Friday, July 12, 2013

WRITE BESIDE THEM and Middle School Writing

I started reading this book a year or two ago (I can't honestly remember) when several teachers recommended it to me - several of whom were fellow participants in the Summer Leadership Institute for the Illinois Writing Project (a fantastic opportunity, and something I recommend to everyone, by the way).  So, I ran out and picked up a copy.  I read through the first 70 pages in a day or two.  The next 100 pages took more than a year.  This summer, I've finished the book - mostly because I bought another book by Penny Kittle (BOOK LOVE) and felt the need to finish one before starting the other.

So, comments about my weird reading history aside, the material in the book is pretty fantastic.  I envy some of the details of Kittle's teaching assignment (teaching a writing class? awesome!), and I know that her kids are different from mine.  So, I'd like to kind of "think aloud" about how to use this in middle school.

I've posted about the details of my teaching assignment before, and I don't want to go into too much detail.  Briefly, I teach in a suburban Title 1 middle school that uses a "teaming" concept (two or three teachers share a group of students and teach various subjects to the same group of kids, so that students have fewer teachers and teachers can collaborate better) and block scheduling.  Unfortunately, I only have one block (60 minutes) to teach both reading and writing (which are assigned separate grades, by me).  It's hard to teach a writing workshop when it means that you have to surrender all of your literacy time to writing.  I've done it, and it's worked really well almost all of the time (partly because I'm so passionate and motivated when it comes to teaching writing), but lately I've been trying other strategies that allow me to better emphasize both reading and writing at the same time.  So, a modified workshop, or a workshop built around "units of study" - genre-based study of texts, including close reading/analysis and then production/imitation of a text that fits that genre.

Anyway, what does this have to do with WRITE BESIDE THEM?

Let's start with a numbered list:

  1. I really like her discussion of writing notebooks, something I use almost every day, and something that Kittle uses every day, too.  It's a place for "all of that bad writing that is essential to uncover good writing" (26) and a tool for helping students find their voice (27).  
  2. I use her model of "quick writing" (Chapter 5), which has three important rules:
    1. Write the entire time
    2. Write quickly without letting the critic in your head censor you
    3. Relax, have fun, play
  3. She writes along with her students during these quick writes, and she shares her messy drafts so that they see her thinking on paper, and they see a writer making choices and revising.  
  4. Heart Maps - Kittle got this idea from Georgia Heard, and it's a great way to get kids thinking about their "writing territories," something you can come back to later in the year when they say they don't have anything to write about.  
  5. I love how she models re-reading of the quick writes - if kids are just writing and tossing the material, there's not much point in doing journals.  It's when they see value in the notebooks and are using what they come up with that these things are important and worthwhile.
  6. Her overall flexibility and her willingness to adjust her teaching (and her expectations) to help kids.  Chapter 9, "Seeking Balance," should be required reading for anyone teaching writing to any person over age 10.  In a nutshell, Kittle argues that kids don't learn to write well when they are given writing assignments that they will never revise.  And many of the writing assignments given in English classes are first-draft, write-and-forget assignments.  She encourages letting go of some of the demands of literary analysis: not everything a kid writes in an English class in high school has to be about a literary classic.  Students don't learn effective writing when they have to write about something that doesn't matter to them.  True, that's not ALWAYS the case, and yes, students should be expected to do some literary analysis.  But writing a five-paragraph essay about THE SCARLET LETTER doesn't teach them very much about good writing.  They will probably learn about literary analysis, but that's not teaching writing.  
  7. I like her discussion of conventions (grammar and mechanics), but I don't love it.  I don't think Kittle is the best voice on this subject (I prefer Jeff Anderson for this), but I think that she's developed a system for helping kids learn how to get better at conventions.  It's not the focus of what she does, but she addresses it.  Not everyone does, and not everyone who does manages to help kids retain and use better conventions.
  8. Her discussion of feedback.  I loved the example she gave of the different ways that she was given feedback on something she wrote, and how that made her feel.  I think that we've all been there, as teachers and students, when we were given destructive or hurtful feedback on something we wrote that seemed to miss the goal we were striving for.  It's an excuse for the writer to ignore the feedback.  I really liked her discussion of it, and I think that it makes the point about how writers often feel about what they've written - how there's an element of trust involved in that exchange of written products - and how aggressive, insensitive comments can destroy any hope of helping the writer.  If you stomp on their fledgling ideas, they aren't going to share any more with you - or at least not any that matter to them.  And, if you manage the opposite, if you can sift through the messiest draft and find the nuggets of meaning, the funny part, the briefest glimmer of insight, and point that out to a student, then you've built trust.  You have a disciple.  Students identify with what they write, and they want you to find the gold in what they write, just like they want people to find the value in them.  It's a delicate thing, and it can be enormously positive and powerful if you become a skilled treasure-hunter.  
  9. The craft of the book overall.  I've read books by teachers that were better written, but this is close to the top.  There were a couple of chapters and passages that really stood out to me.  Clearly, her writing matters to her, and she wants to convey her meaning appropriately and aptly.
I think I have more to say about this book, but I'm going to step away and think a bit more.  
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