Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Would You Do?

I was reading a web site that was meant to encourage adolescents and ran across this quote: “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” I have read and heard this in several versions over the past few years. It has now almost become trite, but every time that I see it or hear it, I go back to the first time I heard it.
A presenter in some unremembered staff development asked the question. It forced me to immediately become introspective. I initially thought about what I might do and then realized that fear of failure stops me from trying so many things that I might try. I frequently have a new idea and then start to think through it. The first problem that I hit, I frequently think “Ohh that won’t work,” so I drop the idea. Is that fear of failure? I recently heard Jay-Z say that “You learn from your failures, not your successes.” If he and the anonymous speaker of this quote are right, what am I missing out on because I fear failure?
In turn, what do our students miss out on because of their fear of failure? When I used to teach the “giant” research paper to my juniors, I always had a least one student who would come up to me at the beginning of the assignment and say, “Give me a zero. I am not going to do this paper.” This frequently came from having no idea about what to do; the project was too daunting. With reassurance and step-by-step independent instruction, those students were able to be successful on the project. How many zeros are placed in our grade books because of that fear rather than from the “poor student attitude” that frequently gets credit for them?
As I mentioned in a previous blog, we know students want to write when they come to us in kindergarten and first grade. What are we doing to establish a fear of writing in some of our students by fifth grade?
1. Do we focus on what is wrong with the writing rather than on what is right? Teachers
spend all day on a Sunday to mark up the students’ papers with things like the
following: frag, CS, ?, run-on. This does not teach anything except the notion that “I
cannot write.”
2. Do we use a red pencil to mark EVERY SINGLE ERROR in the paper? Why do we
need to find every single mistake? There is always at least one error—always. I will go
through this blog entry many times and have others read it, but there will be at least
one mistake in it—guaranteed. Actually that is what created hesitation in me when I
first wanted to write a blog: English teachers always look for the small mistakes. What
would someone think if I, the Director of English, made a mistake in my writing? I
actually think that I am getting over that—I would rather that you criticize the ideas
before the writing errors. It is in the commentary on my ideas that the discussion and
eventual change will happen.
3. Do we give short shrift to the teaching of writing because of our own fear of writing? Do
we avoid teaching what we fear ourselves? I came to teaching loving to write; I have
been a writer since I was in first grade. But I had always feared poetry. So in my
graduate work, I extensively studied poetry allowing me to be comfortable in the
teaching of it. Who studies writing? Have you participated in one of the writing
projects? Have you read professionally to improve your teaching of writing? What
steps are we each taking to improve our writing instruction? Go to iTunes U and look at
the writing suggestions from Warwick College. Our wealth of technology in Spring
Branch gives us access to some excellent instruction on thousands of different topics.
4. Do we demean the students’ thinking in their first drafts and discourage attempts at
writing by putting failing grades on them? What are we grading when we place a grade
on a rough draft? Can someone really fail at their first thinking on a topic? While we
want students to have a plan and a rough draft to use in their writing of the final draft,
we need to think of ways to encourage thinking in the initial drafts rather than
diminishing it through negative criticism.
5. Do we nudge students toward success, or do we shove them so that they are always off

balance when they are trying to learn a new task? When Matt Glover talked about the
teacher’s responsibility in writing instruction with kindergarten and first grade students,
he talked about determining the next “nudge” that the student needs. I immediately
thought about all of the high school students who were “shoved” by me into writing rather
than nudged. I wonder how much they felt off balance rather than comfortable with the
writing process. Do we teach in palatable bites, or do we teach so far beyond their zone of
proximal development that they cannot learn anything.

So if Jay-Z is correct and we learn from our mistakes, we should know a lot about writing instruction. What can we do to help our students maintain their love of writing or regain it if it has been lost?

1. We must become writers ourselves. While I am late with the entry for this blog, I am pleased to have pulled writing more into my life. I am constantly thinking about possible topics for the blog. Writing this blog gives me a deeper understanding of the skills and behaviors necessary to write. I become the example of how one might plan for writing. Writing this blog also gives me writing samples to share with my students. This exposure is also destroying my fears around publishing my writing for public consumption and enhancing my pleasure with writing.
2. We should allow students to write about things that interest them. The great thing about this blog is that I am writing about topics that interest me. It deals with ideas that are relevant to my life. How often do we give students topics that have nothing to do with their lives or interests? If I were writing a blog about strategies for selling potato chips, how willing would I be in the writing? I wouldn’t know what to write. I would have to do a lot of work just to determine what I think about the selling of chips. It would be an overwhelming task, one that I really have no interest in doing. How often do we give those types of tasks to our students? We are charged with teaching the writing of different genres and modes. We are not required to teach specific topics, so why not give our students options that interest them?
3. We should give students good writing models to read. If students are going to write well, they need to read good models of writing. Those models may come from their peers, from their teachers, but just as importantly from professional writers. By reading extensively students collect a variety of writing styles to use as needed in their own writing. Without those models, how do students know the possibilities in writing? While they should not be restrained by what they read, students need examples upon which to apply their own thinking.
4. We should discuss the qualities of those good models. As students are given a variety of models for writing, the students need to include in their discussion the structures that exist within the sample. Rather than give students a formula that demands one set structure for a mode or genre, students can read published works to see the structures that exist and how each author has adjusted a structure to meet her or his own writing styles.

Writing is about ideas, about ways to communicate those ideas, about audiences who read those ideas. We are obligated to help our students discover their own ideas along with ways to communicate those ideas. If we do this with joy and respect, we won’t destroy any interest a student may have in writing. Instead, we will build on their excitement and interest, creating Spring Branch students who enjoy writing and who happily participate in that activity. I wonder: “What is your nudge? What is your next step to build writers among your students? What will you do tomorrow to begin or continue the process of building writers in your classroom?”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Developing, Not Destroying, Great Writers

One of the great things about being an educator is working with so many folks who are focused on learning—the learning of their children, of their students, of the citizens in a community. It is wonderful to talk about the endless possibilities for our students. So I am always excited to participate in the yearly parent meeting discussing Pre-AP and the transition from elementary school to middle school. These parents are very excited but anxious. During this meeting parents are divided into three groups: parents of GT students, parents who need the presentation in Spanish, and parents interested in PreAP. The core directors speak to each parent group about the program that she represents.

Last week after my general description of the class and some questions around the amount of work and the pacing of that work, at least one parent in each group asked a version of the following question: “What should we do if our son/daughter hates to write? I mean REALLY HATES to write!” Every time the question was asked, parents throughout the room began shaking their heads in agreement. As an English teacher, I love talking about literature, but my favorite thing to teach is writing. Yet in each room there were parents agreeing that we had built into children a fear or hatred of writing. We simply cannot have that.

I guess the expression on my face caused parents to throw out excuses: One mother explained that she had been told that boys don’t like to write. Yes, I was perplexed by that also. I have four sons; two of them write on a daily basis, but all four keep a journal. They are avid readers and writers. I know; someone is now thinking, “But both of their parents are English teachers.” Very true. We are. But we don’t teach English at home. We read to and around our children—and now grandchildren. We value all of their writing and share our writing. But they each also had at least one teacher who valued those things.

Gender does not define one’s desire to write. Children are not born to either love or hate writing. They don’t come to the schoolhouse doors at the age of four with their arms folded in protest shouting “I hate to write and will not even try.” Instead, they come to us desperate to read and write. My proof is in the experience. If you have ever seen Matt Glover work with a group of young children, you know how excited they are to write. He introduces students to multiple models and sets them free to write their own books. I have seen a group of pre-kindergarten students work for 45 minutes writing and then sharing their books. Just watching these four-year-old children write with enthusiasm, teaches us all that they value writing. They come to school writers waiting to be guided by us.

So what should we do to develop a great writer rather than create one who fears or hates writing? In Spring Branch we start with an understanding of the writing process. That staff development begins with a three-week writing institute (Abydos—New Jersey Writing Project) in the summer. The continuous development of writing instruction comes from the School Improvement Specialist in the building as well as consultants like Matt Glover, John O’Flahaven, Katie Wood Ray, Heather Latimer and Tom Romano.

What do we know about being an excellent writing instructor?

1. We know that if teachers are going to teach writing well, they must be writers. Each of us should write regularly. We know that our writing should include writing the assignments that we give our students. And we can’t keep our writing to ourselves. To build an environment where writing is valued by everyone, we must share the writing that we do with others. I keep a personal journal, write stories for and about my grandchildren, and fearfully take stabs at short stories. This blog is helping me to remember the difficulty of writing for publication. If I remember the effort that it takes to write well, I won’t trivialize the efforts made by my students.
2. We know that to be a good writer, one must also be an avid reader. Each of us should always be reading something new. It would be wonderful to blend the reading that we do by reading texts that interest us and texts that interest our students. We also need to be certain that we are reading from a variety of genres. Again, we have to help our students hear us talk about the reading that we do. Lately I have been terribly focused on reading young adult literature. I recently finished the National Book Award winner: Mockingbird. This is a story about a girl with Aspergers who has just lost her brother—the person who helped her move through the world. It is very good. It would be great to teach with To Kill a Mockingbird but would fit with anyone who lives life with someone with a handicapping condition.
3. We also know from Peter Johnston’s Choice Words that identity matters. If I create an environment where it is acceptable to refer to one’s self as an author, then the students are more likely to see themselves as authors. It isn’t enough to have an author’s chair sitting alone in the room. We must see ourselves and our students as authors. That means we all use the language of an author. We all understand the writing process and know that there is never one right way to move through that process. We especially understand that the spelling and the comma are not the MOST important things to discuss when one writes; they may be the easiest for a weak writing teacher to point out, but they are not the most important discussions to have. They are also not to be totally ignored; that is why there is a process. I wonder whether our focus on spelling and punctuation is the root to someone’s fear or hatred of writing. Or could it be that we have our students write one time, we mark it up, and return it with THE GRADE? When do we value the attempt? The ideas? The risks taken by the author? When do we guide rather than grade? When do we encourage growth?

While there are many more aspects to being an excellent writing instructor, this is a good place to continue our move to quality writing instruction. What are you reading? What are you writing? What is the writing culture of your classroom, of your school? How are you working to build children, adolescents, adults who love to write and who write very well? Right now, pick up a pencil, a pen, or turn to the keys on your computer and write—what will you do today to build a love of writing into the culture in which you work? What will you do tomorrow and the next day? We don’t need to worry about STAAR. If we are raising writers, this test will be just another opportunity to do what we all love to do—write.

I want our students to leave fifth grade (and twelfth grade) as excited about writing as they were when they came to us in kindergarten. For me that means that we have to continually grow as writers and as writing teachers. My concern does not come from a worry about a score on a test. It comes from concern about raising great writers—writers who can communicate in the workplace, succeed in post-secondary education, share in their personal lives, and even, possibly, publish for the world to enjoy. I want all of our teachers and all of our students to know that they are writers.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FINALLY Stepping Into the 21st Century

Ten years ago I thought that I had rushed happily into the 21st century. I use an iPhone and an iPad. I have figured out how to use the iPod portion of my phone and can download a song while sitting in traffic. I can work off of either a Mac or a PC computer. I have even given up paperbacks for my Nook. Yes, I still scream “Richard” at the first inclination that there is a technology problem, but that makes us both happy. It really does. Heck, I went to ISTE last year. Doesn’t that make me technologically savvy? Doesn’t that make me someone who has moved from being “a child of the sixties” to an “old lady” of this new and exciting century? But last Saturday I was told—right to my face—NO!

On January 8, what I like to refer to as the beginning of my birthday week, Richard and I dragged ourselves out of bed on a beautiful Saturday morning to go to a district technology conference. I was going because I wanted to hear Heidi Hayes Jacobs. I had read her book last year and wanted to hear what she had to say. Richard was going to hear the Colorado folks in the afternoon. I have attended many conferences and ten times that number of workshops, but I don’t remember every being so absolutely challenged to make a change in what I am doing as an educator. Heidi was so strong in her presentation that I am now anxiously writing this blog.

Heidi Hayes Jacobs believes, like I do, that everything that we do must be in the students’ best interest. She also believes that the students should own the learning, a concept that we in ELA have been working with John O’Flahaven on for at least 10 years. She challenged each of us in the audience to learn one new twenty-first century technology tool that we would share with our peers and with students. When I mentioned to my peers that my job does not offer me the time necessary to really learn these tools, Heidi immediately called me out on that idea. “If you have time to buy new shoes, you have time to learn this” burst immediately out of her mouth. I know she is right. I bought new shoes at DSW on Sunday, so that afternoon I sat down and learned how to use It really did only take moments for me to set it up and create my first binder. I now know how to place web sites in there, but I could use some advice on attaching documents. My new philosophy: If I buy shoes, I learn a new technology tool. If I learn a new tool, I buy new shoes. This is certainly a "win-win."

Using the internet to communicate with one’s peers is also important to Dr. Jacobs. She asked who belonged to a NING. I proudly raised my hand. I have belonged to the English Companion NING ( for several years. But I seldom read from it. When I first began, I didn’t see anything new, so I didn’t take the time to really delve into the possibilities. On Sunday I went back to that NING and found many very interesting ideas. I read an archieved book study on Smith and Wilhelm’s book, Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements. It was wonderful to read what the authors had to say about the text. They enhanced and extended many of the ideas they had discussed in the book. I recommend the book and the book study.

Since Saturday morning, I have learned how to use livebinders, read extensively from a NING, and have now figured out how to set up and add to my own blog. Those of you who joined the 21st Century ten years ago are certainly not terribly impressed. I, on the other hand, am excited to be an active member of this new century that is and will continue to be influenced by technology. Next I am going to work with Karen Justl sent it to me, and it seems to be the perfect tool to have book club discussions around the world. Maybe I will see you there.