Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Parents, Political Staff, and Print Literacy

On her blog last week, Arapahoe High School English Teacher Michelle Davis asked the parents of her ninth graders to write about how learning to write effectively is important. And they did! Parents wrote about the necessity of accurate written communication in a medical facility where the patient’s care would be carried out only according to the written notes on the chart, about the importance of getting the right language down in oil and gas leases, about emailing as the important communication on the job, and more.

And while they wrote, Huck Gutman, chief of staff for Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, wrote about poetry in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He wrote that as a former Professor of English, he misses teaching poetry, which means much to him, adding that teaching is in many ways a more fulfilling job than working in the Senate. He followed by describing how he’s taken to sending the poems of poets such as William Carlos Williams, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and Wordsworth to other people, from friends to colleagues, people in Washington, D.C., and former students and people he meets at yard sales. His conclusion: people, many who’ve never studied poetry, love to get the poems he sends and they love to enjoy them with him--they also enjoy the commentaries he sends along with the poems.

Then, Paul Barnwell wrote his commentary in Education Week , “Literacy Accountability in a New-Media Age.” He begins:

Walking through the hallways of the middle school where I teach, I inevitably hear students talk about music Web sites, blogs, Web-based photo albums, Facebook pages, and other forms of new media.

If we judged these students’ ability to interpret and gather information solely based on their mastery of print media, we’d be doing ourselves—and society—a huge disservice.

Michelle Davis, Huck Gutman, and Paul Barnwell agree on three important beliefs behind the National Gallery of Writing :

1. Effective writing is important—not just in school but long after that in the jobs we do in the world.

2. People enjoy reading others’ writings even when they're not assigned to do so and they learn from those writings.

3. Print is not the only form of composition, nor the only form of writing that we need to teach and test to show that our students have learned and can think critically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What About Writing?

I love writing—I love to do it, to read it, to teach it. Unlike some, I’m not worried that my students’ brains have gone soft with too much texting and unrestrained Internet usage. I just figure that when we’re essay writing, we all need to learn to write to our audiences and when we’re texting, we write to that audience, and one of my jobs as a teacher is to help students learn how to recognize and write for particular audiences. In class, since our class is online, the students and I are writing all the time even in those instances when in a face-to-face class we’d be speaking.

The new Carnegie report A Time to Act calls for a “literacy revolution” in our schools. Yet when they were developed in 2004, NCTE’s Beliefs on the Teaching of Writing already predicted a change in the nature of and expectation for literacy and, along with that, a change in the nature of writing. The Beliefs went on to say, “Much of that change has been due to technological developments, from pen and paper, to typewriter, to word processor, to networked computer, to design software capable of composing words, images, and sounds. These developments not only expanded the types of texts that writers produce, they also expanded immediate access to a wider variety of readers.”

But there are some who take issue with the influence of technology in our schools. In “Cursive Writing May Be Fading Skill, but So What?” (Yahoo! News, September 21, 2009), some West Virginia parents have expressed dismay that instruction in cursive writing is taking a back seat to lessons on using technological tools to write.

Others couldn’t be happier. The students in “At-Risk Students Make Multimedia” (Edutopia Magazine, October 2009) and in “Stop the Presses! Revamped Journalism Courses Attract Hordes of Students"(The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 2009) are more than happy to be using new forms of composition: blogging and broadcasting, video game-making and tweeting.

I agree with NCTE member Dennis Barron who points out in 'A Better Pencil' (Inside Higher Ed, September 18, 2009), an interview on his new book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, it’s highly unlikely that new writing technologies are doing damage to the English language.

New 21st century forms of composition are behind NCTE’s idea to develop the The National Gallery of Writing—a place to collect and display the writings of our citizenry, writings of all sorts. With 17 national galleries and nearly 1,000 local galleries, the public will be able to view varied kinds and modes of writing submitted by people of all ages and occupations. When the gallery goes live on October 20, 2009, the National Day on Writing, and until the display ends in June 2010, writing researchers will have the opportunity to use the submissions to analyze writing today, to help get to the root of the debate on the present state of writing.

Currently NCTE hypothesizes that we’re in the midst of a writing revolution, that people are writing more than ever but that, perhaps, the youngest of us are doing most of that writing outside of school as Writing Between the Lines—and Everywhere Else indicates.

Being able to study across the samples of composition submitted to the gallery will help NCTE learn how to better help teachers of writing help student writers improve their craft. As part of the bargain the Council offers writing resources for all writers.

What do you think we’ll find out about writing today?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Five Starting Points for Your Gallery Entry

There's still time to have students submit their work to NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. The only problem is deciding what to write. The Gallery has room for any kind of writing, from formal essays to family email messages, and from workplace memos to IMs among friends. Anything goes!

If you're finding it hard to decide what to have students focus on, here are five starting places. The responses students write can be rather informal, like something they might post on a personal blog, or they can be more formal pieces that students might publish in a school newspaper. Encourage students to focus on personal stories, advice, or experiences and to focus on an audience of their peers, other students across the U.S.

So share one or more of these starting points with students and get them writing! And be sure to submit students' work by visiting the National Gallery site!

X Things You Should Know About Y
Just choose a number and a topic. Aim for something like 3 to 5. You can always increase the number if you have more ideas. You might focus on something like "3 Things You Should Know About Student Teaching," "5 Things You Should Know about AP English," or "3 Things You Should Know About Getting Your Driver's License." Once you have your rough title, all you have to do is write out the items. You can brainstorm a list, and choose the best ideas to expand into full sentences or paragraphs.
Why X Doesn't Matter
You've been told that dozens of things are crucial for one reason or another, but when it comes down to it, they may not matter at all. Choose one and tell the story that explains why you no longer think it matters. You might write about "Why Spelling Doesn't Matter on Facebook" or "Why Making the Track Team Doesn't Matter." Whatever you choose, remember to focus on the personal experiences that led you to draw the conclusion. Be specific and talk about how you came to your realization.
What You Should Know About X
What are you an authority on? What advice can you give to someone else? You could write "What You Should Know About Student Teaching," "What You Should Know About Reading a Novel," or even "What You Should Know to Pass Mrs. Grimes' English Class." You can make the topic more specific by clarifying the "You." For instance, you might choose "What Girls Should Know About Their First Date." Once you have your topic, brainstorm the things that your reader needs to know, and then fill out your writing by adding personal details and explanations that demonstrate why it's important to know the information.
The Ultimate Guide to X, or How to X
For this starting poing, think of something you can describe in steps. Focus on something relatively simple that you can explain in 4 to 7 steps. For example, you could write "The Ultimate Guide to Packing a Healthy Lunch," "How to Study for Your History Quiz," or "The Ultimate Guide to Building a Snow Fort." Sketch out your steps as a jot list, and then expand them into full sentences and paragraphs. Be sure to tell readers both what to do and why they should do it.
Why I [Love/Hate/Am Scared of/Like] X
You have two choices to make for this starting point. Choose the verb you want to use from the options listed or add one of your own, and choose the topic you want to talk about. Be sure to focus on something very specific. For example, focus on "Why I Love the First Day of School" rather than "Why I Love School." You might talk about "Why I Hate Spelling Bees," "Why I Am Scared of Hornets," or "Why I Like Windows 7." Once you have your topic, you can either jot down 2 or 3 reasons and then expand upon them, OR you can tell a personal story that will demonstrate why you feel the way that you do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Reflection on September 11th and the Power of Writing

Those of us who were in schools and classrooms eight years ago this week can likely recall with specificity how difficult it was to help our students process the news of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., as we ourselves were learning about the human loss and devastation only moments before—or at the same time as—our students did.

It was with these still vivid memories in mind that I heeded Jennifer Buehler’s recommendation and read David Levithan’s just-published young adult novel Love is the Higher Law this weekend. Levithan’s book chronicles the experiences of three New York City teens on September 11, 2001, as they attempt to situate their personal emotions in the midst of a national tragedy and to reconcile their doubts about humanity with their need to feel hope for the future.

Reading Levithan’s book (and earlier this year, Joseph O’Neill’s beautifully rendered Netherland, a novel that explores the ways the events of 9/11 profoundly alter the narrator’s personal life) reminded me of twin truths upon which the tradition of Sophocles and Shakespeare is founded: Writing helps give meaning to tragedies that seem too immense to comprehend, and reading what good writers have written about these tragedies connects us in an experience of art borne out of destruction.

To be sure, the notion of reading and writing about tragedy seems starkly different when the tragedy is real and not mythical, in the present day and not historical. As with literature about any significant event, there is certainly a risk of the creation of “a 9/11 genre” filled with books that merely use the day as an excuse for a topical and timely story. I’m grateful for authors such as Levithan and O’Neill (and I’m sure there are others) who are writing about September 11 despite that risk, and to powerful effect.

Early in Love is the Higher Law, the character Claire (a high school senior) rushes from her school to the classroom in which her younger brother Sammy and other children are coloring flowers and pumpkins, unaware of the destruction occurring only a few blocks south. “The world is falling apart,” Claire observes dismissively, “and this is what we have to offer.”

Far from being art that is merely a distraction, writing that engages both directly and indirectly with an event such as 9/11 has much to offer all of us: Perspectives different from our own; narratives that allow for confusion and fear as well as hope; and reading experiences that prompt us to reevaluate the potential for human response to complex and profound events.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

21 Great Library Links (with Related Classroom Activities!)

Online library sites offer teachers wonderful resources—and you don't need to schedule a trip to the library to use them! From storytelling to writing and literature, you can find materials that will get students engaged and clicking at these sites:

Look for the stories behind the photos
Share photographs from these sites and challenge students to search the images for clues about the lives, dreams, and treasures of the people pictured. Use the photos as a springboard for narrative stories that go beyond the image to what's come before or what will come next, or ask students to embark on research projects that explore the historical moments that the photos capture. If your resources allow, students can embark on their own documentary photography projects. Using these photos as models, have students take photos (or even record videos) of the people around them and document the stories behind the photos they take.

  1. "The Pageant of America" Photograph Archive (New York Public Library)
  2. Ellis Island Photographs (New York Public Library)
  3. Photographs of America from the Great Depression to World War II (Library of Congress)
  4. Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar (Library of Congress)
  5. Picture This: Family Photographs of Everyday San Francisco (San Francisco Public Library)

Record your own history
Remind students that everyone's story matters with these personal narratives and oral histories. You'll find transcripts and audio recordings that tell the story of people who see and do remarkable things as part of their daily lives. Use the materials on the StoryCorps website to ask students to record histories of their own after exploring resources from these collections.

  1. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (Library of Congress)
  2. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1940 (Library of Congress)
  3. Eyewitness (National Archive)
  4. From the Home Front and the Front Lines: A Special Presentation of Original Materials and Oral Histories From the Veteran's History Project (Library of Congress)

Look at the creative process
Writing can be a downright messy process. Show students that even great writers scribble and revise in complicated ways by sharing a notebook or original draft from one of these collections. Ask students to look not for the perfect sections of text, but for the places where the thinking and rethinking shows on the page. Rather than simply comparing these first drafts to the authors's later polished versions, have students compare the creative process behind these writers's drafts to their own efforts as writers and thinkers.

  1. Walt Whitman Manuscripts (New York Public Library)
  2. Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass (Library of Congress)
  3. The Notebook of William Blake (British Library)
  4. Emily Dickinson manuscript material (Boston Public Library)
  5. Langston Hughes Papers (Yale University)

Explore literary manuscripts
You probably don't have access to literary manuscripts in your school library. No matter. You can find examples online. Take any manuscript for a work that you're studying and ask students to consider how the original text compares to the mass-produced copies in your classroom or school/public library.

  1. Beowulf (British Library)
  2. Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Huntington Library)
  3. Shakespearean Book Folios Online (University of Victoria)
  4. John Milton's Paradise Lost (The Morgan Library)
  5. Jane Austen's The History of England (British Library)
  6. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (British Library)
  7. Jean de Brunhoff's Histoire de Babar Maquette (The Morgan Library)