Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Words Swim

Check out other Slicers' stories at Two Writing Teachers.
Yesterday I swam for the first time since having shoulder surgery. My son and I ventured to an indoor pool at the condo association's club house where we are vacationing with family in northern Michigan. I dipped my toes into the pool startled by the temperature. It must have been heated but it felt a little shivery to me, so I turned on the sauna and while it heated up I slid into the spa. Pretty soon, I was warm enough to jump into the cool pool. The first breast strokes made my breath hitch, but sometimes if you stick with a thing your range improves. Pretty soon my shoulder cooperated--even for a brief crawl stroke. I know need more practice in the pool to get my range of motion back.

Get the details at Teachers Write.

Practice with pen and paper keeps my writing muscles nimble. I need to work on my writing range too and luck for me, Teachers Write, a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians, started yesterday. There must be more than a thousand of us coming together to write and cheer each other on. If you've never given yourself a little time to write, I encourage you join in.

I know I started thinking like a writer sometime between third and fourth grade. I was sitting in my room at the wooden desk my mom had painted for me (the desk was sunshine yellow and the drawer faces tangerine). I wrote a story featuring my cat. I remember looking up the orange peel plaster wall through the high window to the blue sky dotted with white clouds and thinking about writing. Writing was fun. I wanted to do more of it.

These days I mostly write to model a technique or demonstrate a concept as I'm teaching. I write curriculum or lesson plans or emails or essays or outlines for books about teaching. I'm flitting between ideas and not writing long or slow.

Writing can be such fun, immersing yourself in a scene or description or poetic line as indulgent as ice cream. I don't write as much as I'd like to, so this summer I'm going to give myself time to write everyday. Mornings are best for me.

If you haven't done much writing lately or you haven't written with your students in a while, why not write a bit this summer too? When I write what I ask my students to write I learn. I discover where students will struggle or I see where an assignment is too constraining or sometimes even ridiculous. Sometimes the hardest part is beginning. When I discover that I know that I need to go into my classroom with ideas that will help students get started. If  I don't, due dates become more about punishment or shame than celebration. Sometimes when I write with students, the writing goes swimmingly, sentence follows sentence into paragraph pools that threaten to spill off the page--until the end. Sometimes I discover how difficult endings are.

Almost finished page from summer's illustrated journal @... on Twitpic
A start on an illustrated journal page from our vacation.
My writing struggles mirror students' struggles. Yours will too.

We write for a myriad of purposes and audiences. Sometimes we write to process information. We list. We note. We write quickly. Writing gathers our thoughts in a crowd so that we can see what we've learned or where we are. Sometimes we write to capture beauty or memory. We draw. We illustrate. We spin tails of travel with family and friends.  We write gifts. We write stories or poems to entertain or speak out.

Sometimes we write to practice thinking critically. Writing can be exercise. We analyze. We critique. We review. We research. We pretend and protest.

Writing in community helps. When I started teaching that community came from the National Writing Project and the time I spent with a cohort group in graduate school. Now, I also find community online. The possibilities are beyond virtually infinite; they are infinite.  We can connect with people over poetry or blogging or photography or fan fiction or you name and I bet there is a group, a list-serve, a blog community, or some yet to be invented venue designed to gather and group.

Spend a few minutes each day writing. Kate Messner posts a bit of inspiration to spur writers on each day. Check out today's quick write exercise. The water is nearly as warm as the welcome. Dip into the writing pool and swim a bit, won't you?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Calm Before the Core

Carol Jago spoke to the Council of Language Arts Supervisors in Orange County, Florida last month. Lucky for me, Houghton Mifflin sponsored an additional keynote for all of Orange County's reading coaches and English  department chairs. Jago spoke about Common Core and evidence based writing. Calm and collected, she put the kibosh on some of the panic surrounding the Core and coming changes.

Jago began by reminding us that her book With Rigor for All shows that she didn't just jump on the Common Core wagon. She has been arguing for equal access to challenging content for quite some time. She reminded teachers in the room that though there has been some push back against the Core (think Indiana) the fundamental goals are the right thing to do for all students.

She painted a picture of teachers teaching writing to advanced placement and honors students, but neglecting those in "regular" or standard courses.  I wish that weren't true, but it is. There are English teachers at my own school who did not require students to write much this past school year. By much I mean students may have written an on-demand essay (or two) as practice for our state assessment and some paragraphs. What do you do about that? What do you do about teacher beliefs that run along the lines of "they can't" or "they won't" or "they are not ready"? One issue perhaps is teaching teachers alternatives for grading and responding to writing. I think some teachers avoid writing because they loathe the paper load that comes with it. The what to do question is haunting me this summer.

We must write with students. We must make writing as regular as breathing in our classrooms. Writing matters no matter what.

Jago mimicked a dialogue to" those" students that runs something like, " As long as you don't throw things and stay in your seat I won't make you write or give you homework." Complacency kills. It destroys childrens' futures by handicapping them. As Jago said, "Everyone in the digital age must write, a lot, in different forms sure, but a lot."

When I started teaching a senior English teacher with whom I worked made a similar argument. She vehemently supported rigor for all and spoke out about how expecting less cripples students and closes doors to future opportunities.

I hate to say it, but there are English teachers on my campus that do not require nor invite students to write more than once or twice a year.  Those students may write paragraphs more often but rarely are they asked to do more than a 1-3 page paper, some never write more than two pages by choice or requirement. We've fallen away from research papers even. I can't count on students knowing what a citation is when they enter my A.P. Language and Composition course. I can't count on students knowing semicolons. Obviously, Common Core's plan for writing and the teaching of grammar aims to change that. Jago talked about students needing to know how to write compelling arguments and how to write correctly. She shared a story from her son's first year of employment. Part of that story hinges on the fact that his evaluation is partly determined by his ability to communicate clearly and correctly. She showed us the company checklist. Corporations are on the look out for clear communication: spelling counts.

In order to master spelling and punctuation and paragraphing and to, too and two and their, there and they're and so many other errors Connors and Lundsford list in their seminal Top Twenty, students need writing practice, a lot of it. Students learn grammar in the context of their own writing, not divorced from it. The very idea reminds me of  a conversation I had with Jeff Andersonat IRA, but that's another post.

Students need to write in every English course. In order to become fluent, proficient and capable  students need to write  across content areas for a variety purposes and audiences.  Scientists write. Historians, mathematicians, police officers, and even service personnel do too. Writing counts. It is one of a few skills that will help keep a job and or open doors of opportunity for advancement or supplemental income.

 Every field has its writers, bloggers, textbook and manual creators. Everyone writes. Writing matters.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Learning

Writing quote card number twenty-five made to inspire my students during this
year's Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

My friends that work in the corporate world get jealous of me this time of year. They see summer as eight weeks of vacation, no strings, no schedules, no business attire or makeup, all swimming, beach-going, sleeping in, summer. It used to annoy me. In nineteen years I only took a couple of summers "off"--one way or another I worked the others: consulting, teaching or writing. Even when I wasn't officially working (bringing home a paycheck), I was working in my mind. Any teacher will tell you that summer is a time to plan, to prepare, to read up on literature or methods; summer work is as important to students and teachers as is the work we do during the school year.

Join the community.
Details at Two Writing Teachers.
Summer gives teachers time to attend professional development (or trainings), often unpaid, to improve their practice. How many teachers spend time in their classroom during summer months? More than you may imagine. Summer gives us time to paint or remodel or just organize the book shelves, catalogue the classroom library. I give my corporate friends the open-ended schedule and casual dress, but summer does not mean teachers do not work.

The work we do with students is demanding, challenging, hard work. We don't often talk publicly about that. I don't like to complain either. Teaching IS  joyful, surprising, delightful; teaching breeds wonder, but it takes it out of a person. Summer gives us time to recoup, refresh and re-energize. 

Nothing re-energizes me like learning. This summer I'm learning about illustrated journaling with my Mom. If you've seen my journals, you know I doodle and draw my notes. This summer my family is celebrating my parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. We're spending a few weeks up north in a condo in the woods near Petoskey, Michigan. Mom equipped the grand kids with watercolors, ink pens, paper pads, paint brushes and more. I too packed art supplies. We're making our story and drawing new memories. Learning pen, ink, and perspective, together.

One thing that strikes me about Mom's process is that she
drafts her art journal pages in a small pocket-sized spiral. Shown here left of her watercolor page.
Next week the learning continues. I'll join teachers and librarians from around the world for Teachers Write, a summer writing camp hosted by Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles and Jen Vincent. Want to learn with me? Find the details at Teachers Write. 

Join in on the writing fun. Visit Teachers Write for details!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Required Reading

I am a high school English teacher. In some circles that statement stops all conversation. In others they are
Two Writing Teachers
fighting words. If you admit to being an English teacher in a public place you may encounter the lost.

The former students of some prison guard who believed teaching English meant teaching the parts of speech or sentence diagramming. You may encounter someone who was raised on worksheets and excerpts from textbooks. These former students do not wax nostalgic about English nor English teachers.

 I love being an English teacher. I love to read. Writing is adventure. Sharing those passions with teenagers as I teach them how to leverage literacy skill to their advantage as global citizens is the best even with the stress of meetings and mandates (I can say that now because it's summer time).

I've done a lot of thinking this year about required (versus recreational) reading. First, students cannot be required to read if they are not readers. Let's just put that on the table. Students must see the value of reading. They must experience the pleasure and profit of print before they will adventure into books of our choosing.  We have to start where students are.

My teaching assignment will change next year. I'm joining the IB, International Baccalaureate. A friend retired and I will take on her pre-IB tenth grade classes. It is not a decision I made lightly. Some teachers at my school lambast those who teach IB. It's not just Christians who eat their own. I don't participate in that, but I've heard some talk. After I was offered and accepted the assignment, I was told I would have to leave YA behind and require only classics. "If we let students read whatever they want, they will never read the classics," someone said to me. I disagree. Many of my "regular" or "honors" or "AP" readers were choosing classics at the end of our year together. Students will read challenging texts when they are ready.  Some argue we don't have time to wait. I've been given the prescribed "list" of titles. I've met with the IB English team. I know what the students need from the IB teachers' perspectives. You can imagine I feel conflicted, but I also feel challenged and excited about the possibilities.

IB requires specific texts;  there is also some choice. I have wrestled with questions of purpose and benefit my entire teaching life: What is the purpose of required reading? Who benefits? Or whom do we assume benefits? Penny Kittle has brilliant thinking around all of these issues in  Book Love. I will return to Kittles' pages this summer. I know she wrote about IB (or AP required reading), but I've lost the page and finding the reference takes a time without an index (not that I mind being sucked back into the story and losing myself in her words for a while). Summer gives me time to revisit favorites written by other high-school teachers too.

Several blog posts kept me thinking about required readings this year; Terri Lesesne's  "Counterproductive"  in response to "4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading."  top among them.

Lesesne succinctly captures the thinking of Christina H's post in four broad themes, rephrased here:
  1. Required reading does not motivate students to read.
  2. Required reading (often) stifles students' true opinions.
  3. Required reading is "rigorous" while popular reading is not.
  4. Required reading is not fun.
Rigor is what you do, not what you read. As Beers and Probst discuss in Notice and Note, rigor, like vigor, describes an action. I can approach any text with rigor. Like Lesesne I welcome students' opinions about a text (any text, required or not). I enjoy the richness and diversity of opinions we can share over a common text. I do not offer one reading or interpretation of a text, so I'm not the sort of teacher to stifle students' opinions or expect "parrot[ed]" responses. I can't take such black and white thinking into my IB classroom and survive the year.  But I can consider the arguments in each of Lesesne's captured themes and plan carefully with readers in mind.

As a high school English teacher I have to meet state, district and school demands. Sometimes curricular demands go as deep as to specify what texts or text types we must read. My school requires common texts at each grade level. Some grade levels teach two texts in common, some more. Every grade (9-12) requires summer reading. Most grade levels require students to read two books for summer reading: a required book and a choice book. Ninth graders  read Klass' Firestorm and a book of their choice. Tenth graders also have a choice book and their required read is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Eleventh grade A.P. language students were asked to read King's On Writing (for A.P.), Of Mice and Men (the grade level required text) and a memoir of their choosing (from a winnowed list) .IB students in ninth and tenth grades read the grade-level summer titles and are directed to make their choice books a classic.

We strive for balance. In real life we have reading requirements. In college we have reading requirements. There are several things I have to read that given the choice, I might avoid. Tax code comes immediately to mind as does a manual for anything television related. I know what it takes to grow and nurture readers. It is the most important thing I do as an English teacher. The book tide in my classroom testifies to readers' choices. Perhaps the next time someone winces when I confess to teaching high-school English, I'll share which books I've avoided and ask about the ones they left behind in high school: common ground, we all have it.

Yet. Yet. I have seen the value of reading a shared text: in movie theaters, in book club discussions, in students' twitter feeds.

I can't write off the shared work. I don't assign reading as much as students choose, but I do assign. Whether those required works are novels or short texts such as the an article of the week--a practice many teachers at my school adopted from Kelly Gallagher after reading Readicide--, we read works together. My ninth graders dipped into The Odyssey and my eleventh graders hunted fallacies in The Crucible, wore critical lenses to examine The Great Gatsby and analyzed rhetoric from numerous essays in 40 Model Essays . We shared Leonard Pitts' "Cruel as It Is, We Somehow Go On" and Pete Wells' "As Not Seen on TV" and many more articles and poems.

I can't write off the shared work and feel good about preparing students for a reading life. Teaching IB will require more requirements--that's my biggest fear anyway. As I read and reread to prepare this summer I'm looking for a way to balance: prescription and passion, recreation and requirement. No doubt, it will be challenging. Life demands all sorts of reading.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Honest Teens

J using  his exam review to guide his writing during our exam.
The school year is coming to an end. Students and I are reflecting on the work we've done. Teenagers are amazing: truthful, honest, quirky. To prepare for our final exam I return to students a few of the initial assessments we completed the first week of school. Teenagers love to think about where they are as people and as students. The first week of school I asked students to set priorities for themselves as students and people. This week they re-read their priorities and reflected on their progress toward them.

One students review what they wrote in August, they write me a letter. To guide students' thinking, I used a reflection question that Jennifer Ansbach shared with me: "Where are you now [in terms of your priorities]? How did you get there?" Students' writing made me cheer. One student, talking about our weekly Socratic discussions, said, "It took like a couple of months but now I am not afraid to talk in front of large groups. It was helpful to know that if I talked then no one would make fun of what I say because I was afraid of that." Another writes, "This year I have found a few books that I have truly been captured by and my reading and vocabulary has improved and grown. I have gotten to be this way mainly because of your persistent effort to make us read and record our reading," my teacher self does a happy dance: yes!

It is not about me though. Getting ninth graders to reflect on their work is about teaching them to take responsibility for their learning and to think critically about their own performance--to celebrate their accomplishments and recognize where they need to tweak or adjust  to improve.

Students are insightful. One writes, "It is my choice and  I will decide what is or isn't worth the effort. My teachers have influenced me greatly because of how enthusiastic or committed they are to their subject. It's almost contagious. I think that if someone is passionate about something their passion will rub off on others." Her passion for baking and Dr. Who certainly spread through fourth period this year,so much so that after she shared her citrus sugar cookies with me, I gifted her with a zester and we had quite the baking conversation/demonstration before class one day.

Students surprise themselves, "In the process of trying to get a good grade, I found the joy in reading." He surprised himself. Another student surprised me. His honest claim speak volumes, "I did not set my priorities straight and I am disappointed in myself for that." When I was a teenager my parents, I'm sure,  wished I would have been so forthright.

Students sometimes say things that disappoint me. One student set developing relationships with teachers and growing as a reader as a priority. She wrote, "How do I tell you were I'm at in terms of those priorities? I don't have any type of relationship with my teachers, but I did become more of a reader." It saddens me that she still feels disconnected at the end of the year and I have to look honestly at how I may have contributed to that.

Sometimes what disappoints me is a surprise. One student shows me she's internalized the scale from the new teacher evaluation protocols when she  writes, "I thought I was ready and prepared for anything that came my way. Truth be told, I wasn't. My priorities at the beginning of the year were to be able to study better and make new friends. On a scale of 1-5, I'm at a 3. I believe that I'm at a 3 because I learned how to study better but am still shy around new people." Scales are a tool for assessment and evaluation. Taken too far or used too often they have the potential to limit thinking.  I hope students see scales only as one tool of many--certainly some things are better measured by words and actions than by numbers and ratings.

It is nice when students recognize my efforts. One student wrote, "You push us to do more than we see in ourselves and although we complain and throw fits, in the end it's all for us." I'm so glad that this students sees the belief I have in students and their abilities. But just as often students say the opposite. Some see my expectations as "too high" or see my performance as not good enough. I had to laugh when one student wrote: "Honestly, you did okay as a person but for some one who has been doing it for 20 years you could do better." I can do better, but if I have created a thoughtful environment where this student feels comfortable and able to speak his mind, then I have succeeded. I have empowered my students and taught them that I value their voices. This particular student wasn't specific, so I'm not sure where I fell short in his eyes. I do know though, that while students may not see how or where I improve, I do.

My students take a reflective exam. In past years we had time to spend a week looking back at our work and using it as evidence on written self-evaluations. This year  I shortened the reflection. I gave the students an exam study guide the week before exams and we practiced by writing reflection letters. Students are prepared to reflect on their exams. I can't wait to read what they write.