The Science of Teaching Writing

A blog on teaching, with an emphasis in teaching writing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A New Resolve

The night before, everything felt right. I had moved 1,200 miles to a place where I knew no one. I had my first teaching job and felt I was where I belonged. I spent the evening grading papers and watching the Bronco game on Monday Night Football. I remember Ed McCaffery broke his leg and the constant replays of his leg snapping. I went to bed thinking, “How horrible.” My definition of horrible changed the next morning.

I arrived at school early. It was a warm fall morning with clear skies, a bright sun just over the plains. I walked out of my modular trailer classroom in Wellington to go to next door for a cup of coffee. Jenn, a fellow first year teacher had made coffee and the TV was on. I smiled, said good morning, but she said, “Someone just flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”

Less than three months earlier I was on a boat, headed to Ellis Island to find my grandmother’s name. While on the boat, my uncle took picture of me, the two massive towers in the background dwarfing everything else. I remember seeing them in countless movies, even on a sweatshirt when the Yankees won a world series in the 1990’s. Now, someone had flown a plane into it.

“Was it an accident?” I asked. I couldn’t image anything other than stupidity to cause this—some drunken pilot in a twin prop plane.

“No,” she said. “It was a passenger plane.” Her face was filled with a quiet panic, one that comes from being in a military family: this is the reality, and here is what we know.

While I filled my cup the voice on the TV said, “A second plane has hit the other tower.”

Then there was the video. The towers, pillars of our country and our financial health now had black smoke pouring into the sky. The image held me still.

Now it was real. Once was an accident. Twice was intentional. I can’t remember if I sat or I stood. I can’t remember much, other than wondering if my friends and family in New York were okay. My great uncle had worked in the trade center—he spoke about how the world looked from the top of one of the towers. My friend Sidona worked in the city. My friend Chris worked in the city, right across from the trade center. I had cousins who lived in the city near the park. I had no idea if they were okay. I could only imagine their fear. Everything had changed.

I left the classroom, ran back to grab my cell phone and called my aunt. No answer. All I heard was a busy signal. I called Sidona. Another busy signal. The teacher next door came in and asked me, “Did you hear?”

“Yup. Both towers.”

I remember sitting. Saying it out loud made it real.

I don’t remember much of the next few minutes. The time from when the second plane hit the south tower to when I walked out to pick-up my students for the start of the school day seemed longer than eight minutes. I was scared for my family and friends. I couldn’t get a hold of them. I couldn’t remember my last conversations with them, and if I had told them I loved them. I hoped they knew. I was trying not to fear the worst. I needed to be brave for my students. I walked down the hall, heard whispers from other teachers about which group had done this and why. I couldn’t think about that. There was no sense to be made from this.

I remember walking out and my students, as well as the rest of the sixth graders, were scattered on the grass field, chatting, playing. They didn’t know. One boy walked up to me and handed me a note card. The who, what, where, when, why & how, for the most part, were on a note card that read, “Two planes flew into the Twin Towers this morning on September 11th, just before 9am this morning. No one knows why.”

He had a smile on his face. To him, it was just news. He was listening to the radio in the car on the way to school and knew a way to earn Current Events points for my class. He was proud of himself. I can still see his smile, his braces and orange rubber bands still in my mind. We walked inside the school to my classroom, and I taught math. I can’t remember what I taught, but I can remember the teacher next door coming in and saying, “Nine-one-one.” That made sense. Emergency.

I remember my students leaving for PE, and how I turned my TV on to see what was new. I remember calling over and over to see if I could reach anyone in New York. All circuits were busy. I don’t remember much, until the towers fell.

Most of the time at lunch, teachers talk incessantly. It was church quiet. The TV was on, and they kept showing the towers fall over and over. It still didn’t feel real. People fleeing and white powder chasing them until everything was obscured, like swimming underwater in a sea of milk. Once the dust literally started to settle, there were firemen and police digging into the ruble to save people. Reporters tried to keep their voices calm and even. Their panic was as thick as the dust that surrounded them.

The end of the day came. I can’t remember much, other than worrying about my family and worrying people panicking. At four o’clock I was able to reach my family and friends. They were okay, but scared. They weren’t sure what would come next. By now we knew about the Pentagon as well as flight 93. Once I got off the phone, I didn’t know what to do.

When I drove back to Fort Collins, I saw lines down the block for gas, and people walking out of grocery stores pushing two carts at time, stocking up on bottled water, flash lights, canned food. I bought bread, meat and cheese and went home to make a sandwich. I spent the evening in the glow of the TV trying to learn all I could. It seemed like a different apartment.

In November of 2007 I went back to New York and the Trade Center. There was little there, other than a hole three stories deep. It was cold and empty, much the way I felt then, and on September 11th. It was one of the few places in the city of New York where things were quiet. I also went back this summer, July of 2011. It is a different place. The tower that will replace the two is much taller and larger. It will be back, but bigger and better. Signs still cover the fences remembering people and the events. People still gather to tell stories about the miracle church and about people who were heroes.

I remember my grandparents talking, knowing exactly where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The same when JFK was shot. September 11th would be the scar for my generation, but not one to point to just in loss. It is different. This would become a day of resolve, of strength. We would not live a life of fear. It has become a day where many people gained a new understanding what it meant to be an American, one where we would mourn the fallen, but aspire to be like the new trade center: bigger and better.

I still think about Ed McCaffery and his broken leg, the towers breaking and falling, and all the people who have died, but also how something that seems very important can seem small once we change how we see our lives. I think about how the younger generations, the ones who don’t fully understand what happened on September 11th, and how difficult it is to capture in words what this day means. I think about those in our armed services who protect the freedoms we enjoy, and the lives that have been laid for those freedoms. I also think about what the terrorists took away from Americans, but I think more about what Americans have used to replace what the terrorists took away, and how what replaces that is far more valuable. We have a new strength, a new resolve, and we continue to persevere. Where two towers once stood, two new pieces now replace. There is a larger tower that replaces the two, one that stands as a symbol of our resolve to not just move on, but be better. There is also a memorial. It is not just for the victims. It is also for the heroes. It is for those who do what is right, for those who sacrifice. For those who make us sad yet strong. For those who are mournful but courageous.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Out of the Dust

Four weeks into the third quarter and it's already time to worry about the CSAP tests that will be coming in the third week of March. Aye. I feel I've done a better job teaching this year than any other--my students progress in writing is wonderful, their ability to read and understand fiction and nonfiction is great--so now come the time to teach deeper thinking, making an argument and supporting that argument. Sometimes, it's fun. Sometimes I'd rather run into a fence fielding a fly ball.

How I teach this is by using the novel Out of the Dust, where I write questions my students respond to. I find this is a great way to give them feedback on their answers, something I feel they need in their academic writing, but also as a way to understand their thinking and how well they are understanding instruction. It also is great for losing hair--I pull some of it out while I grade. It has also lead to some great reflection on my part as to what I need to do better so they will do better. Here are some of what I'm seeing.

I'm seeing a lot of kids who will list two reasons, but not support any of them. One question reads, "Why do you think the speaker chose to write that she has 'stayed red ever since' in her poem?" One student wrote, "I think she stayed red because she was embarrassed. I also think she stayed red because she had a sun burn." The first one I could see, the second one told me she was reading on a very literal level and needed to think deeper. Now, just telling this child to think deeper isn't going to get her to where I think she needs to be. I need to teach a lesson incorporating the differences between literal and figurative, between explicit and implicit. Another way I can do this is to talk about symbolism (colors, symbols, archetypes), and as a class, reading a passage that makes use of this and having kids write down everything that comes to mind when they read it: "playing notes sharp as tongues"

For some kids who really need to see how to answer, how to state a reason and support it, I need to overhead some excellent answers to show how it's done, but have the kids explain why it was good. I'm also going to do this with some from last year that aren't very good, and talk about what needs to be changed, how they can be improved. I'm going to have students revise these answers to make them better--it may take some pain out of revising their own answers if they get to do it with other people's answers.

Another reason why I think their thinking isn't great is because they see things from their own point of view--they aren't seeing it from a 15 year-old girl in 1934, forgetting how girls were supposed to act, and what their inspirations were supposed to be. We already had this conversation once, a good one at that, but it needs to happen again. I'm thinking how I'll remedy this is to have kids break into smaller groups and have them talk about struggles of girls today, and what they were in 1934, both comparing and contrasting. I'll do it around specific issues, each group getting a different issue, and them have them report out and discuss.

With all the feedback I'm giving on their responses, I need to make time for them to read. With the first few, I assumed they would read them. Nope! The diligent kids do, but they aren't the ones who really need to. As much as I gripe about not having enough time for this, that and the other thing, if I'm spending an hour plus a night giving feedback, I can take ten minutes each day to have them read over them--I'm going to do it in small groups to make sure my space cadets are reading them, not just feigning the act.

For those of you who are interested in what I'm doing with this and would like to see the "Lit. Pages" as I call them, with the questions I've generated, please drop me your email and I'll share resources.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

From Ditch to Draft

One of my colleagues uses the term “ditch” for her kids writing notebooks, and she talks about the value of going back through to see what they can find in the ditch and turn into something great. I wanted to model this for my kids, so here’s what I did.
My sentence of the day was a passage from the short story Dominion by Mark Slouka, found in the Best American Short Stories collection, the 2006 edition.

Her voice was sanity, bottom, ground. The world corrected itself. “What am I listening to?” she asked.
“I think they’re coyotes,” he said, slipping back inside himself, resuming his place.

“Since when do we have coyotes?” she whispered back.

I also use a Morning Pages question, something to help start them writing if they’re not quite sure what to write about. This particular day I used the following for Morning Pages: What creatures that lurk in the night (both real and imaginary) frighten you?

I liked it right away. Memories came flooding back into my mind of times when I was alone in the dark, or with a friend, and an encompassing quiet hung in the air, thick with ill intentions: the time we had to cut through a field and was certain a dog would bite us; the time we were in an unfamiliar basement and the dampness, drips from pipes, small scurrying noises we swore we heard—they weren’t just rats, but sewer rats, crazed with rabies. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I can remember walking through fields and backyards when I was younger and being filling with the feeling that something with large claws, fangs that dripped with drool would leap out of the darkness and attack me. It would rips peices of my clothes and chunks of flesh, baring the bone, perhaps even tendons and ligaments as I tried to defend myself. My sister had a fear of the unknown, some thing she couldn’t name or point to, but something malevolent that would cause some harm, a harm she couldn’t name, but something she didn’t want—this was the girl who wouldn’t jump in the water at the lake out of fear the fish would bite her.

Part of me knew there was something here. I could sense it. I wanted to abandon what I was supposed to do with them and work on what I wrote. I had writing conferences with kids, worked on things for a while, and when it was time to send them to Specials, I wrote a little.


In fields and backyards as a child, filled
with the angst that arrives
from an unseen beast with large claws, fangs
that drip drool and leap
from the unknown. It could attack me,
rip pieces of clothes, chunks
of flesh, baring the bone, perhaps
even tendons and ligaments, and me waving
arms like screaming streamers in a whipping

My sister’s fear
of the unknown, some thing without
name or location for which to point,
but its malevolence as certain as the death she felt
She, who believed
lake fish were carnivorous.

I still lie awake in the dark, but now
my thoughts are scarier: bankrupt
of significant others, my murderous
mouth leaving me alone;
my automobile inoperable beside a field
of stillness, the night sky thicker
than my frustration as I kneel and plead
before a man, name stitched where a heart is not.

Though my demons have changed,
appearing in my sleep, groping
the fears that make my soul sweat,
waking me in the dark, and I assure myself,
it was just a dream.

As I wrote this, I started by directly pasting what I wrote in my writing notebook, on my laptop, into a blank Word document. I read through, found phrases I liked and tried turning them into lines. I looked at my line breaks, tried somewhat to end with strong words, words that with the rest of the line could be some strange phrase, something leading my reader to something, something that with the next line would bring a small surprise as to how I manipulated the words and the line to bring more than one meaning. I can’t do that with every line. If I did, it could lose its effect and become trivial, like someone who uses too many exclamation points in their writing. After messing with the sentences and paragraph to change them into lines and stanzas, I looked through to see where I could make images stronger, how there could be some sort of conclusion to my poem. Not ending: when people try to end a poem, it seems thrown in, like they were done or tired of writing and did the equivalent to writing THE END because they didn’t want to take the time to think of a way to bring things to a proper close.

What is it what scares me? I remember the line from the movie, In the Line of Fire, “What do you see in the dark, when the demons come?” Demons…good word. I still have lots of nightmares because of past experiences, ones that jolt me from sleep where I’m ready to pummel whatever it is that tries to hurt me. Why not use it? The last line came from things my parents have said to me when I’d wake in terror from a dream, something I’m sure everyone has heard and/or had said to them, something we can all relate to—making a connection with my reader as the poem comes to a close. It’s still not done, but where piece ever is?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Plot and Character Conferences

My students are finishing their first round of music prompts that they're transforming into short stories, and so I decided that my conferences with them should be different--what they're writing is really different, so conferring with them should be different, too.
I had my student fill out a sheet of paper that had three questions: who is your main character, what is the biggest problem in your story, and how does this problem affect your main character. What has come out of these conferences has been wonderful: I usually start with a question about the main character, asking the writer to tell me what their reader with know about this main character after reading their work. This question is met with a little, sometimes a lot, of silence. I ask them questions, "What kind of person is your main character?" and when they answer this, I ask, "How does your reader know this?" Lots of writers leave their best stuff in their heads, not on the paper, and the practice of them answering these questions I hope will rub off.
The other half of these conferences have been about plot. We talk about the problem, they tell me about the things that have happened, and we talk about how the problem will be resolved. For some, this is a difficult question--with as many adults in the world who don't know how to solve their own problems, it shouldn't be surprising that kids struggle with this, too. Before students were more than a day or so into their story, they know there are no magic endings, their main characters are not allowed to wake from a dream to end their piece. One student had two characters who were in-love, and one character had to leave for college, the other character wasn't allowed to come along. She was content with this. I wanted to scream, "You can't do that! Who in their right mind would forgive you if you wrote that?--a life of longing and unfulfillment and resignation? I asked her if she thought her reader would like the story. She said yes. Another one of my students was sitting near my desk and I relayed the gist of the story and asked her what she thought. She didn't want to say anything negative, and she just made a face of indecision. I asked her what she wanted to happen. "She has to go after him! She can't just quit."
It reminded me a little of when I was in college, taking a creative writing fiction class. This is much gentler, but advice, conversations, and discussion of how important the main character is, how important the problem at least me attempted to be resolved is guidance I'm sure most of my kids have never had before. If I don't talk to them about it, who will?

I thought it was important to add that with the pieces of paper my kids write on, I use those in my conferences with them, and make notes about what we talk about, what their plan is as they go back and revise, tighten-up, etc. When they get close to being finished, I can use it as a method of evaluation, and also for follow up conversations on their pieces, "Cassey, this is a great way of showing how much these two characters care about each other. Fabulous!" Or, "Steve, you said you were going to have your character confront his mother before he left. Why didn't you do it? Did you think he couldn't do it and leave? Or was it something else?" I think having these conversations with students is good for them--explaining why--but also for us as teachers as we understand them better as writers and people.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Writing Teacher Survey

I just got back from the NCTE/NWP conference in Nashville, and in one of the sessions I attended on writing, one where I took a lot of notes, but after looking at them a week later, I realized that what I generated wasn't statements, but questions. Not questions for students, but questions for writing teachers to ask themselves. These are questions I'm going to try and answer myself, but as someone who firmly believes in being reflective as a teacher, I figured I should share this with others. Hope it helps you as much as it's going to help me--I can think of three things right now I am going to start to do better and more of in my instruction.

  1. Where is the writing process (ex. plan, draft, revise, edit for final copy) used in your class?
  2. Where is the writing process (ex. plan, draft, revise, edit for final copy) taught in your class?
  3. How could this be enhanced in your classroom?
  4. Where is the writing process (ex. plan, draft, revise, edit for final copy) used in content areas other than reading/writing your class?
  5. How could this be enhanced in your classroom?
  6. What strategies can your students use in class, in their writing, to organize information in their writing so it is easier to read and easier to follow?
  7. What could you do this enhance this?
  8. What do the writers in your room most need?
  9. How do you provide community and support in your writing instruction?
  10. What could you do this enhance this?
  11. How much time is spent in your room with direct instruction in writing?
  12. How much time is spent in your room with time for your students to just write (not writing in math, or writing during reading, but time to write what they want to write)?
  13. How much ownership (most of the time, some of the time, less than half, not very often) do your students take over their writing?
  14. What specific activities can you implement to increase student ownership in writing?
  15. What lessons/activities do you afford students for immersion and investigations of other genres of literature?
  16. What does scaffolding instruction mean to you?
  17. How do you scaffold writing instruction so students are experimenting with the art, craft and skills needed to write in a variety or modes and genres?
  18. Where, in the activities you use in your classroom, do you students feel successful as writers?
  19. How could this be enhanced in your classroom?
  20. What do you student most enjoy about having you as a writing teacher?
  21. How could this be enhanced in your classroom?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Multi-Genre Writing, Part III

So much of the writing we do with kids in other disciplines is not fun. This one is one of my favorites.
One of the experiments my student did was called a Fizz Quiz, and they learned about chemical reactions and what happens in these reactions. I wanted to incorporate something that would be every day in their lives and get them writing, so I chose the form of writing like a newspaper article.
We first talked about what was in a news article: who, what, where, when, why, how, headline. Then we talked about the experiment and what was in the experiment: 50 mL of water, citric acid, baking soda, calcium chloride. Then when happened: a chemical reaction occurred, carbon dioxide was released, and it fizzed and foamed. Then the most important step: I let them make it fun by making fun of me and/or other teachers. They were so excited!
In reading through them, I was so impressed by their creativity and language. Some kids had the chemical reaction getting way out of control, to the point where school had to close. One student had me, in the story, screaming and passing out because I had the junk on my tie--hey, those suckers are expensive to clean. Some poked fun at other teachers, all in good taste, but there was flow, personality, and you can tell they enjoyed writing it, because it was hard not to enjoy reading it.
For assessment, I made a rubric in excel. It was a 6 point rubric based on voice/entertaining, the 5 W's + 1, Conventions, and of course, Science. The rubric was shown before so they knew what they had to have, and then when they had their finals handed in, I stapled a rubric to all of them, circles what was what, and I'll be passing them back to my kids on Monday. I think the rubric makes this a better assignment, especially by expanding it from 1 to 4, to 1 to 6: there is a big difference in a 3 and 4, and too often, kids are inbetween, and it's hard to decide one over the other--with a better rubric, this process becomes easier and less subjective.
This whole process took three or four 40 minute session.
Again, post your email if you have questions or want samples. And sorry, you'll have to make your own rubric.

Multi-Genre Writing, Part II

One of the FOSS fits in the Poudre School District is Mixtures and Solutions, and one of the experiments is on Solubility. The student conducted an experiment where they added equal amounts of salt and citric acid to different water bottles, shook them up after each scoop was added, and continued until both of them were saturated. The citric acid had greater solubility with 15 some scoops, and salt had far less at five. I have them make certificates of solubility.
I showed them a few certificates that I had received (one for completion of a course I took in college, another, a fake one, for best outfielder--I needed one with more writing and couldn't find what I needed) and they brainstormed a list of what went into a certificate. They had a check list, and then started working.
They did a rough draft, and in order to do a final draft, they had to come to me for the paper, so I could look at it and give them automatic feedback: Great job!; Where is the signature?; You're missing the phrase certificate of solubility.; I spelled solubility correctly on the board, so I expect you to spell it correctly as well.
They colored their final drafts, and I made copies of the exemplary ones to use for next year. Woo-haa!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Multi-Genre Writing, Part I

I am blessed with teaching partners who are extremely dedicated to their students, so much so, we rotate like a junior high school (which makes for more work, but we have amazing kids, and they are so worth the effort), preparing our students for junior high as much as possible, and one of the ways we have our rotations set up is to do writing with science--the thought being we'd provide the experience and expectation of writing with science while exploring different modes, genres, purposes and so on. I also thought it would be another way to make writing fun while showing them writing is something used in other content areas.

In an experiment in the Mixtures and Solutions F.O.S.S. kit, the student had to find out which things made a mixture and which things made a solution. Gravel and water was a mixture, as was diatomaceous earth and water, but salt and water was a solution. So, we wrote obituaries for salt since it was dissolved.

The first thing we did was write a rubric. I said that science had to be a category, but they decided what would be an A, B, C, Dog and Fred for that category. They were a little hesitant at first--no one had ever asked them to create a rubric from which they would be evaluated--but after a few minutes, they were into it. Each rotation (I have four of them) made their own, and the categories that they would be assessed on ranged from Voice, Conventions, Organization, Word Choice, Detail, and the constant, Science. How they would be evaluated was fairly consistent, which I was surprised by, but what didn't surprise me was how high the bar was set by them--if you got an A, you had to bust your hump, and in any laziness, you'd be branded with a C. This whole process takes about 20 minutes for someone who has done it before. For those who haven't, allow 30-40 minutes.

Next session: I read them a few obituaries, ones I had saved over the years, ones that were a real celebration of someone's life and had a bit of humor mixed in. After that, we made a checklist of what needed to be in an obituary: the name, date of birth and death, personal information, where and if services would be held, where donations and/or flowers could be sent. I had them fold their paper in half (the long way, making a fold as long as possible) to simulate newspaper columns. I turned them lose for about ten minutes of writing, and had a few kids share what they had--I was circulating the room at this time answering questions, helping direct writing, but also seeing who had great start so I could suggest that they read--another great reason to do this is that your kids who aren't seen by assessors of CSAP as being great writers, but have natural voice, a wonderful sense of humor, and a lot of natural talent, albeit very raw, find joy and success from this; and when they read aloud and see the smiles from their peers, they feel like writers. So I have a few kids read, so that the ones who are struggling can hear some examples of what a good obituary is. I also let them circulate the room to read each other's pieces, get feedback on their own pieces of writing in the name of both facilitating the revision process, but also to allow them the chance to show what they've done--they're excited about what they've produced, so let them share and feel more like the writers they are fast becoming. This process takes about 40 minutes for those who have done it. For those who haven't, plan on an hour.

The next time we meet, I pass out the rubrics they created so they have a guide. The checklist they have, which is on the rought draft, in case you were wondering, is exchanged with a writer they trust, and they make sure they have all the components. I do something very different with the rubrics. The rubric is printed on a whole sheet of paper, even though it only take up half a sheet of paper, but the bottom of it has lines, put into groups of four, one for each category for the rubric. They can look at the rubrics, but not write on them. I'll explain more about this later.
On the final draft, kids fold the paper in half, the same way as in the rough draft, but they don't put the checklist on here. I want it to look as much like a newspaper obituary as possible. With that in mind, I tell them that if they want to draw a picture of salt, an animated one, they can, so it looks more like an obituary. For my kids who love to draw, this gets them more into it. Students work on either revising their rough draft or their final draft.
This lesson takes about 40 minutes.

The next lesson is evaluation. There are two ways to do this: fold the corner down on their name and staple the obit. To the rubric, or, assign them a number and they write that on their paper rather than a name. This way kids won't know whose paper they're grading. Now, back tot he rubric. Kids don't get to pick who grades their papers, I do. On the rubric, I explain they use a hi-lighter to put an X in the box they feel is appropriate for each category. Then, they use the lines to explain why they gave it the grade they did. They HAVE TO write a reason. This helps eliminate lazy grading, but it makes them read closely, looking for more specific grading. Now, you may be shocked by this, but I don't take their grades that they give each other, and I don't grade these. They need the practice to writing and close reading more than I need the practice of grading. Kids get a 4 out of 4 just for doing it. After they've had more experience with this, then I grade them. While they are doing this, I sit at the conference table, and if they have questions they come up and ask, but most of these questions I answer with, "As a writer, what do you think it is?" and they give me an answer, I smile, and they go back to their seat--half the time, I think they just need to hear their question, know and be reassured that they are an intelligent audience, and they make the decision.
This process takes about 40 minutes. I make sure they come with a book to read or other things they'd like to work on when they're finished. When they are done, they hand it into a big basket next to me. It's next to me so I can see if they've done their job or not. If they haven't, I send them back to finish the justification part of the rubric.

If you have questions, comments, or would like to see some student samples, post a comment with your email addy and I will get back to you as soon as I can.