R whose interview can be found here has several characteristics in particular that illustrate how she is aligned and differs with the student I interviewed first, M, whose interview can be found here
R, while by no means a “bad” writer for someone her age, is not phenomenal either. Much of what she lacks she makes up for with effort. Though she fits the profile to some degree, preferring to do some of the pre-writing steps of which teachers are so fond “in [her] head.” Technology has made the drafting an revision processes happen concurrently for R, and she has heretofore not seen the value in going back again for more revision. She is the kind of student, though, who will and does ask for help. Further, she typically uses requisite revision time more fruitfully than M does.
A few of R’s statements paint her in favorable perspective with M. M is easily within the top 5% of writers that I have worked with this year, yet some of her characteristics are potentially problematic from a pedagogical standpoint. M willingly admits that she typically does not apply more than 80 percent of effort on assignments. She does not engage fully with the writing process, even when it is required of her; M seems to hardly have faith in that process as a means to improve an individual assignment or her writing skills in general. With fewer intellectual gifts, she could be a nightmare to teach.
I wrote earlier that I heard of some History teachers who believed that teaching writing was not their responsibility, but the responsibility of English teachers. R gives great (and relieving!) evidence to the contrary: history teachers whose goals and expectations from students include writing. Indeed, in R’s case, the writing she did in AP World History challenged her more than the writing she did in her Honors English class, which likely has to do with the varied kind of writing an AP class can require a student (especially a freshman like R) to write at a high level: DBQ’s, position papers, research papers, etc.
When I introduced R’s interview in a previous post, I mentioned how I thought she was in interesting case study in perseverance. Allow me to explain in a bit more detail here. At one point in her interview, R spoke a bit about her history with reading and writing. She remarked that she “hated” reading growing up. She was put in “remedial” writing classes when she was younger because, as she says, she “couldn’t spell”. That kind of statement from your teachers has to be discouraging. Indeed, her time in those classes made her less willing to read, even though she was at least proficient at it. I would wager that many of the kids who are put in any “remedial” class for subject would have a much lower academic trajectory, lower patience with schools and educators, and a lower level of engagement with academic tasks. R and her parents (who she also identifies as unable to spell) did not buy into the dogma, moving her into “Honors” classes in short order. Now, she “loves” to read, and is writing with success. Some combination of R and her parents kept her invested and motivated, and the results, while potentially anomalous, are evidence of her persevering character as a student.
One of the things Im realizing that I’m intersted in is why people who are successful at writing have that success. Over the course of our brief interview, Mr Sellars explored beliefs, experiences, and pracitces that help him succeed, as well as the ways he applies those in the classroom to help adolescents achieve success in writing.
Mr Sellars recounted being encouraged to read as a child, but not specifically being encouraged to write. My parents gave me similar encouragement, even investing in “Hooked on Phonics” which was a series of video lessons on reading designed for pre-shcoolers. Though the environment was very supportive of reading, I can scarcely remember being encouraged to write (which may explain the quality of my handwriting, which to this day resembles aboriginal hieroglyphs to everybody but me). Mr. Sellars feels that the two subjects are related closely enough to be subsumed into a larger category “consumption of letters.” Any college kid on studying abroad in Vallencia can attest that immersion in a foreign language can help develop fluency in the langauge; English is no different. Fluency is a challenge with as many Carolina natives as it is first generation Vietnamese or Mexican immigrants.
There is currently some interesting debate about deveoping fluency in high schools. Most elementary and middle school classrooms schedule time during which the students are read, or during which they read to themselves. The predominant notion about high schools, though, is that time spent doing sustained reading in class is time wasted, that stuents by then should be responsible for doing that kind of academic exercise outside of the class, so class time can be spent actually “teaching” things.
Mr Sellars spen a great deal of time emphasizing how important it is for kids to “simply write”. He believes, as I do, that many of the students who do not enjoy writing and/or struggle at the craft of writing can have extremely low writing stamina. For many of those kids, a teacher who assigns more than two to three sentences of writing at a time is sadistic; to them, a handwritten page is a dissertation.
We push for time spent simply writing to battle some of the shortcomings of what we could conceivably recognize as a generation with a greater preference to (cultureal predisposition toward?) than our own. Mr Sellars and my ambitions are threefold: first, we want students to practice the rote skill of filling a page with characters; second, we want to give show them that they can have success writing in an academic setting; finally, we want to we want to help them develop their own voices as people.
We seem to have different opinions about the importance of editing and revision steps. Although Mr Sellars acknowledged that he didnt achieve his gretest successess with writing until he had a college professor who held him accountable for polishing it through revision, he seemed to downplay that process in his own classroom. Teaching revision, scheduling whole blocks of time in which students critically examine peers writing as well as their own, is a crucial tool in my teaching utility belt. I structure it typically such that every student is reminded of the important parts of a paragraph or essay (thesis statements, topic sentences, etc.). The students then identify these things in their own writing by circling this, underlining that. Then they exchange papers and do another round of examination, with time at the end for partners to explain what they were trying to do, as well as what did or did not work in a piece of writing. I think it gives writers at every level to see how others approach a similar question or task. Its an opportunity for stronger students to guide their peers, and its an opportunity for weaker writers to borrow techniques and patterns that stronger writers may employ intuitively. This is not to say that Mr Sellars doesn’t do these things, or doesn’t believe they are valid tools, merely to reinforce how strongly I do believe.
In my next post, I will concern myself with where she aligns herself with the previous two interviews as well as where she separates herself. Like the other students, she dislikes the way teachers force the writing “process” upon her, but she differs in that she prefers “to do it in [her] head.” Additionally, R has a curious past when it comes to reading and writing, and I think she is an interesting study in perseverance. Finally, I will pay particular attention to her comments about what classes and circumstances help her write, as well as her history with literacy. I will try my best to put the former into conversation with my earlier thoughts about history teachers’ relationship with writing.
As I mentioned earlier, I will be using the resources I have at hand to supplement these posts. Namely, these will consist of graduate students with whom I am acquainted. First among these students is Mr. Sellars, a candidates to receive his Masters in the Art of Teaching High School English this summer. I think he brings a particular perspective on the conversation, as someone who willingly acknowledges his successes and failures as a writer, as well as someone who spends a good deal of time teaching writing habits and skills.
Of particular and immediate value are his comments on the characteristics of good and bad writers whom he has encountered as a teacher, as well as the arc of his history with writing, and its”brother,” reading.
What I value most about his input is the points of symmetry and the points of opposition between some of his positions and some of the positions I have heretofore offered. In my next post I will spend significant time unpacking his thoughts on writing with the intention of allowing them to highlight some of the current debates in literacy theory.
The first two interviews that I have completed show two very different kinds of writers. These two students are in the same class, and are asked to do the same kinds of tasks in class, from teacher input, to formative assessment, to summative assessment. By comparing their responses to a similar set of questions,we can begin to peek into the predilections and behaviors of the adolescent vis a vis writing.
you may, refresh yourself on these two students, reader, by watching their interviews here:
M believes not only that she is a good writer, but that her maximum effort isnt required. is taht a sign of her giftedness or of how teachers assess writing? Many English departments come up with a standard set of requirements that a piece of writing should meet in order to earn a certain score. These requirements include things like clarity of thesis statemnt, sufficient textual support and elaboration, overal organization of thought, and basic spelling/grammar/fluency. While these are good paramaters with which to engage the vast majority of writers, it’s possible that some writers, like M, may need more nuance in assessment of their writing. A “4 out of 4″ is a goal to which D, the second student interviewed, can and does aspire to. He, and most students, work toward creating topic sentences that capture what each paragraph is attempting to support; he, and most students, are working on using specific words and phrases from a text as their evidence, and then explaining to the reader how they support the topic sentence. I have a sneaking suspicion that I could ask M to write an essay in 30 minutes based on a poem that she had never seen before, and she would write something that meets the “4 out of 4″ criteria. After drafts and drafts, peer and teacher revision, a significant percentage of my students would still not reach that mark.
But what could that kind of differentiated assessment look like? Should a teacher, who knows that she is an exceptional writer, assess her using different criteria than the other one-hundred-plus students I teach? Lets assume that a classroom already is differentiated for standard/honors split; if one or two students write at a level that is consistently a level above all the others, should I create a new category, a “super-honors” that challenges them to refine their skill? Or should the school/system have avenues for high-achieving students to enrich their writing in extra-curricular clubs/groups? Sorry for posing these difficult questions, but they are ones that trouble me, ones that I feel driven to contemplate.
To those ends, M and D cite a few other differences in their writing habits. M writes poems every once in a while, as a way to relieve emotional stresses; D really does nothing of the sort. D, although he may dislike the tedium of the writing process that teachers emphasize, realizes its value, and has notices a significant improvement to his writing once he began implementing them with gusto. M cites a kind of ease with which she generates ideas, compiles effective support, and creates an organizational logic that supports her arguments. While D claims his main problem with writing lies in a lack of vocabulary, I would argue that at a deeper level, he doesn’t as naturally or confidently generate, support, or organize his thoughts in words. To make matters worse, even when invited (but not required) to draft and revise, he may dislike writing to a significant enough extent that he prevents himself from engaging with and practicing those skills.
I found it interesting, but not particularly enlightening, that both D and M enjoy reading histories, memoir, biography. If I had to peg one of them as a fiction reader, it would be M, because she is young, creative, creative, and female, though it seems my presuppositions are again inaccurate. Similarly, both D and M agree that students may write more when encouraged, but should that encouragement bleed into the excessive or punitive, they would push back against it. While they didn’t go into more detail, I could imagine that resistance be an overt refusal to write, or simply a slackening in effort leading to a less refined product. Frankly, I have seen both
Finally, I think it is important to note how these two students describe their relationship with writing when they were younger. D, who professes talent in math and science, and hopes to be an engineer, was encouraged to practice math skills when he was younger, at the behest of his father. M, who claims no set career goals, notes that she was encouraged to read and write quite a bit. more than anything a teacher can do in one meager year with an adolescent, I think having a foundation in which a child is encouraged to read and write, has success with it, and perhaps most importantly, is not allowed to quit when he or she struggles, is most crucial to having success as writers.
As per usual, reader, I encourage you to suggest areas where I might improve my query or where i might focus my analysis. Until we meet again, happy writing.
I promised you that I’d do some in-depth comparison of my first two interviews, and I pinky-promise that I’ll have that up for your perusal this weekend.
In light of revelations about the task-completion rates of the kinds of students I’m interested in, I have decided to make lemonade out of these few lemons. Indeed, I refuse to let a few dozen “lost,” “eaten,” and (my personal favorite) “already turned in” parent consent forms ruin my day (and blog).
So, realizing this week that I have a dearth of resources around me, I’ve decided to do an interview or two of the group of people around whom I spend the second greatest amount of time: grad students. They (we) are required to do a fair bit of thinking about student literacy, so they might be useful in this regard.
I need to consider what questions to ask them, though; my standard fare will be ill fitting for this use. I think the questions will be centered around how these adults’ perceptions about writing (its use, the skill/practice necessary to get good at it, the process [if any] they use to write their best work, how their beliefs have changed since study post-high school) and about teaching writing (methods, successes, failures, and the like). You should see this interview by tomorrow night, so BE EXCITED.
Also, it’s NCAA tournament season, so lemme just say GO HOOS! #WAHOOHA
Meet D. He just turned sixteen and is a freshman in one of my English Classes. in many ways, he is a very different studetnt from M, whom you met in my last post. Durham public schools has two main designations for freshman English classes: “Standard” and “Honors”. D is pretty much as “standard” as a Standard student can be. He’s a hard worker in class, with some obvious intelligence, but is a student who does not excel or whose grades do not indicate “mastery” of the subject matter.
I asked D the same questions and his responses can be found here:
(again, if anyone is less interwebz-deficient than me and can tell me how to embed a Youtube video on WordPress, I’d be super grateful, and probably grant you three wishes or something.)
In no particular order, there are a few things that stood out to me in D’s interview (as usual, if you think I’m missing anything advise me about it in the comments):
Pretty early in the interview, I asked D why he thought he struggled at writing; he quickly pointed out his vocabulary, or lack thereof. He said that his dad made him focus on math and science related study when he was younger, and that he therefore didn’t spend that time practicing writing and vocabulary skills. I wonder if he came to that conclusion on his own or if he picked it up from somewhere else. He mentions more than once that if you don’t practice something, you won’t get better at it. Maybe the idea of practicing reading, writing, and literacy to improve them aren’t as abstract or debatable as some people suggest…
Relatedly, I find it interesting that his mom is a writer in the field of education, but he still thinks the majority of his focus was on math/sciences. Maybe that’s what dad does and that’s who D emulates most. Even though I’ve gotten students’ and parents’ permission to ask these kinds of questions, I’m still hesitant to pry too deeply into home life…
D commented that learning Arabic and English simultaneously was an interference for him, that he didn’t learn English well because he was hearing/learning another language at the same time. This comes as contrary to what a lot of educational theorists say now. Many believe that students who are raised in bi- or multilingual households will have better language skills, a belief that has caused primary schools to offer foreign language immersion programs in several languages. This was also a point that I could have explored with M last week; I believe here parents are Portugese, and I wonder if she could shed some light on the question of bilingual households.
D gives 100 percent in class but thinks some of the steps are unecessary, or at least doesnt like them. I can attest to that. He requested a seat near the front of the class, and D takes notes as diligently, and engages in discussion as enthusiastically as any student in the room. despite that, he readily acknowledges that the skills we seek to practice and reinforce in the classroom have made his writing better, but still doesn’t like to do/use them. I’m interested in taking a look back at some of his work to see how he fared on the pre-writing and revision steps that we have undertaken in class. In general, these are the steps that half-way completed if they are completed at all.
D’s preferences outside of school align with his performance inside school. I find it intriguing but not suprising that he likes to read history wikis “all the time”, but doesn’t enjoy fiction. This opposition to “made-up stuff” was evident throughout our last unit on poetry. In addition, it correlates to his favorite writing assignment, in which he was asked to look back on an event in his life, and basically write a history of himself. In addition, he said that he enjoys/prefers oral communication over written communication, which makes sense, considering his admitted love of improv and acting.
I wonder if we spent more time creating curricula that take student interests into account, would we then be able to serve more students. It may be a slippery slope though; I teach 140 students on a given day, how could I presume to to even pique the interests of the majority? Or perhaps more fundamentally challenging, when would I find the time/resources to poll students in a meaningful way, tally results, and manipulate unit and lesson plans for individual class interests? Le sigh.
I’ll be spending the next post more directly comparing the responses of the two students documented so far.
I missed an opportunity to ask about how he uses technology in his writing, which he brought up. I also missed (twice now!) opportunities to push harder into home life of students. Again, if you think of anything I missed, feel free to document my inadequacies in the comments.
She is a freshman at Durham School of the Arts, and one of the more (if not the most) naturally talented writers that I have come across.On the last essay assigned in class, we provided ample opportunities for students to engage in all facets of the writing process in class. On the peer revision day, she sat around, bored. She told me that “nobody in my group can help me.” I merely scoffed, advised her to make sure she was helping THEM at least, and prepared to grade her essay extra-hard. A few days later, when I got to her essay in the grading stack, I flexed my hands switched to a new red pen. What I read had its flaws, but would have been writing that a senior could stand by (and perhaps more tellingly, would have been writing that earned AT LEAST a passing grade in an introductory english/writing course at university. M is fifteen.
I asked her the list of questions we compiled a few weeks ago. You can find her responses here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JuRjdsFGac
(i REALLY want to embed video on wordpress, but it’s fighting me. If anyone can shed light on this, let me know; please and thanks! )
So, what do you think of her? Does she remind you of yourself, or anyone else? Will her predilections to be lazy come back to haunt her, or will her acknowledgement that the writing process can be beneficial stick a little harder and encourage her to actively hone her skills? As important, what questions do you think I forgot to ask her? Please feel free to answer these questions and/or pose any new questions that come to mind in the the Comments.
Tune in next time, Faithful Reader, and I’ll answer some of these questions and more, as well as postulating about what “kinds” of writers I have come across in the past few months as a Teaching Intern.
I had an interesting conversation with an English teacher in DPS this week. She commented dryly on how much resistance she has been met with when she has suggested that History teachers also teach writing skills. “A history class does so much writing, particularly if it’s AP,” she added; “but many of the teachers will assess the students skills and never do anything substantive with that knowledge. They’ll say: “this kid can’t write. He’ll probably fail. This kid can write. He’ll probably do well. Narrowing that gap, teaching the fundamentals of writing is not our responsibility”
I think I share her frustration, and for multiple reasons. First of all, it takes a village to raise a child. There are few villages as intellectually sound (theoretically) than a school. If one member, the English teacher, is working on skills with a student, but he or she is never supported by the rest of the village, only so much progress can be made. That metaphor is reciprocal, and I embrace it: I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I’m fully aware that it would be impossible to do it justice without grounding it in the historical context of Elizabethan England.
Second, it could be that we all, educators, mentors, and tutors alike, need to consider what our real goals are. If i just want to “teach Shakespeare,” I can read it at kids for two weeks, give a test at the end and say it’s done. But my goals are greater than any single tool (work of literature); I want them to be unafraid to read a challenging text, to be able to infer more than what is written on the page, to critically analyze that information, to develop an opinion based on the text, then express that opinion cogently and coherently.
fearless engagement with challenging texts; drawing inferences; critical analysis; developing a position based on the text; articulating that position with support.
Those seem like reasonable goals for a history classroom. For some, the next logical question is might take some soul-seaching to answer: Which is more important to impart to a fifteen year old, these discrete skills, to be used every day of adult life, or the causes, actors, and results of the Whiskey Rebellion? (The what? Exactly.)
If they seem mutually exclusive, we have a problem. Frankly, it’s suprising and disturbing that “professional” educators won’t take the time to teach a skill that will help students succeed in their content area, just because it’s labeled, or categorized, or intially perceived as a “different subject”. I use scare quotes, because I’m afraid.
On a lighter note, I have my first interview scheduled for tomorrow (yippeeeeee!!), so I should have a video to share with you, faithful reader, anon.
I spend most of my waking hours around teenagers, learning about them and myself, and actively thinking about why we emote and produce art the way we do. In order to get a frmer grasp on that very topic, I have decided to take advantage of my placement within Durham Public Shools, and devise a series of questions, to be delivered in a casual interview format, that will hopefully reveal, to me, to you, and to the students themselves, something meaningful about their beliefs, habits and preconceptions about that most polarizing of skills/hobbies/academic subjects: writing.
I’m using this space to contemplate, draft (and share) some of the questions I will ask in these interviews. Though I foresee myself asking educators as well as other non-high school students, I will create the primary set of questions with my main target, the adolescents, in mind. They will be organized, here and in use, into two categories: “writing habits” and “writing predispositions”. The former will be generally focused on the occasions and subjects on and about which they write, while the latter will focus on their beliefs about their own writing, writing as a method of expression, etc.
*Note: while I intend to have a baseline set of questions, I do not intend to script every student interview in its entirety; for the relative sanity of all parties involved, I will allow myself the flexibility to forego some queries and to change the order of queries, as well as allow student responses to prompt follow up questions. This is not a psychological study, and does not portend to deliver that level of heft or soothsaying finality.
Do you consider yourself a good writer? What makes you think that?
Do you give 100%effort on writing exercises and assignments in school?
I know a lot of English teachers are always stressing outlining, revision, and a bunch of drafts. Do you do all those when they are suggested but not required?
Do you do any writing other than when it’s assigned for a class an school? What kind?
Have you (or anyone on your behalf) ever read any of your writng in public? In front of class, at a celebration, at a religious event?
Preconceptions about writing:
Do you enjoy reading outside of class? If so, what?
Do you think people that like to read a lot probably like to write a lot?
Whats the best thing you’ve ever written?
Did your parents make you read or write a lot when you were younger? Do you think when parents push their kids to write it makes them want to do it more?
Whats your favorite way to express yourself? Do you think being good at that makes you want to write more or less? Makes you better or worse at it?
Do you think that the drafting and the whole “writing process” that teachers make you do makes your writing better?
Have you seen any improvement in your writing skills since this school year started?
Do you think you’ll need to write much after high-school? What do you see yourself doing?
As time passes I may add or subtract questions from this list. As you, reader, see fit, please (read:I’m inviting/begging you) submit suggestsions, comments, and/or concerns via email or comments on this post.
For the nonce, I must away, folks. Until next time, happy writing.