Posted in Being a better teacher, Best Practices, Big Questions, Lesson Ideas, Writing

Summer Series of Saves: Dismantling the Essay (III)

My goal this summer includes curating a new concept of what an essay is and can be. 

I sent my request out to the good educators on Twitter, tagging @ncte and @writingproject, and received a few ideas. Some switched up the medium, such as “do a video essay” and that’s partly what I was looking for, but not quite. I’m looking for essays that don’t feel like the rigid essays of “school” — one of the most unnatural forms of structured writing.

This post doesn’t have answers yet, or the curated list. It’s a start, a placeholder for the process. My goal is to encourage and foster true excitement about what essay writing is, and reading of essays. Though I have bristled over the structured, formulaic writing of essays it’s a love of reading essays that motivates me. I don’t want students to hate writing. None of us do. So why do we keep ignoring all the rich content and mentor texts that are shared? Not a single writer uses the five-paragraph structure. I can understand its use as a foundation, but we need to have some hard conversations about when to take the scaffold away.

Posted in Media and Mischief

Lessons of Azeroth

But back to Jandy Nelson who started off her address by explaining “this belief I have that English teachers are our contemporary shamans: the wakers of sleeping souls, the planters of dreams in heads, the imparters of some of life’s most valuable gifts: compassion, empathy, humanity, ambiguity, wonder, joy.” She went on to describe a few of her own deep learning experiences with English teachers.

http://blogs.ncte.org/index.php/2017/04/english-teachers-contemporary-shamans/

Why is all the mana gone?

The year, around May 2010 or so, I finished my first round of National Boards, I promised my younger son I would start playing World of Warcraft. My husband worked for a previous incarnation, Sierra Games, and his brother, my brother-in-law, works for Blizzard (on the Diablo series), so the truth is it ran in the family. My older son plays, too, but at a much more competitive and competent level than I ever will. And though I’ve held the Minecraft Club/Anime Club for years, I don’t play Minecraft, but certainly, see its value.

Over the years, I can’t help but draw parallels between this MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game, ya noob), education, and being a teacher. My main character for years was a shaman: she carried two big axes or maces with her, and with the help of her trusty spirit wolves slew giants, monsters, naga, and all manner of evildoers and bad dudes. I’ve switched to a druid, all sparkly and full of moonbeams and sun fire. Playing wasn’t always relaxing for me: there were times when it became too serious, took up too much of my head space, and the joy was gone. Yup, kind of like teaching.

Quest Lines: think about quest lines like a curriculum map that you don’t participate in, create, help forge, etc. It’s given to you as your sacred duty to save someone, something, and at the end, you get a boon, be it experience or gold. Sometimes you get gear, but the gear is always third-rate. Anytime you can participate in a quest line that needs 3-5 other players consider that your PLC time, created in the moment to conquer a bigger monster. It goes faster when you work together, and tackle those big monsters en masse.

Leveling Up: School and its trajectories are one big leveling up. As a teacher, if I don’t think I am growing, or a situation is adding toxicity to the support of students and staff, it’s like poison from a plague machine from the Forsaken. (

Area of Effect: AOE, or area of effect, is the spell power to either heal or do damage, (or both if your character is heavy into the crit thing). My mage blasts fire or ice. My druid sends waves of green healing or rains starfire from the skies. The shaman wakes the earth and the priest pulls dark shadows from the air.

In a classroom, the students sitting further in the back do not receive the full effect of teaching as much as those in the front. My way around this is to do as much walking around, and joining small groups as possible. The old “proximity” rule is valuable, but it’s not enough. If you’re casting out healing or crit powers, make sure it doesn’t overheal or crit, wasting precious mana and casting time.

Mana: Red is for health, and blue is for mana. Mana is life goo. Mana from heaven, supernatural aid, aiding in casting spells and healing. Different classes of characters need different attributes –paladins need stamina, spellcasters need intelligence; hunters and shamans need agility. These characteristics work to create a well-tuned character, making them powerful and competent.

Guilds, cliques, and NPCs (non-player characters: I’ve been in my share of dysfunctional guilds. I’ve jokingly referred to guilds as my bridge club: it’s been one of my social outlets for some time, and a fun, light hobby. There have been times it’s been a serious hobby for me, and I’ve made many life-long friends all around the world that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Guilds can be comprised of thousands of people, or like my little guild, two to three. If a guild is a raiding guild, there are different levels of those, as well. I’ve been in raiding guilds and casual guilds, and have experienced a few personalities of guild leaders.

Cliques are a natural result of alliances that form when large groups work together and can be beneficial in achieving small sets of goals. However, recognizing when cliquish behavior becomes an obstacle to the global goals is important, because undermining larger efforts may result.

NPCs are critical for success; think of the custodians, secretaries, nurses, counselors, etc. all who make such a huge difference in the lives of students and staff. Click on that NPC if they have a talk bubble: you will find out amazing information.

What do the good guild leaders do? The make sure everyone knows their role and how to work together best. They see areas of growth, and never publically criticize a team member. They don’t allow for gossip or hearsay. And they don’t play favorites. Now, if they have to sit someone out because they aren’t geared up yet, etc. they work with the teammate to assist in questing, raiding, etc. to bolster, but that commitment works both ways. The player needs to step up, too, and do what it takes to make the team. Good leaders’ tones are professional and warm. They are solution-focused and want to keep their guilds together. It takes too much time and energy to have turnover on a raid team. And they keep their senses of humor. It is just a game, after all. 

Alliance versus Horde: forever and ever, Amen. In Azeroth, the Alliance and the Horde battle over, well, everything, until of course the demons from the Legion show up and ruin it all. This is why we can’t have nice things, you know. Call this identity politics — associating oneself with one side versus the other is a shortcut for understanding, or pop-psychological understanding, of someone’s preferences and personality. Don’t be fooled. Just because someone enjoys pretending to be a green Orc versus a wistful Night Elf doesn’t say too much, trust me on this. There are two sides, and both have their own narrative, allegiances, leaders of all stripes, and factions. Tribalism serves the tribe, but not the village: the more integrated and cross-content conversations happen the better we serve our students. Or destroy the Legion. Whichever comes first.

PVP: Akin to Alliance versus Horde, Player versus Player is another competitive sport that one needs to knowingly engage in, and have a clear understanding of the outcome. I have no interest in playing on a PVP server: nothing like a Forsaken rogue stabbing me in the back when I’m looking for an NPC to turn in a quest. Those graveyard-to-corpse runs are a timesink.

Dungeons and Raids: Sign up. Pick a role. Do your job. Play fair. Communicate. Don’t troll. Rinse. Repeat.

Nothing like the pop-up of a big achievement banner after a long grind.

Grinding: So much in Azeroth is called “grinding” — doing the same repetitive tasks in order to gain status, reputation, or a boon. These grinding quests are the seemingly infinite gateways to “the good stuff.” It’s helpful for me to remind myself that the occasional grind of teaching does get our students to that good stuff; accomplishments and banners of awesome. 

The Final Boss: in every dungeon, raid, or world quest there is a final boss. This character has been wreaking havoc for some time, destroying lives and having many vows of vengeance thrown in his or her name. (But it’s usually a “he.”) This is the moment you’ve worked toward, you’ve prepared and planned. You will have to work very closely with your teammates in order to bring down this boss: he has a bag of tricks (aka mechanics) and phases, and sometimes just when you think you’ve got him beat, the last healer steps in fire and he enrages and the whole team wipes. But: you pick yourself up, plan your cooldown spells a little tighter, pay gold for repairs, drink your potions, get your food buff, and start again.

Sounds a lot like spring break.

If you ever venture into Azeroth, remember to keep your bags free of gray items, save all the Dwarf books, and take a pet with you. And when you venture back to your classrooms, remember you are powerful: you have magic and joy no one else does. Be strong out there, for there are monsters.

/bow

Posted in Being a better teacher

National Writing Day: October 20

Post from the NCTE about National Writing Day on October 20, the question being, just what am I doing on National Writing Day?! 

Um, gee, I don’t know! Not sure where writing fits in with the reading skills focus our district has taken. Intended to be transferable, skills hold the place of being the ‘how to learn’ idea. They are the workhorses of education: many educators feel once a skill is taught, it can be liberally applied to cure any ill. Alas, they are not a panacea, but the good intentions are there. If skills are too much the focus, they become the leech or bleeding, and knowledge building misdiagnoses may occur. Point being: many good ELA teachers are confused by a skills-only focus. But that’s a conversation for another time.

One thing I can focus on with students is the ability to write comments. Found this video in my edublogs feed:

If third-grade students can figure out how to be nice to one another, then it is my hope that we can learn how to again, as well. Maybe on October 20 we can have a classroom discussion on what comments do to us emotionally and psychologically. Stay tuned.

Posted in Common Core, Research, Writing Process Explained

CCSS + Writing Instruction Reflection

If you read one article this summer, my mentor Holly might suggest this one:

Are modern standards breeding a decline in cultural literacy?

I highly recommend it, too.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

This post is getting messy. Filled with bits of type and text, like overcooked alphabet soup. Consider it a link festival, full of rabbit holes and mad hatter tea parties. The question presented is now that CCSS is established in many states, what have we lost or gained?

Reminder to read and understand how to move forward with CCSS in ELA/SS:

CCSS

Back in 2013, Dr. Gentry published an article, “Will Common Core Wreck Writing in Schools?”

First, I am wondering if we even have a sense of what is ‘teaching writing?’ It doesn’t seem to exist. There is the editorial/grammatical end to the whole language approach of ‘any mark is a good mark on the page’.

Some of the fears:

How Common Core Might Not Support Real Writing

The worry among good teachers of writing is that if interpreted and implemented incorrectly, Common Core Standards might put an end to many of the practices espoused by Graves and in effect, destroy real writing in schools. Here are some of the concerns and quotes teachers share with me:

Writing is shifting back to a product approach.

Students aren’t given choice of topics.

Children are forced to write from rubrics or templates that stifle creativity.

Ownership for children is out the window.

Common Core says every teacher is a writing teacher but we haven’t been trained to teach writing.

Teachers neither have the time nor the training for teaching the writing process.

Too much test prep and testing take time away from time for writing in school.

Our state writing test is based on strict rubrics and products—creativity doesn’t count.

Our state writing tests are scored by computers—add more sentences and the score goes up.

Teachers no longer teach conventions like spelling and handwriting.

One teacher told me, “It’s hard to see the ‘vibrancy of life’ in children’s writing when all we care about is the score on the state writing test. That’s a product.”

Most of these fear seem to be the opposite outcome from Common Core. I’m not quite sure what the rumors were, or where the fears came from. But the testing part does seem to have some merit at first glance. Later this weekend I’ll be completing a Prezi that contains the brief write rubrics for Common Core writing assessments, and they are valuable for any content area. 

Some of these fears are truly odd: since when have standards given students specific topics? And since when have standards ‘taught teachers how to teach writing?’ 

And on what metric is creativity? I’m not sure. I’m still a bit baffled. 

Contrasting to Gentry’s article, the Atlantic published an article about how the CCSS revitalized and revolutionized writing in schools by Peg Tyre: 

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

The critical difference between pre-CCSS and emerging CCSS is writing argumentative and explanatory pieces.

In the coming months, the conversation about the importance of formal writing instruction and its place in a public-school curriculum—­the conversation that was central to changing the culture at New Dorp—will spread throughout the nation. Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.

The NCTE provides their take, which correlates to the analytical approach, and appears more inclusive instruction.

Writing grows out of many purposes

Writing is not just one practice or activity. A note to a cousin is not like a business report, which is different again from a poem. The processes and ways of thinking that lead to these varied kinds of texts can also vary widely, from the quick email to a friend to the careful drafting and redrafting of a legal contract. The different purposes and genres both grow out of and create varied relationships between the writers and the readers, and existing relationships are reflected in degrees of formality in language, as well as assumptions about what knowledge and experience are already shared, and what needs to be explained. Writing with certain purposes in mind, the writer focuses attention on what the audience is thinking or believing; other times, the writer focuses more on the information she or he is organizing, or on her or his own emergent thoughts and feelings. Therefore, the thinking, procedures, and physical format in writing are shaped in accord with the author’s purpose(s), the needs of the audience, and the conventions of the genre.

And the NWP weighs in with their suggestions for ‘teaching writing.’ I’ve labeled each suggestion to make sense of what skill it may be adressing.

NWP: 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

Table of Contents: 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

  1. Use the shared events of students’ lives to inspire writing. brainstorming/ideas
  2. Establish an email dialogue between students from different schools who are reading the same book. literary connections
  3. Use writing to improve relations among students. audience/purpose
  4. Help student writers draw rich chunks of writing from endless sprawl. organization
  5. Work with words relevant to students’ lives to help them build vocabulary. vocabulary/word choice
  6. Help students analyze text by asking them to imagine dialogue between authors. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)
  7. Spotlight language and use group brainstorming to help students create poetry. revising/craft
  8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing. self-assessment
  9. Ease into writing workshops by presenting yourself as a model. craft
  10. Get students to focus on their writing by holding off on grading. self-assessment
  11. Use casual talk about students’ lives to generate writing.  brainstorming/ideas
  12. Give students a chance to write to an audience for real purpose.
  13. Practice and play with revision techniques.   grammar/revision/editing –conventions/mechanics
  14. Pair students with adult reading/writing buddies. workshop/mentor
  15. Teach “tension” to move students beyond fluency. craft
  16. Encourage descriptive writing by focusing on the sounds of words.
  17. Require written response to peers’ writing. workshop/craft/revising
  18. Make writing reflection tangible. annotating, self-assessment
  19. Make grammar instruction dynamic. grammar/revision/editing –conventions/mechanics
  20. Ask students to experiment with sentence length.
  21. Help students ask questions about their writing. self-assessment
  22. Challenge students to find active verbs. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)
  23. Require students to make a persuasive written argument in support of a final grade. audience/purpose
  24. Ground writing in social issues important to students. audience/purpose
  25. Encourage the “framing device” as an aid to cohesion in writing. structure/craft
  26. Use real world examples to reinforce writing conventions.
  27. Think like a football coach. RAFTS (role, audience, form, topic, strong verbs)/mentor texts
  28. Allow classroom writing to take a page from yearbook writing. mentor texts
  29. Use home language on the road to Standard English. word choice/sentence fluency
  30. Introduce multi-genre writing in the context of community service. audience/purpose

Evolving from the fears of the CCSS writing standards to the present, what changes do you think have been most effective, and where are some areas educators are still confused? What is most beneficial to students, or is an understanding that writing is complex, and approach with patience and grace the most important thing?

old scholar

Scholarly articles if you’re really bored this summer:

http://www.albany.edu/cela/publication/article/writeread.htm

http://writing-speech.dartmouth.edu/teaching/first-year-writing-pedagogies-methods-design/integrating-reading-and-writing

http://readingandwritingproject.org/about/research-base

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/twelve-tips-to-teach-the-reading-writing-connection/