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Reflecting on 35 Years of Teaching Writing

Teaching and using writing to explore, to expand, and to explain is what we do; how to use writing is what we teach. With this in mind, “writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p.13). Thus, I teach with writing.

As both a student and a teacher, I have lived through numerous trends and theories of writing instruction. As a high school student in the early seventies, I methodically wrote the assigned five-paragraph essays about literature; then in college, used the same basic format to approach the longer papers assigned. When I entered the credential program at UCSB in the early eighties, I entered the world of Peter Elbow as I participated in Sheridan Blau’s South Coast Writing Project. Suddenly, writing shifted from form to freedom. Commenting on that time period’s emphasis on social values of individualism, personal expression, equality, and freedom, D. Bowden observes that “outlets for self-expression in writing were suddenly highly valued” and “that both the process movement (which paid attention to how writing was produced) and voice (which privileged the expression of emotions, passions, ideals, and a writer’s inner character) not only took hold but also became quickly entrenched (Clark et al., 2003, p. 287). When I began teaching, I faced a tug-of-war between teaching the form by which I had learned to write for school and avoiding what Macrorie termed Engfish, “standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style and form of their professors” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 289). My early years as a teacher produced many standard English, five-paragraph essays because frankly, I could more objectively explain grades to students, parents, and colleagues. In the early nineties, I met Rae Jean Williams who invited me to work with the UCLA Writing Project. Through that involvement with colleagues, sharing experiences and theories, I discovered freedom in using writing to teach, as opposed to trying to teach writing.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Rae Jean is that students need a reason for writing, that writing is a response to some stimulus, a means to an end rather than the end. Some may disagree, and in fact, in my early years of implementing writing workshop in my classroom, I believed that the objective was simply to get kids writing. My writing workshop followed the usual protocol of encouraging students to write frequently and allowing for students to work on several pieces at a time, keeping every piece of writing, from notes to outlines to rough drafts to final copies, in their English folders. As students completed rough drafts, they spent time with me during a conference session discussing possible revisions. These rough drafts were not graded, in order to motivate revision, rather than create frustration. Students were required to submit revised pieces as part of their final exam grade — these pieces were graded on revision work shown. Two days a week in class were Writing Workshop days during which students worked on their own writing, shared writing with peer groups, and individually conferred with me about writing problems. I encouraged individuals to write about topics that interested them personally; I rarely assigned one topic to all students. I challenged students to experiment with various modes of writing such as autobiographical, poetry, journaling, short story, persuasive, and observational. The basic workshop approach provided a safe environment for writing, which does motivate as “they had ownership over the learning activities,” but did not provide a reason to write (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 13).

A better use of writing workshop provides a safe environment to approach the writing tasks presented in students’ core classes. Research indicates that one of the problems with the romantic rhetoric approach of my initial workshop is that it was “based on the idea that writing has only one purpose, self-exploration. However, in reality, it has multiple purposes” (Williams, 2003, p. 66). Because reading and writing are so integrated, students need to understand the use of specific genres of writing for specific purposes, not only as readers of text but as responders to text. When teaching the use of writing, teachers need to understand that “writers and readers use similar kinds of knowledge…in the act of making their meanings: knowledge about language, knowledge about content, knowledge about genre conventions” and help students make those connections (Langer & Flihan, 2000). Correct grammar can signal skillful writing – correct structure does indicate a sense of organization and coherence. “Correct” writing, however, is often boring and according to a recent study:

Teaching students the grammar raises tacit knowledge to a conscious level in ways that interfere with the efficient language processing necessary in writing. In other words, students…probably were thinking more about the grammar rules than they were about writing, with deleterious effects. (Williams, 2003, p. 50)

Here, once again, is the tug-of-war between personal and academic discourses. However, when I ask students about audience, purpose, and the key question of “so what?” I help students learn how to use those formal elements of style to elicit the answer they desire.

In the workshop setting, students can look at form and structure of an essay, for instance, as the “basic outfit” that needs personal identity. In groups, or individually, students can consider how the writing can be improved by adding elements of style specific to their purpose, personal choices made by each writer including the choice of genre that best addresses their needs. Depending on students’ background knowledge, students can be asked to add their own style by adding rhetorical devices, varying sentence structure, changing passive voice to active; this is best achieved by break ing this into steps and modeling, rather than direct instruction/drill of grammar. We may discuss, for instance, rhetorical devices and then students add one device to a piece of writing on which they are currently working. When we look at sentence types, I can then lead students to adding a periodic or cumulative sentence, for example. In this way, students develop understanding of grammar and rhetorical structure in the same way they look at what their favorite performers are wearing, choosing to add the elements they like best to their own personal wardrobe. Referring back to where I began, with writing, I teach students to use writing to achieve their purposes, to generate the answers they desire to the questions they and/or their teachers ask, to write meaningfully.

Teaching with writing applies to all content areas because it is teaching students how to use writing as “Powerful discourse…discourse that makes a difference; has a rhetorical purpose; and informs, persuades, or moves an audience from their present state of mind to a new one” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 296).

References:

Clark, I., Bamberg, B,, Bowden, D,, Edlund, J., Gerrard, L., Klein, S., Lippman, J., & Williams, J. (2003). Concepts in composition: Theory and practice in the teaching of writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langer, J., & Flihan, S. (2000). Writing and reading relationships: Constructive tasks. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://cela.albany.edu/publication/article/writeread.htm

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Williams, J., (2003). Preparing to teach writing: Research, theory, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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Modeling Leading to Transfer

2543351480044258467fFzOdb_fs   As an academic success counselor, teachers will often approach me about particular students. Sighing heavily, a teacher laments that the student cannot read or the student does not read. Students who are not engaged or appear unable to meet the academic expectations of the course do discourage teachers who are experts in their subject areas and who are eager to share that expertise with their students. J. Guthrie (2001) observed that “student engagement affected teacher involvement as much as teacher involvement influenced student engagement” (Guthrie, 2001). If this is true, then we need to look closely at the inter-relatedness of teacher involvement and student engagement in order to reduce the frustrations of teachers and students related to reading. As a result of reading and researching, I am convinced that we cannot continue to assume that students know how to read by the time they reach our middle and high school classrooms if we desire their engagement and involvement in our classes (Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway, 2007, p. 4). We must actively, explicitly teach our students pre-, during-, and post-reading strategies that will help them read to learn, to make connections, and to more deeply engage with us and our content.

April Nauman, Ph. D. (2007) observes that “high school students must read, comprehend, and remember information in a variety of high-level content area textbooks, which are packed with new concepts and vocabulary…these expectations occur at a time when students’ motivation to read tends to decline” (p. 31). As I have worked with students struggling to read sections in their history text, I have observed that teaching them to use specific strategies aids not only their comprehension, but also increases their motivation to read. The history text presents two columns of text, at least one chart, and an inset box per page. My students tend to gloss over the pages, skimming for what might be on the quiz that their teachers will inevitably give the day after the pages are to be read for homework. A difficulty that I face as a Learning Specialist is that I cannot choose the assignments and the means of assessments that my students encounter in their classes; I can, however, use those assessments as literacy teaching tools. For example, when a student points out difficulties he faced in responding to questions based on history text reading, I can use that experience to show the student how to actively read the text to learn. Vacca (2002) points out that “continued literacy development is of critical importance because it helps to shape the core strategies by which adolescents learn to negotiate meaning and think critically about the texts in their lives, whether in the context of school or the world outside of school” (p. 186). Students need to see this type of thinking modeled, as it is not an intuitive skill that they activate simply because the learning task demands it.

I have learned that this modeling and guided practice means that I am actively thinking out loud as I read with my students, and that I offer my students a variety of strategies. For example, I can show my students how to use strategies such as KWL charts or SQ3R to set a purpose for reading. I particularly like the SQ3R strategy for use with my students’ history textbook because the students learn to look over the chapter, change section headings into questions, and can at the same time, set up Cornell Notes (two-column notes) or a 5-W Chart (who, what, when, where, why) to use as they read to answer the questions. The most important step in this strategy for my students is the question phase because they tend to not even notice titles and subheadings. Yet, each title, when rephrased as a question, becomes the guide for determining the main ideas in that section of the reading. For some of my students, reading has always been a passive activity, either due to family background (lack of education, lack of involvement, lack of emphasis relative to other activities) or perhaps due to educational experiences (poor instruction, behavioral issues that masked reading difficulties left unaddressed, moving from one school to another preventing engagement promoting reading). For these students, learning how to take notes, summarize, and draw inferences are new skills requiring much guided practice which I can give them during our meetings.

Although, I realize my students may not see their history reading as fun, I have learned that “teachers can affect student motivation to read through explicit reading strategy and reading comprehension strategy instruction and practice” and do so when they “show how, practice, tell why, and tell when” (Mccrudden, Perkins & Putney, 2005). My students need to learn for instance, that “note taking is not simply a way to record facts; it also leads to deeper student engagement and reflection” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 72). Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the goal of during-reading strategies and therefore, teachers must make a conscious effort to “teach comprehension strategies that empower students to internalize the strategies and to develop a conceptual framework for understanding content area topics” (NASSP, 2008). With this goal in mind, and understanding the difficulties that my students have reading their history textbook, I use active reading strategies that guide their reading. For example, the RAP strategy teaches students to read one paragraph, ask what it says, and put it into their own words before reading the next paragraph. The emphasis in this approach is helping the student recognize that reading the history text book involves new skills which he is in the process of learning and that he actually understands more of the text than he believed he could. My students benefit from looking at the reading assignment in chunks, rather than pages, with each section read to answer a question seen as a chunk of text to be understood and summarized. The notes taken affirm to my students that they have understood what they read; so often they have lamented reading the “whole chapter” but not remembering or understanding anything they had read.

I integrate the use of the RAP strategy with another strategy, Questioning the Author, moving students beyond facts to thinking about why those facts are important. My students have written many reports during their years in school, all of which asked for facts. Now, in high school, it is not enough to know the facts and just the facts. Students have to analyze the facts, relate those facts to prior knowledge, consider how those facts might relate to the future, and develop an understanding of the significance of those facts to their own lives. According to its creators, “Questioning the Author begins by taking stock of what we want students to learn from a text and noticing what might interfere with that understanding,” then “prompts student response to text through such queries as, ‘What is the author trying to say?’, or ‘What did the author say to make you think that?'” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). To implement these strategies together, as they seem a natural pairing, I first preview the text, noting sections that may pose interruptions in comprehension and preparing questions that will help students over the bumps. As we read the text together, I ask the students questions to engage them in interacting with the text and to monitor comprehension. I may begin with an active comprehension question such as ‘What would you like to know about this chapter’ after reading the title and the first paragraph; then after reading further, I may pose a questioning the author query such as ‘What distinction is the author making here’ at a point where the students may not infer what is needed for full comprehension. This active reading encourages students to “respond to queries by contributing ideas that other students and the teacher may build on, refine, or challenge” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). In addition, students not only think about the text as I am asking questions such as ‘What do you think the author meant by saying that…,’ but they also observe when I choose to ask the question. I want my students to understand the text, but I also want to model how to think while reading. Ideally, students learn to ask questions themselves while reading. This approach leads my students to an understanding of how to apply the strategies on their own; “modeling, coaching, and fading” provides my at-risk readers “with the scaffolding necessary to incorporate the procedural and conditional knowledge they were learning into their own repertoire of reading strategies” (Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996, p. 73). Research emphasizes that the key to effectiveness is to model and guide students through the process; showing students just once and then expecting them to apply any strategy is idealistic, if not simply unfair. Fisher (2001) points to “significant improvement in student quiz scores after graphic organizers had been implemented with teacher guidance” (p. 116). This guidance is on-going and repeated; Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) caution, “simply directing students what to do, however, is not the same as showing them how to do it” (p. 32). Dole, Brown, and Trathen (1996) further remind us that “with its emphasis on making abstract cognitive thought processes explicit, strategy instruction can be difficult for students to understand, especially if the instruction is not sequenced clearly and systematically” (p. 67). This instruction, meaning modeling and thinking-aloud to show students the process is worth the effort and the time; “long-term instruction of sophisticated comprehension strategies clearly improves student understanding and memory of texts that are read” (Pressley, 2002, p. 291).

Finally, as students learn to preview the text, read for a purpose, asking questions as they read, they are moving toward deeper comprehension that will be demonstrated through the use of post-reading strategies. Our history teachers use an acronym “GRAPES” (geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and society) to indicate what students should know about each people-group studied, and this could easily be applied with the Compare and Contrast matrix. The basic idea is that “readers compare and contrast the target concepts listed across the top of the matrix according to attributes, properties, or characteristics listed along the left side” (Vacca, & Vacca, 2005, p. 402). By completing the chart, students focus on the items their teachers are highlighting, and in addition, they create for themselves a study guide for use when preparing for tests or essay assignments. Another post-reading skill that I want my students to develop is the ability to summarize notes and what was read. I, again, use a modeling approach with the whole class first, asking students to contribute sentences, as we summarize a text together. I take an active role and encourage active learning.

Galda and Liang (2003) note that “educators who want to capitalize on the potentially rich experience that seems to motivate students to read…need to carefully orchestrate the questions, tasks, and tests” (p. 270). I take an active role in “planning instruction; establishing the structure necessary for successful implementation; observing, assisting, and guiding students and groups as they work; and assessing and adjusting the process” (Ruddell, 2004, p. 107). As freshmen in high school, my students are no longer learning to read, but as noted earlier, reading to learn, “a matter of meaning-making, problem-solving, and understanding” (Jacobs, 2002, p. 59). Because I work with what content area teachers assign my students, I do not get to choose the students’ textbooks; my explicit teaching of reading strategies, showing and not telling, though, may help my students navigate texts with greater success and confidence.

References:

Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2002, November). Questioning the author: Making sense of social studies [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Dole, J.A., Brown, K.J., & Trathen, W. (1996). The effects of strategy instruction on the comprehension performance of at-risk students. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 62–88. Retrieved February 11, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/RRQ.31.1.4&F=RRQ-31-1-Dole.pdf.

Fisher, A., (2001). Implementing graphic organizer notebooks: the art and science of teaching content. [Electronic version]. The Reading Teacher, 55, 116.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Williams, D. (2002, November). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 70–73.

Galda, L., & Liang, L. (2003). Literature as experience or looking for facts: Stance in the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(2), 268–275.  Retrieved February 8, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/RRQ.38.2.6&F=RRQ-38-2-Galda.pdf.

Guthrie, J.T. (2001, March). Contexts for engagement and motivation in reading. Reading Online, 4(8). Retrieved 01/04/08 from  http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/guthrie/index.html.

Jacobs, V. (2002, November). Reading, writing, and understanding [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mccrudden, M, Perkins, P, & Putney, L Self-efficacy and interest in the use of reading strategies. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20, Retrieved 1/12/08, from http://www.questia.com/read/5014088133.

NASSP, (2008). During-reading strategies. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from National Association of Secondary School Principals Web site: http://www.principals.org/s_nassp/sec.asp?CID=887&DID=52915.

Nauman, Ph.D, A. (2007). Reader’s Handbook, Grades 9-12, Research Base. Retrieved January 4, 2008, from Great Source Web site: http://www.greatsource.com/rehand/9-12/pdfs/9_12NaumanArticle.pdf

Neufeld, P. (2005, December). Comprehension instruction in content area classes. The Reading Teacher, 59(4), 302–312. Retrieved February 13, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/.

Pressley, M. (2002). Metacognition and self-regulated comprehension. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 291-309). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ruddell, M. R. (2004). Engaging students’ interest and willing participation in subject area learning. In D. Lapp, J. Flood, & N.Farnan (Eds.), Content area reading and learning: Instructional strategies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singer, H., & Donlon, D., (1989). Reading and learning from text. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vacca, R.T. (2002). Making a difference in adolescents’ school lives: Visible and invisible aspects of content area reading. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 184-204). Retrieved 1/12/08 from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/0872071774.9&F=bk177-9-Vacca.html .

Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. L. (2005). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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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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