New Teacher Series/ Question 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.

 

Thoughts from our Blogging Unit II: A New Year’s Wish for Compassion

As I mentioned in my previous post, my students finished the year with a unit on blogging.  It was a great opportunity to teach argumentation and the rhetorical situation. During this political season, I had no dearth of subject matter.

Maybe because I’ve been hip deep in contentious subjects for six weeks, I have been drawn to stories of harmony and humanity.  During my morning commute, two stories from NPR caught my ear.

One was about a Tennessee solider named Roddie Edmond who was being awarded posthumously Israel’s “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. According to the story, it was the first time a US solider has been given this award. NPR’s Emily Harris interviewed Edmond’s son, Chris Edmonds, for the story.

Edmonds, a master sergeant from Knoxville, was the highest ranking American solider in his Nazi POW camp, and when the guards demanded all Jews in the camp step forward to be identified, Edmonds ordered every US solider to step forward.

“They cannot all be Jews,” the German commander said, according to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

According to the story Chris Edmonds relates, the commander was furious.

“He turned blood-red, pulled his Luger out, pressed it into the forehead of my dad, and said, ‘I’ll give you one more chance. Have the Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.’ They said my dad paused, and said, ‘If you shoot, you’ll have to shoot us all.’ ”

The second story was about John Graziano, one of the first elementary-age children diagnosed with HIV in the United States.  During a visit on NPR’s StoryCorps, Tom Graziano, John’s adoptive father, spoke with John’s elementary school principal, Paul Nilsen, about the events of 1986.  When John’s diagnosis came to light, Nilsen was adamant about John staying at his school. “We’re gonna treat him no different than we’d treat any other child in the room,” said Nilsen.  John’s classmates were equally magnanimous. In the story, Nilson recalls, “If anybody asked the kids in the room who had AIDS, each of them would reply: “I have AIDS.”

These two stories were on the air during the first week of December, two weeks before Michael Moore’s open letter to Donald Trump and subsequent social media movement #WeAreAllMuslims, but I had the same reaction as Moore to the divisive, inhuman rhetoric that has seemingly dominated current political conversations.

I am saddened by the hate and bigotry on display in our culture.  I call on all teachers, regardless of subject or grade level, to teach kids to think critically, to recognize bias, to recognize emotional manipulation and fear mongering as a weak argumentative stance, and to research claims made on social media for credibility.

Every lesson, at its core, should be grounded in recognizing our own humanity in others and striving to engender compassion, consideration, and empathy in all students.

We could take a lesson from Roddie Edmonds and the second-grade classroom of John Graziano. Yes, we are all Jews. We all have AIDS, and we are all Muslims. But unfortunately, we are also all Donald Trump and Kanye West. We are Obama and Osama, Jesus and Judas, Atticus Finch and Bob Ewell.

As Atticus says, addressing his young daughter, Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

 

 

Thoughts from Our Blogging Unit I: A New Year’s Wish for Balance

Recently my freshman/sophomore writing class finished a unit on blogging. Students created their blogging personas, created a Sway page, which is a new storytelling app through Office, and dispatched four posts on any topic they chose.   Many of our conversations leading up to the summative project centered around how each blog post was, in essence, a mini-argument. All blogs, at their most elemental, say:  This is the way the world works or this is the way I see the world working.

To get students thinking critically about current events, I wrote an essential question on the board every morning: Does a political candidate’s religion matter? Are news outlets biased? Should drug addicts be forced into rehab?  Why is Donald Trump so popular? Students would then scribble down their thoughts for five minutes, after which they would each read a short article about the topic from The New York Times’ fantastic resource Room for Debate, a topical collection of short articles from all sides of each   issue.  After reading, students broke out into small groups to unpack their articles for five minutes, then we finally reconvened for a group discussion. The whole process took about 40 minutes of a 90-minute instructional block.

One morning, in particular, we had an interesting conversation about helicopter parents.

Ruby suggested there was a historical aspect to it: Depression era parents grew up with nothing, so they showered their children with wealth and prosperity.  Those children became the Baby Boomers who were self-centered and narcissistic. They gave birth to children who were largely unparented.  Those children are now having kids of their own, and because of their childhood rootlessness, they were hypervigilant about child rearing, hence the helicoptering.

“Is every generation in rebellion with the previous one?”  David asked.

Nathan commented that it was just the pendulum swing of history.

“Maybe if the pendulum continues to swing eventually the swings will become milder and milder until the pendulum stops and we have the perfect parent,”   Michael suggested.

I said, “That sounds like a utopian wish. Is a perfect society possible?”

“No,” Avery said, “we’re all still human.”

Almost every day during this unit, I walked away from my morning class thinking, “I wish politicians could hear these smart, balanced kids.”

What I, and anyone else paying attention to our world this year, have noticed is an extreme polarization of ideology and rhetoric.  It’s been an extremely easy year to teach rhetorical fallacies because almost every day, from the left and the right, there are dozens of examples.

But, at the end of the day, like Avery said, we are all still human, and thereby flawed, perhaps unable to become milder and milder, and ultimately “perfect.”

However, my wish for my students, this year and every year, is that they strive toward that balance and harmony.  I wish my students, instead of clinging to that wildly swinging ideological plumb, would retain their measured, smart, level-headedness.  My New Year’s wish is that they continue to value and develop common sense, hope, balanced thinking, and compassion toward others.

And, in keeping with the blogging unit, I hope they find their voice and speak that into existence.

Happy New Year.