxieties by encouraging to express what they felt.” As a teacher in our school’s International Baccalaureate program, my students are overloaded with work, stressed about performance, so I love to do this activity when my kids enter my room and they’re looking beat up. I give them ten minutes to write in their notebooks by just telling them to dump out all of what’s bothering them on the page. This is my version of in-class therapy. In those ten minutes, the students acknowledge what’s bothering them. Doing so, clears the air, and then, allows them to focus on the learning ahead. They don’t ever have to share this.
  3. Dedicated journals. I got this idea from reading Writing at the Threshold by Larry Weinstein. I used this the first time in my English 103 Research course. My students use their notebooks throughout the course for assignments and note taking, I have them set aside a section of their notebooks, called the Dedicated Journal, for their work on their research. If your instruction is inquiry driven or you use essential questions to drive your instruction, then a dedicated journal can be the place where students can write, perhaps daily, about how their knowledge evolved towards understanding of these questions. In my 103 class, students have five weeks to read and research. However, each week, a day is set aside to allow them to simply reflect on what they’ve learned towards their research question. They are actively developing mew knowledge. This would be an easy enough activity to develop while in any unit.
  4. Reflections. Lessons can quite often be broken down into discrete moments, steps towards the objectives. To see where kids are, stop for a moment and have them write and call on several students to respond. Benefits beyond writing are two-fold: you check a check for understanding, and students can check themselves against others in the room. Pair this kind of writing with what’s above in the knowledge inventory activity.
  5. Inquiry dialogues and the dialogic notebook. To begin class discussion, I have my students take their notebooks and break the double-page spread into four columns. The first column is for questions, interesting bits of text, important details. After everyone has had a chance to fill the first column, we rotate the notebooks to a new person, who comments on the first column and then we repeat. The final column is for a writer to synthesis the discussion. The activity takes maybe 25 to 30 minutes, but then leads to great discussion as everyone has had a chance to think and to generate ideas.

If under the Common Core, everyone is expected to teach writing, then that conception of what writing is needs to be defined. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to assign papers and research. Instead, writing can become a practice in the service of learning and thinking. This means small, purposeful writing activities that help facilitate student learning.

Works cited

Marshall, Sharon, “A Case for Private  Freewriting in the Classroom.” Writing-Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions. Ed. Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 7-23. Print.

Weinstein, Larry. Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High Schooland College Students to Think at the College Level. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.

Mad Scientists at Wordprocessors

Last Friday was a good one, indeed. Not because I’m Catholic or because it was the last day of work before spring break started. Instead, I had the opportunity to work with our science department on issues related to their implementation of writing stemming from new Common Core standards.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a workshop I call “Thinking Like an English Teacher” and given that workshop to history teachers at a local Advanced Placement workshop. I’m branching out here into a new subject area, one where the traditional approach to writing is to say, “English teachers teach writing,” or “That’s not my job,” or “My course doesn’t fit with those standards.” At least history teachers perceive themselves to be providing writing instruction, however narrowly done, so with science teachers it was an interesting morning. As you’ll see, I soon found these perceptions about science teachers and writing to be false.

As  statistics and research emerge illustrating the importance of such partnerships between Science teachers and their English counterparts to have any real effect at improving students’ skills, we need to spend more time interdepartmentally in discussion about what we do. Additionally, job studies show that STEM education is essential as STEM jobs are one of the largest growing employment sectors of the economy. If our kids are going to compete, they are going to have to have paired skills in communication and in STEM arenas.

For me, the morning was a learning opportunity. First, I saw a true desire on the part of my science colleagues to do this. There wasn’t any “I’m a science teacher and not a writing teacher.” They really want to have kids become better communicators. However, I really had no idea how little our science teachers knew about teaching writing, and if given the opportunity again I would go about my workshop from a completely different perspective. In terms of my comments on my science colleagues, I mean no disrespect and no criticism. Some of the core issues and decisions that we’ve dealt with as English teachers are brand new to these people. English teachers, staff developers and workshop leaders—we’ve got to take it slow. Here are some of the elements of writing instruction that I attempted to address and that science teachers need to know as a foundation:

  1. Writing instruction doesn’t mean research papers. My science colleagues thought that the way to teach writing was by assigning a big research paper. A very complicated thing to do. And, quite likely, without a serious helping of writing instruction to go along with it, a frustrating experience for teachers because they are most likely going to read a lot of crap. Writing can be taught in discrete chunks. Focus on writing better backgrounds in laboratory write-ups, or framing better hypothesis statements or better conclusions. If you’re doing a series of labs in a unit, afterwards write a synthesis of those as you would for a textbook or an wiki article. Or, in a unit test, have a brief question at the end which students have to respond to an issue that was discussed in class.
  2. Common language with the English department. Our science chair wanted the rubric we use in our department and a list of instructional vocabulary that we use that we could all be on the same page. I told her no. Mostly because we don’t have one. In our department, we’re all over the place, and I hope to continue to be (although, the new New York State learning modules scare me bad, and those that support them scare me, too. That’s a blog post for another day).  It’s nice as teachers to think that we could make our lives better by creating standardized systems. However, I think we do a disservice to our kids in that way. Kids need to work with a variety of audiences and through a variety of different tasks, modalities and levels of engagement. They need to learn how to shift through all of these different, complicated rhetorical maneuvers. That’s what we do as adults on a daily basis as we navigate partners, bosses, children, and neighbors who all require us to employ different styles of communication in order to have meaningful, successful discourse.
  3. Who are you writing towards? Give them audiences. Tests pervert students’ skills and ability to function in the real world. Because the only writing experiences kids are being given is to respond to tests, they struggle with the rules of writing. On top of that, when kids only write for the teacher, they also get a false sense of audience and purpose. So, establish audiences in writing assignments to give them rules to follow in their writing.
  4. Rules. Who sets them? Teachers do. If there’s something that troubles a teacher in a student’s writing, call the student out, instruct, and then make the student accountable. If they’re taught well, they’ll do it. Then, they’ll probably forget and need to be taught it again. That is not the problem with the teacher. That’s the nature of students.
  5. “I was never taught this, but I still figured it out.” Me, too. I was never taught proper research skills, or how to do MLA. My teachers said go do it, and I did. It was an imperfect process for me, but I came through it. However, as teachers we no longer live in an era where kids will do things independently. They need their hands held and to be spoon fed. If something isn’t taught to them, it isn’t their problem, it’s the teachers. We can cry and complain all we want about the failures of our society and the problems with today’s youth. You still have to teach them exactly what it is you want them to know.
  6. Go slow. Teach writing. Yes. But don’t take it all on.

I’m also finishing a another post about integrating writing on a daily basis with some practical, straightforward and simple ways to do it. I’ll have it up soon.