Saturday, July 9, 2011

Resource Book Review: Hidden Gems

Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student's WritingHidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing by Katherine Bomer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't say that I ever anticipated reading an emotionally moving book about writing instruction. Over the last 24 hours I have read my first.

The intent of Katherine Bomer's cogent book on teaching writing, Hidden Gems, is to transform the way the rest of us approach student writing. Admittedly, it is awfully difficult to see a piece of student writing and not leap to what is wrong with it. It is how I was taught when I was 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15... And I allowed myself a brief moment of silent shame in a class this week with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (NWP) when a colleague projected a piece of student writing for all of us to discuss. Immediately, I saw the errors.

We didn't once discuss the errors--we discussed what was strong in it. We discussed what the writer could build upon. I listened and I have to admit, my perspective of what I do and how I do was altered.

Bomer addresses the fact that many teachers share in my experience:

Constant attention to and judgment on mechanics and organization becomes a systematic means for placing restraints on kids without listening to what they have to say.

Especially helpful is the fact that Bomer includes many student samples in her book. Yet, she not only covers what is strong, but she also models how she would confer with the student and what a plan might be moving forward. These are not perfect texts by our traditional definition. She selected a wide variety of samples.

Bomer also takes into consideration that what may be making teachers begin and end with negative comments on student writing is traced to the writing rubric and grading itself. She quotes from Maja Wilsons Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment:

However, writing may not be a simple system like billiards, subject to the laws of determinism.  Writing may more closely resemble complex, chaotic systems like global weather, economic systems, or political unrest.

Bomer is trying to balance the reality of our profession (or vocation) with the best case scenario for all involved. I liked that she focused on teaching us how to find things to compliment and build upon in student writing--she is trying to change the way you see yourself and how you see your writers.

Bomer writes that teachers need to write for good cause:

Teaching writing without doing it ourselves is like trying to teach a four-year-old how to tie shoes when we have only worn flip-flops our entire life.

I've come to a crossroads myself as a teacher of writing. It is only through discussion with peers, reflections on past practice, and reading books such as this that I can come to an educated decision about how I will move forward next year. I do not have a perfect answer yet, and I do not know that any of us ever can:

Most of us have a long way to go toward creating assessments that teach writing rather than sort, humiliate, and confuse...

Kids try hard to make writing look and sound like the #4...and if they miss the cues and fail to conform, this becomes one more notch in their belt of failure...

The beauty in this book, is not just teaching us to see the beauty and possibilities in all student writing, but it also very clearly holds our "schizophrenic" roles of supportive facilitator to critical judge right up to our faces.

You may not look at your role in the classroom the same way again.

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  2. I have just read the first two chapters of Hidden Gems and first I must admit I am guilty, guilty, guilty of looking for errors from the beginning. Katherine has just given me new sight into how I need to look at my students writing. I am looking forward to the revolution that will begin to take place in my instruction and priceless writing that will continue to evolve as a result.