From Facepalm to Firestarter: Embarrassment and Inspiration at a Writing Project Symposium

Facepalm.

By the second panel of the 2017 Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, “From High School to College: Engaging in Writing Dialogue,” you could have made a meme of me (or at least my inner monologue, since I managed to keep my outer composure), sitting like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with my head in my hands. After a 6AM drive to the flagship university of my Badger State and just one hour of conversation about writing with other secondary and post-secondary professionals, I’d finally realized something about my classes that had always been in front of my nose.

Ugh. Facepalm.

Shaking myself out of my embarrassed gloom, I grabbed a sticky note to catch my thoughts: “ALL of my classes are literature-centered!” I scribble-screamed. “I’m almost ALWAYS assessing students’ writing in terms of what it shares or shows about their reading. I RARELY look at them as writers alone!”

I thought about the assignment I had just returned to my IB juniors, a practice writing that I’d touted as a no-fault attempt at the reflective writing we would be doing all semester (in preparation for an “official” version in the spring). I had returned the papers with suggestions for content and MANY corrective pink marks. In my hurry to share with them how an IB examiner might evaluate their work, I hadn’t really stopped to listen to students’ writing “voices.” Even my follow-up activity had focused on grammar and sentence structure–the very things I had asked my students to ignore when assessing some sample reflective statements!

FACEPALM!!

Peeling my fingers off of my forehead, I continued to listen to the panelists as they discussed ways to reinvent instruction and assessment to focus on what we value in writing. I started to imagine myself as another hero of science fiction, Princess Leia, this time lifting a finger to press a button on R2-D2 and send my plea for a facepalm-burn balm out into the universe: “Help me, Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, you’re my only hope!” 

As my previous posts here at Moving Writers might attest, I am always interested in and attentive to finding new and innovative ways to help my students develop as writers, but many of my efforts have been tied to particular assignments or exercises. I’m just starting to do the hard work of redesigning my classes to nurture all writers and writing (not just literary analysts and their criticism or nonfiction and its reporters). In the week since the writing symposium, here are three steps I’ve taken to make my literature courses focused on building well-rounded writers for the rest of the semester and the future.

1.Survey students about our school’s writing atmosphere

Before we left for the conference, a colleague and I received a list of questions to discuss with our students from Jenni Hart and Mark Dziedzic of UW Madison and the Greater Madison Writing Project:

  • What role do you expect writing to play in your life during the next 5-10 years?
  • What do you think colleges/universities expect in terms of student writing?
  • What writing do you think is valued at your high school?
  • What does your teacher value in terms of writing?
  • How do you know what writing is valued at your school and in this class?
  • In the last 2-3 years, what has positively influenced your writing?
  • What feedback is most helpful to you as a writer?
  • How does grading influence your writing?

My colleague and I turned these questions into a Google form survey, and the results will give us lots to think about in the months ahead. It’s clear that what we teachers value about student writing (authenticity, originality, critical thinking, voice, authoritative evidence) isn’t always what students think we value, so it’s time to work on remedying that. Here, too, is a great opportunity to talk with students about what they value about writing and help them find ways to make their writing reflect what they value and what readers might need. 

2. Separate my reading roles

At the symposium, participants discussed how rarely we simply read student work as readers. Since last week’s symposium, I’ve been more deliberate and explicit about when I read as as a reader and when I read as an evaluator. Just thinking about putting on different hats helps me to stay focused on asking questions or, when necessary, commenting on convention errors. A little bit of mindfulness is already going a long way. 

3. Create opportunities to switch “modes”

I’m most excited (and scared!) about this step. During the symposium, a panelist suggested that one of the best things we can do to challenge and develop student writers is ask them to write one way (perhaps in a more traditional or expected form) and then switch “modes.” For example, students in my IB English A: Literature class expect to write many “commentaries,” or close reading analyses, but what if, after drafting a commentary, students switched modes and tried to share similar thoughts through a poem, a recipe, or perhaps an interview or dramatic monologue? Mode-switching could inspire a multi-genre project and/or student-led mentor text searches. As my seniors prepare for commentary and comparative essay exams this spring, I plan to include a mode-switching assignment or two in the mix. Check back here for updates on that adventure!

My facepalm epiphany has turned into a firestarter. Now that I’ve named the problem, I can go about solving it, and problem-solving usually results in my best ideas and plans. Many of you have probably taken the steps I’ve mentioned already, and I may be repeating a step or two from my past, but I know my classroom needed my writing symposium wake-up call and the mindful changes that have followed. I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to recognize how I was prioritizing writing about reading over developing writers, but I’m excited for the challenge of changing my approach. With another nod to Captain Picard, as I continue to “engage” new strategies for re-prioritizing my course, I’ll let you know if I was indeed able to “make it so.”

Had any #facepalm moments in your classroom or professional community lately? How have you turned those moments into firestarters? How have you found ways to nurture different types of writing in advanced literature courses? Please share your connections to this month’s post in the comments section below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 

 

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