Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What Makes an Effective Assignment?

The effectiveness of a writing assignment hinges on what we think a writing assignment is. When I first started teaching business writing, I tried the very basic assignments included in many of the texts I had reviewed. These assignments were often totally bare-bones: “Write a fund-raising letter” or “Write a bad-news memo.” Totally bare-bones—and totally ineffective.

Neither of these prompts gives students the support and information they need to successfully complete the writing task. Such assignments are not limited to the business writing classroom of course. In a language arts or composition classroom, they take the form of prompts such as “Write a persuasive essay” or “Write an analysis of the novel.” When I presented students with such stripped-down assignments, they typically wrote extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences. Compare these generic prompts with the following assignment:

There has been a problem in Montgomery County Schools with discipline and violence. On the basis of the positive examples that they have seen at other Virginia schools, Families for Safe Schools, a local community group, is calling for the school board to adopt a school uniform policy in order to cut down on these problems. What is your position on this issue? Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or the school newspaper, stating your position on this issue and supporting it with convincing reasons. Turn in two copies of your letter and an envelope addressed to the newspaper (I’ll provide the stamp). I’ll grade one copy and send the other copy off to the newspaper.

When I used this assignment—one that offers considerable support and detail—students responded with stronger writing. I quickly learned that the more detail and attention I put into the writing assignments, the better students’ writing was.

An effective writing assignment isn’t a simple prompt on a page or a directive to write in a particular mode or genre. It’s much, much more, and it begins with a fully-developed writing scenario. It sets out an authentic audience and purpose for the writing activity. It focuses on critical thinking and allows students to make choices that suit their own knowledge and expertise. When an assignment fits all those characteristics, students have the raw materials to begin doing their best work.

[This entry is based on information taken from Chapter 1 of Designing Writing Assignments.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Model Reader

I became a better teacher yesterday when I attended Doug Fisher’s Web Seminar “All Teachers Are Not Teachers of Reading, but....” (You can order an archived copy of the session if you missed it.) Most of my teaching has been done in a college English classroom, where students presumably come in the door with basic reading skills already mastered. I never really spend much time on the matter of reading instruction.

During Fisher’s seminar yesterday, however, I realized why class discussion and students’ writing were often less successful when I assigned complex or unfamiliar texts—I never showed students how to read them. I simply expected them to already know how.

At the same time, I knew why one of my more successful writing assignments had worked. Students were writing explications of a song of their choice. I brought in the lyrics to “Old Friends/Bookends” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and then went through the lyrics carefully, line-by-line and word-by-word, demonstrating how I explicate a text. Reading the lyrics went beyond simply reading the text out loud. Reading, in this instance, involved modeling how to read a text.

While it was natural for me to model how to navigate a literary text, somehow it never occurred to me until yesterday that I also need to spend modeling how to read other non-literary texts in the classroom. I immediately changed the lesson plan I am currently writing. I had been concerned about the appropriateness of one of the resources in the lesson, FTC guidelines for endorsements and testimonials. I feared that the language and legal style might make the document too complex for secondary readers.

As Fisher and seminar attendees shared strategies for teaching content-area reading, I realized that I needed to add modeling to the lesson that shows students how to read the unfamiliar text before I expect them to navigate the document on their own. It seems like such a simple and obvious recognition now. If a text might be too complex for students to comprehend, I need to show them how to read it. I never expected students to suddenly know how to write, but I guess I always expected them to simply know how to read. Thanks to Doug Fisher’s seminar yesterday, now I know better.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Celebrating Readers

Blaming readers is in vogue these days. Boys don’t read. Reluctant readers resist reading. Struggling readers give up because the task is just too hard for them. When we label readers in these ways, are we perhaps communicating our own frustration more than the actual situations?

Consider what happens on NEA’s Read Across America Day (official site - ReadWriteThink Calendar Entry). Read Across America Day, celebrated on March 3, 2008, celebrates reading and encourages every person, young and old, to read on the March 3rd and every day of the year. As the site’s FAQ explains

In cities and towns across the nation, teachers, teenagers, librarians, politicians, actors, athletes, parents, grandparents, and others develop NEA’s Read Across America activities to bring reading excitement to children of all ages. Governors, mayors, and other elected officials recognize the role reading plays in their communities with proclamations and floor statements. Athletes and actors issue reading challenges to young readers. And teachers and principals seem to be more than happy to dye their hair green or be duct-taped to a wall if it boosts their students’ reading.
With all this support and encouragement, why do we still have readers who don’t or won’t read regularly? What makes an event like Read Across America Day different? Why can it be difficult for all students to celebrate reading every day?

It has a lot to do with how we treat readers. The January 2008 English Journal article “Speaking My Mind: Don’t Blame the Boys: We’re Giving Them Girly Books” by Kevin R. St. Jarre argues that “it may not be that girls naturally love to read more than boys do. It may be the reading lists”(15). The reading curriculum, according to the article, favors emotional and reflective readings (texts for girls) like Go Ask Alice and Speak over action and adventure (texts for boys) like the latest Tom Clancy novel. The article concludes that when “we allow students to select what they will read . . . we can encourage reading where there is currently none” (16).

In her recent NCTE webinar “When Kids Won't Read, What Teachers Can Do” (access to the archive is free), Teri Lesesne (blog, school page) explored how the covers on books appeal to different kinds of readers. Her presentation considered how the cover images on the books encouraged or discouraged readers to pick up the book and read. Naturally we have stereotypes about what makes a cover for boys or a cover for girls, and our thoughts may ignore things like readers’ gender identity and personal interests. The point still stands though: readers have strong preferences that guide their reading and lead them to engage with a text.

When reading centers on student choice, students are more likely to read. Events like Read Across America Day work because they highlight everything that is fun about reading. Readers are encouraged to share and read the texts they love. If every day in the classroom were like Read Across America Day, my hunch is that reading would improve. But in a world of compulsory readings and curriculums decided by textbook publishers, teachers face many challenges. What seems like the most obvious challenge however, readers themselves, is probably the least of our worries. We need to stop blaming the readers and let students help us find“the right book for the right reader at the right time,” as Teri Lesesne says. Maybe then classrooms will be filled with celebrating readers every day—and the reluctant and struggling readers will be a thing of the past.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Strategies for Teaching with Nonfiction

The Language Arts article "A New Way to Look at Literature: A Visual Model for Analyzing Fiction and Nonfiction Texts" (G) explains why nonfiction texts are important to students’ literacy skills. Nonfiction texts are a part of everyday life. Outside the classroom, there are bus schedules, instructions on microwave dinners, and websites with advice on getting the most out of video games. At school there are content area texts for every class from science to the arts. There are sports reports and the latest celebrity news to keep track of. And in a year where Americans are voting on their next president, there are political advertisements, interviews, and voting ballots to read and understand.

Nonfiction texts are truly everywhere, but for many language arts teachers, these texts are challenging to teach. Often more accustomed to the demands of teaching fiction, teachers must tap different strategies to incorporate instruction on the diction, text structures, and other features of nonfiction texts. Each of the ReadWriteThink lesson plans below models effective strategies for incorporating nonfiction texts in the classroom—with projects ranging from inquiry study to strategy lessons, and content areas ranging from social studies to science and math: