Friday, January 26, 2018

Conferring with Writers

To disturb or not to disturb (with the offer to confer)--that is the question.

I have a perennial issue with myself: I keep making excuses for not conferring with students as they write.
The excuses range from “They look so focused, I really shouldn’t interrupt them” to “What if there’s nothing to talk about?” Ten months ago I blogged about the excitement of overcoming those excuses in “An Introvert Learns to Love Writing Conferences,” and I thought I had—learned to love writing conferences. But this year again I’ve been finding excuses to avoid them. 

Last week I bit the bullet and tried again, and again, wonderful opportunities for addressing individual concerns blossomed. All I did was come alongside students as they were drafting a poetry analysis of self-selected song lyrics and ask, “How’s it going? Any questions or difficulties?” Here are some of the responses I got:
  • I’m having trouble finding a secondary source. Is an interview with Paul McCartney a secondary source? (This lead to a discussion of what a secondary source is and how it can change—if you were writing a biography of McCartney, an interview with him would be a primary source; but since you’re analyzing the poetry of one of his songs, the lyrics themselves are the primary source, and anything he says about them is a secondary source.  So yes, that interview is a great secondary source!)
  • Could I get another copy of that mentor piece to check how to do poetry citation? (This one didn’t call for a conversation, just a resource—but it told me where that writer was focused, and that he could identify his next step and knew where to get help.)
  • I’m just writing down all the thoughts I had. (This lead to a discussion of writing process—how some people are planners who spend a lot of time in outlines, and some are gushers who spend a lot of time reworking what they’ve said into coherence—and the necessity of understanding the pros and cons of each and monitoring what works best for you. After all, as I wrote two weeks ago, for many of us, bad first drafts are our allies against our internal editors.)
  • I’m having trouble with the Biblical metanarrative part. (Funny story here: I thought she was asking for a different type of help than she was. I should have followed up with a question: “What do you have so far? What is your trouble?” Instead, I jumped in with suggestions of what I saw in my brief scanning of the lyrics. She countered with, “I kind of saw it differently.” And then explained her take. I said, “If you can support and explain it, go for it.”)
Only one student responded that she was doing fine and had no questions. Lamely (this is the part I’d been dreading) I countered, “Are you sure?” She nodded firmly. So I quietly withdrew and drifted awkwardly to the next student. I’m actually amazed that this only happened once. And maybe that’s okay—students need to be able to tell me they are in the zone and interruption won’t help. 

But in addition, it was entirely my fault. Ten months ago, in that blog I wrote, I told myself exactly how to prepare for those times a student didn't have a question burning a hole in his pocketprepare a fall-back list of my own questions. Have I done that? No. But I did just go back and read that blog, and I can at least start with the list I already had for myself there, but had forgotten about:
  • How’s the writing going?
  • Question about a specific skill/strategy taught, like “What’s your audience and occasion?” or “Tell me about a specific example/anecdote you used.”
  • What’s your thesis? 
  • What has come easily?
  • What are you struggling with?

Then I'd also advised myself to look up more questions in some of my writing workshop books. Some more advice I still need to take.

What questions do you ask students in writing conferences?

Friday, January 19, 2018

Learning to Do, Doing to Learn

(Note: This is a revised version of a blog I did 2 years ago, updated with student samples from this year. I was going to write a new explanation, but when I looked this one up, it said so exactly what I wanted to say, I could only think of wordier and less interesting ways to say it.)

Imagine a PE class where students where students watched videos of great athletes, learned rules, and memorized terms, but never actually played the game. Imagine a music class where students attended concerts, studied music theory and music history, but never actually sang or played a note. Imagine an English class where students read great poets; learned literary terms like paradox, assonance, and metaphor; and never actually wrote a poem. 

Oh, wait…that was my class for much of my teaching career.

But turning students lose to write whatever they wanted didn’t exactly promote learning—the poetry was either Dr. Seuss-ish rhythm-and-rhyme or else emotive rambling. No one was learning anything. I did try it, but I quit.

Then I realized that as a volleyball coach, I didn’t just set up the court and say, “Have fun.” (Neither do PE or music teachers.) I taught terms, strategies, rules, plays. We watched each other, other teams, and ideally, professionals. And we tried it ourselves. That was the goal. Some of us learned that we have a gift for this, and doing it well is satisfying and fun.  Some of us simply learned that it’s a lot harder than it looks. All of us grew in our appreciation for seeing it done well. 

This is exactly what I want for my students out of a study of poetry! 

So here’s what I do: After we’ve done a close reading and annotation of a poem, I give the students a generalized template of what the poet did, and ask them just to try a rough draft. (Scroll to the bottom of this blog for samples.) They share their rough draft with their table group of three or four, and at the end of the reading part of the unit, I ask students to choose one rough draft poem to publish as a final draft. I also ask them for a paragraph reflection on why they chose that poem to publish and what they learned in the process of writing it.

Here’s one student’s poem, modeled on the style of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Guitar”:

It sings, the Piano sings.
The strings are the singers, the hammers are the conductors.
Hammers flinging, strings singing, ears hearing.

It sings, the Piano sings.
All 230 strings singing in symphony, 
Singing as strong as a father, as soft as a mother.

It sings, the Piano sings.
Feet pumping motion, fingers breathing emotion, 
Music resurrecting from sheets of gladness.

The Piano is a language,
Heard by all, known by all, spoken by all.
It is untenable, it is irreplaceable.
It is an infinite language.

Here are some of the things students said they learned writing these poems this way:

This poem was actually fun to write, which is surprising because I dislike poems. I felt like I was able to show my thoughts in extremely short simple statements (which also fit with the theme of the poem; each line is short in a way that reminded me of text messages). When writing this poem, I found myself just listing down all of the first world problem type things that I wanted to write about, and that was the comfortable part of writing this poem. The hard part of writing this poem was putting everything in an order that makes sense. I had a ton of things that I wanted to write about, but not all of them really connected to the next.

I chose to do this style of poetry because it looked pretty simple. However, during the writing process it became harder and harder to make lines that sounded how I wanted them to sound.

While writing this poem my biggest obstacle was figuring out what the poem would be about and how to make the audience feel what I’m feeling about it. Surprisingly, coming up with the words and lines to fit and make sense wasn’t as hard as I thought. Out of the three we wrote for me this one was the most fun, but not the easiest. I noticed that as I wrote my lines the words I used ended up being rhymes and you can see that it happened many times. I enjoyed writing this poem and my interest in poetry has definitely been shifted to a more positive perspective.

I love classical music and out of all the instruments, the piano creates the base, or the platform of the piece which is very important. Without the piano the whole piece would sound like a child talking with a missing tooth. I wrote this poem thinking of the smooth movements of the fingers and every single bit of sound that comes out of the instrument. I described it as the keys “dancing” because I truly feel like it does. How the keys move up and down from right to left seems like they’re dancing! And I concluded it as the piano, being a feeling in our hearts because I felt like the waves and sounds of the piano can be hidden inside of us..and it might be something we never refer to, but also might be a simple, clean way of describing ourselves.

One thing I love about that last reflection is that the student transferred to her prose writing her practice of observing and using similes, metaphors, and symbols in poetry!

How do you negotiate the learning-doing connection in your classes?

Friday, January 12, 2018

Just Getting on with a Bad First Draft

This year I got one of my favorite ever Christmas cards from a student. I love it because it showed me the student had gotten a truth about writing that I try to help students wrap their heads around: the importance of the bad first draft. 

We all have a little editor that sits on our shoulder (or on top of our head, as the case may be) criticizing every idea that tries to make its way onto paper. For some of us that editor is bigger and more vociferous than for others. Some of us can sit and stare at a computer screen for an entire 45-minute class period, typing and erasing the same sentence. That is a full-blown case of writing constipation. It not only wastes a lot of time and stress, but also if you don’t get any words on the paper, you don’t have anything to work with. You can’t make it better. And you don't know what amazing idea might have popped out if you could just have gotten going. The trick is to tell the little editor to sit down and be quiet and you’ll call him when you’re ready.

I experienced that myself this week. My AP Language class wrote an in-class essay Wednesday. After my blog last week about the importance of writing teachers writing, I felt a little pressure from myself to write along with the students. So I did. But as I sat listening to the class's pencils scratching away industriously, contemplating all the ideas rolling around in my head and how to wrangle them into some sort of order—the minutes were ticking by, and my page was still blank. I seriously considered that I WAS the teacher, and there was absolutely nothing stopping me from just quitting. Pretending I had never planned to write the essay. 

Then I got a hold of myself and followed my own advice: I told my little editor to sit down and be quiet, and I just started writing. (Except that’s not the usual advice for a timed AP essay—that advice is to spend 10 minutes reading and planning, and then follow the plan. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a plan! Just a lot of random ideas.) I had a pretty good analogy for a hook. Then out popped a really interesting sentence that I hadn’t planned on. But it might even work for a thesis—if I could follow it with a preview of points. Which I still couldn’t come up with. So I left a line blank and started in on the first body paragraph. Then the next one. Then the next. They were actually pretty good in themselves. Still not a lot of coherence from one to the next. Suddenly there were only 10 of the 40 minutes left, and I had at least 3 more really good ideas I hadn’t gotten to, still no preview of points, and no inspiration for a conclusion. I just charged ahead and wrote as fast as I could. The ending was pretty lame. I collected student papers with promises to read them over for a debriefing discussion the following day. 

When I got home and pulled out the stack of papers, my eyes fell on mine. I immediately spied a silly error in the first line, which I automatically corrected with the green marking pen in my hand. Being a bit of a print addict, I sort of couldn’t help myself from reading on. “Not as bad as I thought!” though I automatically made a few additions or deletions as I went. I winced when I got to the end—but immediately had an idea—which I quickly jotted in my green pen. 

As I read over the rest of the “bad first drafts,” compiling comments for our debriefing discussion, I thought, “It isn’t really fair that I got to add to my draft and the students didn’t.” So first thing the next day, I handed the papers back and gave everyone else 5 additional minutes. 

I’m so glad I wrote that in-class, timed, bad first draft with my students. I’m glad because it reminded me in my gut of the importance of just getting on with the writing. Adding on that 5 minutes for revising after putting the draft to rest reminded students that timed essays really are just training for churning out bad first drafts. It also gave me a lot of other observations to use in our debriefing discussion. (Including ones I’ve never seen in an AP test prep book, but, well, sometimes you have to just ride the writing wave. It's preferable to drowning, anyway.) I never did get back to the preview of points--but maybe the open thesis is sufficient here. At least sufficient for a bad first draft.

What happens when you write with your students? What do you learn? What do your students learn? How do you get your own and your students’ little resident editors to sit down and be quiet until their time comes? 

Friday, January 5, 2018

What and Why I Blog

My most popular blog of the 2017 was about reading to my 11-month-old grandson. Now he's 16 months, and we're still reading! (Read on for the connection...)

My thrill of the week: my blog’s number of all-time pageviews passed 30,000. As bloggers go, that’s very small-time—but to me it was a thrill. That represents 243 posts over 5-1/2 years since my first one on July 4, 2012. Scrolling back to find that first post, I realized during my first year of blogging, many posts had pageviews in single digits, and none broke into triple digits. (To be honest, I was afraid to post them on Facebook, and I didn't yet do Twitter. I just occasionally forwarded a link to friends or colleagues.) Now I feel a little sad when one doesn’t get into triple digits! But that said, funny as it sounds, I don’t really blog for my readers. Okay, actually I do, but they (you) rank 3rd in reasons I blog. What are the first two reasons I blog? (1) Myself and (2) my students. 

I blog for myself because when I reflect, I grow, and when I’m growing, I’m happy. Additionally, when I know I’m going to have to have something reflection-worthy at the end of the week, it shifts how I go through my days. Finally, as an introvert, once I’ve put my thoughts together in writing, I’m much more fluent sharing them with colleagues in conversation. So blogging has changed me into a more reflective, growing, happy, articulate teacher.

I blog for my students because every writing student deserves a writing teacher who is a practitioner of writing. I admire teachers who write with their students, and I don’t always manage that. But I do write. And I know what it’s like to sit down to an assignment (self-imposed though it is) feeling idea-less, fearing putting something out there that an audience will wonder why I bothered. And usually feeling really good once I’ve pulled something together. I know experientially that beginnings and endings are the hardest part, and often I have to force myself to just start putting words on screen. Sometimes, like last week, I end up deleting the first two paragraphs because I finally have come to what I wanted to say—but I never would have gotten there if I hadn’t started. I know what it’s like to consider audience and purpose. Sometimes I read my first draft and hate the tone—I don’t want to sound like I’m telling people what to do. I just want to share what I did and learned. So I change any “you should” language to “I did” language. After all, you might already be doing it, and I just figured it out! Or maybe your situation is completely different.

And that brings me to my audience—you. My third priority is to create a positive community—a community of “hey, I tried this and it was really great” or “it had possibilities with a little tweaking” or “I had this problem and I tried this thing.” A community that believes teaching is hard, but so worth working at, so let's share the ways we're working toward the joy of seeing students learn and grow, and encourage each other with our stories of growth--our own and our students'. It is way too easy to form negative communities—sharing problems with institutions, supervisors, colleagues, students. If you find any of my experiences encouraging—that’s all joy to me and icing on my cake.

With all that said, what 2017 blogs did my audience find most compelling, judging my the number of pageviews? Here’s the list of the top 10, starting with the most popular at nearly 300 pageviews: 
  1. “Grandmothering a Reader” Usually I write about inducting adolescents into the world of reading. This was about doing it with my 11-month-old grandson when I got to visit him last summer. Clearly, if I were after increasing my readership, I’d write more about family/babies and less about teaching/adolescents.
  2. “Baby Steps in Differentiation”  My action step--an editing lesson--in response to a faculty book discussion.
  3. “Teacher Self-Care: Count Your Classroom Blessings (the Unsung Best Practice)” Noticing moments of teaching joy in the week.
  4. “What Makes a Great Assessment” I wish all my assessments could be this authentic: students write a new Screwtape letter to demonstrate mastery of novel, satire, writing skill, and life application of theme.
  5. “Three Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity” Jigsaw activities are great—at their best they combine choice, reciprocal teaching, and interdependence for intrinsic motivation to understand content and use good collaboration skills.
  6. “One Easy Trick for Better Group Work #2” Another action step in response to a faculty book discussion: a protocol with graphic organizer for scaffolding better discussion.
  7. “Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching”  First time I ever required students to collect their own model sentence stems for argument or find at least one source from the opposition. (I forgot what the last tip was.)
  8. “Vocabulary Preview the Quick and Easy Way” Just hand out the list before reading the selection from which it is takes and have students mark familiarity +/o/- and see if they can help each other with -’s. 
  9. “Inviting My Walls into My Classroom Conversation” The walls don’t have to be beautiful—just useful. I'm learning to curate learning with anchor charts, word walls, work that captures student thinking. Then be sure I actually refer to them.
  10. “Creating Cultures of Thinking” Review of a great professional book I read last summer. Author Ron Ritchhart explores how we can change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking using 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments.

Monday, January 1, 2018

What and Why I Read

The beginning of my 2018 to-read list: These came back from America with me in my suitcase after Christmas break!

I have not always been an eclectic reader. 
The summer after 2nd grade I binge-read all the Nancy Drew books that my neighbor owned. For the next couple of years, I read mostly stories about horses and Indians. (One of the morals of this story is don’t be concerned if a young reader in your life appears to be single-minded in his or her taste.) As an adult, I grew an appreciation for nonfiction that I never had as a child. 

When I started teaching world lit 13 years ago, I realized my training had been almost entirely in British and American lit, so I set a goal of reading an author from at least one new country per year. When I read Penny Kittle’s Book Love four years ago, I realized I needed to broaden my horizons to YA lit to know books to connect to the interests of students who weren’t immediately enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov or even The Chosen

(Did you know that it only takes one “home-run” book to transform a reluctant reader into a reader? And consider that a person who avidly reads Captain Underpants may eventually read Pride and Prejudice, but a convinced non-reader never will.)

So bit by bit I’ve expanded my horizons. Every year I try to read a variety of genres and topics, to expand my knowledge of classics as a literature specialist, of world lit as a global citizen and a teacher of global nomads, of new books as a practicing reader, of pedagogy as a teacher. I read to discover books I will love and books my students will love. (Sometimes those are different, and sometimes they are the same.) I read to challenge myself to learn and grow, as well as to allow myself to have fun and relax. 

My Goodreads Challenge tells me that in 2017 I read 74 books for a total of 22,328 pages. Here’s a sampling of the highlights from a variety of categories: 
  • Nonfiction: Evicted. Hearing Matthew Desmond’s stories of people living in circumstances more challenging than any I’ve ever faced, with little or no safety net, gives me a greater understanding of some of the complexity of issues of poverty in America and increases my empathy.
  • Historical Fiction: Pachinko. Reading Min Jin Lee’s history of four generations of Koreans in Japan deepened my understanding of many of the Koreans I’ve known over 30+ years of living in Japan.
  • Contemporary Realistic Fiction: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is another great novel from Fredrik Backman, the author of A Man Called Ove. The beginning of the book sets up the main character’s relationship with her grandmother, an eccentric old woman who nurtures the individuality and gifts of her 7-year-old granddaughter while the harried mother pursues her career. It starts with a bang in the emergency room of the hospital after a clandestine midnight visit to the zoo. Then the grandmother dies, leaving her granddaughter a quest that will eventually bring the child a deeper understanding of herself, her grandmother, her neighbors, and the meaning of community and compassion. 
  • World Lit: Blindness. A tough, raw, weird read from the Portuguese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, Jose Saramago, but I think it may haunt me forever. A Lord of the Flies-esque commentary on human nature and society as a mystery epidemic of blindness begins with one man and sweeps through the country.
  • American Lit: East of Eden. Wow. I’ve read John Steinbeck before, but it was never like this. An intriguing tapestry of characters, themes, and patterns woven with style that ranges from dry humor (“She had a little round head full of little round ideas”) to lush description and a scope that ranges across the continental US and several generations. My favorite character is the Chinese cook Lee, who demonstrates a pretty sophisticated understanding of code-switching for 1952.
  • YA Lit: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Speaking of code-switching. I loved this book—coming of age in a modern black family trying to negotiate loyalty to community, desire for justice, and pursuit of dreams.  
  • Fantasy: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I was just really excited that I could recommend a new favorite to a student devotee of fantasy whose most damning evaluation of a book is “predictable.”
  • Christian: In Emotional Healthy Spirituality Peter Scazzero gives a concise summary of many of the lessons I’ve learned over the last 30 years of reading mentors like Henri Nouwen and Ann LaMotte. I’d like to think that “emotionally healthy” and “spirituality” would be redundant, but we humans seem to have a proclivity for twisting ourselves into unhealthy knots, so this is an excellent primer or reminder, wherever you are on this journey. 
  • Graphic Novel: March 1 - 3. Since I was born at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, for my education, it dropped into the gap of too-recent-to-be-history-and-too-distant-to-actually remember. I heard names, places, and events that I knew were associated with it, but I was too embarrassed to reveal my ignorance by asking about them. This graphic novel autobiography of John Lewis really pulled them all together for me. And it’s pretty cool how the frame story is the black congressman preparing to go to President Obama’s inauguration.
  • Children’s: First 100 Trucks and Things that Go. Well, if not my favorite children’s book of the year, it is definitely the one I read the most times, thanks to my 16-month-old grandson’s obsession with cars. 
  • Professional: Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. I read other books that gave me specific classroom practices I can use to improve my teaching, but overall, this is the goal, and I absolutely loved this book that builds on Ron Ritchhart’s earlier book, Making Thinking Visible.
  • Favorite Author: Hannah Coulter. Many years ago, I loved Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Hannah Coulter was my first read of the year, a parting gift from my mom since she read and recommended it shortly before she died in September 2016. It’s just as beautiful and compelling as Jayber Crow: the value of a life well-lived, however hidden and ordinary, in a community well-loved (and every “hidden,” “ordinary” life has its own times of testing, choosing, joy, and sorrow). 
  • Mystery: Vertigo 42. If you’ve never read Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury books, don’t start with number #14. But as a long-time fan, I enjoyed it as a sort of literary comfort food—visiting all the old haunts and renewing acquaintance with all the eccentric friends, with a few British lit allusions thrown in. 
  • Expanding Genre Horizons: Action/suspense is not a genre I usually read, and my husband expressed his surprise (disbelief?) when I came home with Tripwire, a Jack Reacher book by Lee Child. But I’d seen the names of the author and main character several times recently in recommended book lists, so this caught my eye when I saw it on the give-away table in the staff lounge. I figured it would be my try-something-new book for the year. Well, I tried it, and I confirmed that action/suspense is not my genre. Still—that’s something I can share both with students who DO love action/suspense and with students who are deciding whether to venture outside their comfort zone.
What books am I planning to read in 2018? See the photo at the top of the page for the ones I’m starting with: a stack of middle and high school recommendations gleaned from librarian friends, from professional publications and blogs, and from a little vacation bookstore browsing. Then, as appropriate, I’ll pass them on to students and to other teachers to pass on to their students. If you want to follow my progress and see what I think of each book as I finish, follow me on Goodreads. (I’ve already finished and reviewed The Last Cherry Blossom and am now working on The Lost History of Stars.) 

What kinds of books did you read in 2017? What will you read in 2018? How do you encourage the readers around you to use books as both mirrors and windows, to learn more about themselves and more about the world outside their own experience? 

New books and challenges are good...but so are old friends that you can read over and over, whatever your age!