Saturday, August 16, 2014

The glory of unfinished learning

Photo by Sarah Beth Anderson
If you're a writing teacher, you've probably encountered the following situation: a colleague from another discipline waves a student paper at you and complains "these kids can't write." It happens to me at least once a year.

In the past I've told these colleagues that maybe the assignment wasn't clear enough or that perhaps they should treat this as a draft, as another step in the writing process, that surface errors are most likely related to performance – not competence. But a lot of times content area teachers don't plan on doing multiple drafts of a paper, and I sense that they walk away from our conversation even more convinced that student writing skills are on a gradual decline.

But I just came across a book that sheds more light on this. According to Lee Ann Carroll in Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers, research shows that student writing appears to be weaker when they encounter new and unfamiliar expectations. Student writing develops because they must take on new and difficult roles in a discipline that they've probably never encountered before. It's reasonable to assume that students' new learning is creating all the cognitive load and that their early writing reflects this.

This all reminded me of the 1972 Donald Murray essay, "Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product." In the essay, Murray notes that since most English teachers were trained to analyze a product like a sonnet by Shakespeare and that they focus their critical attention on student writing as if it were a product. According to Murray, the problem with that approach is that a teacher's "attack does little more than confirm the student's lack of self-respect for their work and for themselves." Murray instead argues that teachers should "glory in the unfinishedness"of student writing.

So now when a colleague approaches me with the complaint that writing teachers like me aren't doing enough to prevent the next generation's slow slide into illiteracy, I've got another answer. Content area teachers might anticipate initially weaker writing as students deal with new concepts in unfamiliar disciplines – that's a sign that they're learning.

Then I'll advise them to make sure their assignments are clear and to build in some time for revision.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

DIY photo gifts

Whether it's the holidays or some other special occasion, homemade gifts are often the best ... and cheapest to make. Everybody's got photos, and everybody can make stuff out of them. Here are some DIY photo projects my students did in my photography class this year.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Out of Eden

Paul Salopek has embarked on a seven-year Out of Eden walk across the earth to create a "global mosaic of stories." I'm looking forward to talking with the people from the Out of Eden Learn team later today about their efforts to create a community of learners around Salopek's journey. Join us here if you want to learn more.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Digital Learning Day 2014 - Students as teachers, part three

On February 5 my photography students will be having their own DIY photo gear film festival. I've written before (and even before that) about how students show themselves to be capable teachers if given the chance; this is another example of what happens when we put students more in charge of their own learning. The assignment was to create some do-it-yourself photography gear on a shoestring budget. For example, the video below shows how one of my students created a stabilizer for $25, a piece of equipment that could run as much as much as $200 if purchased retail.

Here are some of the other student videos:  Lupita, Cassadey, Gaby, Evan, Sean, Claire, Sarah, Allegra and Steven.

One of the common denominators in these projects is the joy that can be seen in the making of these projects. Of course they also learned a lot in the process. The next step in this sequence is for these same students to use these pieces of equipment in the documentary they're producing this quarter. Should be interesting.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Growing a food curriculum

Tomatoes Before Frost by me
The local food movement is well established, and with it comes a growing interest in bringing food sustainability into the K-16 curriculum. Over the past couple of years on Teachers Teaching Teachers we've had conversations with locavore educators from New Orleans at Our School at Blair Grocery and New York City's The Green Bronx Machine, with the director of Fresh the movie, and also with the people from Wooly School Garden.

Maybe because it was the end of autumn and I'd just harvested the last of the veggies from my own yard, maybe I was just hungry, but whatever the case when I was at the NCTE annual convention this November I attended two workshops that focused on food. One workshop, maybe the best I've ever attended at NCTE, showcased a partnership between BreadLoaf with students from the Navajo Nation and at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky – the Navajo Kentuckians. The Navajo students and the teachers from Kentucky provide a powerful example of what can happen when educators mix food and learning. Students in the Louisville school have even shown gains on recent state tests that, according to the teachers, are due in part to their program. Another presentation at NCTE shared what Dr. Alan Webb and colleagues have been collecting at a website that has lots of good info and resources for teachers interested in starting some edible education.

In addition to dedicated and passionate educators, something that stands out about the efforts mentioned above is their cross-curricular nature. Students are connecting literacy, chemistry, biology, business, botany, health, and politics, to name a few – and the they're highly engaged in the learning. And maybe most significantly, a common denominator in all these stories is how they're transforming their communities for the better.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gettysburg Address lessons – for students and elected officials

USA by J.Ghouse
November 19, 2013, is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address. Learn the Address and Getty Ready are two quality educational resources that have been created to help all of us appreciate that 272-word speech. Like a lot of teachers, my students and I will analyze the text of the speech and even get to attend a webinar with Ken Burns on November 18. But as I look over the Address in preparation of the anniversary this week, I can't help but contrast the disingenuous rhetoric of current elected officials to Lincoln's dignified language.

As an English teacher I marvel at the Address every time I read it. There's the elegance of the sentences – the antithesis and epiphora – and the subtlety of the asyndeton. And there's the diction – the repetition of "dedicate"; the optimistic tone of the Address due to words like noble, endure, live, struggled, consecrated, brave, resolve. Finally there's Lincoln's deft craftmanship, the movement through time and place as the speech unfolds. The paragraphs progress from the past "four score and seven years ago" to the "now," and finally to the future, to the vital "unfinished work" of the "great task remaining before us." The speech physically takes the reader from the continent to the battlefield as a whole and ultimately to "this ground" where the people were gathered for the Address. (This all is summarized in the presentation that I share at the bottom of this post.)

That's how I think of the document as an English teacher....

But as a citizen I can't help celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address without wondering what Abraham Lincoln would think of the people who now lead us. I think he'd be disappointed in our many politicians who choose self-interest over problem-solving, politics over people. Addressing the many issues now facing America will take the kind of courage and self-sacrifice for the common good that Lincoln and his audience knew all too well; in contrast, our current leaders fret over alienating voters with the reality of what it will take to actually dedicate ourselves as a people to the great tasks before us.

On November 19, 2013 there will be no shortage of officials who will use the occasion of the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to stage splashy press conferences. But in my mind the real legacy of the Address is the optimism President Lincoln conveyed to a people during one of the most trying times in American history, an optimism that was based on a realistic assessment of the situation and the recognition of the self-sacrifice in the struggle for the common good. Today we don't need attractive leaders who can recite some phrases from the Gettysburg Address; we need people who understand that our nation is being tested much like it was 150 years ago. We need leaders more like my students – people who know that when you're being tested, it helps to have some answers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Generating authenticity

Goodbye Summer by Gabriela Zabka
I've written before about my ongoing concern to get my students to appreciate the value of what's taught in school, based on the work of the late Jere Brophy. Part of my solution is to meet the students where they are by using authentic writing situations that call for the use of authentic rhetorical devices. For example, on the first day of school a couple of weeks ago, I asked my students to write what was on their mind, and the most frequent response was "college." So some of the work we're doing now in my senior English classes capitalizes on their preoccupation with their post-high school plans – an authentic writing situation.

First, a word about authentic rhetorical devices: To begin this year I had success with the idea of generative rhetoric. I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop at the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with Richard Graves and Sherry Swain a while back where they introduced the idea of generative rhetoric, based on Francis Christensen's 1967 work, A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence. In essence the workshop facilitators led us through an exercise where we crafted and appreciated the elegance of participial phrases and cumulative sentences like the following:

Now that I can have her only in memory, I see my grandmother in the several postures that were peculiar to her: standing at the wood stove on a winter morning and turning meat in a great iron skillet; sitting at the south window, bent above her beadwork, and afterwards, when her vision failed, looking down for a long time into the fold of her hands; going out upon a cane, very slowly as she did when the weight of age came upon her; praying. – from This Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday

This lesson is described in detail in the article, "The Final Free Modifier – Once More" by Graves, Swain, and Morse. For me, what ultimately works about this activity is that it asks students to think of someone special, doing something. It's an assignment that's very real and significant to them. The activity is wonderful by itself, but it can also be a springboard (or be the opening or closing sentence) to the type of college or scholarship essay where students describe an important person in their life. So now I'm thinking about how the underlying structure of things like the compound sentence or a device like anaphora might help convey the significant thoughts of my seniors. More on that later....

Now, back to authentic occasions and meeting the students where they are now: College essay and scholarship applications are difficult for my students to write because they're taught to be humble and self-effacing. To alleviate this issue, I'm doing a sequence of assignments that asks the students to generate information from the significant people in their lives.

Activity 1: Before they start drafting their application and scholarship essays, I have them gather information about themselves. This first activity is based on "How to Play to Your Strengths," an article from the Harvard Business Review. I have my students interview three people who know them well – friends, family members, mentors, coaches, etc. – about the students' strengths (i.e. their best self). Then the students complete an assignment called the Reflected Best Self.

Activity 2: Have students write letters to three generations (their peers, their parents, and their grandparents) for advice about the high school and post-high school transition. We talk about formatting personal letters (see graphic at bottom of this post), and how to address an envelope. I suggest they do the following in their revisions:
  • Tell the addressee about where you are in your high school life now and what your tentative post-high school plans are,
  • Ask them about their own high school and post-high school experience,
  • Ask them for advice about how to go about finishing high school and about college, 
  • Finally, ask them for advice about how to live a fulfilling life.
Activity 3: Now they're ready to compile a story inventory for college essay prompts. And finally, once they choose the most compelling story, they can begin drafting their admissions and scholarship essays.