Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Three Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Writing

As I read Kathi Yancey's recent report Writing in the 21st Century one thing stood out: the best way teachers can improve writing is to make writers visible.

We know that people everywhere write. We write for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for the world at large. We write for whoever will read what we have to say—for our friends, parents, children, classmates, teachers, employers, and coworkers. We write letters to the editor, to the mayor, to Congress, and to the President. We write personal thoughts that no one else will ever read, and we write public pleas for help and understanding, praying that someone will listen.

We all write—and we all write no matter what. No matter how difficult. Even if our families and friends do not support us. Regardless of social pressures that tell us not to. Despite the fact that there are laws that say we may not. When there are millions of reasons not to. Although no one else may read a word. Even knowing that our writing is not perfect. We write. We write, as Yancey says, "in spite of" it all (1).

What has that got to do with making writers visible? When writing is forbidden or undervalued, it becomes invisible. When family and friends and society and even the law say that our writing does not matter, we compose in hiding.

We delete our MySpace pages. We hide our blogs. We create anonymous logins to post on Wikipedia. We write only in word processor files that we protect with passwords and in diaries that we hide in the sock drawer. We write letters that we can never send and poems that we'll never share in class. We learn that that only certain writing counts and that only certain people are truly writers. Our texts disappear, and so do we.

To support 21st century writers, teachers need to make writers visible. It just takes three simple things to get started:

  1. Welcome all writing.
    Writers express themselves in text messages, blog posts, and wiki entries. They compose fan fiction, angry rants, and email messages. They write reviews on Amazon, item descriptions on eBay, and status updates on Twitter and Facebook. And sure, in the classroom, they write test answers, book reports, and journal entries. We have to recognize, value, and allow everything. Not just the customary classroom genres. All writing matters.

  2. Call students writers.
    That's right. It's the simplest and most effective thing teachers (and families) can do. From the beginning, we need to recognize students as writers. Not "student writers," and certainly not just "students." They are writers, no matter how much they write or how polished their writing may be. When people believe they are writers, a whole world of possibilities opens up.

  3. Celebrate all writers equally.
    There is no special admissions test you have to pass to become a writer. The texts written in the classroom are just as important as those published in the textbooks. Make every writer in the classroom a role model. Use great openings by students alongside those in the textbook. Share effective word choice by students at the same time you share the diction of Maya Angelou or William Shakespeare. Emphasize that students don't have to aspire to be writers—they are writers, and every writer matters.

Three simple things, but it's no magic formula. It's more than that. These practices change the classroom and the ways that students think about writing. They build a community that supports 21st century writing and values all the writing students do, inside and outside of school. It encourages students to write freely in any genre or forum they choose. In short, it builds a space where students write visibly and publicly because of what happens in the classroom, rather than "in spite of" all the reasons not to.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Assessment Gap: 21st Century Writing and Standardized Testing

The snow from winter storms is melting, and the persuasive writing lesson on ReadWriteThink.org is holding steady as the number one “most e-mailed” lesson. These are sure signs that it’s almost standardized testing season, and students across the country are getting ready to write for thirty minutes or so (and/or take a multiple-choice grammar and editing test) to demonstrate their level of proficiency as writers.

I’m part of the teaching generation that experienced standardized writing tests not only as an educator, but as a public school student as well. I vividly recall the day, and it must have been around this time of year, that my eighth grade language arts teacher announced that we would be participating in a brand new test: the state writing assessment.

I’m sure we wrote for other audiences and purposes in that class, but I confess that I don’t remember those assignments. I do, however, recall spending weeks learning how to budget time, read a prompt, focus an opening paragraph with a preview statement, elaborate on three points of support with plenty of detail, and end with a conclusion that restated that opening paragraph. (I can even recall the topic I wrote on: Why people should move to Kansas City). I dutifully mastered that mode of writing and, as the years went on, I found myself able to rely on it, relatively unchallenged, throughout high school.

We’re at a complicated point in literacy education right now, as the influence of testing (and the testing industry) is as strong as ever. For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation by a nameless, faceless reader.

This phenomenon continues even as we see a staggering proliferation of authentic, self-sponsored writing made possible through user-friendly, Web-based publication technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites. It’s exciting to be part of an era that affords teachers and students the opportunity to write and publish in a medium such a blog to a real audience with relatively little technical know-how or effort. It’s also exciting to think that we’re part of the teaching generation that has the opportunity (and, I think, the responsibility) to figure out how use these new technologies to help students become more effective writers and to write ourselves (and, not insignificantly, to learn more about how and why people write).

I wonder about the implications of the growing disconnect between standardized writing assessments and the kinds of writing students see and participate in online themselves. Are teachers finding ways to use these new technologies to energize students and promote more effective writing, even on writing tasks that are so drastically different in form and function? Or are a blog and a timed writing test so different that the result can be only further disengagement as students see an even greater divide between the kinds of writing they do and the kinds of writing they see as being officially valued?

Perhaps more simply put: Is it enough to change our instruction to incorporate online writing technologies, or does this revolution in writing make even more urgent the need to rethink how we assess our students?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

To Read Aloud or Not to Read Aloud

Scientists referenced in the news article “Infants Learn Earlier than Thought” (The Seattle Times, February 04, 2009) suggest that parents begin reading to their children in utero and continue to read to them ever after. Sounds like a good idea to me—one I certainly tried to follow with my own daughter.

I read to Sara until she was old enough to read to me and then we’d take turns reading to one another. One day when Sara was home from school sick, we spent time finishing up Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. I was reading as we got to the ending when Old Dan and Little Ann defend Billy against the mountain lion (this is the place I need to tell you that I’m an animal lover supreme and a big-dog owner). I think I started crying when Old Dan got hurt and by the time he was home and dying I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t see the words on the page to read and I couldn’t have gotten the words out of my mouth between the sobs anyhow. Sara kept saying, “It’s okay, Mom, I’ll read.” I kept saying (you know, being the strong mom), “No, I’ll read.” And I couldn’t, and by then she was crying, too. We decided on a 15-minute break when we cried together and then washed our faces with cold wash cloths. We came back and finished the novel.

It wasn’t long after Where the Red Fern Grows that Sara’s class in school began reading chapter books together and before long she and I no longer read them to one another. We did engage in the “higher level conversations” about books that Franki Sibberson mentions in her February 9 post to her blog, A Year of Reading and there were books aplenty around the house, but I missed our read alouds. Now as adults we pass books back and forth to one another, enjoying many of the same writers, and I share reading conversations with my granddaughter—what reading fun!

But there are kids all over who aren’t ever read aloud to by their parents and who aren’t sharing tears or fun over books. What about them?

So, would I advocate a national campaign to encourage parents to read aloud to their kids, like Jen Robinson has suggested on her blog ? Yes, I think so. Would you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bringing School Learning Home

Adam Watson has found a way to extend the literature discussions from his classroom to the web. His students’ podcast book commercials put the students of 2009 into books of this century and earlier as they promote their books to an audience outside their classroom.

"It's kind of weird because people all over the school know about it and they can listen to us talking about our books," said sophomore Abigail Houchens, 16. "Our parents can listen to it. It's weird but cool, I guess, because people can listen to what we think and it's not just a class thing."

“It's hands-on," Alexa, 15, said. "You're not just reading to read. You get through the reading because you want to be able to know what to say and do when you do your recording. That's pretty cool even for people who don't like reading." ("South Oldham High Uses Podcasts for Literary Chats," The Courier-Journal, January 21, 2009)

Through their podcast projects these students enjoy the benefits of two worlds—print and electronic—and they’re using critical thinking, collaboration , and authentic communication to meld the two. Could we ask for anything better?

One way to get started, of course, is with good texts—the texts kids want to read and those that have the depth to be “podcast worthy.” As NCTE member Kim Ford, chair of the committee that selected Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator as the winner of the 2009 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, says "If we want kids to read for pleasure and for information, then we've got to give them the very best books we can find."

Then, it seems, how we help students promote those texts is up to us. Take the DC Area Literary Map an ongoing project produced by NCTE member Vivian Vasquez and graduate students and teachers from different schools in the area. This map features book podcasts centered around sites in the Washington, DC, area, and is yet another way that teachers and students can extend their “book-learning” beyond the classroom.