I’m taking the Slice of Life Challenge by Two Writing Teachers. For every day in the month of March, I’m writing a slice of something that’s happening in my life. I’ll keep writing about teaching here, but I’m going to write about what it means to be a single mom and how my life is flip-turned upside down (in a good way, generally) with the birth of my son. If you want to read something completely different, visit me here at Single Mom So Far.
Tag Archives: writing
Looking for ways to teach argument in your classroom? Here are some good ones, including one I wrote about the counterargument from the National Council of Teachers of English’s High School Matters blog.
There are lots of kids in my classes this year. It’s only now that I think (think) that I know all of their names (a fact that is both embarrassing and infuriating to me because I feel I should have it down by now).
Getting to know them as writers is much harder, particularly given attempts to turn papers around regularly. I write fewer and fewer comments on their actual papers and encourage them to schedule a conference with me to really talk about their work.
Those conference slots tend to fill up around the time a paper is due, which is what happened this week. While we get some good discussions about where they’re stuck and what they’re thinking, for me, the most important aspect of the conferences are that I can actually get to know the kids. In those moments, when they shyly push forward sentences and paragraphs, make the apologies full of fears of their work not being “good” (whatever that means; I tell them we are all in a state of revision, no apologies are necessary), I ask them how the class is working for them, let them talk through their challenging parts…I take notes then we make a plan for next steps, which I make them write down, because they are young people and they forget and one-on-one conferences are intimidating, I know.
It’s amazing, too, because the kids who sit in class and are the quiet ones, or the ones that seem so self-confident, are so different in conferences. So open, I guess, so willing to engage in a conversation about how to improve their writing.
I learn as much about who they are as people as about what they need to do to strengthen their thesis, in those conferences, and I never regret having them. I also have my student teacher conduct ones with students to understand how to be kind, how to listen to kids, how to give pithy advice that will send them confidently on their way. I find that once students come for one, and generally find it useful, they’ll return for more, and their confidence develops, their questions about their work gets more complex and nuanced, and that growth helps me to understand their development as young writers.
I continue to keep in touch with students I’ve taught over the years (though after 11 years, it takes me a moment to remember where I knew a kid, given that I’ve taught in so many different places; I guess I need to do some more Sudoku). I recently worked with a student who I taught as a freshman four years ago. He’s a senior now, preparing to go to college. His mom contacted me, worried about what he needed to do, what she needed to do, to get him ready. So, I met him on a Saturday at one of the local public library branches to discuss the Common Essay application prompts. This is the prompt that resonated most with him:
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Apparently, he tried out for the high school basketball team as a freshman. Didn’t make the varsity or the JV. The following year, he didn’t make it as a sophomore, either. Ditto for junior year. I asked if he planned to try out this year and he nodded yes. What if you don’t make it? “I guess I’ll run track,” he said. Not bitterly, not quite resignedly, but factually. He wanted to do something that would keep him physically active and track seemed to be it.
We talked about what he learned over the years, when he didn’t make the team, and he said he kept trying out because he felt like he got a little bit better every year, and that people encouraged him to keep working. That this kid was willing to keep trying, even when there the chances of making the team are so small, was quite telling to me. He plays in local leagues, practices, hopes to make the team. Perhaps I’m even more impressed because so many kids would have just given up–heck, I would have given up, probably, after the second time. There definitely would not have been a third or a fourth time. Talk about grit, and perseverance and resilience…
“You have a great story,” I said. “Write it.”
I’d want that kid at my college. He seems to have the qualities that we want: being able to pick yourself up after things don’t go your way, to keep trying even when there is no guarantee of a winning outcome…and you’re 17 years old? Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine.
I never would have had the opportunity to be blown away had I not spent some time on a Saturday conferencing with a kid about what he learned about failure, and why he’s going to keep trying. Kids have great stories to tell and write; thankfully, I can listen and learn when I carve out time to sit beside them.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Random House Annual Educators’ Event in New York City, where, I started by saying that I refuse to be freaked out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I then was able to explain how I’m anticipating being able to be creative, to think broadly about texts, to help my students engage in complex, higher-order tasks around literature and literacy.
At the moment–and still–I believe that.
However, the problem is that the more I read about the CCSS–the vast amounts of money that are driving the initiatives, the stakes that are going to impact educators and students–I realize that staying true to the desire not to be freaked out, to hold on to those beliefs, is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.
- Complex writing tasks mean more people are going to need to be expert writing teachers. There are simply not enough of us in the field who feel confident teaching writing. Thus, we see lots of reductions of writing to acronyms, to numbers (paragraphs, sentences, words, whatever), and we move further away from what we know to be true about how to turn kids into powerful writers.
- Appendix B is a suggestion, not a mandate. I am excited about using it as a suggestion and building some unbelievable text sets that encourages intertextuality, synthesis, real writing. However, there will still be schools and departments that use those texts only. How can we expand our understanding of literature and literacy (as evidenced by my current reading of this fantastic book that I highly recommend) if we only use Appendix B?
- I have become interested, of late, in text-dependent questions (TDQ) because, as I’ve stated before, I’m a much stronger writing teacher than I am a lit teacher, so I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve my craft. TDQ drive students back into the text, which makes sense, right? What makes you think that? Where in the text can you find evidence to either support or refute those ideas? But, there are formulas for these things, too (related to generating questions. This site made my head spin). I worry that in our quest to make everything systematic, or “accessible” or whatever that we make it too uniform. Why not have kids create their own TDQ? In all of this desire to get kids “college and career ready,” I don’t see a lot about how teachers can systematically teach kids to take control of their own learning in the classroom. I usually teach them how to ask questions, we spend time (most of the term) generating, critiquing, revising questions for ones that do what we need them to do. I don’t know…I am not optimistic that that independence is quick to come for kids.
- Time, the need for so much time to understand what is coming. And time is the one thing we simply do not have. Currently, I’m fretting about systems, how to create peer review that works, how to reduce the amount of direct instruction to allow for more time for kids to master the content through hands-on work, but most of all, I’m worried that since my principal lifted the caps for class sizes, next year, I could very well have three sections a semester of 30 kids in a class. How will I be an effective teacher with classes that are this large? What kind of teacher will I be if I don’t have time to read papers, give feedback, conference, etc.? Will we have time for those moments–those in-between moments–where the learning happens?
While the above concerns are all relevant, I think the last one is the most perplexing for me. I have never taught classes of this size, though I have many colleagues who do. I worry that these adjustments, of the class size, will force me to change my practice in ways that concern me.
As I said, though, I refuse to be freaked out, and I’m pretty good at finding end runs around potential road blocks.
And, it is summer, after all.
Thus, I’m thinking about systems. I’m pretty sure I can get kids to work in groups for writing feedback and I just need to get better about rotations of due dates, what I will grade, what counts as indicators of learning. I’m also going back through what I need to teach and making myself justify what’s important (not interesting; sometimes, I get caught up in what’s interesting and shiny, pretty, things) and only do that. Only do that. That’s kind of fun for me and my neuroses. It’s also the only way I can contend with being able to be in control of the situation rather than the situation controlling me.
When my students submit a draft, I ask them to give me some areas of particular growth that they’d like my feedback on. Here, a couple of my comments in response to a student:
After reading her draft: I would like to see your writing become more sophisticated. I think one place to start is with sentence variety and sentence length. You have lots of choppy sentences that are just…boring. From this draft, I can tell you can write. Now, you have to push your limits. Go.
She asked, “Can you detect my voice in my essay?” [Side note: what a brilliant, BRILLIANT question from such a young writer. My heart, my smile…VOICE?! Remind me to write about what Keith Gilyard said about voice that made everything crystal clear-ish to me about that].
Me: It’s there, hidden underneath some dry language. You actually have a voice that is quite poetic. You’ll develop it this term. It will be fun.
Indeed, it will be–and is–fun. I needed a reminder of the joy I have working with my students. March attempts to wring it from me as it marches forth (ha), but there is such joy in this work…
Once the first semester ended in mid-January, I had exactly a weekend to turn around and start teaching the same couse to a new group of sophomores.
After reminding myself about the need to just keep breathing, I also had to remind myself that the new kids who entered my classroom, filled with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and dread (thanks to their predecessors who told everyone they knew about how hard the class was, how much they learned but mostly, too, how glad they were that the class, for them, was OVER), were just that: new kids.
That’s why summers are so great when we teach: we end the year more than exhausted, but we have the summer to forget how difficult it is to break in a new crop of students. We forget that we have to teach them procedures, that there are days when it feels like we’re caught so deep in the muck that a thesis statement is as foreign to them as learning…I don’t know…insert something that’s difficult; that there were plenty of days when discord tiptoed around the edges of the classroom, threatening to overtake whatever it was that was supposed to be happening at any given moment.
Instead, as we laze (ha!) through summer, we instead replace those real memories with fond ones of kids who hung around and wanted to share their poetry (that was actually good), the reflections wherein students waxed about how much they learned, the thank you notes that parents and students were nice enough to write.
Revisionism is a beautiful thing, particularly when related to teaching. And it’s not, necessarily, a horrible thing, because it enables us to hold dear to the various meanings of success we see in our classrooms over the course of a term. And it probably enables us to muster the courage to come back in the fall.
Let me repeat that, though: over the course of a term. It does not happen overnight.
And so, this George Washington quote–this fantastic quote that Jim Burke uses to begin a chapter in his incredibly useful book What’s the Big Idea–resonates with me now more than ever, particularly as I begin to grade the first papers from new kids in a new term.
“Well, we must take them as they are and make them into the soldiers we need them to be.”
Thank goodness for an unexpected snow day, that allows me to read through the papers with more leisure than I am usually permitted. I had to remind myself, again and again, that these were new students, that they had not been privy to the writing workshops, the practice, the expectations that we are all writers, with important things to say and that good writing takes time. Thus, their theses statements would not be as well developed, their language not as sophisticated, their analysis not as through and interesting, their voices still clanking along in essay voice.
And that’s okay.
More than anything, I think I’ve finally reached the point where, after giving fond farewells to the old kids, I can open the door to the new students and be excited about who they will become, the powerful readers and writers I know they can be.
My class is hard. I’m not going to lie. I ask kids to do a lot of reading, writing and thinking, and they complain but they generally do their work. That fact–that they always do their work–has taken some adjusting, as I tend to get about 80-95% of a return on my assignments in general if I’m lucky. Now, I’m probably always going to get 100%.
What I’ve found is that the kids of color and the low income kids are struggling mightily. I’m starting to (warmly) demand that they schedule conferences to talk about their work, checking in with them more frequently, encouraging them to stick with it. I need them to realize, through my words, my actions and my beliefs, that they can do this work. It’s gonna be hard as all get out, but they can do the work.
It’s discouraging when I give out grades and one student’s score has moved incrementally. I want to rage with her, at me (are you really doing right by these kids? I often goad myself). But then, just when I’m at the point when I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into and if my approach is wrong, the literature gives me an answer.
In this case, there were a few minutes last week before all my writing conferences began, and three of the kids were hanging out (I think one had intentionally “confused” his conference time and wanted to chat sooner rather than later; I obliged). I asked them some questions about their lack of participation, and one brave soul admitted that she felt intimidated by the vocabulary her peers were using. I told her that half the time, they weren’t even using the words correctly; rather, what mattered was that they were trying. That’s how you learn, I said. You got to get the words into your mouth, turn them around, so that they begin to feel like your own. Most of this work we’re doing, I continued, is about a willingness to try, and to know that yes, in the beginning we might all feel like we’re clueless, but at least we keep trying.
We’d just talked about post-colonialism and Othering and the Other, and I said something to the extent of, “You’re letting them Other you. You can’t let that happen. In a way, too, you’re Othering yourself because you think you can’t do it. Don’t let your fear win.”
But that’s what it was, othering, on multiple levels: their silence building, their fear of not knowing preventing them from even trying to speak at all. After that conversation, I became even more aware of interactions and discussions and creating spaces for kids to enter into the talk of a classroom. (Funny how I forget my own hesitancies and reluctance when I’m talking to kids. I know exactly what it feels like to sit in a group and sweat and worry about how to interject, how to disagree, how to offer something new to the conversation. That’s why I’m trying to figure out how to get them involved.)
This week, we’re about to celebrate the National Day of Writing and a student’s father, who’s a poet, is coming in tomorrow to do some reading with us. He’s asked kids to read an Adrienne Rich essay, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Writing,” as well as having them read several versions of a poem. I asked him to show them his process, of how a draft moves from an idea, through revision to a momentary final poem. He’s agreed, and I’m so stoked to see this all play out tomorrow.
I gave the essay out yesterday (Wed.) with the instruction to read it in preparation for Friday. One student, of the three that stayed behind last week, came into homeroom and said she was up all night reading Adrienne Rich.
Um, stop. Rewind. HOLD UP. She showed me her thoroughly annotated essay, pointing out places where she agreed with Rich, bold paragraphs marked to indicate where she was moved and inspired.
“I have lots to say,” she said. “I’m going to speak up. I can’t wait.”
And I still need to unpack everything that happened in that moment and I’m sure after tomorrow, when they blow my head open with their talk I’ll have to unpack even another suitcase, but here we were, a teacher who was quickly running out of strategies and a student who sincerely doubts herself, and there’s Adrienne Rich, offering us a way through.
Much of teaching is about trust: can you work with students, create a community that encourages them to take risks, to listen to each other, to try new ways to write, to read to think. I’ve also found that it’s about just telling them when you make a mistake (sorry, that timeline I proposed was entirely unrealistic. My class is not the only class you’re taking; let’s rethink); that you’re off your game (yup, I was up grading so I’m not going to get that other thing back to you today); that you don’t know (seriously, I’m going to have to look up this punctuation rule; I just don’t remember it).
This truth is incredibly freeing, and the start of something meaningful.
Rich: Yet, if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.
Maybe this is the beginning of their truth, too.
If you look closely at the picture that accompanies this post, you’ll see a couple of things: first, you’ll see a pumpkin that a friend brought me as a housewarming gift. You’ll see my red teacher bag, most likely filled with stuff that I can’t quite ever clean out, and you’ll see that blue reusable bag teeming with student papers to be graded.
Two things remain constant in that picture: first, my teacher bag seems to always have the same contents: a couple of folders that catch stray papers, handouts I want to amend, something left on the copier I forgot to file away, a half-finished book of some genre. The blue bag is similar in its consistency as well: it always has some handful of papers from students that I’m in-the-progress of grading. ALWAYS.
Here’s what happens: I assign a paper for the week or two-week period, we write hard and, because the kids are honors kids, they all turn in their papers. On time. Maximum length. That’s probably about 25 papers on average, per class. I have equal parts exhilaration and dread when it’s paper turn-in day. I’m stoked that I’m going to get some relatively decently written papers and I’m reticent because I then have about 1 1/2 weeks to turn them around. I binder clip the papers by class, then put them into the blue bag to bring home with me. When I get home, though, the bag goes on the chair, my sweater usually atop that, and then I start doing other things (like, I don’t know, LIVING). The next morning, as I’m rushing to get out of the door, I look at the bag again, sitting in the exact place where I left it, taunting me. As I sit on the subway, I always have a brief, intense conversation with myself about whether I should just start grading, but then, I get selfish and remind myself that I’ve promised that, for the 40ish minutes that I’m on the train, I will read whatever I want to, because that is my right as a reader and that is what I need in my life.
The papers don’t get graded. Repeat this cycle for about a week, of carrying the papers to and from school, of not removing said papers from the bag, of dodging student comments about when those papers will be returned.
Mind you, I’ve become an even more efficient grader over the last three years. A former colleague taught me how to notice themes and write these brilliant writing notes that address issues, but, in order to craft those writing notes, you first have to…wait for it…read the papers.
Finally I reach a point–usually after I am made to feel guilty by a student who never asks any questions but, on this particular day was “just wondering” when we were going to get our papers back because they wanted to work on improving their writing and something about feedback (good one; they know that if they ever couch their requests in such a way as writers improving their craft, I’ll attempt to move heaven and earth to make it happen), I cave.
I stay at school, pull out the papers and grade, and grade, and grade. Or at least read them, make notes, and occasionally get blown away by kids who are coming into their own by learning to write a compelling argument. I lay the albatross down momentarily, at least for another week, when the cycle begins anew.
The deadline to submit my grades and the supplementary narratives that students receive for my summer program is Monday. For the first year of this program, I’m up against it. I might be writing my way through the weekend. What happens is that I’m a bit of a sentimentalist, so rather than just writing, I find myself going back and rereading past reflections so I can get myself into the groove of writing the current ones.
This one that follows gets me every time. I wrote it for a kid that I hoped would make it through the program, but he ended up leaving us. I miss him. I hope he knew this reflection was serious and honest and true. Absolutely true.
An excerpt from my narrative to him:
You were so brave to share your truths with me. I know this was difficult and brought up some memories you had hoped to suppress, but in the process, you wrote a piece that was deeply moving and personal. Thank you for trusting me. I admire your honesty and humor, too, which always made the class a space of joyful learning (even when you tried hard not to make it seem that that was your intention).
In your self-reflection, you said that this course confirmed that you are not good at writing narratives. I disagree. While writing narratives are difficult–probably because they are so personal–your voice is quite strong, clear, and convincing. As is your habit, you second guess yourself too much and seem to forget that everything takes practice; if you want to be the writers you admire, then you have to write. A lot. And yes, some of that writing will be absolutely awful, while much more of it will probably be something worth saving, but you’ll never know what to save unless you try, R. Stop being so self-deprecating (look it up). Your greatest disadvantage is that you refuse to acknowledge how great of a scholar you could be. I knew you were capable of excellence from the moment I met you. I realize seeing greatness in oneself is harder because we tend to downplay our own intelligence—sometimes, though, the first step at embracing what it takes to be a scholar is having someone tell you that, based on the work you’ve done, that you can be great. Thus, after reading your essays and interacting with you throughout the summer, you can do great work, and you can write well. Okay, off you go now to do it. I wish you the best for the school year. It has been a pleasure writing with you.
These kids never leave us…
My summer program ended yesterday and I’ve begun to read reflections about the class, the final assignment students write. These reflections reaffirm many of the things I know to be true about myself: that I’m initially imposing, that I’m relatively harsh, that I love what I do, that I love my students.
Eventually, we reach a place of peace, but the 4-5 weeks that are required to get there are usually fraught with under-the-breath swears (and I’m sure they’re quite colorful, as adolescents have lovely vocabularies in that regard) and worries about passing the course.
For the most part, they all do pass. I tell them I’m not necessarily concerned with how they start, but how they finish. It’s not rocket science, I continue. If you buy into the class, if you commit to being excellent, then we’ll work together to be excellent. And you might just become a great writer, or at least start down the path to being a great writer.
In this course, excellence requires revision: lots of it. It’s a near constant process. Thing is, once the kids begin revising and pass the paper, some ask what they can do to achieve an exceeds. Those conversations are some of the best, because then they are about word choice, about sentence variety, about punctuation…those conversations are about what real writers do.
But I don’t have those conversations with everyone; for the most part, they are generally worried about meeting expectations, which, I’ve suspected for a couple of years but now confirmed, is difficult because I’m undoing.
Undoing, in this respect, means breaking them outside of what they are accustomed to. No formulas, no minute details about what goes where in what paragraph. I didn’t realize how much that freaked them out until so many of them wrote about it in their reflections. They said that initially they were concerned by so much freedom (WTH? As a writer–even an academic writer–I relish freedom), that that freedom caused them so much panic that it led to inertia (seriously, they couldn’t get started)…
But once they began to just write, they surprised themselves. Most importantly, they found themselves. Here’s a snippet from one kid who knows the formulas for essays in his sleep. He didn’t know what to do with me because I challenged him to find himself in his writing, to leave those formulas in the past. He wrote about, essentially, wearing a mask as a writer, that allowed him to detach and write perfectly functional but emotionally devoid essays:
A poker face that said nothing, had nothing to say, and could not say anything on his own. Why? I remember you telling me that I should try personalizing my essay, try to change from using the traditional formulas for essays. And now I see why, because I can remember the times in eighth grade when I felt proud of everything I wrote. It was not just the satisfaction of finishing my essays, but also the joy of writing my own essay. An essay that was all from me, no one else’s. Originality, they call it.
[My reflection] and the Literature Appreciation Essay are great examples of the improvement I have made. I tried to refresh my style in papers that give me the opportunity to do so. I think that it would be the ideal way for me to change, step after step, like a turtle. Although I have made changes such as using the dictionary and thesaurus more, changing my sentence structure, using punctuation marks and separating or combining sentences, I think that the poker face now sitting somewhere else than my own face is a more significant change. It just makes me happy to know that I can now, after all, write things that I can be proud of writing, that I can be happy writing.
I might be a sentimentalist, and I might just be overwhelmed with packing up my apartment for my impending move and endings in general, but this reflection gets at what I work really hard to undo, or, actually, what I’m realizing is a process of undoing.
If we teach kids to write so well in these formulas, how do they ever know how to break them? How do they ever know what their voice is? How will they ever know how writing can work for different purposes? I’m not such a fool to believe that kids will love writing, but at least I would like for them to know in their bones that they can do it, in whatever form, and be good at it.
I have been so complicit in promoting the formulas when I first began teaching 10 years ago. What changed was that I had to write a lot in graduate school and I became much more aware of my own processes and desire to write for an audience that mattered. If I was bored, then my audience was sure to be bored, too (another gem I tell the kids: don’t bore me).
Don’t kids deserve that chance, too?
I know this summer class is just that, a summer class for high achieving students, many of color, some not, all low-income and all of promise. And if these kids are writing like this, then that does not bode well for the ones who are not here.
But I end knowing that we have to change the writing instruction we do with students. We have to teach them that what they have to say matters, and what they have to say doesn’t fit within a structure. Sure, structure is important and certain tasks demand a particular response, but if that response is all we train kids to do, we are committing a tremendous disservice: to them, but also to ourselves. I simply cannot stomach that.
In that move towards helping and convincing students, really, that their voices matter, they get it.
One final piece from another reflection: Kim’s class was not the regular class that I expected. It did not teach us how to write based on lectures and long talks. We learned from our own writing and mistakes, both inside and outside of class. She taught us that we can learn from ourselves.
I feel like I don’t even know what regular means at this point in my career. I know what teaching writing looks like in this context, and I know what helping kids find their voices and produce excellent pieces of writing looks like. I simply wish more teachers (and I know they’re out there) could do the same.
There’s more to writing than formulas. Now, at least, some kids know that. And while they’re writing in their classes over the next year, they’ll know what else they could be doing and how they could be doing it, and perhaps they’ll take some risks, break the formula, and be commended for writing themselves into their papers.