Wednesday, January 9, 2019

#WhyIWrite: Helping Students To Find Joy In Writing

            Recently, I finished writing the first draft of my second young adult novel.  I spent over two years of my life brainstorming, writing, deleting, rewriting and deleting some more until eventually I wound up with 75,456 words that admittedly still needed a lot of work, but were decent enough that I now felt somewhat confident to share them with a few of my beta readers and submit to the online program for constructive criticism. The writing process was challenging, tedious, painful, and frustrating - but yet, for some reason,  I persisted and didn't give up.  Because, while writing was definitely all of those horrible things, it was also great; it was rewarding and therapeutic and inspiring.

           Around the same time that I was typing "the end" on my manuscript,  National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was advertising its National Day of Writing on social media which would be held on October 20th.  Teachers and students across the country were using the hashtag #whyIwrite on social media to share out the reasons why they make the choice to put pen to paper. As a person who listens religiously to writing podcasts (Writerly, Keeping A Notebook and Writing Excuses being the three that I never miss), I find it fascinating to listen to experts detail their own writing processes and divulge secrets about the sources of their muse.  Reading through the #whyIwrite tweets brought me the same inspiration that those podcasts bring.  People talked about wanting to write to share the truth, to understand, to change the world, to work through tough emotional trauma, and to celebrate the aesthetic pleasure that the only the perfect combination of words strung together like pearls on a necklace can bring.

           I bet it doesn't come as any shock to you that not one person - published author, educator, or student - has ever suggested in a podcast or on social media that their inspiration for writing comes from wanting to pass a standardized test or school benchmark assessment. Yet, how many of us only devote time to this type of writing inside our classrooms?  Is it surprising, then, that when we focus solely on school-type writing inside schools that our suggestion that today will be a writing day is met with groans, eye rolls, and trips to the bathroom or school nurse?
          Does it matter?
          I would argue that it does matter.
          In fact I think that developing a generation of passionate writers and readers is probably the most important task we have as educators.
If we want students to grow as critical thinkers, change makers, and doers, they must learn how to communicate via the written and spoken word.  Writing is a powerful tool, one that all students can benefit from as humans. I don't have to inundate you with the research surrounding engagement.  It only makes sense that people tend to spend time on things that they enjoy and brush aside the things that they dislike.  Think about a food you despise.  When was the last time you ordered it at a restaurant?  We don't choose things we hate;  if our students hate to write, they will only do it when we require them to do it.
         In an age where communities and schools have shined a giant spotlight on raising test scores, I would argue that by doing LESS school type writing and more impassioned and authentic writing tasks, test scores would actually increase.   Why?  Because students will come to value writing and its many purposes, and when we value something, we tend to focus more heavily on it.  That's human nature.
            So what might the switch to more impassioned writing experiences look like inside a classroom?  How do we focus on authentic types of writing experiences inside my classroom when we am responsible for reporting out on learning targets in a standards based reporting system?

 Let's look at couple of the real reasons people choose to write and connect them to school experiences and even some learning standards:

1.   Writing is Therapeutic - In 2002, Bridget Murray discussed the research conducted by the American Medical Association in her article "Writing To Heal"  that found people with various autoimmune diseases who wrote about their stress for twenty minutes a day for four months showed improved immune function and less than control patients.  It is no secret that writing can be a form of stress reduction and even help a person to uncover his or her true feelings about an event.  With the push in education to increase socio-emotional learning experiences for all students, daily routine writing experiences in classrooms are a must:

What might this look like in the English classroom?  

  • Routine journal writing connected to the day's reading:  Giving students a chance to free write, exploring how they feel about a decision a character made or a connection to their own life or current news events, for example, helps them to see that writing can be used to sort out feelings.  Not all writing is analytic in nature or needs to be graded.  Journal writing offers students an outlet for the things on their mind and gives them a safe place to explore feelings they may be grappling with on their own.                                                                         Common Core Target:  All speaking and listening targets require students to be able to sift through their thinking and share it with others. Many students will feel more comfortable doing this if they've had some time to reflect on topics in writing before having to speak to their peers) 
  • Poetry -  Poetry can sometimes seem daunting to students, but if they are repeatedly exposed to beautiful pieces of poetry -including modern day song lyrics and current spoken word poetry - students will begin to see poetry for the art that it is.  It also offers a creative outlet - devoid of rules - that enables them to explore their feelings which as I've explained earlier, has therapeutic benefits.                                                                                                          Common Core Target Connection:  Analysis of poetry runs rampant in the Common Core literature targets (especially in 7th grade).  Students will develop a much deeper ability to analyze the work of others and the choices they make if they are taught to write and make those choices for themselves first.  See my blog for further thoughts on why this works.
  • Letter Writing  -  In an age of text messaging, letter writing is quickly becoming a lost art.  But giving students an opportunity to communicate with their peer via written conversations as opposed to oral ones can often develop a love of writing as well as help build a stronger community of trust inside the classroom, an essential ingredient if we want our students to grow as learners.
2.    Writing helps us share our unique stories with others.  Reading about others' experiences leads us to want to share our own stories as well.  Reading ultimately becomes the inspiration for writing.  Wasn't it Stephen King who said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write?"  If anyone knows what inspires writers, a best selling author who has written over eighty books should.  We are fortunate to exist in a time where the literacy world is working to increase the amount of books written by and about people from diverse backgrounds.  The #WeNeedDiverse Books campaign has helped to bring stories from talented authors of diverse backgrounds into the hands of kids everywhere.  This organization has helped the publishing arena, educators, and librarians alike to recognize that all children should have the experience of growing up and see themselves inside the books that they read.  Additionally, grass roots programs like Project Lit Community have similar goals and are continually working to provide students with the opportunity to read great books in school that veer from the typical white male canon of the past.  Giving students these experiences helps them to see that they, too, can excel at writing.  Their stories not only matter, but they are necessary if we want to work to build a future that is empathetic and celebratory of people's unique differences.

What might this look like in the English classroom?  

  • Using diverse books as mentor texts -  Nothing inspires great writing more than a great read. As teachers, we can use a piece of a book to teach a skill and have students mimic the author's style with a topic of their own choice.  In many of my college level writing workshop courses this skills was called imitation. Kelly Gallagher, author and teacher extraordinaire,  has made it famous in his books like Write Like This where he goes into detail on how to teach students to write alongside some great writing pieces in an effort to learn from the experts.  This strategy helps strengthen a writer's skill set but also helps them to also better understand the reading on a deeper level while not doing any type of "school writing" at all.  Last year, seventh grade teachers in my school held a "Poe or Faux?" Competition in their classes where students tried to imitate Poe's writing after having read some of his short stories.  Their classmates then were given excerpts from Poe and classmates and had to determine which was which. 

    • Book clubs - Provide students with choice of reading materials making sure to offer a variety of diverse authors who offer perspectives that both match and differ from the students in your class.  As adults, we would never join a book club if all the books were selected for us.  We need to offer student a myriad of options, so that they can find books that speak to them and find that passion that can only come for discovering a great read.                                                 
    • Independent Reading -  While some loud voices in education might lead you to believe that "research" does not support giving student time to read in school, those of us working in schools  every day have been fortunate enough to witness first hand the magical that can only come from putting the right book in the hands of a nonreader who finishes it overnight after starting it in class and can't wait to ask "What should I read next?"  It's our duty as educators to offer a variety of diverse perspectives for our students.  When a student is inspired by a book we might be able to excite them to write fan fiction or other creative endeavors that are not "school type" writing but will ultimately foster a love of writing and create stronger writers as a result.  Reading and writing are not separate entities;  we need to help students see the connections between the two. 
    • Common Core Connection:  All literature reading and writing targets can be taught as easily inside a choice unit as they can be inside a whole class unit.  Smaller shared literature and informational text pieces connecting around a theme could also be used.  
    Ultimately, writing is (like music, painting, and dance) an art and should be treated as such.  I could carry on for hours about art for arts sake, but instead I will remind us all that arts help foster creativity and problem solving skills that spill into other arenas of our lives.  Our world desperately needs creative types.  While school type writing has its time and place in the curriculum, finding ways for students to creatively explore current reads and giving them opportunities to write without fear of "breaking the rules" is the key to creating a future generation that enjoys writing and can communicate effectively into the next century.  Words are beautiful.  They are powerful.  They are so much more powerful than a numerical score on a rubric gives them credit for.

    Monday, May 7, 2018

    How To Increase Students' Analytic Writing Skills? Via Narrative Writing, Of course!

    In the beginning....        

    As a person who always has enjoyed the creative outlet of writing fiction and poetry, I initially chose to become an educator because I wanted to instill a passion for reading and creative writing in my students.  In my early years of teaching, I employed a derivative of Nancy Atwell's and Tom Romano's reading and writing workshop in my eighth grade Language Arts classroom and watched as the magic ensued.  My classroom consisted of mini-lessons using current engaging texts, individual and small group reading and writing conferences, and writing and reading time.  Students mimicked the process of real writers:  they brainstormed ideas, crafted a plan, wrote rough drafts of comics, novels, poetry, and news articles,  and they shared their work with critical friends before revising.  Written language of mentor texts and classmates was celebrated.  They shared books and recommended them to their friends.  One of my students wrote a thousand page sequel to Stephen King's novel The Green Mile.  Others collaborated on novels that were written in the letter format that was popular in the early 2000's.  Some created graphic novels.  Many read more books in a school year than they'd ever read before.  While Tim Shanahan, one of the pioneers of the Common Core might scoff at my anecdotal data, students were engaged daily in authentic reading and writing tasks.  Life was good.
            Enter the Common Core State Standards that placed a much heavier emphasis on informational text reading, deep analysis and critical thinking skills, and argument writing.  Narrative writing and appreciation for fiction for its aesthetic beauty no longer held as much weight as it once did.  The creators of the Common Core argued vehemently that we must prepare students to be College and Career Ready and the standards all reflected these changes.  After all, how many students will grow up to become the next Margaret Atwood or Don DeLillo?  We, as educators, were in the business of preparing students for the 21st Century workforce.  It made sense that less time would be spent on writing fiction.
             So across the country, narrative lessons on crafting quality characters were squelched and replaced with tasks asking students to analyze how a character change reflected the theme of a text, lessons on adding figurative language and sensory details to a short story were replaced with lessons analyzing the mood and tone of an author's descriptive paragraph, and readers' theater activities that asked students to craft their own additional scene from a play or short story were now replaced with lessons asking students to compare and contrast an old "classic" play with a new modern interpretation.  These new lessons, after all, would be more closely aligned to the skills students needed in high school, college and beyond.  They were no longer "fluff" activities designed by nerdy English teachers like me who were hoping everyone would leave their classrooms wanting to pen the next great American novel or,  at the very least, read it.  Maybe you are already noticing the problem of this either/or thinking with the deliberate pairing of my examples.  The two really go hand in hand.
    In fact, I would argue that major problems has occurred as a result of this new paradigm shift:
    We have been asking students to analyze deeply the choices that authors deliberately make and the affect these have on the overall written piece,  and students' responses often only skim the surface because students' own experience with writing creatively is now limited due to the new emphases already discussed.  In other words, by reducing the amount of time spent with narrative writing, we are ensuring that students' analytic writing skills will not be as strong as they could be.

     Allow me to illustrate my point.  Let's say, for example, you are a hoping to teach Common Core Lit Standards 4 &  5: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone and Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.

    The Current Status of Instruction....

    If you follow a backwards design model, you craft your assessment question first and know that you will ultimately want students to be successful with the following task:

    Directions: Read “Drawing Goodbye” (Passage 1)
    and then answer the following question:

    Analyze how the author uses the extended metaphor
    in paragraph 7
    to help reveal the overall theme of the story.

    Discuss specific words and phrases
    the author uses to support your analysis.

    So you perform a task analysis of the end assessment to ensure that you understand all the subskills students will need to master this rigorous task.  You begin teaching by helping students identify figurative language inside texts and what it means. You closely read texts and teach students to annotate for the key moves the author makes connected to figurative language.  You make the connect between figurative language examples and the development of the theme.  You provide students with opportunities to discuss the text and their ideas about it.  You use think-alouds and modeling to teach the analytic writing using similar tasks.  You give students sentence starters to help guided their analyses and help them to develop skills to move beyond summary and into the art of inference making.

    And students learn and grow.

    They understand the story and the extended metaphor but still struggle a bit with explaining, on a deep level, why the author chose to include this specific metaphor at this specific part in the story. 

    I would argue that the missing link is narrative writing.  Don't buy it?  For those of you who appreciate a good analogy, consider this scenario.  You are an aspiring chef and are attending a famous culinary arts school over seas.  Your first class and lesson is on the making of crepes.  You watch your instructor demo a lesson.  He explains his technique to you as he cooks:  He shows you how to gradually add milk and water to the dry mixture.  He describes how much oil you should use and how hot you should make the pan.  You taste the finished product and are eager to try it on your own.  But you never get the opportunity.  The next day, you are given a written quiz that asks you a series of questions analyzing the techniques of video clips of other chefs making crepes.  Why did the chef move his wrist as he did?  Why was this chef's batter too watery?  How can this recipe be salvaged after he's stirred too vigorously?  Perhaps you will be able to provide a surface level explanation of the reason behind the techniques, but how much better prepared would you be to analyze the techniques of others if you had actually been given an opportunity to practice making crepes on your own first?  What if your instructor had given you an opportunity to try a variety of techniques and reflect on the experience before you were presented with this quiz?  Would you be more confident and have more to say?

    Similarly, students need ample time to practice writing creatively if they are going to be asked to make inferences about the reasons behind the choices authors make. The answer to deeper analysis cannot be completely found in watching others create a crepe or write a short story nor can it be fully found  in the enjoyment of the finished meal or the dissecting of finalized mentor texts.  While there is no doubt in my mind that these activities help, in order to truly understand the creative processes, one must immerse themselves in the work.  Students are no different than published authors in this regard.

    What Type of Narrative Experience Might Help?

    To return to the above example of extended metaphor, let's say that all students have written a rough draft of a short story with a developed theme. Our goal now might be to use a narrative writing lesson and help them to include an extended metaphor in their own story that also develops the theme.  Students are great at adding figurative language inside a text, but are they ever thoughtful about which extended metaphor to use and when to use it?   Do they consider the words they use inside the metaphor to develop a specific mood?  Do they develop this specific mood with character motivation in mind?  Real writers consider all these things and more, and if we are asking students to reflect on the decisions made by real writers without giving them the opportunity to practice these skills themselves, we are not preparing our students.

    For the sake of simplicity, let's say that the we have developed this theme in our story:  life's challenges often end up being our best learning experiences.  We might then model a free-write about any connections that we can make to this theme and the real world.  Maybe it is when we've experienced a death of a loved one and realized that we are more independent than we once thought or when little kids struggle on their first day of kindergarten but realize that school could actually be enjoyable, or maybe  even when we decide not to follow a friend's poor advice and lose a friend but find ourselves.  We could then use a bridge map or another type of organizer to craft analogies to this theme from the character's perspective.  Once we've modeled this, we can ask students to try the process with a partner and with our guidance before eventually trying it on their own.

    When we have all come up with a metaphor that not only connects to our story character but also the theme, we can decide where the best place to insert this metaphor would be in the story line.  All along the experience, we should make sure students have an opportunity to reflect on why they did what they did.  Why does the metaphor fit best after the rising action?  What would have been different if we placed it earlier?  How will this metaphor change how we see the character?  What kind of mood do we want to create with our choice of words here?

    Metacognition during narrative experiences is key to improving writing and transferring these skills over to analytic writing of another author's work.

    To reiterate, it is my suggestion that by including more narrative writing experiences and not less into the weekly Language Arts curriculum, we should see better results in our students' analytical writing skills.  Of course, as the above example indicates, we have to be strategic about the types of tasks and narratives we assign our students if we want to foster deeper analytic skills.  By eliminating narrative writing from the bulk of our lessons, we are guaranteeing that the things we have decided to spend more time on will not be mastered by students.  Balance is key.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to The Writing Excuses Podcast, a podcast for writers that not only analyzes the craft of writing but then gives suggested narrative exercises so that writers can fully understand these analyses for themselves.  Maybe they are onto something...

    Monday, February 12, 2018

    Diversity, Politics, and Education in 2018

    As an educator, I cannot fathom how many times recently I've heard somebody on television,  on social media, and in my professional discussions utter the sentiment that politics do not belong in schools.  People who hold firm to this belief often fall into one of the following two camps:

    1)  Some believe complex social issues should be completely avoided in school and replaced with less controversial topics like "should we serve ice cream in the cafeteria?" or "should we allow kids to listen to music" or the ever-popular-beaten-to-death topic that has been used so frequently, its essays can blanket the world:  "should we have uniforms in school?"

    Unfortunately, focusing on superfluous topics like these have some major flaws:

    • Students don't really care about the trivial; they are smarter than we know.  They can spot a  teacher-crafted essay in their sleep.  They will never spend passion-filled hours searching schools that serve ice cream, completely outraged that some schools offer soft serve on alternating Fridays, when their school only offers Dilly bars.
    • Students can smell inauthenticity a mile away.  Let's say I attend a school where uniforms do not exist.  I am able to wear my torn jeans, Stranger Things hoodie, and Doc Martens every single day.  What are the odds, even if I were to craft a perfectly worded, logical response to the school uniform essay, that my school's policy would change?  Zilch.  Zero.  Zip.  Students will never be invested in a topic that they know is only for test prep, nor should they be.  Authentic writing tasks leads to engaged writers which leads to increased learning.  Just ask leading literacy experts Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, or Tom Romano and they'll gladly share the research with you if you don't believe me.
    Let's remove these meaningless writing tasks from the table for a moment and consider the other argument that individuals often make when arguing that politics and schools should not mix.

    2) Some believe teachers do not have the right to voice their political viewpoints in front of their students.  Thankfully, unlike the first scenario, students have the opportunity to discuss currently worldly issues that they care about with an adult steering the conversation.  Advocates of this camp believe teachers should impartially show both sides of an issue.  Additionally they believe we should provide instruction on critical reading skills and thinking skills, allowing to form their own opinion about what side of the issue they fall.  Up until a few years ago,  I probably would've agreed with these people vehemently that teachers personal opinions must never exist inside the four walls of a classroom.  In fact, even today, I would argue that it is not my role as an educator to create a roomful of like-minded individuals who see things the way I do.  I would also argue that this is not the job of the parents either.  However I now recognize that times exist where teachers must step in when these difficult conversations are had and if this behavior is perceived as being political, so be it.

    Imagine, for example, that the teacher is leading a discussion on immigration policies.  The teacher's main objective, before all others, should be to provide a classroom environment where all students feel safe and welcome.  If students begin making comments when discussing immigration that can be perceived as derogatory or interfere with the sense well being of other students in the room, it is the teacher's duty to step in and remind students when comments do not align with the school's vision that all students are respected.  Is this a political decision?  Yes, and I would argue a necessary one.  Furthermore, when the actions, words, or decisions of people in the news infringe upon the inclusive belief systems of our public schools , educators must join the conversations and make it clear that these actions do not align with the core beliefs we have established as a school system.  We cannot allow marginalized voices to continue to be squelched.

    One way to lend voice to those who have not had one in the past is by rethinking what we consider to be a "classic" piece of literature.  If I were to ask you to list a few literary "classics," which titles would you give to me?  Perhaps you would list off some works that you read years ago in school?  Works by artists like Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, or Whitman?  How many titles would you give me before a person of color or female made a list?  In a recent interview on "The View," thirteen-year-old Marley Emerson Dias discussed her experience with the classics in school, explaining how not being able to see oneself in the texts that were read can affect the self worth and identity of students everywhere.  

    Although we are still worlds away from ensuring that all perspectives are equally represented and dignified in schools today, we are making progress.  Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books and Own Voices are aiding in the publishing world's quest to turn out literature that is reflective of the diverse population of readers across America.  Recently, Nic Stone, author of young adult title Dear Martin celebrated her success after visiting a school and serving as a role model to girls everywhere. The more we expose students to a myriad of voices and perspectives in the classroom, the better off we all will be.

    In a recent article titled "No Longer Invisible:  How Diverse Literature Helps Children Find Themselves in Books, and Why It Matters" by the National Council of Teacher of English, we are reminded including diverse literature in schools is rewarding for all students because it enables students to learn about the backgrounds of those who are unlike them and develop empathy for their peers and for the world (p. 14).  Diversity is not just about skin color but also about "racial, ethnic, and cultural differences...disabilities, sexual orientation, and religious belief" (14). By providing a safe space where all cultures are explored and honored, teachers foster an environment of critical thinkers who are also empathetic about the experiences of others and the world improves as a result.

    Ultimately, we cannot avoid political discussions in schools, nor should we.  In fact, I would argue that politics are just as involved in decisions to exclude content as it is to include it.  If we opt to discuss whether or not ice cream should be served in the school cafeteria in lieu of timely discussions regarding immigration policies, for example, we are making a political statement.  Do we really want to send the message to students that their views or worldly issues are unimportant or not worthy of time to explore them?  Do we want to avoid teaching kids how to analyze tough topics in our own nation with a critical eye? Do we want to raise a next generation of adults who are ignorant about the daily ongoings of society? Isn't that how we ended up here in the first place?

    I leave you with a quote from Disruptive Thinking by Kyleen Beers and Robert Probst who remind us that reading helps build informed citizens: "We want to ask kids to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and it is that disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow.  Reading should be disruptive"  (61).  

    So skip the school uniform lesson and tackle the topics that kids are talking about anyway. Who knows?   You just might learn something along with them.