Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing Our Way Through the End of School and Into Next Year

Writing is such a balm when the spring sun shines or even when April is “cruelest of all.” Even our toughest students can usually be persuaded to pen a poem this time of year. There are so many resources for teachers and students to use, and I’ve gathered up a few to share.

The National Gallery of Writing awaits more writing and more galleries. The Gallery will be open at least until June 2011 AND on October 20, 2010, we’ll celebrate our second National Day on Writing! What better affirmation for writers than to be published in a national gallery for people all over the world to see and read?

Maybe you and your students want to take a look at the Gallery before you decide what to publish. There are several local galleries and poems listed in the ideas section of the March 23 edition of INBOX. I’d start there.

You might try the website of the Academy of American Poets for a wealth of information and ideas for reading, writing, and learning about poetry and poets. I really like the Poetry Map and, of course, there’s the April 29 Poem in Your Pocket Day including many resources, even pocket-ready poems.

You might like to share in one of my fun activities. I compose haiku in my head when I’m walking my dog! I just observe something along the way—the sunrise, the breeze in the trees, the ducks on the pond—and I begin a line working toward a succinct 5-7-5 description. I hope you’ll improve on what I do by remembering to write the poems down when you get back from the walk! Or even better, students could carry a cell phone and either text (watch out for bumps along the path!) or call a friend with their haiku; they could carry an old-fashioned notebook.

I’d like to recommend three of the many NCTE books on poetry and teaching poetry:

Stephen Dunning’s and William Stafford’s time-tested NCTE book Getting the Knack is still among my favorites for down to earth ideas for getting our students writing poetry.

Bea Cullinan’s A Jar of Tiny Stars: Poems by NCTE Award-Winning Poets is an excellent collection of sample poems by children’s poets.

Jaime R. Wood’s Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom hooks in middle schoolers with lessons about poems by contemporary poets of color.

Mostly, I’d like to recommend you and your students join me in writing poetry for National Poetry Month in April!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How Online Professional Development Changed My Life

Chances are high that you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for online professional development. I don’t mean that in the clichéd “If you can read this thank a teacher” way. What I mean is that I would never, ever have had the connections that led to writing these blog entries if it hadn’t been for the online professional development opportunities that came my way.

People who know me may not believe it, but I kept to myself as a teacher before I found opportunities to connect with other educators online. I read a lot about teaching, but I rarely discussed teaching strategies with others. I had some connections in the department where I taught, and I was a fellow of Writing Project site that no longer exists.

And then I got an email address and found that other college composition teachers were out there discussing what they do in the classroom online. I signed up Megabyte University, an email discussion list that was active from 1990 to 1997. There, I connected with other teachers who were interested in using computers in writing instruction, and I eventually found my voice and began participating—asking questions, sharing strategies, and planning projects. I found that the people who were names on the articles I read in College English and College Composition and Communication were kind, friendly folks who were willing to chat with a relatively inexperienced person like me.

To my conversations on email discussion lists, I added real-time chats on MOOs and IRC. I attended online conferences related to the face-to-face Computers and Writing Conference. Before I knew it, I had connections with colleagues in all corners of the country, and I had actually chatted with CCCC presidents and NCTE Committee Chairs. I even got up the gumption to send a personal email message to Peter Elbow to tell him how much I loved Writing with Power.

Without any reservation, I can say that I ended up writing this blog because of those first connections that I made online in the early 1990s. Online discussion led to new jobs, new teaching opportunities, and new ways to support other teachers using online tools.

None of the resources I tapped when I got started still exist in the same form today. Computer resources have evolved, and we teachers have developed new ways to connect and keep in touch today.

There are many great opportunities. I can’t promise that you’ll find yourself writing the Inbox blog after you participate in these online opportunities, but I can promise that you’ll find wonderful teachers who will share their ideas, listen to your strategies, and, if you’re just lucky, bring you opportunities that will invigorate your teaching every day.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Writer's Work Is Never Finished

Last week I saw one of our school’s counselors headed down the hallway with a cash box in hand. Under the very serious pressure of budget cuts in our district, I used my standard coping mechanism—bad attempts at humor—and asked her if she was taking it upon herself to start collecting money directly from students. She assured me that her task was of a more official sort. She was collecting deposits for an early May ritual in many American high schools: the College Board’s Advanced Placement Exams.

I was immediately flooded with memories of my experiences as an AP Literature teacher. First among them, given the counselor’s activity that brought AP to mind, were instances of the awkward conversations around the “Should I? or Shouldn’t I?” question with borderline students from families without much expendable income. As much as I enjoyed and learned from my years teaching AP English, I was aware even then of some of the program’s inherent tensions and shortcomings, many of which are now thoughtfully debated in NCTE’s new edited volume College Credit for Writing in High School: The “Taking Care of” Business.

Awkwardness around individual students seeking advice on whether to pay to take the exam are, of course, overshadowed by the broader limitations of the Advanced Placement program. These include the focus on timed, unrevised writing; the privileging of “correct” interpretation; and the difficulty of integrating authentic research writing into a year crammed with response to literature. Even more problematic, though, is the idea that for some students who score well enough on the exam, the class might be the last they would take that would treat writing instruction as one of its main aims.

In an ideal world, we could rest assured that students are being challenged and supported as thinkers and writers in every course, in every discipline, at every level. Knowing we’re not in that ideal world, I suppose we’ll always be left with that uncomfortable feeling of students being “finished” with writing instruction, whether that terminal point is a 3 (or a 5) on an AP English class, or an A (or a C) in a required freshman rhetoric course.

I always tried to address that tension in a well-intentioned but likely ineffective way in the last days of my AP English classes. As students shared their plans for summer and fall, I would dispense sage advice about college, emphasizing that regardless of their scores on the exam, they should take every opportunity to enroll in courses that would ask them to read and write in ways that challenged them and made them better thinkers. We know writers are never “finished” developing, and any aspect of the educational system that suggests otherwise—whether it’s in the high schools or colleges and universities, the assessment industry or published programs of study—isn’t going to feel right to us.

Recognizing that each of us plays an important role in developing our students’ abilities and attitudes as writers, it’s crucial to heed this advice from NCTE’s Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing: “learning to teach well is a lifetime process, and lifetime professional development is the key to successful practice. Students deserve no less.” The better we are at supporting our writers, which includes fostering their understanding that there is more to learn no matter what a test or a transcript tells them, the better off they’ll be.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stories Make It Personal

Imagine that you shared this passage from NCTE’s 2010 Legislative Platform with a non-educator you know. The particular person doesn’t matter. You can think of a family member, a neighbor, or a friend. Whoever you choose, simply imagine that you gave him or her this passage to read:

Improve the quality and use of assessment in determining student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school performance. To support this improvement policymakers should:

  • Fund the development of a balanced assessment system that includes and validates the use of formative assessment, performance-based assessment, growth models, and summative assessment to create a more in-depth portrait of student learning for the purposes of determining accountability
  • Create accountability measures that are developmentally, linguistically, and culturally sensitive to the particular needs of English Language Learners and students with disabilities
  • Make a sustained investment in community-based plans with contributions from students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders to turn around chronically underperforming schools. These plans should include adequate time for learning and teaching while avoiding the burdensome over-testing of students

How do you think the person would react? Would he or she support this kind of educational reform? Would the person want to ask more questions? Would the person just nod and hope you didn’t plan to quiz them on all that educational jargon?

Okay, now, instead, imagine that you tell that same family member, neighbor, or friend about the recent firing of all 74 teachers at Central Falls High School (ABC News). Sprinkle in some details from the NPR stories “School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress” and “Former ‘No Child Left Behind’ Advocate Turns Critic” if you like. Connect that story to what needs to be done to “improve the quality and use of assessment in determining student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school performance.” I bet the person sees your point much more clearly and quickly.

That’s the power of stories. They can take abstract notions and turn them into something concrete and compelling. Any story that you tell about the classroom, the students you teach, the school where you work, and the others in your educational community can be exponentially more powerful than the 2010 Legislative Platform is on its own.

Your personal stories can tell people how legislative policies trickle down to the communities where they live and where they send their children to school. Your stories can help people understand why federal and state policies matter in your town and in your state. When you send your stories to legislators, you can show them how the decisions that they make affect the very real people in their districts.

That’s why the best thing you can do to help advocate for better literacy education is to tell the stories about how legislation affects the students you teach and about the things you need to improve academic achievement. Think about your classroom experience and choose a situation or experience that illustrates how current legislation affects students or how a change in legislation can improve student achievement. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Make your story real and specific.
  • Include details that your audience will understand and can identify with.
  • Focus on a specific point about improving education. (Don’t write a memoir of all your experiences.)
  • Tell the story in first-person. Make it a personal story about a specific experience.
  • Use specific names, but be sensitive to everyone’s right to privacy. Using an alias for students, families and colleagues is fine.
  • Cut your story down to the critical details. Make it short and direct.
  • Avoid educational jargon. Be sure to define any terms or abbreviations that you do include.

That’s all there is to it. Advocating for better literacy education doesn’t have to be difficult or complex. All you have to do is share the stories from your own experiences as an educator.

You can write an opinion piece or a letter to the editor for your local newspaper, or you can tell your story to local legislators. Call your local radio talk show, record and post a podcast, write a blog entry, or upload a video to YouTube. Tell the story to friends when you talk over coffee. Just be sure that you speak out and make sure your story is heard.