Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing has (Re)formed My Instruction

I never saw myself as a writer when I was a middle school student. It took my becoming a teacher to become one and be seen as one. And even that wasn't such a slam dunk to accept.

Calling oneself a writer carries a responsibility that I used to perceive as arrogance. It wasn't arrogance that I felt, it was dread.

The dread of sucking at writing.

My kids see me as a writer, and I call them writers. I promote it. Little things help--I have written in the past about a frame I have hanging in my classroom where I display a piece of student writing every few days. Next to the frame I write "See your writing as a piece of art, because it is."

Recently, a couple of students doodling at the board began to write and rewrite that statement in their own handwriting with a faint, blue dry erase marker. This doesn't mean that they believe themselves to be writers, but it was interesting to see it as a part of their vocabulary.

I try to write something everyday someplace. YA author Kathi Appelt told me that some days she happily counts the shopping list as evidence of writing for that day. While humor resides within that statement, it comforted me. I did not have to sit at my novel every day, and blog every day, and record something in my writer's notebook, and sketch, and think about writing.

But everyday I am aware of writing and the writer am I unfolding into. I think of myself, and my life, as a giant sheet of paper pressed and scrunched into a tight, wrinkled, wad. A paper ball that life's hands smashed into an easily recognizable form since so many of bury our lives inside ourselves. So many details hidden behind separate folds and creases and so few people we trust to unpeel just a bit of it.

It is the classic image if writing isn't it? So many wads of paper tossed towards waste paper baskets. Our frustration at not being able to find the right words to express what is inside of us defined by the cruel humor of the paper ball.

All of our secrets are behind those creases and folds of the metaphorical ball inside us. Yet we continue to pound and scrunch page after page and often don't even look where we toss it.

Seeing myself as a writer has allowed me to unfold some of that paper ball of my fears, joys, insecurities, and dreams--and it has allowed me to retrace those once-buried moments with words.

It took being a 40 year-old adult to realize I was a writer because I was human and have my story. It is this point that has impacted my writing instruction the most.

I can see the dread in some of my students when asked to write--even those who like to write. The dread isn't the act of writing, the dread resides within how we choose to see ourselves. To that end, I use writing as a way to elevate the kids in their own eyes and to help them find and see their own humanity.

When the dread begins to fade, we can start to unfold our life's paper, and begin to retrace those things that matter most to us.

We can find the comfort in seeing ourselves as writers because that often leads to finding the comfort of who we are and who we can still become.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Setting Up Middle School Writers for Success

For years, rubrics bothered the hell out of me.

I didn't understand them. I admit it--I was silent and went about my business nailing students for every mistake I could find on an essay according to the PA Writing Rubric key areas: Focus, Content, Style, Organization, and Mechanics.

Oh, student essays were a blood bath. And I garnered a reputation as a tough grader; therefore, I must be teaching these kids how to write well. The thing is, I never really set my students up for success when it came to writing. I would float out an assignment and sit and wait in judgment. Of course, some kids could write well--but for many, receiving a scored essay from me was a bit gut-wrenching.

And the same kids flourished (those who could already write mistake-free) and the same kids floundered (those who had no idea what to expect and caught my red pen like schrapnel).

Exposure to the National Writing Project, and immersion in reading some of the great educators, writers, and thinkers of today has given me reason to retrace my steps and rebuild my approach to teaching writing and assessing writing.

For one, my kids read more. They read more of their own choosing. And I'd rather not score an essay at all, but the reality is, in this world, scores are expected.

So back to my point about scoring essays and the change I made...

One way I rethought the writing rubric was to adapt the Collins Writing method.  I use more modified Type 3 models (Focus Correction Areas) with my writers--they serve as their rubrics.

Painting by Oliver Ray
I'll teach a few writing concepts, quiz the students on them and then place concepts into a Type 3 rubric. Writing concepts (grammar, mechanics, style, content, et al.) will reoccur on the rubrics over multiple essays throughout the year. At the bottom I'll leave some blank space for a personalized area of focus...something more like a Focus Correction Area. Students can choose this on their own, but I often touch base and confer with them on this point.

It is becomes a great tool if you have students with IEPs that carry spelling goals, etc.

This structured rubric gives the young writer something to try to develop and use correctly in an essay. I ask students to both highlight and mark one example of its usage so that I know that they know what they did. (This becomes something I chase my 13 and 14 year-old students to do all year long.) I am always returning essays and asking for students to highlight and mark what they used.

I only "score" the components on the rubric and each component is worth 5% out of a 100%.

If I ask for 5 components and a student gets all incorrect, they still receive a 75% which I rationalize as covering the production of their essay as well as honoring the good that is in it. If all 5 components are correct then they receive 100% for that essay.

In either case, this frees up conferring time to be about the writing and not the score. Even if a student gets all 5 components incorrect, I do not have to justify the score. It also provides something for us to work on in class, after class, online, etc. Students walk away knowing what they need to improve in addition to what they did well.

After scoring an essay (very quickly with this method) I spend the bulk of my time placing post-its on their essays. The post-its contain my observations and are always positive and encouraging.

I used to hammer students on every little error, but always had a difficult time ascertaining a score. Even the standard PA Writing Rubric based on a -1, 2, 3, 4 system does not help a teacher transfer that into a score. Is a 3 a B? How do you score a 3 in Focus, a 3 in Content, a 2 in Style, and a 4 in Conventions? Is that a B?

Isn't that arbitrary?

My old method of editing for every mistake also took me away from reading the essay as a reader. Literally, I was an editor and not a reader.

And so much of what we do is try to teach our kids to write for an audience, write for a reader. But who was I kidding? I can step back now and see that in reality kids were learning to write for their editor--me.

While my current method of scoring and providing feedback may not be perfect, it has done something that I can document--it has cleared the path for conferring about writing. It has cleared the path for me to teach the writer and not the writing. It has cleared the path for adolescents to not be intimidated by writing. And it has cleared the path for adolescents to understand exactly what is assessed.

But best of all, it has cleared the path for my young writers to see me as a mentor and not a scorer as they learn to write about what matters to them and own their content.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Perceptions of Middle School Writing

Memories carry what the word writing has been for many of us--something done in and for school. My memories of my middle school writing contain clear images:

  • erratic and still-developing penmanship
  • a slew of red-marked errors
  • most classmates had higher scores than I did

The way I thought about writing as I rolled forward through my education includes:
  • I have to write an essay for class.
  • I have to write my research paper.
  • I have to write my college essay.
Yet, a lab required for a science class, or a student-generated explanation of a concept in math class, did not seem to carry the same uncomfortable yoke of writing. I see the same patina on the perception of writing today. Students rarely see what they do in any subject other than English as writing. Additionally, adults, even within education, rarely see those assignments as writing.

Just ask any student for a piece of writing from any class other than English. I have asked, and it has astonished me that many students will say, "we don't write in other classes." Hence one reason for my reflection.

It isn't that students are not writing in other classes, it is that they do not perceive it as writing. Even the report or creative civil war letter produced for social studies class, or the student group proposal for changes in school nutrition offered in health class, is not categorized in the student mind as writing.

The middle school mind has been trained that writing is something you sweat. Writing causes bleeding. I felt that way through the late 70s and all through the 80s until I landed in college.

When I receive young writers at the start of 8th grade the gritting of the teeth and the tension in their death grip on a pencil is tangible in the classroom.

In a draconian misstep, the word writing has become synonymous with a barrage of red marks and symbols from an English teacher. Our adult generation has been trained to accept (and embrace) a teacher's wet-inked attack of student text as the preferred evidence of good teaching--good old-fashioned pencil-and-paper disciplined writing.

Tom Green's article When Grading Papers Red Ink May Lower Scores begins to scratch at the perception of how writing should be taught, A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests the use of red pens may make teachers more likely to spot errors on tests and to be more critical when grading essays." Some comments that follow the article reveal just how aggressive and indurate the general public thinks of writing feedback:

The line "How can students improve if they don't know where they went wrong" is everything that is indeed wrong with writing.

The answer is simple: talk with them.

Considering my own experience, I do not remember any guidance or encouragement of what I could do. I do not recall being given any specific writing tools or focal points for the grammar and mechanics of my writing. I do not recall conferring about the context of my writing or how I might fix my mistakes. So often, students have been left to fend for themselves as they stare at a series of marked errors. I have lived it on both ends--as a student and as a teacher. In a way I am confessing a mistake I made as a young teacher.

As a student, I remember the slashes and circles from the teacher's pen and I remember the score at the top. The slashes and circles might have been notes or tips, but I can not recall that. All I remember are that there were a lot of them and it overwhelmed me beneath a mediocre score.

On my best days as a thirteen-year-old I was a B writer. Usually, I was a C writer.

As a young writer and as a young teacher, I believe that approach did more harm than good to my development and to any students I taught in the 90s.  Actually, some of the best teaching of writing that I did was as a theme reader--my part-time job before I landed a teaching position. While I could make notes and mark errors, I had the opportunity to confer with students all day in five classes. We talked about their writing--the strong elements and the weak elements.

We do a disservice to adolescents when train them as technicians who expect handwritten editing as their sole meaningful feedback. Similarly, when we scoff and support the notion that a middle school student hasn't mastered grammar or MLA formatting, and therefore has not learned to write, we send the wrong message--a damaging message to future young writers and families.

Middle school students are not little professors, and few of them are shipping off to become English majors at Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Developmentally, it is more important to instill a love of a reading and a love of writing. And we can do this by talking with them--having a conversation with them--listening to them...instead of just pointing out every little thing they did wrong.

When adults color an adolescent's perception with what we romanticize as what the perfect incoming 9th grader should look like, we diminish what these kids can do--and it is irresponsible. Every incoming 9th grader is not stepping out of the idyllic writing setting of a Vermeer painting.

The heavy thrum of grammar and mechanics is behind the implication from my colleagues from other subjects that they can not teach writing. They remember the slashes and circles they received--their scars--and believe they do not know enough to do that to a current student's piece of writing. And I am thankful for that--imagine students receiving paper after paper with constant reminders of their technical fallibilities.

Think about any coach, musician, or dancer you may have sent your child to for lessons? Would your kid develop a love of that activity and grow and improve if all they received was the prickly feedback noting mistake after mistake after mistake?

Additionally, I have heard parents say in conferences that they can not help their middle school child with their writing. That is a shame, because all of us can talk about writing. We can all talk about content. We can all help our students and children by asking or sharing :
  • is this enough context for a reader?
  • does the writing just stay on the surface (and doesn't dig deep into an issue)?
  • does the reader understand why this is important to you?
  • how did you come up with your idea?
  • what have you read that is like what you are trying to write?
The reality is that grammar is a fraction of the writing process and MLA formatting a specialized requirement of academic writing. I do not diminish the significance of either, but neither should rule the perspective of whether a student has learned to write or not. Regionally, I point to the change in the scoring of the Pennsylvania PSSA Writing Assessment. It is no coincidence that the state has come to its senses and offered two separate scores for a writing sample--one score for the writing, and a second score for the grammar and mechanics.

Yet, too often, grammar and mechanics are what adults (administration, teachers, and parents) equate with being a good writer because it is what we were all trained to believe--if he/she can master a series of grammar worksheets, grasp MLA formatting, and espouse the nuances of the parts of speech, then he/she must be a good writer.

By leveraging grammar and mechanics above all else in the writing process, we continue train ourselves, and our kids, to expect an English teacher to be an editor. 

In a middle school the most important component of writing is content.

Teach the students to own their content--to enjoy their content--to want to dig deeper and develop their content. Let them run--let their pens run. Teach them to say something with their words, to truly move beyond the surface. What good is a piece of writing that says nothing but is all scrubbed up and polished and grammatically correct?

Without content we can not discuss focus, context, organization, or style. Without content we can not begin to address the basics of the mechanics or the grammar let alone the advantages of being strong in mechanics and grammar so that we can learn to adapt it to cull nuance and power out of our words.

Before any of that, comes content.

Kids can talk about content.

And everyone can teach or reinforce content.