Sunday, January 19, 2014

Moderating #TLAP chat and drafting the questions

(This is a re-post of what I just posted on my other blog.)

I just shared the questions I’ve been thinking about for tomorrow’s chat on Twitter – here’s a link to the Google Doc.  I’d like to explain my thinking about writing instruction a little bit here, as a background to the chat.  If that helps.

My goals with the questions are fairly straightforward, though that might not be clear from the questions themselves:
  • To highlight the utility of writing across the curriculum, in both content classes and English/ELA classes
  • To leverage the nature of writing as an instructional tool in as many different ways as possible
  • To focus on what makes writing engaging or worthwhile for students, and how teachers can use that to motivate
I teach 7th graders in a public, Title 1 middle school with a large Hispanic population.  I often find myself working against a few common misconceptions:
  1. Writing is “work.”  ”How many sentences does it have to be?”  ”Why do I have to use paragraphs?”  ”Is this enough?”
  2. Writing is something you do at school, a kind of game that you play to make teachers happy, and then forget after you graduate.  Anything else you do with words – writing on Facebook, text messaging, anything else, isn’t really “writing.”  Or doesn’t count.
  3. There are specific rules about writing, and those rules are rigid and unchanging for all eternity.  All teachers know them.
  4. There’s no point to revise what you write.  Why bother writing something twice?  (That’s almost as bad as reading something twice!)
This is a steep hill to climb, but I think we can climb it if we start on the first day, and keep moving forward every day.  And I think we have a ton of strategies to keep moving up that hill.  (Plus, the more teachers that work hard at changing these views, the smaller the hill gets.)
So, what are some things that I do about this?  Here’s a short version:
  • Daily Writing Notebooks or “Quickwrites.”  I have kids writing every day at the start of class.  We write for different reasons, responding to different things in different ways.  Often, the prompt is related to our objective of the day.  (We’ve been talking a lot about bias lately, so questions have included references to strong opinions and trust.)  Sometimes we write about pictures, or songs, or we just reflect on an assignment, an event, or an objective.  There are millions of ways to do this (have you ever googled “writing prompts”?), and I have books of writing prompts that I use sometimes (Unjournaling is a fun one that comes to mind).  Here’s a blog post about writing notebooks that has more about how I use these (though the recent change to 1-1 chromebooks has altered this).
  • Writing Workshop.  This is just too awesome to let go of.  When it’s going well – and I’ve had it both ways – kids are working hard on developing their texts, learning tons, and engaged.  It pays off in writing, reading, vocabulary, and any other class where they have to explain their thinking in writing.  I believe it makes them better learners, because it helps students take control of their own learning.  I think we all want that.
  • Sharing lots of (anonymous) student models, teacher models (mine and others), and thinking/revising aloud, in front of my students.  We were encouraged to use student models as texts when I taught college writing, and that practice carried over into my middle school teaching.  It’s pretty engaging for the students, and I think that incorporating student texts makes everyone feel better, not just the student whose work you use.  Of course, it takes practice to move beyond the guessing game of “whose is this,” but when you do this often enough without feeling obliged to share the author’s name, the students are better able to focus on the writing.  It can be really effective in motivating students to engage in the instruction about writing, but selecting the right kind of model helps push kids, too.  (I love it when I can find something really brilliant in student-written text and share it with the class.)  I also share my writing with students on a regular basis.  They need to see me writing, and they need to see me revising my writing – I try not to exclusively share polished, finished writing.  When time permits, I try to share multiple drafts.
  • Publishing and celebrating student writing – nothing motivates like success.  One of the best groups of writers I’ve had didn’t “feel” like a special writing group until I read two student memoirs aloud for the class.  One was a quirky dog story full of surprisingly funny details, the other a sad story about a grandmother’s passing.  Both pieces of writing were full of poignant, powerful moments, and I celebrated those moments as honestly and clearly as I could.  I didn’t cringe from the errors or the oversights, but I chose to focus on the good.  I think that celebrating the good in such a public way changed the atmosphere, and made almost everyone in that class want to work hard and do well on their writing.
  • Frequent use of writing as thinking, or writing to learn.  It can be as simple as “think-pair-share” with some kind of writing component, or just having kids write in response to a question before (or after) a discussion.  I love a good reflection – I’ve been doing it every week, with kids reflecting on objectives for the week.  It helps them stay focused on purpose and notice progress in their own learning.  And anything you do that has students revise their writing to represent changes in their thinking will help them develop their own strategies for writing-to-learn.  Graphic organizers are a really useful tool, but they can become a crutch if used too often.  They’re a useful scaffold – just make sure that students are finishing the building and pulling the scaffolding away at some point.
  • Defining “writing” as broadly and inclusively as possible.  We don’t want them to substitute “talking” for writing in all cases, but we want students to see the relationship between speaking and writing, and how they can use one to help develop the other (reading a draft aloud, or writing out a speech).  I think it’s more and more important for students to see the interrelationship between visual information and text, and how pictures convey meaning in ways that are similar to (but not the same as) writing.  The same is true, of course, of music, video, and the complex interrelationships of text, pictures, links, and audio/video on the web.  People use these media to create meaning, and pretending like it’s not part of the business of writing is getting more and more obviously false every day.  (I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t be asked to complete text-only writing tasks sometimes.  I’m saying that we can’t ONLY do that.)
  • Making revision and revision strategies a useful part of writing well, not an absolute requirement for all assignments, and not a “punishment” for being a “bad writer” the first time.  This comes from modeling, from discussing author’s craft, and from giving feedback that points to specific ways to improve a piece, as well as celebrating the good things.  Kids won’t revise a text if they see it as “garbage.”  There has to be something worth keeping, or the best you might get is a complete re-write (which might be a learning experience, and might just be a huge frustration).  I think that Writing Workshop is a great way for kids to experience a successful revision – and they won’t really see the value of revision until they’ve crafted something that they can see as really special.  I know that students need to be prepared for “on-demand” writing tasks – because of standardized tests – but that’s not the most useful or most powerful kind of learning about writing that students will do.  That can be taught as a “genre” (which is how I prefer to teach it), and students can be encouraged to see it for what it really is – a specific kind of writing that has a very limited use.
This doesn’t quite feel finished.  I think I’ll need to come back and say more about this later.  For now, this is a good introduction.
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