Tag Archives: high school

Steps…

Today I see the small steps — the step to meet with a teacher rather than pretending help is not needed, the step to list three main points from the history reading rather than skipping the reading altogether, the step to read a chapter in the assigned novel rather than trusting Sparknotes. These small steps, so few, may lead to the next step and the next, and I recognize and value them. Each struggling student who takes a step is to be encouraged — and I cannot let any of us get mired in the journey by entrapping our feet in the mud of “but why don’t you…” or “still you need to…”

Today I see the small steps — the step to speak with gentleness, the step to affirm first, the step to value all steps.

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I can’t do it alone…Hold my hand, my hand, my hand…

Alt-rock group, The Fray, sing:

Hold my hand, I can hear ghosts calling
Help me stand, even if the sky is falling
And I want you to know, I can’t do it alone
Hold my hand, my hand, my hand

One of the concerns some teachers at my school shared when I first introduced my Executive Functioning Skills program was that I would “hold students’ hands” rather than hold them accountable for doing what “they should be doing.” This concern evidenced a lack of understanding that a student could have a learning issue or executive functioning issues and yet still be gifted intellectually. The teachers thought that an intellectually gifted student should be able to read like the other students in the class, take tests in the same amount of time as all other students in the class, remember and follow through on every assignment just as every other student, even if directions were only given orally during the last 10 minutes of class. Initially, I was surprised at some teachers’ lack of understanding about the nature and impact of learning issues; then I recalled my own credential coursework and how little time is given to the teaching of students with learning issues. I cannot fault those who don’t understand. I also learned quickly that I can’t hammer teachers with articles and resources to read so that they will understand. I must simply show my students how to demonstrate their competence, their intellectual strengths, so that their teachers see what they can do more than what they can’t/don’t do. Developing the attribute of Pro-activity in my students has been crucial to my program’s credibility, to showing teachers that some students are what we call “twice-gifted,” and of course, to moving the students themselves toward becoming independent learners, which is the goal of the program.

One of the primary ways I help students become pro-active learners is by requiring that they take notes in classes or find a way to get notes. Some of my students’ accommodation needs suggest that their teachers provide copies of class notes. Some teachers are more than willing to do this; others see this as an “extra” that they really do not have time to do. So, the answer is to show students that they should pro-actively take responsibility for any needs they have related to note-taking.  We brainstorm options together, which gives me the opportunity to explain why taking this pro-active approach shows the teacher that the student cares about learning the material. I may say to the student, “You know, if the teacher hands you copies of his lecture notes, that’s great for you but what impression might it give the teacher about your interest in the class?” The students, usually after some additional questions from me, realize that if they pro-actively seek out a peer with whom to compare notes, or even ask the teacher if they can “fill in gaps” in their notes by reviewing with the teacher, then they show the teacher that they aren’t looking for a “way out” of doing work, but as we understand it, they are looking for a “way into” the learning. Robert Langston shares in The Power of Dyslexic Thinking the story of how he couldn’t listen to lectures and take notes at the same time so in a class, he would watch and notice “whose pencil was flying across the paper the most” and then check to see if the person had neat handwriting, and if they did, he would “go up to them after class and say, ‘I have dyslexia. I was wondering, could I xerox your notes?’” and then he would pay them for the privilege” (Langston, 2014). What a fantastic pro-active solution!

I also help students determine when they need to meet with teachers; this is critical to my students’ success in the immediate and to their future interactions with teachers. When a student has struggled in school, sometimes the teacher is not seen as an ally, but as a “judge.” They may not even know how to approach a teacher for help. I have role-played conversations with my students, helping them see how a teacher might respond to various types of questions. If the very thought of talking face-to-face instills fear in the student, I will help him word an email requesting a meeting with the teacher. While we work on the email, I’m able to share with the student how his request will show the teacher that he recognizes his need for help (that self-awareness, discussed in last week’s post) and that he recognizes that his teacher can and wants to help him. Whether he truly believes that last point or not, it’s crucial to plant that seed of expectation in the student’s mind. After sending the email, I follow up with the student, asking how the meeting went, and asking the student to share with me one or two things he learned during the meeting. The follow-up is what will nurture the student’s belief that meeting with a teacher for help is beneficial and the confidence to pro-actively request help from teachers in the future.

Holding a student’s hand is not the same thing as teaching a student a strategy by modeling, helping the child apply the strategy, prompting the student as to when to use the strategy, and then gradually fading the cues as the student learns independently and pro-actively. And the latter is so satisfying to both the student and the teacher.

 

This post is Part 2 in a series begun last week, based on Robert Langston’s “6 Success Attributes” described in his book The Power of Dyslexia.  The first attribute, discussed in last week’s post, is “Self-Awareness.”

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Relationships are the means and the end…

Teaching high school English and creatively approaching curriculum has always been a passion, and I am a task-oriented person; as I reflect on my position, now, as a Learning Specialist, however, I am seeing that my priority is my relationship with each of my students. When my focus is on achievement, the daily activities spur me on and provide a sense of accomplishment, but in truth, “the desire to achieve and to see ourselves mirrored in achievement” does not fulfill at the end of the day (Tompkins, 1996, p.199). Sonia Nieto (2003) quotes Karen Gelzinis who writes, “the older I get, the less it is about me feeling good about what I do” and then Karen concludes that the students are the most important (p.114). “Mindfulness” is the buzzword of the season, and yes, this must be my focus; “being in, being for, and being with” my students (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 49).
 
My renewed mission for next year, as I reflect this summer, is to develop my understanding of my students, collectively as learners and individually as gifts in my life; to prepare my students for life, showing them how to establish their own values and modeling respect and integrity; and finally and most importantly, to nurture relationships with my students that will grow out of my commitment to them as learners and contributors to my life. My specific goals, as I focus on this mission, will be to provide a safe environment for students; to establish personal relationships with each student; to establish personal relationships with their parents, to the fullest extent possible; to provide additional resources to my school’s students and parents, via web site, email and mailings; to learn more about student-motivation and learning so that I can more effectively affirm students in meeting academic responsibilities and in becoming independent learners.
 
My first goal is to provide a safe environment for students to come during their hectic day, to study, get homework help, and to work with peers. My classroom is actually designated the “Academic Success Center”. The Academic Success Center provides students with a place to study individually and with peers, in an informal environment. Students use the room as a student lounge throughout the day. I strive for comfort in the room set-up; I group tables, offer cushioned swivel chairs, and keep a never-ending supply of Hershey’s Kisses and the makings for hot cocoa available. As the students spend open periods and lunch periods in my room, I hope to develop relationships of trust and respect with them, that they will feel safe and see me as a “teacher who went beyond academics and became a mentor, confidant, and positive model for personal identification” (Vitto, 2003, p.4).  In addition, I want students to build safe relationships with each other as they collaboratively study or meet with peer tutors. I plan to set up a board for sharing “Secrets to Success” on which students can write study strategies that they have found helpful and that they want to share with their peers. If students eagerly add their advice, then we have established a non-threatening environment and relationships that encourage learning together. I want all students who enter the Academic Success Center to believe they are successful and can contribute to the success of others.
 
I meet with students individually. As my second goal, I resolve to celebrate students’ successes and to “assist them in coping with failure” (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 41). The Academic Success Program provides academic support to individual students who struggle with executive functioning. Within the program, my role of Learning Specialist includes providing individual instruction, encouragement, and accountability over the period of a full semester to a year, depending on the individual student’s needs. As I meet with a student, I want to listen more than talk, and ask more than answer. In the same way that I am learning about my teaching through reflection, I want my students to understand how they learn by reflecting on their actions as learners. All students have the capacity for success, given that they exhibit curiosity, demonstrate potential to learn, experiment with new ideas, ask questions, and examine ideas. Not all students succeed, however, due to attention issues, poor or ill-timed questions, lack of organization, inability to complete tasks, inappropriate participation or lack of participation in discussion, lack of discernment as to what information is important. I hope to ask questions that prompt each student to “be aware of the state of one’s own mind and the degree of one’s own understanding. The good student may be one who often says that he does not understand, simply because he keeps a constant check on his understanding” (Dembo, 2000, p. 23). I talk daily with students who believe they cannot learn, that they are unintelligent. These students have repeatedly struggled in school due to the issues mentioned earlier in this paragraph. My goal is to develop a relationship of trust with each  student so that when I affirm that the student is capable and gifted and will succeed, he or she will know it is true. It has been noted that “some students believe that ability or intelligence is fixed. That is, people are born with a certain amount of ability and there is not much that can be done about it” (Dembo, 2000, p. 7). My mission is to change that misperception and to advocate for, encourage, and celebrate each success. With that in mind, I will have each student compile a “Success Portfolio” to share with their parents at the end of the semester. Each student will share how they have developed their learning skills, and the parents and I will cheer and applaud.
 
Nurturing this team-spirit and including students’ parents is vital and is my third goal. Currently, I email each parent weekly after meeting with their son or daughter. My emails are chatty in nature, sharing the progress of the student and indicating areas we will work on that week. I need parental support, but I’m finding that my weekly encouragement is valued by the parents. When a child struggles with “doing school,” the whole family is affected. Every dinner conversation is punctuated with “why didn’t you do that assignment” or “you forgot that paper at home again” or “how could you not know about the test today.” Students who struggle with school struggle with life; and that is what truly frightens their parents and prompts the angry reactions to the child’s mistakes. A student who struggles in math can get help and will improve in comprehension. A student who struggles to remember to do assignments and then where he put them and when to turn them in lives life like a pinball, batted from one mistake to the next. These are the students with whom I work. Their parents are the ones I understand because I am one also. My goal is to decrease the number of angry or painful conversations at home while I help students develop strategies for handling school. I hope to serve as a facilitator / negotiator during conferences between students and parents. I promise to offer empathy when frustrations build and to “appreciate rather than to evaluate families’ successes and struggles with their children” (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 77).
 
Relationships are the means and the end. Soren Kierkegaard was noted as saying, “The irony of life is that it is lived forward but understood backward” (Loughran, 2002). So reflecting and then looking forward, I set this mission before me to know more about my students collectively and individually, to support students and parents as I model my belief in my students’ ability to succeed and to continually nurture these relationships in my life.

References
Dembo, M (2000). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: A self-management approach . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
 
Frank, P. (1999). Becoming a reflective teacher: Define your teaching goals and continue to reevaluate them. ASCD Catalyst. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/teachexperience/tresk030605.html?mode=print
 
Intrator, S & Scribner, M (Eds.). (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 
Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
 
Loughran, J (2002). Effective reflective practice: In search of meaning in learning about teaching. Journal of Teacher Education53, Retrieved from http://www.questia.com/read/5000686594
Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.
Ritchhart, R (2002). Intellectual character: what it is, why it matters, and how to get it . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 
Tompkins, J (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned . Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
 
Vitto, J (2003). Relationship-driven classroom management: Strategies that promote student motivation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Thinking About Authentic Literacy…

Authentic literacy is defined as “text-based discussion, dialogue, and argument” and provides the focus of any study of literature in which my students participate (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 65).

When I taught high school English classes, I loved exploring literature with my students as we read, wrote, discussed, wrote, read, discussed, and well, you get the idea. In fact, I cannot imagine reading a novel such as William Golding’s (1954) Lord of the Flies using the approach of my high school teachers thirty-five years ago, which was the routine of read, discuss, and write, the end. Reading and writing, with discussion, are so interwoven that they happened simultaneously, and even spontaneously, in my classroom. Using Lord of the Flies as my core text, for example, my students found themselves journaling from the point of view of one of the characters, explaining the irony of characters’ words, and writing from the point of view of the philosopher Hobbes about the novel’s themes in a response to Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes. These activities lead us through the course of knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, and synthesis and evaluation (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10).

When reading a novel, teachers desire that students understand the sequence of events, the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. According to Benjamin (1999) this is level one thinking and includes recall of facts, summarizing, retelling, and asking “what?” (p. 10). To achieve this purpose with Lord of the Flies, after we read the first two chapters, I asked students to choose one of the characters to be for the rest of our reading. Each day, students wrote a journal entry from their chosen character’s point of view, sharing what happened to them or what they observed or what they thought as that character during the day’s portion of reading (we did something similar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar because the activity so succeeded in engaging the students with the text). The journal writing required students to consider the text and explain it in their own words. As students wrote, I moved around the room, reading over their shoulders, and positively commenting on interesting entries. I also asked students to share their entries with their group members (my students always sat in base groups) and to discuss the text from the various viewpoints represented. This provided me with a quick means of assessing students’ comprehension and enabled me to clarify or answer questions as needed. As students read the novel and wrote their journal entries, they “made knowledge their own” as they “struggled with the details, wrestled with the facts, and reworked raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they could communicate to someone else” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 9).

Furthering the process of making knowledge meaningful and providing my students opportunity to deepen that knowledge through application, I asked them to consider the words of characters and discuss the implied meanings. For example, on a test, I asked students to write a paragraph explaining why the following words spoken by Jack are ironic: “I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages” (Golding, 1954, p. 42). This lead students into higher level thinking as they analyzed the quote, considered the use of irony, and then related the two. The prompt clearly framed the task by providing students with the needed guidelines of length, focus, task, detail, language, tone, and terminology. In this way, students could show what they knew, and I could assess their understanding as they gave examples, analyzed and defended, and engaged in literate thinking.

The writing activities that I enjoy most are those moving students into even higher level thinking, synthesis and evaluation. Often I asked my students to interact with additional related texts through discussion and writing. For example, we read the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the “natural condition of mankind, a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat” and then discussed how Hobbes’ view related to Golding’s view as conveyed in the novel. After discussion, I gave the students a Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the young boy, Calvin, asks the tiger, Hobbes:

“Do you think human nature is good or evil? I mean, do you think people are basically good, with a few bad tendencies, or basically bad, with a few good tendencies? Or, as a third possibility, do you think people are just crazy and who knows why they do anything?” (Watterson, 1988, p. 71)

The prompt with the comic states:

  • After discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, write an answer to Calvin from Thomas Hobbes’ point of view.
  • Your answer must show an understanding of the key points discussed, must be written in 1st person as if you are Thomas Hobbes, and must be at least one paragraph in length.

This writing task scaffolded students’ thinking by developing complex activities and by asking questions that required that the students look more deeply and more critically at the content of lessons. As my students analyzed the philosophy of Hobbes and applied it to the question in the prompt, they also explored the relationship of those ideas to the text of Lord of the Flies, and “exercised the most relevant intellectual capacities–the ability to detect patterns of meaning and to weigh words and evidence for specific purposes” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 61). This prepared them for a culminating writing task of an essay in which they agreed or disagreed with Golding’s view of human nature.

Currently, I am not teaching high school English, but as I reflect on these activities that I have used in previous years, I find myself wishing to return to that teaching role. I love hearing my students interpret the text from the view of a character; I enjoy the AhHa! moment when students identify later uses of irony themselves; and I enjoy modeling how to write an essay agreeing with or disagreeing with Golding’s and Hobbes’ view of mankind. Too often, instruction in English classes “focuses on content or skills rather than on the process of learning” as “teachers concentrate on covering the required information;” I much prefer integrating reading, discussion, and writing and helping my students “internalize the methods and strategies for accomplishing tasks” and enjoying literature (Langer, Close, Angelis, & Preller, 2000, p. 10).

References

Benjamin, A. (1999). Framing the task: Be careful what you ask for . . . you just might get it. In Writing in the content areas (pp. 3–26). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. UK: Faber and Faber.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994 [1651/1668]) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley. IN: Hackett

Langer, J. A. (with Close, E., Angelis, J., & Preller, P.) (2000). Guidelines for teaching middle and high school students to read and write well: Six features of effective instruction. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement.

Langer, J. A. (2004). Developing the literate mind. http://cela.albany.edu/researcher/langer/IRA_Develop.pdf

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution.  http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Sanchez, S. (2001). Using journals for a variety of assessments. In C. R. Duke & R. Sanchez (Eds.), Assessing writing across the curriculum (pp. 109–118). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Watterson, S. (1988). Something under the bed is drooling. NY: Andrews and McMeel.

 

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The Myth of Sisyphus, or Why Sammy Can’t Write

Image   Hypothetical discussion between two teachers:

 

Teacher: Mel Levine shares the myth of Sisyphus as an introduction to his book, The Myth of Laziness. Sisyphus not only had to push a massive boulder up a mountain, but he was doomed to repeat this effort for eternity because the boulder kept rolling back down. Sisyphus could push and push, but he would never succeed, no matter how many times he tried. In Chapter 1, “Getting the Mind to Work,” Levine then introduces the term “output failure” to describe what some children experience in school. How is a child’s experience of output failure analogous to Sisyphus’ fate?

Colleague: Like Sisyphus, the child with hidden disabilities exerts extreme effort only to have that effort miss the goal or the “success point.” Often, like Sisyphus, the child must start over, and in fact, for the child whose hidden disability is not recognized, the school years must seem like an eternity of pushing boulders, with no success. For example, perhaps the child is presented with an assignment to write a summary of story he read. The child begins pushing by reading the story, and as Levine points out, may read quite well so the reading proves easily completed by the child. The child finishes the story, and like Sisyphus, has his boulder just about to the top of the mountain, but then when he sits down to write the summary, it’s as if he never read a word…and the proverbial boulder rolls back down the mountain. Thus, the child experiences “output failure” –he was able to receive the input of the language, but unable to demonstrate his understanding through a well-written summary.

Teacher: If the student reads well and understands the text, why is he unable to write a summary? It seems that a summary is a relatively simple writing assignment requiring only the time it takes to decide three to five main points and to then write them out in a paragraph. If the child focuses and he does indeed understand the story, why can’t he write the assigned summary?

Colleague: Levine presents several possible reasons for this child’s “output failure” and in fact, Levine states that “difficulty with writing is far and away the most telling sign of output failure during the childhood and teenage years.” Levine lists the number of processing activities that must take place, almost simultaneously, within the child’s brain in order to write. If there is even slightest “miswiring,” the child will not be able to wrangle all of the muscles and brain’s regions into one cohesive working unit — “output failure” will occur as the child is unable to gather the materials he needs (pencils, reference books, or computer equipment), as well as his time, generate good ideas, organize his thoughts, encode his ideas into clear language, remember many things at once (such as spelling, rules of punctuation, facts, and instructions), coordinate his fingers so they can keyboard or form letters, plan and monitor the quality of his work, and complete the assignment with a neat, well-written product — again, the proverbial boulder rolls back down the hill with each effort to write. Levine asserts that “Writing is the largest orchestra a kid’s mind has to conduct.” If like Sisyphus, the child repeatedly experiences this type of failure to complete the task well, he will most likely come to hate writing. Later in the book, Levine explains this, saying, “When you commit an error in reading, your miscue evaporates into the atmosphere, but when you mess up in writing, you leave behind a permanent document of your inadequacy.” Some children will come to simply refuse to write, producing the bare minimum on paper, and as a result, their teachers will consider them lazy. Other children will continue to try and try and try, but the process is so labor-intensive, they literally will experience physical pain — much like Sisyphus must have felt pushing that boulder up the mountain time and time and time again.

Teacher: Okay, so if the child’s inability to complete the summary isn’t due to laziness, which would be the assumed cause, why is the inability to write caused by this “output failure?”

Colleague: First, we want to distinguish between cause and effect here. True, if a child were lazy, that would cause him to neglect or put off or ignore the writing assignment. In the case of “output failure,” however, failure to complete the assignment, this “output failure,” is the effect, not the cause. We are seeing the effect of one or more hidden disabilities. For example, these disabilities may affect the child’s ability to physically grasp a pencil correctly (graphomotor control), or impede his ability to store information in long-term memory for later retrieval when needed, or impact his mental stamina rendering him unable to focus long enough to meet the cognitive demands of writing. These hidden issues are actually called neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some children are born with these dysfunctions, others acquire them. Some dysfunctions are genetically caused and others occur due to environmental factors. Because we often don’t know the exact cause, we sometimes make assumptions about a child’s motives and abilities rather than considering what may be happening neurologically. This is especially true when the child takes in information without difficulty, such as through reading. For this reason, the dysfunction is not a processing issue, but a production issue. To make a long answer short: “output failure” is misidentified as laziness, but unlike laziness, it is not a cause of weak writing; it is an effect of neurological dysfunctions which impact writing ability.

Teacher: Well, clearly this means a paradigm shift for me as a teacher. I may never have told a child that I believe he’s lazy, but I’m sure that I’ve thought it and communicated it indirectly. In my defense, however, if these dysfunctions are neurological and do not manifest themselves as visibly as say, a reading disorder where the child clearly cannot sound out words for example, how am I supposed to know whether or not the child who doesn’t write well struggles with “output failure” or with a lack of motivation?

Colleague: That’s an understandable concern. But the very fact that you’re asking the question will lead to the answer. These children need teachers who recognize the need for that paradigm shift; they need teachers who will care enough to seek answers to why the child can take in and process information well but cannot produce; why the child continues guaranteeing and expecting to do things, yet can’t seem to deliver on the promises; why the child can read much better than he can compose; and why he can translate information, yet can’t put what they figure out to use in written format. We look for clues such as does the child hold the pencil awkwardly or seem to experience pain after writing. During in-class writing activities, we note how the child begins – does he have a system for brainstorming ideas or does he just sit because he doesn’t know how to gather the ideas in his brain and collect them onto paper. Does he start writing and then suddenly wad up the paper and start over, repeatedly (like Sisyphus and the boulder)? And of course, assessments can reveal clues; does the child express insights and understanding during class discussion, but fail to write such lucid and meaningful responses on written tests. When we look for these clues, we will see the signs, and though we may not know the exact neurological cause, we will certainly be able to avoid making negative judgments. Levine says it best when he admonishes us that “when we call someone lazy, we condemn a human being.” This first chapter “Getting the Mind to Work” enables us to make that paradigm shift allowing us to look for clues with Levine as we read the case studies, and to see his application of the understanding of the difference between laziness and “output failure.”

Teacher: When we recognize “output failure,” do we excuse the child from writing so that we don’t continue the Sisyphus-effect of repeated failure?

Colleague: Writing provides so many benefits beyond simply meeting the needs of a specific assignment, so we do want the child to write. Writing aids in developing and maintaining the brain circuitries that connect various functions such as language, memory, and motor control. We do not want to hinder this development by excusing the child from writing. Instead, we want to help the child by providing instruction in specific skills so that the child can better deal with the neurological miswiring – that’s why Levine’s book is so important. He hasn’t just “demystified” the problem of perceived laziness for us, he also provides specific guidance for working with children affected by output failure. For example, if the issue seems to be related to motor control, Levine shares specific interventions that can be used to assist the child with pencil grip and the physical act of writing; or if the problem lies in the area of language, Levine offers strategies for working with the child in the area of spelling. The book actually contains 7 case studies, each of which demonstrates Levine’s work with a child to determine the nature of the production failure, the possible interventions, and results. The final chapters present specific strategies for working specifically on writing output, breaking the task of writing into manageable tasks that the child can learn to do independently after practicing with his teacher. As a result, we can work with our children so that they can enjoy positive experiences with writing and move that boulder up the mountain with confidence.


If you’re looking for a quick, yet impactful book to add to your summer reading list, I highly recommend Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness

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Mess is Best!

Wordle: writing

Remember Magic School Bus and  Ms. Frizzle’s motto? “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” This is the way I like to teach writing.

“Mess is best” has always been my motto in my classes during the process of writing — my students know they can begin any piece of writing in the middle, the end, or at the beginning. They know that I want them to show their work, just as they do in math. They know that means that if the ideas they have jumping out of their brain and landing on the page first, should actually make up the third body paragraph, they can number it or label it or draw an arrow on their paper. In other words, when my students are writing, from pre-writing through editing, their papers are a mess! For some, this is very hard to get used to. They find it difficult to believe that I don’t want them to write a new draft with every revision and editing session. They find it difficult to believe that I want their unpolished, messy pages to discuss with them as they make decisions about the piece. They laugh when I tell them that I don’t need papers suitable for framing because I don’t have room on my wall. Because “most students are proficient at the brainstorming and freewriting stages…but most students don’t have strategies beyond correcting surface errors and adding more,” I am simply encouraging revision and editing of any piece my students write by eliminating the tediousness of rewriting until they want to do so or until they are ready to publish the piece (Benjamin, 2000, p. 181).

I remember when I was in school and the teacher said we had to turn in a rough draft with our final copy of a paper; typically, I wrote only one actual paper, copied it over, and made some cross-outs on the copy and turned it in as the rough draft (okay, so I wasn’t the best student in school, but probably like many). It seemed to me, when I first introduced my mess-is-best system that my students would be more willing to make substantial revisions in meaning and content and organization, if they did not have to rewrite the paper to do so. That turned out to be a correct hypothesis. Without the burden of having to physically rewrite, I can encourage students to revise by giving them “a revising goal that directs their attention to more substantive concerns,” a specific revising goal to add three sentences of dialogue, for example (Graham & Harris, 1996, p. 350). In addition, when students do physically rewrite the paper, they do so more willingly because they are eager to see what “real paper” looks like after revising. For those papers that are composed on computers, students insert their revisions via the comment insertions, so that the “before” and “after” are obvious and seen simultaneously.

References:

Benjamin, A. (2000). English teacher’s guide to performance tasks & rubrics: Middle school. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (1996). Self-regulation and strategy instruction for students who find writing and learning challenging. In C. Michael Levy, Sarah Ransdell (eds). The Science of Writing: Theories, Methods, Individual Differences, and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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