Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Writing Everywhere

On July 14, Scott Filkins blogged about his literacy dig, noting the many writing activities he’d accomplished in just one day. But here’s something I’ve been noticing ever since the National Day on Writing bug bit me. Have you ever noticed how many, many people are writing and just how much writing there is in the world? Well, I’ve been unable to help myself from noticing.

Example 1 - Writing for corn and soy beans. A friend of mine owns a farm here in Central Illinois. If you know anything about this part of the Midwest, you’ll guess (accurately) that the farm produces corn some years and soybeans the next. Now although each of these crops when alternated put back in the soil what the other takes out, our rich soil still needs fertilizer. “Where is she going with all this?” you’re probably asking by now, but here’s the point. In times gone by a farmer would just get the some fertilizer and sprinkle it equally all around the farm. But today, this farmer pays to have a satellite fly over his fields—and here’s where the writing comes in—and from that fly-by he gets in text and in pictures information that tells him exactly which fields need how much fertilizer—no more guess work, no over-fertilization run-off.

Example 2 – Writing for cats and dogs. I have pets and I travel lots. I need a pet-sitter who will come to my home and take care of my pets while I’m gone, but more than that, someone who will cuddle and nurse my pets when they need it. In the past several years, I’ve found my pet sitters and information about my pet sitters on their websites where I can read testimonials, notice how they talk about the pets they care for, and check out their prices.

Example 3 – Writing for advertising. In Urbana, Illinois, there’s a billboard on the way into town from the north that displays the most interesting ads, each featuring some short, catchy, and often puzzling tag line. The trick for me each time I pass by the billboard is to see if I can get the entire tag line read at 30 miles an hour and then if I can figure out the message. I’m guessing that’s exactly what the billboard ad creator wants because by the time I put all the texts together, I don’t readily forget the product or service being advertised.

Example 4 – Writing for car repair. My car dealership just got a new makeover, complete with a snazzy waiting room with cookies and coffee, and a car wash complimentary with my oil change. Where the writing comes in—beyond the fix-it ticket they’ve been using for years—is in the car checklist that appears on my bill when I turn up every 3000 miles. The checklist not only tells me which of many services my car should have at what mileage intervals but the service staff usually circle those services that I might be interested in very soon. I actually try to keep the checklist in my glove box so I can remember the next time where I’ve left off on the service program—something I guess they’re counting on.

Example 5 – Texting for kids. Who would have guessed even five years ago that I’d be using my cell phone to make dates with my grown daughter or to firm up the time to pick up my choral singing colleague? In fact, five years ago when I first went to Europe, my daughter was horrified that I wasn’t bringing my cell phone. “Wouldn’t work there anyhow,” I told her, and that was true enough then, but just past weekend I was listening to Rick Steves’ radio travel show and my ears perked up when he talked about buying SIM cards through vending machines in Europe so you could use your cell phone, for example, to text your children to see where they were so you all could plan when and where to meet up. Sure beats the old-fashioned way.

Writing is a significant part of our lives—not just English-teacher lives but the lives of repair people, babysitters, kindergarten artists, pet-sitters, lawyers, bloggers, farmers, hospitality workers, truckers, travelers, advertisers, nurses, trades workers, and more.

Two NCTE Reports-- Writing in the 21st Century and Writing for School vs. Writing for Life speak both to the significance of writing today and to how different it is from writing in times gone by. It’s plain that now we have technological tools that enable us to write differently now in form and frequency, but now with those tools even when using pen and paper, we think about writing differently. We are able to write lots, often targeting our own audiences and trying to make things happen--we have agency for what we write, especially when we’ve been the ones to decide to write. And, many of our students are writing just this way outside of school, ironically thinking that what they’re doing isn’t writing, and many are not doing enough of this new sort of writing in school.

How can we help our students expand their notions of what constitutes writing so we can help them use their own agency and audience selection to make things happen with their writing? What if we began by sending our students on a scavenger hunt for new ways of writing? What would they find?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Five Ways to Learn about Students This Fall

The beginning of a new school term means new students. Sometimes we'll see faces we know from the previous year, but often we see a fresh slate. Fresh, but not blank. They bring with them literacy experiences from other classrooms, from their homes, and from their communities.

The challenge is to figure out what they know and connect to that prior knowledge and experience as soon as possible. Sure we could read through permanent files, ask for writing samples, and give them entrance tests.

The problem is all those strategies still require us to analyze the data and try to find (or more likely, guess) the most important influences and experiences. Why not choose a more straightforward method? Ask them. Here are five strategies you can try:

  • Write about Writing with Analogies Ask students to reflect on their writing habits and process. Using the resources in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson, you learn much about how students write and about how their attitudes toward writing. Are they confident? Do they have a lot of anxieties about writing? Do they write a lot or very little? This activity will reveal all! Modify the lesson a bit, and you can ask students to tell you about themselves as readers.
  • Compose Technology Autobiographies Today's students have always had computers somewhere in their community. They may think they spent no time writing during the summer months—until you ask them if they posted blog entries and status updates on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Ask students to tell you about their regular or most significant interactions with technology with this ReadWriteThink.org lesson. Their stories will reveal their 21st century literacy skills.
  • Keep Writer’s Logs Use the reflective questions in this ReadWriteThink.org lesson to ask students to tell you about their literacy experiences and attitudes. Begin by asking students to respond to a key question or two about their literacy experiences in the past. Try a question like "How is your reading and writing during the summer different from during the school year?" or "What has been your favorite writing (or reading) experience and why?" The lesson provides for ongoing reflection on the writing students do, a process that will keep you informed about the writers you teach.
  • Make Reading Plans You can learn much about students' prior knowledge by asking them to tell you about what they want to do in the future. This ReadWriteThink.org lesson asks students to analyze the reading they've done in the past and make a plan for the future. As you read and respond to their work, you not only learn about their likes and dislikes as readers, but you also help them shape individual reading plans for the weeks to come.
  • Build a Literacy Gallery NCTE invites all writers to submit one piece of writing that is important to them to the National Gallery of Writing. Kick off your own gallery by asking students to share an artifact of their writing process that is significant—a favorite pen, something they have written, a diary. Anything. The discussion will reveal much about the students and their experience and habits as writers. After your literary show and tell session, work together to set up a class or school gallery, as part of the National Gallery of Writing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Value of Questioning in Professional Growth

When I started teaching, I recognized the value of learning from teachers who had more experience and wisdom than I. Through a formal mentoring program at my school, I was assigned two long-term veterans as mentors, and we observed each others’ classroom practices and made time (when we could) to discuss how things were going.

As I look back, I am certainly grateful for the support that came from those mentoring relationships; I know that many new teachers get a much less auspicious start than I did. But as I reflect on the work my mentors and I did together, I see a way in which my perception of the experience was fundamentally flawed: I was seeking models of effective teaching practice when I really should have been looking for models of effective professional learning.

To be sure, I engaged in the professional development behaviors that I knew how to do. I bought books on topics that related to the courses and content I taught. I subscribed to English Journal and vowed (sometimes successfully) to read each issue. I even secured funding to attend an NCTE Convention. But none of those activities really “stuck” because I was engaging in them rather passively and superficially. I looked for resources that seemed topically relevant, saw what they had to offer, and either acted on them or didn’t.

What I lacked was the ability to formulate appropriate questions to address the issues and challenges I was facing in the classroom. Access to the best professional development resources around—publications, meetings, mentors—doesn’t mean much if those resources aren’t situated in a framework of active inquiry and application of new learning.

I’m likely being overly hard on myself. After all, when you don’t know very much, it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. That’s why, as I start work with students and other teachers this fall, I’m going to make a very conscious effort to acknowledge the centrality of good questions to the process of professional growth. Everyone is at a different place on the continuum of development, and the more models of sustained teacher inquiry we see in each other, the more likely we all are to engage in such practice.

Instead of reading a stack of student papers only to give them supportive feedback, I’ll also consider the questions their work implies both about their needs as learners and my needs as a teacher. Could I have built some additional scaffolding into the process to have achieved even better results? What do students need next to continue developing as thinkers and writers?

When student behavior disrupts the learning environment, rather than reaching for the phone to bring parents into the loop and achieve a quick fix, I’ll also inquire more deeply into what went wrong. How can I use the moment to teach respectfully about self-control? Did I contribute, even accidentally, to a cycle of conflict that could have been extinguished?

The needs of my students and my professional identity as a teacher are worth the investment of time that such reflective practice requires.

It took me too long to start to develop a sense of what it means to be an effective teacher-learner. It’s an important challenge for each of us to make explicit for each other our processes of asking good questions; seeking high-quality, relevant resources; and implementing action-based solutions. Whether you’re a mentor or mentee (and we’re all really both, officially or unofficially) this fall, I hope you’ll also work to bring to the foreground the importance of inquiry to the professional identity of teachers in your building.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Building Community in 15 Minutes a Day

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of young adult novels including Speak and Wintergirls, launched a writing challenge on her blog this month: Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, or WFMAD. Anderson invites readers to spend 15 minutes writing every day during the month. She provides writing prompts, advice, and encouragement. All readers have to do is set aside 15 uninterrupted minutes and write.

Where's the community in that project? Look in the comments to the blog entries, and you'll see people, wait, strike that. You'll see WRITERS talking about their work. They describe triumphs and challenges. They talk about where they were when they wrote—in an office, a comfy chair, or a coffee shop. Some reflect on what they have written about. Others talk about how family and friends (and a few pets) supported their work. In just 15 minutes a day, Laurie Halse Anderson has built a great community of writers.

In the classroom, this kind of project can forge great connections among students. Just follow Anderson's example, and provide a prompt, advice, and encouragement. Anderson even says that the prompts can be reproduced for classroom use!

Of course, you can easily adapt the project for any students and class. Scale the time up or down as appropriate for the class. Fifteen minutes is probably plenty for high school and college students, but you might use a shorter period for younger students. Don't have 15 minutes a class session? Choose a shorter period of time, or scale things back so that students write every other day or once a week. The project could also be done for simple homework assignment.

There are a few things that I wouldn't change about the activity though:

  • Be sure that the writing prompt you choose require a personal response. You might ask students to talk about something that happened, a dream for the future, or a favorite object. Tap students' personal experience.
  • Choose a general topic that gives students plenty of choice. Remember that writers have more authority when they can choose a topic that they are comfortable with.
  • Welcome any and all kinds of composition—freewriting, polished paragraphs, story boards, and so forth. Invite students to do whatever kind of writing they want to. The important thing is to write. Exactly how they write is less important.

Once students do their writing, it's time to use their texts to build community. Invite students to talk about their experience with the project. Anderson has some suggestions for conversation in her blog post. For instance, she asks writers to add comments that tell her "what it felt like when the 15 minutes were up." Look through the comments on other WFMAD posts on Anderson's blog for additional topics you might discuss after writing. Of course, you can also ask students to talk about the content of their 15-minute writings.

Using Anderson's project as a model, you can jump start community building in the classroom this fall. The first days of school can be very scary. As teachers, we need to make students feel comfortable with each other as quickly as possible. Writing is the answer. Welcome students as writers, give them advice and encouragement, and watch discussions about writing blossom as students build connections and encourage one another to write. And you can do it all in about 15 minutes a day!