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!”  Continue reading

Pedagogical Documentation: How Writing Teachers Learn From Their Students

thefirstthing

When Allison and Rebekah asked me to begin a new year of blogging by considering the first thing I would want the writers I teach to understand, this post nearly began writing itself. You see, I’ve spent this summer learning more about the power and practice of pedagogical documentation, and this has inspired some unexpected shifts in my thinking about what matters most inside of writing classrooms.

Writers do.

Of course they do. This is a simple fact. So simple that we tend to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that the curriculum we design is intended for our students, but when I look hard at many lessons and units, it’s clear that they were designed to meet the needs of teachers and systems, not kids. It’s easy to assume that our assessments are intended to serve learners well, but if we’re disrupting learning in order to assess it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right just yet. And when we position ourselves at the front of the classroom, we’re typically taking ownership of instruction, aren’t we?

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Coaching Writers to Provide Quality Feedback

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Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio

When writers trust that they can consistently receive high quality feedback from their peers, everything changes.

Rather than relying on the teacher, kids begin turning to one another for support. They begin knowing and naming their expertise and soon, they grow hungry for cool feedback. Rather than hearing it as criticism, they take it for what it is: a gift. Quality feedback is timely, criteria specific, and of service to the writer.

Criticism isn’t the same as feedback, and neither are compliments.

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Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading

A Revision Plan for You + Your Students

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. A mantra I usually don’t heed until the end of the year. When I don’t have a choice.

Our end-of-the year to-do lists are sometimes so lengthy and complicated, the only way to keep up with them is to simplify. To pare the lists down to their essentials. To prioritize.

Sometimes student drafts feel a lot like the end of the year: fraught with chaos and  accompanied by a miles-long to do list. Fix your commas. Bring out your voice here. Can you say more about that? Add detail in the fourth paragraph. Have you thought about a title? Consider zooming out more in your conclusion. Don’t forget to italicize the title of the book and refer to the author by her last name! Paragraphing needs work. Let’s have a conference!

Just as our heads swim at the end of the year, students’ heads swim when they receive a paper — or have a conference — with copious amounts of motley feedback. Continue reading