Taming the White Rabbit and Making Time for Talk

Around this time every year, I start channeling my inner white rabbit.  As of today, I have 3 months until my kids will sit for their end-of-course exams.  If you subtract a half week for mid-winter break, a week for spring break, three days for state testing, and another three for a giant field trip that will take two-thirds of my class, I’m left with closer to two months.

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Image Source: giphy.com

 

There’s no way they’ll be ready. We have so much more to do.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly white-rabbity.

I missed Monday because I was out with a sick kid, and there were rumors of a snow day for today (which came true! YAY!), so the five days of teaching I had planned became three.  I stood in my classroom trying to rethink the day’s plan to cram more stuff in, but, luckily, my gut told me to slow down. My kids were *hopefully* heading into a three day weekend. I needed them to leave excited about their new writing projects and ready to spend a little of their snowy Friday writing.

Generating excitement, though, takes time.

This writing piece we’re starting is the most choice-filled thus far. Some of my kids have an idea and are running with it. Many, though, need some help. I decided to scrap the day’s plans and instead do some purposeful talk about our writing.

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With Apologies to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose: Strategies for Compare/Contrast Writing

Today’s post is from frequent guest-poster Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. You can read some of her other Moving Writers pieces here and here. You can connect with her on Twitter @kellyapace.

“Mrs. Pace, did you hear about Matt Lauer?” one of my students accosted me as I entered the Raider Writing Center, a student-led center for writing help that I manage and teach.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I often feel like I live in a bubble while at school, not knowing what is going on in the world outside of Room 211.

“Check on Twitter. It’s all over that. He’s gone from the TODAY Show because of sexual misconduct charges,” she said. I glanced at my Twitter feed and sure enough, I saw the news: 

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I stepped back, jaw open, stunned like I was reading about my own personal friend. Yet I was. I watched Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show every day as I took care of my first child while on maternity leave. He was my Olympics news source. I lived 9-11, Columbine, several presidential elections, and the War on Iraq through Lauer’s eyes. He looked at me through the television, and I thought I saw honesty and integrity. I marveled that day: If Matt Lauer can’t be trusted, I’m not sure who in our popular culture can.

Later that week, I sat down to figure out how I would introduce the idea of compare and contrast for an essay my IB juniors were writing. I knew my students had done this skill before; I knew they had made plenty of Venn diagrams in their time, so I needed something to really grab their attention. I wanted to teach about how to write a thesis statement for a compare/contrast paper and how to structure the paper so that it doesn’t seem as if they are isolating two subjects. I wanted a more organic and authentic compare/contrast structure for their writing.

Hoping for inspiration, I flipped through a file of mentor texts I recently put aside. Nothing. I trolled the internet. Nothing. And then I got back on Twitter. Matt Lauer was still clogging my feed, and I stumbled upon an article about the similarities among the apologies of sexual harassment cases: “Regret,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Predator’: Analyzing the Apologies of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Others Accused of Sexual Misconduct” Discussing the overlapping ideas between those accused of sexual misconduct, the article was intriguing, as was the cloud of overlapping words in their apologies that the article included:

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I suddenly had an idea. I used the public apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as mentor texts and asked my students to color mark similarities and differences for homework. Students came to my class the next block eager to discuss these apologies. They had no idea they were learning skills of compare/contrast for their upcoming papers, and they couldn’t stop them from discussing (and arguing) all of the ideas they did. We color marked their ideas together, grouping the similarities and differences to the side:

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Most agreed that Harvey Weinstein’s apology was the most sincere while Lauer’s was more emotional. Rose’s showed no growth at all. We also discussed the similarities like how much of the apology followed the same format: make an excuse–say I’m sorry–discuss how I will work on my flaw.

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I then asked students to write a thesis statement that presented an argument comparing and contrasting the three apologies. Here are two from my class that day:

Although Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer recognize that they caused pain and apologize and justify what they did, Harvey Weinstein is more sincere in his apology because he shows commitment to fixing what he did.

 

Although the apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer present a similar pattern, admit learning occurred, and clearly say they are sorry, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more sincere in their apologies.

We discussed the idea that their thesis should be an argument. Such arguments were easy to form because they were interested in the subject of these public apologies and clearly had strong feelings on who was more sincere.

In the end, I used this lesson to teach my students how to write a thesis statement and how to structure their papers for the literary analysis paper they were writing. The results were stunning pieces of writing that were far more organic than if I had them complete a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences. Later that week, I received an email from a parent:

“I just wanted to reach out and tell you how thrilled I am with your lesson on apologies by our public figures…In a day and age where lies are told so frequently, this lesson is so timely and just what all kids need.  We are in the ages of “lie, deflect, lie deflect.”  Thank you for this lesson of sincerity and accountability.  I’ve told my children over and over, sorry needs to be genuine or just don’t say it.  Don’t be “sorry you got caught”; be sorry for your actions.  Thank you for explaining this from someone other than their mother, in a way that is less lecture and more deep thought.”

When planning this lesson, this was not my intention, but I realize now that it added a bonus of teaching students character in writing instruction. Perhaps they would not only learn the structure of a compare/contrast piece of writing, but they also would learn the value of genuine words.
As a final note to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein: My apologies for using your public words as more than just uttered phrases. Yet, they have provided my students with mentor texts on the art of comparing and contrasting, enabling them to make connections and write more authentically in Room 211. For that, I am grateful.

The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

Low stakes writing: How I reclaimed my sanity and unburied myself from grading.

National Leave the Office Early Day!

My first year teaching AP Language, I was overwhelmed by the grading. The class culminates in a three hour exam; for two of those hours, students are writing three different essays. The amount of prep your average student needs to confidently bang out three essays asking them to do three different things in two hours? A lot.

But, I was new to the class and determined to prepare them well, so I parked myself at my kitchen table every weekend and graded. Essay after essay after essay. By the end of the first semester, all 90 of my students had written at least six process essays (Two of each kind! Gotta show growth!)  Second semester we dove into practicing timed writing so we did two EACH WEEK. There were about 12 weeks in second semester before the test so that means about 24 essays per kid.  Quick math? I easily assessed about 2700 essays that year. That’s insanity.

And it was completely unnecessary.

I know it was unnecessary because I’ve never done it again (my husband threatened divorce!) and my students continue to score better than that first group every single year. Over the years as I’ve shifted to a Writer’s Workshop format, I’ve made more and more moves toward low stakes writing because I’ve realized it’s really the most effective form of test prep.

 

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A Test-Prep/Writing Workshop Loop

I acknowledge that learning to really craft writing on demand (rather than brain-dumping on demand) is an important skill for our students to cultivate. They will all engage in some kind of timed, test-like writing situation in their academic lives. And after that, they will still be asked to compose something on-the-spot in job interviews and assessments.

But that doesn’t mean I ever want to give one minute of writing workshop to it.

We know how hard it is to find and make and carve out the time for the things that really matter in our classrooms. We fight for time to let our students write on topics and in genres of their own choosing. Handing that time back over to test prep is incredibly unappealing.

What if every writing study of the year in your workshop could double as on-demand writing test preparation?

Inspired by a session with Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins at NCTE 16, this is my new routine — one that allows students to practice on-demand writing regularly without compromising the integrity or routines of my writing workshop:

On-DemandFlash Draft

Allow me to explain and show you how this worked itself out in one writing study with my 8th graders this year!

Step One: On-Demand Flash Draft

At the beginning of a writing unit, I give my students a basic definition of the new kind of writing they will do or the technique we will focus on. I give them a few minutes to brainstorm or talk out ideas with their peers, and then I give them the rest of the class period to write.

For instance, upon starting a study of opinion writing, I said, “We are about to begin a new kind of writing which focuses on stating and supporting our opinions. This is the kind of writing you might find on someone’s blog, but more often in a newspaper or website. Typically, people use this kind of writing to share their opinion when they know that others are likely to disagree with them. So backing up your thinking with examples and other support is important. So, today, I want you to spend the rest of this class period writing about an opinion you feeling strongly about and explaining why you feel that way.”

And then they were off!

What? you exclaim. What if they don’t have ideas? What if they aren’t ready? What if they don’t know what they’re doing? 

Exactly.

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