Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Paper Elephants in the Classroom

A friend summarized the difference between short and long term solutions in the teaching of math. She said kids can fall into the trap of relying on tricks. The problem rests in the fact that the trick does not promote deep understanding. The student learns a work-around without understanding the content.

Credit: Asiatic elephant by Satoshi Kamiya
In ELA, I find myself feeling similarly about buzz words or phrases: hook your reader, writer's purpose, audience. While I understand what we mean when, as teachers, we present concepts to kids, our terminology can often turn into paper tigers. Well, maybe tiger is too strong. Maybe our words becomes more of a paper elephant in the classroom. Large and ineffective.

Each term hook your reader, purpose, audience remains vague to kids as a concept and unhelpful to kids when posed as advice: set your purpose; define an audience; etc. Often, our kids are left with one silent question: "How?"

Offering concrete examples of what writers do, and constantly returning to examples helps students focus on the moves made by writers. Seeing the strategy within an authentic newspaper, magazine, or text reinforces that these tools exists. Furthermore, teaching leads, or any aspect of organization, is ongoing and recursive because each new text opens new possibilities. 

Some of the more common and specific moves used when writing a lead:

  • striking image
  • startling fact
  • action!
  • dialogue
  • scene that sets the stage
  • intriguing question or quote
  • anecdote
  • summary of a problem

Take a look at the following leads. These are a small sample of what I pulled to discuss with my classes over the last week. Each image from the March 2016 edition of Teen Ink.

When I asked my students what they noticed in the first example, they noticed that the writer blended a summary of a problem with a scene that sets the stage. We don't have these terms memorized even though we have been working with them for several months. They are still displayed on the board. Students glance back and forth from the newspaper to the list before making a decision.

It is necessary to note that I use several interchangeable words for "problem" as in "summarize a problem." Writers might use a summary of a connection, a summary of an accomplishment, a summary of a solution, et al. Often, it is this element--the summary of a [problem]--that directs a reader towards an understanding of a writer's purpose. I don't need to say develop you writer's purpose. Most kids don't grasp the context of that word. Most need something more concrete. Without this brief summary, writing tends to plummet into narrative. As the writer risks writing a(n) (un)remarkable moments without much for the reader to hold onto, the writers risks allowing the reader to drifting away from the text, disconnected, uninterested.

Notice, in the second example, that we can point out the use of a dialogue blended with a summary of a problem. The dialogue is one of several ways in, but the path chosen by a writer always leads to a summary of something.

Currently, my students are wrestling adding this element--summary of [...]--to their writing. Through conferring, I understand that many are still writing to find their purpose--and this is ok. Actually, I prefer this method of writing to discover connections. Writing to make meaning. Writing to pull together fragments of life experiences, learning, and observations. 

I would rather a student write and write and write in order to make their own meaning than for students trained to write for my meaning, to my prompts or to the prompts of a textbook. Students trained to make widgets. Assembly line writing. Short term methods in lieu of deeper understanding. 

We do no one any favors when we focus on teaching the writing instead of teaching the writer. In other words, students can apply and adjust what they learn about leads to almost any writing or reading asked of them in school. 

Encouraging students to write to find their own meaning takes time. However, we can reclaim a lot of time by offering concrete moves. When students can refer to what they want to do by a specific term, instead of the blanket term (hook my reader) we are all positioned to help one another move and grow as writers with a long term understanding. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Margin Notes, Used Books

I'd read George Hillock's thoughts about writing and writing instruction in chunks. A chapter or essay here. An excerpt or quote there. 

An online seller shipped me Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice for a the cost of a cup of coffee. Bargain.

Inside, the margins are littered with notes. Sentences and phrases are underlined. At first, it felt like reading text through dirty glass. It distracted me. Sort of like someone muttering to me all throughout a film. Now, that dirty glass strikes me that it is closer to a bottle flung into the sea, and the margin notes are, well, my note--the message from the past.

As I began to fall into Hillock's line of reasoning, the notes in the margins become less distracting. I've come to see these notes as evidence of a person who was not a writer.  I recognize them because I have been there too. Maybe they were a teacher, maybe they were not. That is hard to glean. But I am fairly confident that I notice the questions and observations of a non-writer...which has made the experience of reading Hillocks, today, all the more fascinating.

The margin notes are still like someone muttering all throughout a film, but now it is like someone questioning and criticizing: "Oh, who would ever believe that! Nonsense. No one would ever be able to sneak onto the Titanic." 

I can feel the presence of an occasional Harumpf! and the shudder of a grouse in the brush.

For example, Hillocks writes, "...writing is a special craft that requires a trained professorate." The note in the margin asks, "How do you create or divine this?" 

A few pages later, Hillock writes, "The problem appears to be some combination of inadequate knowledge of what effective writing requires, absence of the strategies for producing it, and an assumption that 'people will know what I mean.'" And my margin-writer asks, "So what is the answer?"

Can I reach in through the text? If so, my hands would slip through time, grasp my new friend by the lapels, and shake him/her (gently) while pleading, "Write. At every turn of the page, and with every question you ask, the answer is almost always, write."

If it sounds like I am oversimplifying something, good. That is my intention. Sometimes, with good intentions, educators can turn obvious answers into a sticky taffy pull. 

It is as if we were hunting for light switches in windowless rooms where there is no electricity, only candles and flame. 

"There must be a switch somewhere."

There is no switch.

"Well, I'll just wait for a switch. Have one put in. There must be a way to put in a switch."

And we wait for switches when we, the teacher, have to strike matches. We have to touch flames to wicks. We have to come to a real, tangible, understanding of the work if we ever want to be able to teach by the light.

And so I am left wondering. How did this Hillocks book end up in my hands? Is the book like a bottle tossed into the sea? Was the person who scribbled all through this text...lost? Did they ever find the answer they were looking for?

Did they ever write?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Dumbest Places I've Been

I've been in some dumb places...all for some really good reasons.

Squeezed inside the back window ledge of 280ZX in 1986. I was 18. We were driving around (aimlessly) looking for girls. We weren't thinking of accidents. Or breaking laws. Or the driving being able to see. We were thinking about girls. 

Chilling on the iron posts, peering out of the opening in the middle of second "O" in the Hollywood sign. It was very late at night during the summer of 1990. Three of us, recent college graduates, climbed Mt. Lee in the Los Angeles with a couple of backpacks of beer. It just seemed like the coolest place to slug back some beers. We were from Philadelphia on job interviews. We weren't thinking about rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or it possibly being trespassing. Or falling.

Clinging to the iron pegs leading down (or out) of the sewer in Philadelphia. It was Philadelphia. I was a curious child. I'd heard there were alligators and giants rats in the sewer. I wanted to see. Two of us pried the heavy iron plate off of the sewer. And down I went. Quickly, I realized I wouldn't see much until I would be willing to climb all the way down to the bottom. Or until I would be willing to let go of the rungs. Or until I took my eyes from my hands and their death grip in the rungs. I was not willing.

The pursuit of girls, beers, and giant alligators makes males do stupid things...and it doesn't change much with age, ladies. It doesn't change much with age.