As we wrap up our Summer Blogstitute this week, we are happy to bring you an exclusive sneak peek of Cris Tovani’s new video, Talk to Me. In this 90-minute DVD, you can follow Cris as she confers with Irving and guides him to access and connect his background knowledge, or as she buckles down with Israel and helps him grow his vocabulary and develop a sense of text structure. Throughout fourteen conferences with individual students and five group conferences (ninety minutes of classroom footage), Cris differentiates her instruction to meet her adolescent readers’ and writers’ needs by listening to, learning about, and connecting with her students. Watch what happens when she sits next to a student, engages him or her eye-to-eye, and simply says, “Talk to me.”
This is your last week to comment on any Blogstitute post and be one of three winners to receive a package of five Stenhouse books of your choice. You can also purchase Cris’ new video — as well as videos and and books written by this year’s Blogstitute authors (Peter Johnston, Mark Overmeyer, Kimberly Hill Campbell, Kristi Lattimer, Jeff Anderson, Cris Tovani, Debbie Diller, Chris Confer, and Marco Ramirez) and receive a 20% discount and free shipping by using code BLOG by August 30.
In the final written post for our Summer Blogstitute, Peter Johnston (Choice Words, Opening Minds) shares the results of a study he conducted and asks us to ponder important questions about the amount of instruction students receive, the level of engagement with the text they read and with each other, and what this all means for teachers, students, and schools in the era of Common Core Standards.
Be sure to check out the discussion of Peter’s book Opening Minds during an ongoing CyberPD event that will culminate in a Twitter chat on Thursday, July 26.
Tune in next week for the final week of the Blogstitute when you will have the chance to preview three video clips from upcoming DVDs by Cris Tovani, Chris Confer and Marco Ramirez, and Debbie Diller.
Powerful instruction — powerful engagement
What would happen if, rather than focusing on teaching reading strategies, we focused instead on getting students engaged? I can tell you what happened in four eighth-grade classrooms. At the beginning of the year, the teachers simply introduced their students to a range of edgy young adult fiction and told them to read what they liked, no strings attached—no book reports, comprehension questions, or other controlling strategies, and less teaching in front of the class—but there were only one to three copies of each book.
What happened? The students read like crazy (averaging forty-two books each in the first year). They pushed themselves to read complex texts. They began talking about their books—with peers (including those they would not previously have imagined talking with), with teachers, with parents and family, at home, in school, and in class. They sat up in bed and texted each other about books. Talking about books at lunch became normal, not nerdy.
All these conversations about personally and morally complex issues changed relationships—among students and with family members. Trust increased. Behavior problems decreased. According to students, parents, and teachers, students became more open, less judgmental, more responsible, more empathic, more mature, more thoughtful about and in control of their own futures, and happier—yes, happier! I know that being happier isn’t part of the Common Core Standards, but shouldn’t it be? The teachers were happier too, and, isn’t that important, given that a recent MetLife Survey showed that in the past two years the percentage of teachers who report being very satisfied with their work dropped from 59 to 44, and those thinking of leaving the profession rose from 17 percent to 29 percent? Oh, and—I almost forgot to mention—the students’ test scores also increased, and more of them passed the state test. But really, that’s just gravy, unless you consider the happiness of the administrators and the school board members (we didn’t think to gather those data, though).
This is a summary of a well-documented study that my colleague Gay Ivey and I recently completed. It is only one study, but it involves a lot of students, it has been replicated, and it is consistent with a bunch of other research, so I think it raises a lot of questions. For example, what does it mean that students learned more with about half as much in-front-of-the-class teaching (which students could ignore if they were engaged in a book)? How should we weigh these changes in student development relative to achievement on state tests? How should we think about the absence of these achievements from the Common Core Standards? What does it mean when apparently reducing instruction but focusing on engagement actually increases the breadth and depth of achievement? What does it mean that, with only one to three copies of any particular book in a classroom, students manage to share common reading experiences and, over time, common books? What does it mean that students were reading mostly narrative fiction yet were more successful on the state test, which is largely about nonfiction? What does it mean that, because there are only two or three copies of a book, students keep track of exactly who has read each book so that they can talk about it with them—even if they don’t really know them yet—and thus get to know each other in deeper and more personal ways, expanding their circle of friends? What does it mean that these are aspects of mental health, protective factors against high-risk drug, alcohol, and sexual behaviors, and depression?
A recent study by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby showed that, when people are fully engaged in a book, they lose their sense of self and take up residence in the characters. When that happens, they become changed in some of the ways our eighth graders were changed. But they have to be fully engaged—essentially “lost in the book”—which requires that the book be personally relevant and probably means that reading for twenty minutes won’t do it. What does this mean in the context of efforts in the name of the Common Core Standards to displace the amount of narrative text students read with nonfiction?
In the context of these studies and current increases in teacher-student ratios, we might also ponder the question, When does less instruction from a teacher actually improve learning—or, what makes instruction powerful besides the sheer volume of it? How important is collaboration among (and, hence, purposeful assistance from) peers? Does the relationship between student and teacher make a difference—particularly who is in control of the learning? Might what students are doing when teachers are not teaching them matter more than what they are doing when than when they are with the teachers?
Ponder these questions in the course of your summer reading. I will be.
If you participated in last year’s Blogstitute, you might remember Maureen Barbieri’s post about her unlikely writing group. This year Maureen agreed to write about her group again and talk about how a place can shape our writing.Have you had a chance to visit a new place and write about it this summer? Share with us in the comments section!
Loving the Landscape
In her beautiful book Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels’s characters have to move to another country. The older man comforts the boy, who is reluctant to leave what has become home to him, with these words: “If you have learned to love one landscape, you will learn to love another.” It was this line that my NYU students inscribed in the book they gave me as a farewell present when I left New York four years ago. Missing my beloved city, I have tried to keep the lesson in mind. And Maine is a gorgeous landscape indeed.
We are surrounded by water here on Cutts Island. I wake up to the sound of waves and, in the spring, birdsong. Every day, wherever I go, I pass the Atlantic Ocean, Chauncey Creek, and Pepperrell Cove. If I’m heading to the University of New Hampshire, I peer over at the white church steeple in Portsmouth, from high atop the I-95 bridge, which spans the Piscataqua River. I proceed across Great Bay on my way into Durham. Sun, rain, or fog, I am grateful.
Last summer my writing group and I took a ferry ride over to Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, to spend the day wandering and writing. We strolled around examining the wildlife and the old buildings, trying to imagine who had walked there hundreds of years ago. It is a timeless place, and we found it easy to let our imaginations run wild. Beth sat next to an old tombstone and mused about the short life of the woman buried there. Had there been a love affair? Were the winters brutal, with the waves crashing and the wind howling? Was the loneliness hard to endure?
The beauty and quiet of Star slowed us down. We loved the big old hotel, of course, with its wide wraparound porch. We sat on the rockers and listened to the slap of the water on the rocks and the shouts of children playing soccer. (Eavesdropping, we realize, is an essential skill for writers.) Meandering around to the back of the hotel, we watched teenage employees throw freshly folded towels into the waiting arms of their colleagues, who were leaning out of windows, two and three stories up. Then from the gazebo came the lilting sounds of a trumpet, unexpected but somehow appropriate.
We wrote about all of it, the gulls and the driftwood, the sound of dishes being stacked in the kitchen, and the trumpet music. We wrote about how fast our lives move these days and how hard it is to lose people. We wrote about circles, moving away from homes we’d loved and coming back, only “to know the place for the very first time.” On the ferry ride home, we shared what we had written and felt that deep satisfaction derived from taking a chance and being surprised at what emerges.
It was such a memorable writing day that we’ve decided to make it an annual excursion, already looking forward to what we’ll write this summer when we go again. There is something seductive about the place, that particular outcropping of rock, jutting out of the sea as it does, with the rose hips wild and rampant everywhere you look. The weathered old cottages and the little stone church seem testament to fortitude and courage, invitations to speculate, to consider possibilities.
Always hoping for inspiration, our group went to hear Anna Quindlen speak recently at the Portsmouth Music Hall. She had us laughing and cheering and blinking back tears. She’s been writing for more than thirty years and told stories about her work at the New York Times and Newsweek, about raising her three children, about her girlfriends, about growing older and not minding too much. But mostly she talked about being a writer. She told us that if she hadn’t been writing, she wasn’t sure she would have survived the days in New York right after September 11, 2001. Writing, of course, is the way we cope with whatever happens. As I listened, I realized what a quintessential New Yorker she is. Living there has shaped her, given her moxie, wisdom, and grace. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,she writes, “I came to live in the city that seems to suit my metabolism the way hot fudge suits vanilla ice cream.”
And we have come, wherever we are right now, to our own place. We become part of it, and it becomes part of us, part of our consciousness. This is our moment to take notice, to attend to what’s going on around us. Is the foxglove early this year? Is that really a bird’s nest under the drier vent? Is the paint on the barn peeling already?
Celia Thaxter planted gardens on another of the Isles of Shoals, Appledore, and Childe Hassam went with her to paint and capture its splendor. When her gardens were flourishing, Celia wrote poems. Like those two old souls, my friends and I try to pay attention, to notice, and to celebrate being here, being together. I remember Annie Dillard’s admonition, “You were put here for this, to give voice to your own astonishment.” I want us to continue to be astonished.
As I bid goodbye to the elementary schoolchildren I’ve worked with all year, I remind them to read lots of books—we make lists—but I also ask them to do some writing. Will they travel over the summer? If so, I hope they’ll jot down their impressions in journals I’ve given them. How is Ohio different from Maine? What do they notice about the people in Quebec City? What kinds of flowers are indigenous to Idaho in July?What is it they want to remember about this new place? I tell them about postcards, how people love to hear specific details about particular places: “Don’t say, ‘Wish you were here’ and let that be all; share something you’ve noticed. No detail is too small. Tell about the place.”
We have all stared at a blank notebook page or computer screen for hours, waiting for divine inspiration to hit. Or even worse, avoided even sitting down to write. In this week’s Blogstitute post, Jeff encourages all of us — teachers, students, wannabe writers — to put “ass in chair” and get those first awkward, rambling words on the page.
How do you help your students — or yourself — get over the fear of writing? Share your thoughts in the comments section — three lucky commenters will win a package of five Stenhouse books at the end of the Blogstitute.
A writer in motion stays in motion
When I started writing my latest book, 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know (Stenhouse, 2011), I came up with the title first. Then I went back and worked for four years on figuring out what the ten essential “things” were, and how I could create a space in my classroom where these writing behaviors would flourish and become a part of my students forever. To this end, I mined my experience as a teacher and a writer, and those of others through casual conversation and reading what writers say about their process.
The list changed several times, but I knew, somehow, some way, one truth had to make its way into this book. The big truth is that most writers doubt themselves and only get anything done by just diving in and beginning to write.
Seems rather obvious, I know. Most wisdom is.
From Donald Murray saying the secret is simply putting “ass in chair” to every other writer’s advice about having the courage to begin to Peter Elbow’s insistence that we have to be okay with writing some garbage to get to the good stuff, the only secret is to eke out or feverishly spill those first words on the page. This is the only way to leap past doubt, slam some clay on the potter’s wheel, and make something.
We can and will keep shaping it, but the only way to shape is to first have something to shape. However “wrong” it looks, keep writing. Even this blog entry became something to conquer. I was putting it off. It was due last week. I knew it was, but I let the busyness of life be my excuse. In reality, it wasn’t going to be completed until I started it. So, here I am still learning about the first of the ten things every writer needs to know: “A writer in motion stays in motion.”
So how do I bring this idea of motion to my writing process classroom? While I can certainly share my experiences as a writer—procrastinating, doubting, waiting for inspiration—the only real way I can teach my students is to have them experience, from the inside out, what it feels like to leap over the void of doubt, to actually experience the magic of more words coming the moment they start scratching a few down on the page or typing them on the keyboard.
Many writers and writing teachers share the value of timed writings to get themselves or their students in motion. My students’ favorite comes from longtime educator and researcher Leif Fearn. This is the first writing activity my students actually begged me to do, and, as it turns out, this writing experience is the best way to show kids—through experience—that they can conquer the blank page or screen.
Fearn’s power-writing activity is built around a simple process.
Students are presented with two words—any two words—and are asked to choose one they will use once when they write.
Once students choose a word, the teacher tells the students, “Write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can, in one minute.”
Students write for one minute. At the end of the minute, the teacher says, “Lift your pencil in the air, count the number of words that you have written, draw a line under what you wrote, and record the number of words under the line.”
On a table or chart that students can see, the teacher records the number of words the students have written as a class. “How many of you wrote 0–10 words?” (Continue with 11–20, 21–30, and so on.)
Repeat this process for two more rounds, having students choose from two new words each time.
In this way, power writing not only develops fluency, it also helps students see that once they start writing, more words really do come. And something about the challenge or the competition with themselves makes the students actually want to write more.
Though I know that thinking in our classrooms takes time, setting a limit can also help students see their unlimited potential. This isn’t the only writing activity that works; it’s just one that warms students up and keeps them going when doubt creeps in.
If you’re interested in more information on motion or power writing, see the free preview chapter from my book. Even more important, instead of reading this blog, ask yourself if there’s something you are being called to write. Sit down, open up a Word doc or your notebook, and, for goodness’ sake, write.
Our Blogstitute continues this week with a post by Kristi Latimer and Kimberly Hill Campbell, authors of Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. They share how using group discussions and a collaborative essay assignment energized class discussions and elevated student essays while teaching the novel The Awakening.
What do you think it was about the group assignment that had such an impact on students’ level of engagement with the novel? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Success with the Collaborative Essay
In Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay, Kimberly Campbell and I discuss the possibilities offered by collaborative student writing. I decided to experiment with this form recently when teaching The Awakening to a class of International Baccalaureate seniors. In past years, I had always found this book a difficult “sell” for students. Although most students in the room embraced the challenge of analyzing a classic text, they disliked the protagonist and thought that, because the plot was easily understandable, they could dismiss the text and avoid digging below the surface to find meaning. Class discussion stagnated, and writing was shallow.
I had always thought that The Awakening lent itself to analytical writing more than any other novel I taught in that class. I assumed that, because the plot was understandable, students could spend their energy discussing the significance of key events and characters. So, this year, I decided to experiment. I crafted a unit plan ending in a collaborative essay, hoping that the structure of assigning both a motif to track and a group to work with would enable them to connect their comprehension to a specific stylistic aspect and then push their thinking as they discussed their discoveries. I am happy to report that more students than ever “liked” the novel. More important, this essay and their collaboration challenged—and rewarded—them as writers much more than I could have anticipated. In short, this unit felt like the best teaching I have done all year and resulted in the best essays they had yet written.
Kimberly Hill Campbell
To set up the unit, I assigned students to groups and gave each group one of the following motifs to track: eyes and hands, music, literal sleep and waking, light/dark, houses and rooms, clothing, and birds and wings. Students received a calendar that outlined approximately thirty pages of reading each night. During reading they would tab passages that contained their motif, and before class they were to write one paragraph explaining how, in that particular section of reading, their motif connected to one of Edna’s “awakenings” (understanding her role as a wife and mother, becoming an artist, becoming a sexual being, becoming an intellectual). I delivered a writing mini-lesson during each class, and students revised other group members’ paragraphs using what they learned. The mini-lessons focused on such topics as varying sentence structure, incorporating strong verbs, and incorporating quotations. By the end of the novel, each student had written five paragraphs; depending on the size of each group, they now had between fifteen and twenty paragraphs from which to draw as they moved toward constructing the final essay. (See assignment sheet.)
During this unit, I took attendance, delivered the mini-lesson, and then wandered from group to group discussing the novel. The vast majority of the time, group members kept each other on task, discussing their findings and analyzing Edna’s plight. They revised enthusiastically. It felt magical: their discussions were not guided by me but by their own reading and writing. I wondered what, ultimately, was the source of the magic in the classroom. Was it the joy of working with a group? The clarity of the writing and reading assignments? The scaffolding? In a class where students often fear being “wrong,” they had enough structure in the reading to find something meaningful but also enough freedom to determine their own arguments. I can say with confidence that it wasn’t the text. Kids have loathed this novel in the past—this year, their discussions were lively, confident, and complex.
The final essays were, by far, the best writing I had read from students all year. Simply transitioning from paragraph to paragraph and making sure the thesis was reflected in the entire essay posed an enormous challenge for them. Yet something about group work and constant revision helped them deepen their arguments. What’s more, the sacred cow of teaching analytical writing appeared: their papers had voice! One group, assigned the motif of birds and wings, wrote about Edna’s need to “molt” societal expectations and about the dangers of Alcee Arobin, her lover, who was nothing but a shallow songbird (a robin). Another group, digging deep into the implications of eyesight, perception, and identity, eventually researched developments in optics in the early twentieth century and connected those scientific discoveries to the novel. I have never smiled so much while reading student analysis.
For those of you wondering if this assignment will apply to other levels of language arts teaching, I answer with an emphatic “yes.” I had great success using a similar approach with Of Mice and Men in a freshman English class. The group structure provided an excellent opportunity for differentiation. Rather than tracking motif, students followed one character throughout the novel. I considered students’ range of abilities and levels of excitement about reading, and assigned characters accordingly. Novice readers tracked Lennie or George; more expert readers tracked Slim or Crooks. They still wrote paragraphs for every day of reading and revised each other’s work in class in response to writing mini-lessons. They shared ideas with a group of students who were assigned the same character, and at times they “taught” kids in different groups about their assigned character.
Ultimately, these unit plans facilitated and supported close reading, group discussion, clear goals for writing revision, and confident, creative voice in analytical student writing.