Thursday, February 28, 2013

Focus on Writer's Backgrounds

from our textbook
We have been imitating the "Writer's Background" found before each story, essay, or poem in our textbook.

The idea arose when we started our unit on historical fiction. Investigating the backgrounds of the writer provided a focus for our reading.

A focus for our reading. Focus? Focus is one of the grand dames of the Pennsylvania Writing Rubric. It shows up on the PSSA tests. And it shows up in the CCSS.

I found that asking students to compose a "Writer's Background" that connects to their current draft also asks them to consider their focus as a writer...without actually thinking of it as focus.

Focus tends to be one of those words we see defined in rubrics but only loosely grasp. Usually, as long as a student stays on-topic, one considers them focused. Overused, focus often suffers the same fate as any word--it loses its meaning with overuse.
My mentor text

"Writer's Backgrounds" guided students to focus as a writer without my losing them by drumming the word focus into their head over and over. It also provided a fresh angle for me to encourage them to "dig deeper" or write "what matters" or tell me "why that is important to you." Yes, I explain that a "writer's background" provides a focus for us as a reader, but now  it will be interesting to see it in use as a writer.

Student writing on Asian stereotypes
Incidentally, the student writing does not have to be autobiographical narrative or memoir as some asked (or feared). Even if students are writing a persuasive essay about a topic in social studies or an informative essay about which guitar one should purchase, trying to connect an element of one's developing idea to something about us (our mind, our experience, our knowledge) funnels our thoughts into one idea. The "Writer's Background"  has kept my students on task...or focused.

I am going to continue to ask students to compose a "Writer's Background" as we continue move forward with our writing. In addition to forcing students to learn to whittle away their words to the core of what matters to them (narrow an idea), it also provides valuable insight for me as a reader--or any reader.

Student writing on family & travel
When we provided feedback in our peer revision groups, I found students offering thoughts about the "Writer's Background" and better, more insightful, comments about the essay because of having the "Writer's Background" read to them before the essay.

At some point during the lesson, I admitted to students that I often find myself skipping the writer's background when I read...and that maybe that isn't such an admirable habit. Maybe I need to change that about myself.

A few days after I said this, during a book talk of the YA novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins , a student noted that he also skips any of the prologues, afterwords, or anything included about or by the author.

But...this time he peeked at what Hopkins wrote in the Author's Note:
While this work is fiction, it is loosely based on a very true story--my daughter's. The monster did touch her life, and the lives of my family. My family. It is hard to watch someone you love so deeply under the spell of a substace that turns him or her into a stranger. Someone you don't even want to know.
Nothing in this story is impossible. Much of it happened to us, or to families like ours. Many of the characters are composites of real people. If they ring true, they should. The "baby" at the end of the book is now seven years old, and my husband and I have adopted him. He is thriving now, but it took a lot of extra love.
If this story speaks to you, I have accomplished what I set out to do. Crank is, indeed, a monster--one that is tough to leave behind once you invite it into your life. Think twice. Then think again.
Care to guess which book I reading now as my own independent, self-selected reading?  I love that one simple adjustment has contributed to our class in so many ways in just a few weeks.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Bad Breath of Business

This morning I read
an article in The Atlantic entitled Teacher Satisfaction Hits a 25 Year Low.

If you read the article you'll find a link to the actual MetLife study. 

Among the topics the study probed were leadership, stress, and professional development. As an educator of 19 years, I empathize with my peers who took the study, and I understand. What the study does not present overtly, but you'll see when you read the findings of principals (their job has become too complex) is the fact that education has been ground beneath the heel of the language of business.

Over the past twenty-five years, where teacher job satisfaction has declined steadily, the language of the business model began kicking us in the teeth.

And I left today asking the simple question--why?

Businesses fail every day. 

Businesses compete to put the other guy out of business every day.

The heartlessness of competition and cold reality of failure are embedded in any business model.

But back to bad breath of a 1996 study published in the Journal of Small Business Managment, the findings state that 64.2% of businesses fail over the course of a 10-year period.

What is debatable is how many startup businesses go belly-up in the first year or even the first five years. I have read from 50% through 90%. The numbers are debatable--absolutely.

Failure is an ugly reality of business irrespective of the model.

One might assume that businesses follow a "business model" for success. Yet, many fail. A "business model" approach is not a foolproof means of turning your cupcake shop, tap room, or pencil factory into a personal ATM machine. Nor is it the answer to education, even though the tentacles of competition and grave reports of our failure make headlines and policy more than we care to understand.

Yet, the "business model" or at the very least the language of the business model continues to be a twenty-five year trending idea for a wounded American education system.

Why? Why? Why?

Rod Paige, George W. Bush's Secretary of Education, said an interview, 

"There was a period in time when businesses were not doing very well. ... And they went to the social psychology literature, they went to the literature of organizational dynamics and organizational behavior, and they found methods of doings things, which really converts to the question of, 'How do you arrange for the human beings in the organization to be more productive?' So they benefited from this. ...
Now we say, 'This is business.' It isn't actually business. This is social psychology, and how you create more dynamic movement in the organization that is pushed forward by people. So I don't consider this to be business practices. I consider this to be good practices based on the discipline of organizational behavior."

The reach back to business alarms me because our biggest and brightest can not seem to help themselves from using the language of business, the language of widgets and profits. Paige said, "arrange for the human beings in the organization to be more productive."

Can there be any colder a view of education, young people, or educators?


When current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spoke about Renaissance 2010 (another education event attended by big business where no education scholars were present) said,  "I am not a manager of 600 schools. I'm a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I'm trying to improve the portfolio."

The language is there, it is all around us, and as an educator of nineteen of the past  twenty-five years of tumbling job satisfaction across the nation is troubling, and the reality is it does not appear to be changing anytime soon.

Just keep reading the news and you'll find the answers every single day.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reading Rate

Over the past nineteen years, I never asked my students to calculate their reading rate.  Reading  Penny Kittle's Book Love introduced me to the idea...and it has been eye-opening.

It started with a self-selected book just to create a comfort level as we discovered this new thing called "reading rate."  When I taught the formula and walked the students through it, I explained that our rate will change over time depending on the complexity of the writing within the text in addition to our growth as a reader. Monitoring one's reading rate should be a mostly private affair, so I took care to record the rates with their egos in mind.

The formula reads:
  1. Read a text for ten minutes.
  2. Record the number of pages read in those ten minutes,
  3. Multiply that number by six (there are six blocks of ten minutes in an hour).
  4. Double that number. (how far students should get after two hours of reading.
A colleague noted that I could gain the same result by having them multiply their number of pages read by twelve...however, taking them through the deliberate steps helps them understand why they are doing it as well as understanding their number.

Their rates were all over the place. For the first time, I had hard numbers on which to base my reading expectations--in the past, I would estimate based on what I thought. After nineteen years of teaching I have seen a lot of readers and non-readers, so I always felt comfortable estimating based on my expertise and observable behaviors--I always found that acceptable. 

Estimating doesn't seem like such a shrewd idea anymore.

Orchard House - photographybyjenniferbernard
Rethinking and remaking how I approach reading a whole-class novel is a work in progress, and I have been enlightened recently by our reading rates for Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. My students results extend from one extreme to another: a reading rate of 32 (low end) to a reading rate of 372 (high end)--again, that number indicates how many pages a student would read over the span of two hours.

I have some thinking to do as it would take my lowest readers up to 25 weeks to finish Little Women, whereas my best readers could finish it within two weeks--assuming they read for two hours per week.

I realize there are scads of options and methods to explore, but I just wanted to share the reading rate formula I picked up by reading a little Penny Kittle...if only I had monitored my reading rate for Book Love.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Infographics with Students

Created with, my infographic illuminates that some of our immigration decisions in our history have been made based on race and not citizenship.  My infographic is designed to be a mentor text--an example of the three components I am expecting in their work: visuals, content, and knowledge (explained below.)

Immigration_by_Decade title=

My students are currently working on creating something similar. We started the unit by creating lists about the things that fascinated us. I then asked the students to find images and writing about any of their topics of fascination.

The imagery could be artwork, photographs, or even original sketches. The writing could be news articles, magazine essays, excerpts from novels, song lyrics, poetry...a children's book...anything.

The idea was to encourage students to explore and learn beyond an encyclopedia or wikipedia--no offense meant to either of their resources. But I wanted students to understand that we can learn through the experiences of others...and sometimes that included a photograph, a piece of art, a masterpiece of music.

As they create their infographics, I am asking them to keep in mind three things:

  • Visual--the use of graphics, color, theme, or frame of reference should be helpful to the reader, not just cute.
  • Content--the bulk of the graphic should be facts and/or statistics.
  • Knowledge--they need to consider what insight they are presenting by laying out their data all together.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Balm of Anger

The following is part of my exploration of a topic that fascinates me--immigration. I am writing and reading alongside of my students as they also research a topic that has captured their fascination.

The lengths people go in order to become American, or live in a America, speaks volumes about how great we have it as well as how poorly others can have it across the globe.

The willingness to strip one's life of possessions and family heirlooms must be a shared experience among immigrants from many nations and many decades. However, to the immigrant in that moment, possessions must take on an immediate insignificance--after all, what value is there in a thing when compared to one's freedom?

In I Am an American by Jerry Stanley, the following quote takes the release of personal possessions to another level:
Stunned by the growing hostility, the Nisei tried to appear as un-Japanese as possible. Slowly, sadly, all along the west coast of America, they destroyed what they possessed of their Asian heritage. Japanese books and magazines were burned because of a rumor that FBI agents had found such materials in the homes of Issei arrested on suspicion of sabotage. Priceless diaries, letters, and photographs were burned; porcelain vases, tea sets, and silk tablecloths were buried or dumped on the street.
The Issei (pronounced EES-say) were born in Japan. The Nisei (pronounced KNEE-say), born in America to Issei parents, are American citizens. Stanley's narrative makes me wonder about a major difference between what my European ancestors experienced and what the Japanese-Americans were forced to endure. For the Japanese-Americans, the destruction of their possessions was an effort to make oneself "less"--to deny who you were, where you came from, to hide--to reject your blood--to scrub one's race and heritage from their skin.

This astounds me.

The effort to strip away a perception. The effort to throw away who you are. The effort to convince us that you are not what we fear you are. 

I am certain that some would respond that I should not be angry or embarrassed, but thankful. Nevertheless, I am left wondering what drives some of the decisions our leaders made in 1942, or the painful words they uttered.

For example, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt incited the American public's fear, anger, and sense of loss when he roared, "A Jap's a Jap and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen." His words reek of the need to blame and the need to physically vent out our emotion.  Anger and hatred becomes a balm.

When people slam doors or throw objects out of emotion, they transfer their venom onto what they have in their hands at the time...or what they can control. When emotion and common sense are in conflict, emotion wins.

And anger can literally pull us out of our minds.

Today I think of my Italian-American uncles and aunts who served our country during WWII. I wonder how they felt about the internment of the Japanese-Americans--both in the moment, and long after the fact. Was there a double-standard in my family? Or did they empathize, fearful of facing a similar fate as American was not only at war with Japan, but with Germany and Italy as well.

Or did my ancestors understand, that our fear and anger only ran skin deep?

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Good Stuff

Awaiting my students at their seats today are 3-4 essays written by their peers. I paper clipped the essays to their name cards.

As an aside, I use name cards at desks to rearrange the room every day. Constantly mixing up the seating order creates a sense of community that I am comfortable with. And I find it important in a writing class. Students get to know other students more quickly by sitting with different people each day, and they also find out so much more about each other through various writing activities.

Each student reads the 3-4 essays at his/her desk and leaves at least one positive post-it comment on each essay. It takes 12-15 minutes for the more patient and thoughtful students, and it takes 8-10 for the students who tend to always be in a rush.

As a model, and a guide, I stress the use of the word admire. Create a comment that points out something you admire in the piece. Or, as Katherine Bomer suggests in Hidden Gems:

  1. "Tell your partner, the writer, what his or her piece makes you think about, what it makes you feel, or what it reminds you of from your own life. In other words, what were you thinking while you read it?
  2. Point to places where you think the writing is "good." A place that you admire--that you almost wish you had written yourself.

We use sticky notes to leave our comments. I encourage my students to leave their initials in the corner of the sticky note to ensure a sense of control on my part, as well as to foster another non-threatening connection between young people.

By the way, I also slip my essay into the mix for student feedback...which they like...and I love.

As we roll through all five classes, each student essay should be receiving five distinct positive comments from peers...four from classes and students they may never encounter. I find this simple and efficient activity helps build on the sense of respect we all like see if our kids. Also, the students look forward to the feedback on many levels:

  1. it is fun for them to see who offered them feedback, since it is random
  2. they truly enjoy having the time to read the work of their classmates--they grow into it
  3. they get practice at learning how speak the language of writing and writers
  4. the act of receiving praise and encouragement can not be measured

In order to set this activity up ahead of time, I had the students submit two copies of their most recent. I have an original copy which I will assess and provide separate feedback on, and of course I collect the second copy and set it aside for the next day.

When place the essays out at their desks I try to ensure a mix of class periods among each pile--so the kid who gets his pile during 2nd period class will only read one 2nd period essay at the most.

It takes some management and manipulation with absences, band lessons, and everything else pulling a student from our classes, but I adjust and slide an extra essay into some piles, while also sitting among the students myself and adding post-its on the essays without a home.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Matters

Flip through a literature textbook. Pull a novel from a bookcase. Open the newspaper or a magazine.

The writing we'll find wasn't assigned or ground through the teeth of a rubric. The writing we'll find, in its current form, was discovered through the revision of ideas.

And through the freedom to write about what matters.

I would say all writers write to discover some truth through their own honesty, but that is not entirely true either. Yet honesty is the difference. And, honestly,  this much is true--we can only grow as a writer by writing about what matters to us--with honesty.

For example, I could assign "Write an essay about the very first friend that you remember." Or I could ask students to "Write about a major problem in our community." I could. And most, if not all, of my students could write something based on those prompts. However, none of them  might care about either of those topics. And if they do not care, then they can not grow as a writer. It is as simple as that.

They would go through the motions. Write something. And say little.

No rubric or writing prompt ever formed a better writer. Neither ever transformed anyone into a Welton Academy protege of Mr. John Keating.


A rubric is a rag to polish our gems. A rubric does not encourage writers, nor does it inspire writers. A rubric is a guide to being better editors of our work, which is indeed important. It matters.

But let us be honest. No rubric ever made someone a better writer. No Henry James. No T.S. Eliot. No Libba Bray. No Jay Asher. No writer was ever built on a rubric.

If we want to help foster better writing, then we must help students understand that the best writers are those who say something.

Teach our kids to say something with their words. (And how can they do that if we cuff them to a prompt that they do not care about?)

Yes, I am suggesting that we have a better chance at helping our students improve their writing by encouraging and modeling writing about topics that excite, anger, inspire, reveal, fascinate...we have a better chance at them having something to say if they have a chance to write about what matters to them.

Encourage them to write about what matters to them.

Yes, teach them the distinctions among informative, persuasive, and narrative writing. Yes, show them examples of those modes. Discuss them, share them, investigate them. Revisit these modes throughout the year. Yes, teach them.

Yes guide them and help them make connections to the literature you read. Yes, guide them, lead them, mentor them.

Then set them free.

Set them free to keep asking themselves, "why does this matter to me?" Teach them to write a draft, read it, highlight a line, a phrase, a word--the core of the piece--the part that matters most to them. Then take that line, place on a new sheet of paper--and write. Dig into it. Keep doing this until your writing surprises you...until the essay is trying to tell you something...until you learn something about yourself, or why planes fly, or why cats are afraid of water, or why you hate summer camp.

If you have written something that has not surprised you or revealed something or made you even more curious...then, we might as well just use prompts. Because we are not digging enough. We are not curious, or angry, or inspired. We are just passing time.

And why do that?

J.R.R. Tolkien liked writing about Hobbits and Ents.

David Brooks likes exploring topics as a NY Times Op-Ed columnist.

J.K. Rowling liked writing about Muggles and the Dark Arts.

Mark Bowden likes writing about current events, politics, crime, sports--he writes what makes him curious.

Emily Dickinson liked using poetry to help her examine ideas such as immortality, nature, and death.

Kurt Vonnegut liked writing satire. And we will find Vonnegut's voice in his work--we will find him writing about things that disgust him and things that fill him with awe.

And so I ask you--who writes about the things that do not care about?

The American student.


© CheyAnneSexton
Give your students this gift--break free from the canned writing prompt and use the rubric for all that it is--a rag to polish the diamonds they can produce with time and pressure. If we would only give them the freedom and time to explore and dig, and dig, and dig deeper still...because a rag can polish a beat-up rusty Chevy too.

And it would still be a beat-up rusty Chevy that nobody is buying.