Posts filed under 'Writing'

Why I Write with My Students

To celebrate the National Day on Writing and the upcoming month of NaNoWriMo, we invited Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg, author of The Author’s Apprentice, to share why she writes WITH her students, instead of just assigning writing TO them. Her response is powerful.

Why I Write with My Students
By Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

Let’s start here: #WhyIWrite.

I am a writer at heart. I grew up writing stories and poems. As a teenager, I wrote to escape things that were going on in my life—or to celebrate them (or that cute upperclassman in my German class who finally noticed me!). I often wrote it out to make sense of the world and my place in it. I wrote of social justice in my community, and educational equity for the kids who were in lower-level classes than I. Sometimes, though, I simply wrote what was on my heart.

No wonder I became an English teacher.

When I ask my students at the beginning of the year why they write, I generally get one of two responses:
• The high-achieving, teacher-pleasers will comment that it is a necessary form of civilized communication, yada…yada…
• The honest ones answer: “Because the teacher makes me.”

Vicki
For most of my students, writing is not their first love (or their second, or anywhere near the top ten). Although all are fantastically savvy and creative with their memes and eighty-character-or-less “Insta-Snaps,” (my pet name for all of those social media outlets), very few would consider themselves writers. Even if they do send several hundred Snaps a day.

Any published author will tell you that writing–the actual act of pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard writing—is terribly lonely. And that is coming from professional folks who presumably love to write. I can’t fathom how incredibly lonely each independent writing assignment must feel for a student who has never had success in this content area… the one who struggles to get his ideas straight in his head before he can write a single word… the one whose inner editor has already told her that whatever she writes will never be good enough.

I’ve witnessed firsthand, students sitting there, sweating, watching their classmates plow ahead while they continue to get left behind. I am sure that all of you can identify these struggling writers in your own classrooms.

Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition.

An African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?

That’s #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents.

As of the day I wrote this post, I found that the above is not an actual trending hashtag. (Although, I think it should be.) Of course, #WhyIWrite is the hashtag that accompanies the National Day on Writing on October 20 (NDOW). What if we used this day to commit to developing our young writers by writing with them, as opposed to assigning writing to them?

The beautiful thing about the timing of NDOW is that with a bit of preparation, it can serve as the perfect springboard from a day on writing to a month of writing, together.

I am talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you have not done NaNoWriMo with a class yet, you are missing out on an incredible opportunity to build your own fierce, “I’ve-got-your-back” community of writers for November and beyond. I have yet to discover anything as powerful for helping all students rise with the tide, and build English class camaraderie. Sharing this common writing experience by participating in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program (www.ywp.nanowrimo.org) is a life-changing, writing-affirming experience for students and teachers alike. Taking the time on October 20th to introduce your class to this epic challenge is a perfect way to honor our students and National Day on Writing.

Throughout the month of November, we join together in word-sprints to build fluency of thought and writing. We share our favorite written lines or passages each week, to show how our inner muses are naturally incorporating the grammar, writer’s crafts and figures of speech that we learned in class. We show our vulnerability and encourage each other in the classroom and online at the end of week two, when we all struggle with writer’s block because none of our characters wants to cooperate with the story arcs we had in mind. We celebrate word-count milestones and offer support and suggestions for those who have petered out.

Doing this together makes us all stronger—as writers, and as a genuine community of learners.

While a specific word count is a personal goal, we strive as a class to meet milestones. Whether a student’s ten percent milestone is 500 or 5,000 words, students of all ability levels celebrate these accomplishments together. For this month, all writers are encouraged to “turn off their inner editors” and write unapologetically without fear of red correction marks. By simply sharing a common space and writing together, all students develop confidence and fluency in writing and thought that transfers seamlessly into future assignments and other content areas.

It is already mid-October, but it is not too late. Here are two options for helping you develop that prized writing community this fall:
Option 1 (the Writing Rebel’s approach): Abandon your curriculum for the month, and dive head first into this community of writers thing! The Young Writer’s Program of National Novel Writing Month has done a fantastic job putting together comprehensive workbooks that students can print or complete online. They have listed all of the Common Core connections, so you can easily justify this madness to your supervisors.

Option 2 (the Sensible Writing-Teacher-Who-Has-A-Ton-of-Material-to-Cover approach): Look at your curriculum. Then, take a look at the NaNoWriMo Workbook for your grade level. Think about places where the two naturally align. Are you planning to, or have you already studied characterization, conflict or plot structure? NaNoWriMo made it easy to bridge your curriculum with their well-designed lesson plans. When you are studying mood and tone, denotation and connotation, and even irony and symbolism, or imagery and figures of speech, it is more impactful when your reading and analysis lessons are incorporated into their writing. (For more explicit lessons for intertwining your existing curricula with National Novel Writing Month, check out The Author’s Apprentice.)

All students deserve to have a positive experience before they move on to the next grade. Every child needs to know what it feels like to write through something with their classmates, so that they can appreciate what it feels like to be on the other side of it, together. When we intentionally design our curriculum based on common experiences, rather than common assessments, everyone succeeds.

The top ten reasons #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents:
10. to show vulnerability
9. to share a bit of myself
8. to share my passion
7. to show that it is healthy, normal, & part of the process to make mistakes
6. to learn about my students, their process and their world
5. to show how much I value my students and the assignments I ask them to complete
4. because 30 brains are better than one
3. because writing can be lonely if you are alone
2. to build a true community of writers
1. to build a community of learners who help each other succeed in all things

Who’s ready to accept the challenge? Let’s get this hashtag trending: #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents

1 comment October 17th, 2017

Reading like a writer

Ruth Culham, author of Dream Wakers and The Writing Thief, dropped by our office recently and she took the time to teach a lesson on reading like a writer (featuring Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel Campoy), followed by strategies to practice student writing in varied modes, such as narrative, informational, and opinion.

 

Add comment October 2nd, 2017

A praise, a ponder, and a polish

Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty’s new book, A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Writers with Formative Assessment arrived in our warehouse today. We thought we’d give you a quick peek inside the book and in this guest blog post Lynne and Diane talk about how they are using videos with A Closer Look and specifically how one video highlights the important role students play in their own assessment.

A praise, a ponder, and a polish
By Lynne R. Dorfman & Diane Esolen Dougherty

When we imagined our new book, A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Writers with Formative Assessment, with our editor, Bill Varner, we all agreed that it should be practical, useful, and easy to read. After all, assessment is a difficult topic to tackle, even if we focused on everyday, ongoing assessments.  Then we had an idea that changed everything: What if we could include more than a dozen short video clips that teachers could view in school, at home, or sitting on the beach?  Bill liked the idea, and with permissions from four different schools, our classroom snapshots came to life!

Goal Setting ChartWe share peer conferences, one-on-one conferences, small group, and whole group conferences in our book through descriptions in the running text and in QR codes. The one we would like to share with you today is a goal-setting conference that occurred in Kolleen Bell’s kindergarten classroom in early spring. Kolleen had spent several months looking through her students’ writing journals and taking notes about skills and strategies she felt they needed and could accomplish with some instruction and gentle nudges.  Every month or so, Kolleen would suggest three possible goals, post them on an easel, and ask her kindergarten students to write their names on sticky notes and place them next to the goal they wanted to work on for the next week or so.  We were amazed that kindergarteners knew exactly what they needed. They didn’t look to see where their best friend had placed his sticky note, they made a decision based on their own writing (See Figure 1 Goal Setting Chart).

In Harper’s conference, Kolleen offered a praise, a ponder, and a polish. Harper had written about her mom’s interview at the Intermediate School. First, Kolleen asked Harper what goal she wanted to work on and then checked for understanding. Did Harper know what adding more details to her writing really meant? She asked Harper to explain in her own words. We thought that was a great beginning.

Harper read her piece to Kolleen, and then Kolleen summarized Harper’s story after she read it aloud. Here is a chance for the student writer to say that something important was omitted or that the reader (listener) misunderstood something.  Harper did not challenge Kolleen, so Kolleen proceeded to praise Harper for her use of an exclamation mark to show excitement and then asked a question that Harper readily answered.  Harper added more details to her writing to clear up the confusion. Sometimes, the ponder really does become the polish.

Kolleen knew that Harper was an exceptional writer for her age and stage, so she offered a polish that became Harper’s new goal. Sometimes, a writer ends a piece of writing with what he (the writer) or the main character in the story is thinking and feeling. Harper added a sentence to reveal her excitement as a way to close her story. In future writing workshop sessions, Kolleen checked in with Harper to see if she could apply a sense of ending through the strategy of offering the character’s final thinking or emotion.

Goal setting conferences are a solid way to involve each student in the assessment process and differentiate instruction. It calls for the development of a writer’s identity – that is, where the student writer reflects on what he needs to do to move forward as a writer. If our students can begin to do this in kindergarten, imagine what they will be able to do by the time they are in fifth grade!

 

Add comment September 22nd, 2017

The power of using student writing as mentor texts

“Nothing motivates like peer models,” says Janiel Wagstaff, author of the recent book We Can Do This! Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire. In this guest post she shares one example of how a peer model influenced other writers in the classroom.

The Power of Using Student Writing as Peer Mentor Texts for Teaching:  One Story
by Janiel Wagstaff

A funny thing happened one day in a first grade classroom.  The students were writing opinions about somethin g they would like to see changed in the school, in their classroom, at home, or anywhere they felt change was needed.  As I was circulating, checking in with writers, acknowledging the positive aspects of their writing, Colby’s conclusion caught my eye.

MentorText_pg 126

I asked all writers to stop and give me their attention as I read Colby’s short piece aloud.  When I came to the ending, I read it once, then twice.  “Writers, what do you think of this conclusion?”  Many students starting laughing, then talking about whether or not they like milk with their lunch.  “See, writers, these few words, ‘Who’s with me?’ catch your attention and get you to think about whether or not you agree with Colby’s opinion.  Seems like a good way to end an opinion piece, after all when we write opinions, we want to share them to see what people think.”

Within two minutes, Brenna had borrowed Colby’s language and ended her piece very similarly.

MentorText_pg 127

I read Brenna’s work aloud, as well.  “Writers, this is fascinating!  One writer comes up with something that works, we share and talk about it, and other writers are inspired to do the same or something similar in their pieces.  Let’s talk about Brenna’s opinion.  Who is with her or against the idea expressed in her opinion?”

After a brief discussion, again within just moments of resuming writing, Kiana’s conclusion showed the mark of also being highly influenced by Colby’s model.  She ended her piece with, “Isn’t that funny?;”  a short three-word sentence begging response from the reader or listener.

What occurred among these first grade writers within these few minutes?  The power of peer models had once again done its magical work.  There is no denying the effect peer models have; there is just something special about a peer’s work that immediately catches students’ attention and propels them to try similar moves in their writing.  I think of it as the, “Well, I can do that, too!” mindset.  The subconscious thinking might be, “If someone like me can do it, this is within my reach.”  Given such affirmation, students confidently take more risks in their writing.

Opportunities abound for using the writing we have right at our fingertips; that is, the writing of our own students, for explicit instruction about skills, strategies, writing elements, and craft moves.  Indeed, the following day, I more formally revisited Colby and Brenna’s pieces, pointing out under the document camera how conclusions should have purpose.  We started a poster to collect examples of purposeful endings, reminding students to ‘read like writers,’ (Calkins, 1994) with eyes wide open to find the gems within the texts we read.

Having perused all the students’ opinion writing, I noticed there was one more teaching point that had immediate relevance.  Many students’ pieces could be improved if they elaborated on the reason for their opinions.  I asked Kiana if we could use her piece under the document camera and work on it cooperatively to explore a question about her reason.  She eagerly agreed, as I find students almost always do, and another teaching point was born of student writing.  When we read her piece aloud, I asked, “Writers, what question do we naturally want to ask Kiana?”  A sea of hands shot up.  Calvin answered, “Why?  Why don’t you like your seat?”  His classmates shook their heads, “Yes, why?”  I jumped in, “We naturally want to know more about her reason, ‘I don’t like where I sit.’  ‘Well, why don’t you?’  If you and Kiana were having a conversation, you would ask her that.  So, let’s ask her, since ultimately we want to know and knowing this will make Kiana’s opinion clearer and stronger.”

Kiana sample 1

When Kiana replied, ‘Taller kids sit in front of me,’ we worked to find a logical place in her writing where she could add this elaboration.  I reminded students how to use a carat, Kiana worked her piece right in front of them, then I invited them to go back and reread their piece to a partner to see if there were opportunities to make this kind of addition.  Naturally, I circulated, celebrated on the spot, and the next day, we used another peer’s writing to more formally point out how the process of rereading to a partner and asking questions helped the writer improve his piece.  All the students had invested; all were interested and engaged.

Kiana sample 2 copy

Using peer models for instruction creates a palpable sense of excitement within the classroom writing community.  Highlighting students’ pieces in this way helps them feel valued and celebrated, like their voices and their processes matter.  This boosts student-confidence and energy levels.  “When students see others like themselves taking risks in their writing, persevering, problem-solving, crafting and succeeding, they become empowered.  The models reassure them that they, too, are writers with important ideas to share and the ability to write well.  They, too, can do this.” (Wagstaff, 2017)

Let’s take one last look at these first graders’ texts.  Are they perfect?  No.  Do they meet the standards for first grade opinion writing?  Yes, the elements of opinion writing had been introduced prior and we even pushed beyond them where it was logical to do so (elaborating on our reasons).  More importantly though, they are the students’ owned expressions and they served to stimulate conversation about their thinking and writing processes.  When we use students’ pieces as mentors, we’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking to simply learn from one another, while celebrating approximation.

In the end, a “funny thing” really didn’t happen in this first grade classroom.  I’ve been using students’ writing as mentor texts for years.  It is one of my primary “go-to” strategies for writing instruction because of its many benefits.  The increased engagement along with the students’ empowerment not only boost learning and growth in writing, but drive the purposefulness and genuine caring in the writing community.  This is a place where students want to be.  This is a place where students grow stronger together spurred on by the magic of one another’s words on the page.

 

We Can DoThisLearn much more about using students’ writing as peer mentor texts in Janiel’s book: We Can Do This: Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire, K-2.  It contains the work of student writers across genres, with over 70 critical teaching points that commonly occur in K-2 writing classrooms.  Janiel also shares keen insight into how to use your own students’ work as mentor texts along with pointers from her career-long work with young writers.

References:  Calkins, L.M. (1994).  The art of teaching writing.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Wagstaff, J.M. 92017).  We can do this! Student mentor texts that teach and inspire.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Add comment August 31st, 2017

Blogstitute 2017: Revision Rx

In the next post in our Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute series, Ruth Culham, the author of The Writing Thief and Dream Wakers, has a little writing and revision assignment for you. Follow along as she revises a short paragraph and invites you to practice and play along this summer. Tell us how your revision process worked in the comments or on Twitter (#blogstitute17).

Revision Rx
Ruth Culham

News Release:

ruthculhamThe prescription for what ails writers about revision is now available as an over-the-counter remedy. Once accessible to a precious few, it’s no longer a high-priced prescription drug. Now all writing teachers and their students can help themselves anytime they wish. Available in six different flavors (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions), you can match taste preferences to individual writers to treat writing maladies of concern.

Introducing: The New and Improved Traits of Writing. This solution to common complaints of many writing teachers and students has been around for over thirty years, but now, thanks to new research and design, the traits have been recompounded to cure the revision blues. And best of all, they are free. Just visit : www.culhamwriting.com, and help yourself. Dosages for children as well as adults are clearly listed.

Warning:  Writers who go long periods of time without reading may need a bigger initial dose for full effect. Tell a colleague immediately if you or any of your students experience extended periods of continuous writing that last more than 24 hours. Do not take this remedy unless you are fully prepared to write better and more often.

***

It’s true, you know. The prescription to cure writing maladies is revision with the traits of writing in mind. Knowing how to break each down into just-right dosages can make all the difference in your writing instruction. Here’s something to try this summer while you are thinking about next year and how you will approach revision with students.

  1. Write a short paragraph on a topic of your choosing. Maybe it’s an anecdote about something interesting that’s already happened this summer; maybe it’s something you are curious about and have googled so you can learn more; maybe it’s an opinion you want to express about something you feel strongly about. It doesn’t matter the topic, just write something—rough, raw, and not smoothed over at all.

Here’s mine:

It’s harder and harder to go to bed early now that it’s light so long. Instead, I go outside with my neighbors outside on my patio and talk while the sun sets and quiet comes over my condo group . . . day slowly turning into night. It is peaceful. It is happy. Summer nights are my favorite time of the year. 

  1. Download the Grades 3–12 traits of writing Scoring Guides from the Library section of my website: culhamwriting.com.
  2. Pick one of the traits, any one: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency.  (Not conventions, though. That’s an editing trait, and we’re trying out an idea for revision here.) Read the definition for that trait at the top of the page.
  3. Look at the four key qualities for that trait and pick one–just one. For example, if you are looking at word choice, notice:
  • Applying Strong Verbs
  • Selecting Striking words and Phrases
  • Using Specific and Accurate Words
  • Choosing Words That Deepen Meaning
  1. Read the criteria for an Exceptional/Strong piece of writing in that Key Quality only. For example: Apply Strong Verbs: The writer uses many “action words,” giving the piece punch and pizzaz. He or she has stretched to find lively verbs that add energy to the piece.
  2. Turn back to your initial draft and look at it critically to revise for strong verbs. Highlight the verbs you want to focus on, then cross out any you can improve, reword, and add new ones. Don’t recopy¾just work on one thing; this is what I call Squeeze it Once and Let it Go.

It’s harder and harder to go head off to bed early now that it’s light so long. I go hang out with my neighbors outside on my patio and talk chat while the sun sets and quiet comes settles over my condo group . . .  day slipping into night. Peaceful. Happy. If only summer nights could linger longer.  

Or . . .

It’s harder and harder to go head off to bed early now that it’s light so long. I go hang out with my neighbors outside on my patio and talk chat while the sun sets and quiet comes settles over my condo group . . . day slowly turning slipping into night. Peaceful. Happy. If only summer nights could linger longer. 

  1. Put your piece aside in a Writing Wallet, which is a simple manila folder that holds some key drafts of writing, and stop for now. Another writing day, you can pick a different Key Quality of word choice or a different trait completely, and take a fresh look at your draft through the lens of a new Key Quality. Meanwhile, you can write something new and add it to the Writing Wallet for future revision practice, too.

FYI:  Notice I replaced verbs that add energy to the piece, but because revision is never in a simple box, I wound up changing a few lines to smooth them out, too, as I was focusing on the verbs. Focusing on one trait can lead to revising in another. In this case, the sentence fluency improved, too, as I revised for strong verbs. A happy turn of events.

The result of this focused activity is revision.  Real revision.  Not just neatening up the text and applying editing conventions so it is readable, but changing the text to make it clearer and more dynamic–one Key Quality of a trait at a time.

Think of the possibilities.  Once you have a Writing Wallet that contains some pieces of practice writing, you can turn to mentor texts such as those in my books The Writing Thief and Dream Wakers as sources for evidence of every Key Quality of every trait. You will love some of these books and you’ll want to pull out examples of different writing qualities, study them as a craft techniques, then try out what you’ve learned on your practice pieces in the Writing Wallet. There are five revision traits and each has four Key Qualities, so as you read, you can find examples of all twenty writing skills for revision. Remember though, follow the doctor’s orders:  Focus your work on only one revision activity at a time, learning each thoroughly and well. More in-depth study means these writing skills and techniques will have better odds of transferring into longer, more extended pieces of writing through the entire writing process.

This is the revision Rx. Try a spoonful of the Writing Wallet this summer and you’ll have models to share with students when they get back from their summer break.   And remember, as every good pharmacist will tell you, it’s important to finish the prescription, even if you start to feel better, so to get the maximum effect, keep taking this Rx from the beginning of the year to the end.

Learning from Experts

With gratitude, I’d like to share an essay that children’s author Pat Mora wrote on about her own writing and revision process. Pat believes in revision and finds it to be a joyful experience.  She offers ideas to make it pleasurable for you and your students, too.

Beginning Again and Again

By Pat Mora

One of my writing secrets is that writers often begin again and again. I am finishing my new picture book, BOOKJOY, WORDJOY, to be illustrated by the talented Raúl Colón. I have enjoyed collecting my poems for children and writing new poems including “Writing Secrets.” It is based on ZING, my book about creativity for educators. In the poem “Writing Secrets,” I don’t say that writers edit. We revise. I didn’t always like revising, but now, it’s probably my favorite part of writing.

            “Oh, no!” you might be saying. “I don’t like rewriting at all!”

            That’s how I used to feel. I don’t rewrite everything, of course. I don’t revise letters to my three wonderful children, for example. I do begin again and again, however, when I am working on stories, essays, or poems that I hope will be published. I polish. I had to learn to polish my writing when I was in school and at the university.

            When I was a little girl in El Paso, Texas, a city in the desert right on the Mexican border, I liked to read. Now, many years later, I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in high desert. I still like—no, I love to read and read every day. I am a writer because I am a reader. I enjoy playing with words—learning new ones in English and Spanish, listening to words, hearing them rhyme.

            Growing up, I didn’t think about becoming a writer. I thought about being a teacher, and then a doctor. Maybe I didn’t think about being a writer because none of the writers I learned about were living—except on the page. Also, I’d never heard of a writer who was bilingual, who wrote in English and Spanish. In my home, we spoke both, but at school, we didn’t talk about and enjoy our different home languages and cultures. It is so exciting that today in our libraries and classrooms, we share books from all the diverse families living in our United States. Sharing and respecting our cultures makes us more united—and smarter.

            When I started writing, I started writing for adults and was surprised that I didn’t write about going to the moon or Hawaii, what can sound fun and exciting. I wrote about the desert, family, Mexico, and stories. I write about what I like, what interests me, and about famous people who interest me. I really enjoy the wordjoy of poetry and remember writing poems in eighth grade.

            I made-up both words, bookjoy and wordjoy. Writing is both work and play. Maybe you want to make up a word, to play?

            Not everyone in the world has books, libraries, goes to school, and learns to read. If we are lucky enough to be readers, then we can be writers and share what we write. The pleasure of sharing our writing is one of my other writing tips. Have you ever given a family member or friend a poem you wrote? What a special gift!

I love the way Pat explains her different types of writing and which pieces she revisits and writes “again and again” to polish. Consider sharing this essay with your students, so they can hear a successful author’s own words about how important revision is to the writing process. You can find more essays by some of my favorite authors in Dream Wakers, too.

 

3 comments July 13th, 2017

The Your Turn Lesson

GOOD NEW Lynne & Diane

Diane and Lynne

The Your Turn lesson is a solid plan for instruction. Following the gradual release of responsibility model put forth by Lev Vygotsky, the sequence of instruction moves methodically and meaningfully from teacher control to student independence. (Lynne Dorfman)

In a recent post on her blog, Lynne Dorfman, coauthor of Mentor Texts (with Rose Cappelli), Grammar Matters (with Diane Dougherty), talks about how the “I Do, We Do, You Do” structure of Your Turn lessons supports students on their road to independence. Lynne and Diane regularly share bonus Your Turn lessons that you can put to use in your classroom right away:

Your Turn Lesson: The Colon

Your Turn Lesson: Using Transitions

Be sure to check their website regularly for new lessons, anecdotes from the classroom, and other tips and ideas for your teaching practice.

Add comment June 14th, 2017

The similarities between written and visual composition

RenewIn Chapter 3 of her new book Renew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, Shawna Coppola asks teachers to redefine and rethink what it means to “write.” “Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box,” Shawna writes. “But in all reality, continuing to teach our students writers through a narrow, outdates lens–one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms–harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice.”

Here’s Shawna with a bit more of her thinking:

In their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity, which was published in 1969, Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner write that not only have written assessments and assignments become ubiquitous in schools, but that even outside of school, “print has been the chief means of our information flow.” They go on to state that “equally certain is the fact that print no longer monopolizes man’s symbolic environment” (165).

If we were to open our favorite social media feed, or visit our favorite online news source, we would find this to be even more the case today, almost fifty years later. And yet, how many of us would argue with the fact that in today’s schools and classrooms we continue to over-emphasize (and over-value) written composition over visual composition–or even a hybrid of the two–particularly the older students get? In chapter three of my new book, Renew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, I point out the similarities between written and visual composition and make a case for renewing our writing instruction by incorporating more of the latter in our (and our students’) daily lives. I also offer a variety of ways that teachers can engage students in this work, ensuring that the writing they are invited to do in school is much more reflective of the world in which they–and we–currently live.

You can learn with Shawna this summer at The University of New Hampshire’s Summer Literacy Institute. Catch her workshop titled “Writing, Redefined: Honoring the Compositional Work of ALL Students.”  Head over to the Stenhouse website to read Chapter 3 of Renew.

 

References:
Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY:
Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

Add comment June 5th, 2017

A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment

We are excited to again celebrate National Poetry Month with the help of poet Shirley McPhillips, author of Poem Central. She introduces us to “word sketches” as a way of slowing down, noticing details, finding the wonder if everyday details. She offers some ideas for trying out word sketches in the classroom.

A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment
By Shirley McPhillips

The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language.

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

One morning this fall, I found myself walking in circles—this time by design. A teen’s Boy Scout project resulted in fashioning a labyrinth on the lush green lawn of his church. A labyrinth—not a maze intended to confuse, but a circular pathway for thoughtful or meditative walking, intended to soothe and heal. At first it was hard to quiet my mind. Walking the labyrinth over time, however, my feet found a rhythm. My mind centered as if following a heartbeat.

Yet still, the rattling times we live in can knock attention, rapid fire, from one matter to the next. Even nature seems to join in with erratic weather patterns—disorienting record heat in February followed by epic arctic blasts. But the lesson of the labyrinth becomes a touchstone: allow the quiet voice inside you to speak; put your attention to the mysteries of a moment, find the surprise, feel the wonder.

Writing “word sketches” is one way teacher-writers and their students can practice finding the wonder in moments of their daily lives. Anyone can train the eye by frequent sketching—slowing the gaze to follow the lines of an object. A simple sketch a day (a coffee cup, a candle, a pear, a chair), even done quickly, can result over time in “seeing” of a different kind—noticing the drama of light and dark, the intricacy of detail and design, the subtle vigor of white space. Writing short word sketches holds the same promise.

shirley

The sophistication of the word sketches will, of course, depend upon the experience of the writers and will vary one from another. But, we can start with paying attention: jotting in our notebooks, making lists of what we see—on a walk to school, driving to work, looking out the window.

-a wet street

-a sparrow

-white chairs

-an old plate

As we go, we find our “noticings” becoming more particular and nuanced, especially if we share them, chart them, join others in finding things intriguing.

Next, we’ll want to get some language around what we notice. What else? Where? Doing what? Make a picture.

-the wet street streaked with colors

-a sparrow peeking out of a drainpipe

-two white chairs at the beach

-a plate with cracks in it

Zoom in closer. Enter the moment as if it were a painting. Look around with all your senses. Find the uniqueness. Get out the paints. Don’t be afraid to find unusual words to paint with.

Jack pictures himself walking along a wet side street in his boots. Colors from the buildings are reflected in the rain. His elaborated sketch has the tone and brevity of haiku.

On a narrow street

rain paints a watercolor—

amber, peach—

boots brush a slick design.

Shuyi imagines the sparrow working tirelessly to make a home in such an ignoble place. We know, without any mention of a nest. A true poet.

The sparrow

has built its palace

in a drainpipe.

Mr. Vitturi writes a pure image. Then, like Shuyi, pushes himself to imagine something surprising.

Two white chairs, sunwashed,

sit side by side at the beachfront—

a seat for seagulls.

Sometimes word sketches can be the start of a longer image. Or they can find their way into an elaborated poem. Often, looking back through my notebook, I find lines that seem right in a new poem. Lila pushes past the “cracked plate” observation to find the heart of a longer poem based on a personal story. She sticks very close to the image, revealing “the poem within the poem.” We can see how her practice with observation and detail, her sense of image, sticks with her as she composes “The Cracked Plate.”

Afternoon tea, with tea things spread out

on a lace scarf she made

when she was an English girl,

thin now like the skin of her hands,

lifting the delicate pot to pour.

We sit and talk about different things,

like the cookies on the cracked plate

with the castle scene and the gold rim,

some of this and some of that.

 

The way we lift our cups and our cookies

to our lips. The way she says, “Do have another,

my dear,” lifting up the cracked plate that holds

so much of what we love.

7 comments April 4th, 2017

Empower your teaching by being a teacher-writer

The Tenth Annual Slice of Life Challenge kicks of March 1 and in this guest blog post Stacey Shubitz, cofounder of the Two Writing Teachers website, argues that to become an effective writing teacher, teachers need to be writers themselves. Stacey is the author of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts

Empower your teaching by being a teacher-writer
Stacey Shubitz

stacey_croppedMy daughter is adjusting to full-day kindergarten this year. Like many kids her age, she is exhausted when she comes home. As a result, we pulled her out of ballet and tap classes—she wanted to chill after a seven-and-a-half-hour school day rather than attend dance classes.

My husband and I searched for a Sunday afternoon activity because we wanted her to have an extracurricular interest. A friend suggested aerial arts class. The idea of my daughter hanging upside down and swinging from a piece of fabric scared me. The first thing I did was check the instructor’s qualifications. Upon researching, I learned the instructor had been performing and teaching aerial arts for nearly a decade. I wasn’t convinced I’d keep our daughter enrolled past the trial class, but the teacher’s experience was enough to let my daughter try it.

Once we arrived at the trial course, the teacher demonstrated everything she wanted the children to do before they did it. She talked about what might be challenging. She spotted the kids as they tried different poses in the fabric. She repositioned their hands, supported their bodies (when necessary), and encouraged them with supportive words. As a result of her expertise as an aerial artist and a teacher, I enrolled my daughter in weekly classes.

Just as teachers of aerials need to be proficient aerial artists, teachers who lead writing workshops should be writers themselves. I never would have enrolled my daughter in the aerials class if the instructor wasn’t a proficient aerial artist herself. Similarly, I believe writing regularly plays a role in becoming an exemplary writing teacher.

If you want to be the best teacher of writing you can possibly be, there are a few things you must do: read high-quality professional books, attend professional development about writing, surround yourself with colleagues who will study student writing alongside you, and do a lot of your own writing. If you’re not sure how to get started with your own writing, please join my colleagues and me for the 10th Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers.  SOLSC

The Slice of Life Story Challenge began on Two Writing Teachers in 2008. The online challenge’s mission is to support teachers who want to develop and sustain a daily writing habit. Over the years, the challenge has created a community of teacher-writers who are better able to support the students they serve in writing workshops. Teachers are invited to write a slice of life story—an anecdotal piece of writing about a small part of one’s day—on their own blogs and then share the link to their story on our blog. Each person who leaves a link to his or her own blog visits at least three other people’s blogs to comment on their slice-of-life writing.

I believe being a writer is one of the biggest gifts you can give to your students. Being a teacher-writer means you can confer with your students and feel a special kind of camaraderie. Being a teacher-writer means you understand the struggles and frustrations as well as the triumphs and the beauty. Being a teacher-writer means you will transform your students’ lives because you believe in the power of words. It is my hope that all children who take part in writing workshops will have teacher-writers.

I hope you’ll join us for the 10th Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge this March. We are a welcoming community of teacher-writers—at varying points in our careers—who come together to share blog posts about the ordinary moments in our lives. Click here to find out how to join our community of writers.

 

Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the coauthor of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.

Add comment February 15th, 2017

Get your students writing for NaNoWriMo

Today’s guest post by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg might sound a bit ambitious — even crazy: write an entire novel with your students during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). But Vicki, author of the new book The Author’s Apprentice, has some practical advice as you gear up for this challenging, rewarding, and possibly life-changing writing exercise with your students. Good luck and let us know how it’s going in your classroom!

Get your students writing for NaNoWriMo
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

5996

October is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the sweater-weather, the changing leaves, and the pumpkin spice everything.  But my absolute favorite thing about this time of year is gearing up for NaNoWriMo! During National Novel Writing Month teachers, students and folks from around the globe take part in the challenge to write an entire novel in the thirty days of November.  It sounds crazy for anyone, so why on earth would you ever attempt to write novels with a class of heterogeneously grouped students who don’t even particularly care for writing in school at all?

Because it’s magical.

Much like the changing leaves, exploding with vibrant colors, so too will your students’ attitudes and efforts in writing change and explode with possibilities that even they had never imagined.  I have been a middle school teacher for more than 20 years, and I can honestly say that nothing compares to writing novels together as a class.  It is arguably the single most impactful academic experience that a student can share with his classmates.  It builds confidence and motivation for students (in writing and in other areas of life), it reinforces what we are already teaching and makes it meaningful to our students, and it helps them to feel like they are a part of something  that matters for real out in the world.

Here are a few tips for a successful dip into Lake NaNo:

  1. Integrate it into your existing curriculum to give authenticity, meaning and purpose to what you already do in your classroom.

Participating in NaNoWriMo presents obvious benefits for our students by connecting the writing work that authors do in the real world with the writing work that we do within our classrooms. It provides validation and a wonderfully authentic opportunity for students to apply the literary elements you are already teaching such as characterization, plot, setting, and conflict in their own writing. And they get to demonstrate their knowledge of literary devices such as flashback, symbolism, imagery, and irony throughout the month in the same way that real authors do.

Additionally, something unexpected occurs inside every student who takes part in this ridiculous challenge. After writing their novels, students will never read another story or novel without knowing the work that went into developing each character and his or her actions. They will no longer casually breeze by vivid details, deliberate word choices, or imbedded symbols. Learning the skills in the reading portion of the curriculum, and then fearlessly crafting and applying them in their own writing makes an impression. This synthesis of knowledge bridges the gap between reading and writing and brings new meaning and a heightened awareness into their everyday reading and writing lives.

  1. Write with your students.

The Author's ApprenticeC’mon, admit it.  If you teach English or language arts, you know that somewhere deep down inside you have this dream of writing “The Great American Novel” one day. Carpe this Diem. If you truly want to make an impact with your students, you can’t just teach novel writing; you have to get in there and get your hands on that keyboard and experience novel writing side-by-side with your students. You have a writer’s voice.  And the world needs to hear it.

  1. Build a true community of writers within the classroom.

Out in the real world, writing communities serve to hold its members accountable, to provide support and encouragement when needed, and to offer feedback at all steps in the writing process.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could come to expect this same kind of support system within our classrooms?  Now they can at www.ywp.NaNoWriMo.org .  Here, teachers can create a virtual classroom so that everyone can stay connected whether they are writing at school or at home.  Teachers can post announcements, assignments, and even writing challenges (such as: “Find a way to include green Jello into your next scene. Go!”)  to keep everyone excited and on their toes. Many of my students will also ask for support and feedback directly in the message feed.  Sometimes it’s to help them move past writer’s block, sometimes it’s to test out a line or two for audience feedback, and sometimes it’s to help their characters make tough decisions.  It is so comforting to know that even when we are writing on our own at home, we are never alone. And that makes all of the difference.

  1. Build a true community of writers out in the community.

You already know you are crazy for taking on this insane challenge with your classroom, so why not spread the word out there in your community?  I’m serious; share with your community what you are setting out to accomplish for the month, and get them to join you in your efforts. Contact your local newspaper and news station to see if they’d be interested in reporting this story of your class taking on insurmountable odds to write novels in 30 days!  Share your idea with local businesses and see if they’d be willing to donate goods or gift certificates for the students who meet their word count goals. (Our local ice cream parlor gave us free ice cream cone certificates as awards!) Host “write-outs” around town for your students to get together and write in the evenings or on the weekends in coffee shops, book stores, and even the mall food court! Don’t be shy. The more people see you and hear about what you are doing with your class, the more the excitement builds.  No doubt that everyone you talk to will be amazed by your enthusiasm and dedication to your students.

  1. Celebrate a job well-done.

Participating in National Novel Writing Month shows our students that we believe in them, even when they think that what we are asking is impossible. Novel writing is both messy and empowering. Through the process, students develop writing fluency and stamina, and the ability to produce higher-quality on-demand writing. And that is worth celebrating.

Add comment October 19th, 2016

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