In 1998, I put on my teacher hat and stepped into my 7th grade classroom for the first time.
In 2001, I started my Master's degree.
In 2003, I stepped out of my classroom and put on my mom hat to rear my three children.
In 2009, I began feeling like something was missing, and my desire to get back into the classroom and finish my Master's became stronger and stronger.

So here I am. Three classes away from my Master's degree. Trying to go back to work full time. Getting ready to do some substitute teaching. And feeling a bit overwhelmed--and really excited--as I transition back into a professional role.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ~ Mark Twain

Monday, March 28, 2011

Plugged . . . or Unplugged. Either Way, It's All Good

When I taught in the late 90s, we had very little technology. I had an ancient Apple computer to do my grades on, but I could never count on it to work—either it or the printer always crashed right before grades or progress reports were due. I did most of my work on my personal computer at home (which also almost always crashed or had issues right when grades were due).

I also had an even older computer that the kids could play games on if they had free time—but we usually couldn’t get it to work. I did have a great overhead that I used a lot . . . I loved that thing. I had access to a computer lab that I managed to get my classes into at least once a marking period.

Last semester, I was talking to another teacher before one of my classes started. She had had a rough day because her computer and smart board were down, and she didn’t know what to do and had a brief panic at the beginning of the day—how was she going to teach? I was shocked to be honest—if you’re that dependent on technology to get through your teaching day—and don’t have a backup plan—then maybe your technology isn’t working for you.

I thought of that interaction when reading the Tate article when he mentions that there isn’t really any proof that technology helps kids learn. For years, teachers have managed to teach without the aid of computers, smart boards, or remote control clickers, and they have done quite well. That’s not to say that there is no place for technology . . . I love the tech toys as much as the next person and can definitely see their place in my classroom. But an overdependence on them isn’t good for anyone. I often joke that all I really need to teach is paper, pencils, access to books and other materials from which to pull models. Of course, having access to word processors is nice . . . but not required.

Regardless of the place technology may or may not have in the classroom, it definitely has a place in the lives of our students. Tate mentions one of the most important things with regard to technology—that students need to be taught evaluate critical thinking skills to navigate the waters of the web and other sources. They need to learn how to evaluate links . . . where are they, who’s providing information, and so forth. I can’t agree more, and it’s one of the reasons behind my belief that teaching critical thinking—and reading and writing—is so crucial.

And there’s a lot to be said for unplugging and turning off the tech. I really like the assignment in the George article. Her visual argument was an intriguing project, and I could see using it as an assignment as is on its own or as a prewriting activity or a companion to a written piece. George quotes Selfe’s suggestion that “teachers of English composition have not, until very recently, had the means to produce communication that went very far beyond the word” (1444). I think it would be an interesting assignment to request that final draft with no guidelines regarding form. Students can pick the font, the size, the color, the layout . . . everything. They could then explain why they made the choices they did—kind of a blend of the visual argument and creative desktop publishing.

Unfortunately, until all schools are created equal, students are going to have different and varying access to technology. For me, I’ll use it if I have it and enjoy it, but I’m happy knowing that if push comes to shove and I don’t have access to all the fun tech, I can still plan engaging lessons and get some good teaching going.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Red Pen, Green Pen, Blue Pen, No Pen!

I'm sure many of us who have been in the classroom have an opinion one way or the other with regard to what you use to mark students' papers. Over the years, I heard conflicting opinions: don't use red pen, use pencil, don't use pencil, don't write on the paper, use a grade sheet, use a checklist, two praises for every push . . . and so on. And while I knew that I would be doing a lot of grading and reading as an English teacher, I was in no way prepared for how hard it would be. Not because of the time or my inability to sometimes decipher "on the bus" handwriting, but because sometimes a student would hand in something so far off from what was expected of them that it was almost painful to find a way to give meaningful feedback . . . and how to deal with the realization that sometimes you can't work with what you've been given by a student.

The reality is that as soon as students hand in their work, it has to be evaluated in some way. I really liked what Lynn had to say about grading, and I appreciated the sample paper he included. Many times I'd sit down to read papers, happily grade and comment and then reach a paper that seemingly came out of left field that I could not understand. Often, I'd go through it like the professor in Lynn's piece, starting at the beginning and correcting as I went. In my defense, we graded with Focused Correction Areas, so I wasn't marking every single error, but often I focused on what was wrong instead of trying to understand what the student was trying to do. At the same time, the reality is that sometimes you get a paper that you just can't figure out . . . and it goes to the bottom of the paper until you're ready to deal with it.

The idea of looking for meaning and having the student redo the paper makes total sense to me. To try to find what it is they are trying to say and help them put it together better. Often, I didn't have students redo papers . . . I gave them the option, but i never required it. In using rubrics when grading, however, they have to write to the assignment--which is why I'm glad Lynn included the assignment. After reading it, I can see why the writing was jumbled and hard to follow . . . I couldn't figure out the assignment either! A good reminder to always be mindful of being clear and concise.

Another part of correcting papers that really spoke to me was marking a line in a student's writing to see if they can find the error. It's a great way to encourage student accountability and learning--definitely a technique I will use in the future.

I think one of the hardest things about grading/assessing/evaluating writing is that no one ever really tells you how to do it. There are mountains of examples of rubrics and checklists and symbols and techniques, but when you boil them all down, you're left with a simple fact: you must read the papers and write back. I like some of the "real life" advice in these articles, and I think that reading them help reinforce my new thoughts on error and the importance of clear and concise--and kind--feedback to students.

Monday, March 14, 2011

No, I'm Not Correcting What You Say in my Head . . . at Least Not All the Time, Anyway

I thought of our last class and the idea that people often feel they have to watch what they say when I was reading Sarah Freedman's article "Moving Writing Research into the 21 Century." I had mixed feelings about the project they did--I thought Freedman was rather harsh and critical regarding her opinions of the teachers letters to the students, though I can see how she came to her conclusions. I also thought that the fact that it was an assignment took away it's authenticity a bit--though that's often the case in most writing assignments.

As I read, this quote stood out at me:

Center research has gone on to examine specifically how writers, from early childhood through adulthood, form social relationships with teachers and peers in ways that shape their learning and become part of their individual thinking, their cognition. (1050)

People always talk of the power of teachers--there it is. The relationships teachers form with the students have direct impact on student success . . . and it's an immense--and rewarding--responsibility to have as an educator. Freedman mentions Vygotsky and his ideas about how closely learning is tied to social relationships.

In reading the article--and looking back at my time in the classroom, it seems as if there is a wall--unspoken and unseen--between students and teachers because teachers are in a position of power. Sadly, some abuse that power, but I think most try to figure out ways to work around it. To have meaningful interactions with students while at the same time maintaining authority and discipline in the classroom. I think there will always be--and should always be--a fine line there. Maybe it's a think line. Either way, it's a socially unavoidable reality, and it's a huge task to teachers to be mindful of the power they have when interacting with students . . . especially when it comes to writing.

I particularly liked the thoughts of the British teacher who didn't plan the year before it started because "his curriculum arose out of the interaction with of students with each other and with him" (1052). Quite profound! The first year I taught, I tried to have the whole year planned out before I started. Never did that again! While I had a general idea of what I wanted to teach and when and planned lessons (they had to be on file, after all), I was always open to where the class would take me. Some things worked in some classes but not in others; some activities failed across the board. While I didn't go so far as Ross and not keep anything from year to year, I reflected on every assignment and modified them as needed depending on each class or student.

I also tried to keep things interesting and relevant to students, studying the things they were reading and using elements of their culture in our classroom activities. I did this primarily to motivate them and excite them about the content, and I can see roots of the cultural studies movement as described in George and Timber's article. I think doing this not only validates their culture as students but also contributes to the social relationships in the class that so influence student learning.

This video, especially the last line, is how I have always tried to interact with students. To impress on them that what they say is already important . . . while at the same time, teaching them strategies to get those ideas on paper--or in the air as Mali mentions in his poem--in the best way possible so that others can understand what they want to say. To do that--to validate, motivate, and inspire students while at the same time help them to be critical of their writing and find ways to make it "better" or more effective--is a challenge. A rewarding and often enjoyable one, but a challenge still.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Get Your Grammar On

This was one of my assignments in eighth grade English. It was for bonus points/extra credit and no one got it right. But we all tried ;).

I love grammar. I admit it.

I think I trace this love back to eighth grade. We read some stories and poems--I especially remember climbing down into the dark sub basement to listen to “The Tell Tale Heart” on a scratchy old record player in pitch black darkness—but mostly, we did grammar. Over and over and over . . . diagramming, exercises, sentence combining, labeling. And I loved it.

The only thing I didn’t love was our final project. We had to find examples off all kinds of sentences--ones with compound subjects, ones with three prepositional phrases, ones with two independent clauses and two dependent clauses . . . it was madness. I remember staying up way past my bedtime, paging through every magazine we owned, frustrated by the lack of complexity of the sentences. Finally, exhausted and frustrated, I turned to books and found almost every single one. What I didn’t find, I made up.

I never remember getting that project back or getting a grade for it.

I didn’t hate it—I was challenged by it. I remember being sad in high school that we wouldn’t get to study grammar anymore . . . my teacher’s told me I was expected to know it all and if I didn’t, check the textbook and figure it out. I was happy to find that in college, I could take a grammar course.

Maybe it’s something weird in my DNA, but I studying the language, taking the sentences apart, and diagramming them in my head (yes, I really do that). At the same time, I realize not everyone shares my love.

When I started teaching, the kids told me they hated grammar. They also weren’t very good at it . . . I had students who couldn’t identify the verb in a sentence. As I taught, I realized it was because many of them were taught in younger grades to look at WORDS to determine what part of speech they were. I struggled to show my students that often, you have to look at the whole sentence and see the words function instead.

Bored myself by the textbook, I rarely used it. I made up what I called “kinesthetic grammar” exercises and in class, I got the kids up and moving. They became the sentence, holding prepositional phrases and adverbs and moving themselves around with their friends to create sentences that spanned the front of the room. We talked about the sentences and what made them work, how all the parts functioned, and finally—how we could transfer that knowledge to our writing to revise and make better use of our words.

Though I tried to avoid the book, we did do exercises. I had kids find direct objects, prepositional phrases, and—much to the amazement of my colleagues—diagram sentences. I tried to mix up my instruction as much as I could so it was never rote or boring . . . though the students loved reciting the helping verbs as we memorized them. They loved writing huge sentences for me—I encouraged them to make them as complex as they could) and then timing me as I diagrammed them. As I diagrammed, I also verbalized what each part of the sentence was and how it related. We laughed at my misplaced modifiers lesson, and I hope students enjoyed the freedom they had as adverbs, who could walk around to different parts in the sentence moreso than adjectives.

(When I taught, we watched Grammar Rock for fun. I don't know that it actually taught the students anything, but it was very amusing to see them strutting down the hallway singing the songs.)

I will never forgot the day a student brought me a complex sentence and asked me if I could show her how they were diagrammed. Could I? (I could, and did. Could I know without review? No. But I could with some review ;)). I don’t know if I would teach diagramming to all my students in depth, but sometimes it’s helpful for students to look at sentences in a more graphic way (and I think diagramming challenging sentences is good enrichment for students who are interested).

As I read through the readings, I got a better picture of why so many people dislike grammar. It was interesting to see how for so many years now, grammar instruction has focused on error—finding what’s wrong and fixing it. Memorize those definitions. Circle and label the pronouns. I almost cried for the professors that had over 200 student each. I was overwhelmed grading the writing of 110 students at a time . . . it’s no wonder they tended to focus on correcting rather than responding. I also think that the traditional teaching of grammar was prominent for so long because it’s east to teach and score . . . much more so than assessing actual writing.

But the traditional manner of teaching (that I had and loved) just doesn’t do what it should. As Hartwell points out, research supports that having formal grammar instruction has no impact on the ability to write well. Much of the research I’ve been reading lately says the same thing . . . and it has for years. Grammar should be taught in context. Some think it shouldn’t be taught at all. To a degree, I agree. I think the task we have as teachers is figuring out a way to infuse the grammar in when it’s needed . . . teach it in context. Use students’ writing. Use authentic texts. Get the students up and moving. Reading Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined shows how to get students involved in the discovering of grammar and mechanics and using skills to better their writing—in authentic ways that never need a textbook. I loved every page of his book, and he shows how to tie grammar into context in ways that work and encourage higher level discovery and thinking.

I still maintain that it’s important to have some basic understanding of how language works in order to effectively use it in your writing. It’s hard to tell students that their subject-verb agreement is incorrect and makes the writing hard to follow if they don’t know what a verb is or understand verb forms. But I think there are dynamic and vibrant ways to teach grammatical concepts that, mixed in with some rote memorization here and there when needed, give students tools they can use in their writing rather than 10 sentence homework assignments in the grammar book they refuse to do (and I’d like to think I can squeeze a little diagramming in here and there just for fun).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rubrics--Friend or Foe?

I have rubrics on the brain.

I'm not sure why, but when reading through the essays this week, I kept thinking of rubrics--holistic or analytic . . . doesn't matter. When I taught, I most often used holistic rubrics. They helped me grade, and they gave the students an idea of what I was looking for. A win win.

Or so I thought. While taking Assessment last semester, I wrote some new rubrics, analytic ones, all neatly and succinctly aligned with the state standards. It was painful, but I think they turned out pretty good. While reading them over, I thought back to my vauge little holistic rubrics and thought I had made huge grading mistakes in using them.

But as I analyzed a couple of my old rubrics, I realized they were actually quite good. The aligned with the standards and the objectives of the assignment--though I didn't know it at the time. And they gave the students some idea of what they had to do, but they weren't prescriptive of what they needed to do for each level (grade). Now I'm thinking that was a good thing.

Britton et. al. writes
to put it simply, if rather crudely, I see the developed writing process as one of hearing an inner voice dictating forms of the written language appropriate to the task at hand. (465)

Flower and Hayes write
A writer in the act of discovery is hard at work searching memory, forming concepts, and forging a new structure of ideas, while at the same time trying to juggle all the constraints imposed by his or her purpose, audience, and language itself. (467)

I'm wondering what they effect of an analytic rubric, handed out before the assignment, has on Britton's "inner voice" and Flower and Hayes' "juggling of purpose, audience, and language." Do the imposed constraints of such a rubric hinder the student's voice? If the rubric already sets up (and gives value to) purpose, audience, and language, does that affect the student's juggling and take away from the process of discovery while writing?

Brands writes that
writing, too, is an exercise in inclusion and exclusion, a lesson in decision making and choice. It is the basis on which we make these selections that determine cognitive style and writing. (707)

Again, I wonder if the parameters set up by a rubric, while on the one hand helpful to students in making the types of decisions Brand is writing about, are actually not helpful at all? If the decisions are already made for the student in the rubric, then what role does the student play? And how can they find ownership and invention in what they are writing when they are merely following of checklist of what needs to be included? Britton writes that effective writing is spontaneous (463). Does the rubric remove the spontaneity? At what cost?

I'm not saying that rubrics are evil or bad (at least, not all of them). A rubric can be helpful to me as a teacher as well as to the students. Practically speaking, however, I wonder if there is a way to blur the rubric lines a little. Maybe give the students an assignment with one of the vague, holistic rubrics I used to use. The students would have an idea of what I'm going to be grading or commenting on as well as how much each part will be worth (if they are not equal).

Then, after writing, I can grade with the analytic rubric (though I'm still not convinced that's the best way to "grade" writing, but it is the current reality). When the students get their writing back, they can see where they stand and be given the choice to revise or a higher or different grade. That obviously puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the student . . . where it should be. Students then have some basic guidelines but can use more detailed ones for revision. Maybe it all boils down to freedom--for each student to write in a way that suits him or her . . . and maybe that means a rubric and maybe it doesn't (though I lean toward the non-rubric school I think).

I don't know. And I'm not sure anyone else knows either. But I do know how I think of writing as a process and how crucial it is for students to be engaged and empowered with their writing. And I wonder what role the rubric plays in that--a double edged sword at times, that's for sure.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Red Pen, Revisited

In the past few months, as I’ve read about curriculum and instruction, I’ve had some “eureka” moments. I’ve had some of my own small paradigm shifts in the way I view teaching and curriculum, and I’ve looked at my past practices in new ways. These readings brought out another one.

Rose writes that writing is judged by the presence of error, and Mutrick writes that that absence of error doesn’t guarantee good writing—a couple of the writing samples from Bartholomae’s show that. Countless essays and papers and other writings being graded, and it never really occurred to me that what I was doing was focusing on what students did wrong to judge their writing. That’s not to say I ignored what they did right—I tried to give at least two positive comments for every correction or suggestion—but that still doesn’t mask the fact that I was marking errors.

Too often I assumed the errors came from lack of attention to detail, apathy, or not trying. While sometimes that was the case, after reading Shaughnessy’s thoughts on error, I realize there’s another way I can look at it. I can see their errors as attempts to write more complex sentences or vivid detail. Trying to improve their writing and experiment and move out of their comfort zones.

Shaughnessy suggests viewing errors as those efforts to branch out and do more. That errors can show me what I need to do and teach rather than what the student has failed to do. I never really looked at it that way.

You could say it’s semantics. But I think that Shaughnessy’s way of looking at error is inherently more positive and helpful to the student—and me in deciding how to guide that student in his or her writing. Basic writers often face enough frustration in their writing. I’ve always felt in my heart that constant grading and corrections don’t necessarily help them increase their comfort levels, but the reality in the system in which we work is that work must eventually be judged and graded.

Maybe looking at the nature of error and changing the way I view it will make that process easier—and more enriching—for all involved.

I do think, practically and realistically speaking, that there needs to be some kind of judgment when looking at the errors students are making. As a teacher who knows them and their abilities, I think there’s a difference in a student who is not trying to improve his or her writing and therefore makes basic mistakes and one whose mistakes come from that desire to try to improve their writing and write in new and complex ways. Not as easy task, that’s for sure. But there does need to be some level of accountability for students . . . I find the errors and help them discover how to correct and improve them, but they need to make the effort to follow through and do so.