The Science of Teaching Writing

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

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.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Purpose and Audience

A special thanks to Jason and Craig, because they taught this to me, and I taught it to my kids.

Like most teachers in the state of Colorado, I look at CSAP data to try to target areas where they need help--not so I can brag about CSAP scores, but they do test standards, and we have to teach to those things. Anyway, after looking at the data, I saw that the 6th grade as a whole, was low on audience and purpose. They didn't know what it meant, so that had me thinking.

Two friends of mine, two amazing teacher's had the idea of teaching the difference between mode and genre to teachers, because they struggled with it. So I stole their idea, made some modifications, and here is what I did.

I told my kids to fold their paper in half (hamburger) and then draw a line on the crease. They had three minutes (yes, I timed them) to write the names of as many TV shows as they could think of. At then end of that three minutes, they had another three minutes to group all of these into categories--comedy, drama, reality TV, etc. I called on kids, and I wrote their category, followed by the shows that would fall under that category. We did four categories, then I made them write some more: Pick one show in each category, then explain why this show is comedy. I gave them four minutes, then gave them another three to tell me the purpose of the show, and who the target audience was--to make sure they understood, we talked about who cartoon makers target compared to the producers of Survivor. The room was fill with with the blunt noises of sharpened pencils writing on paper. I called on kids, asking, "Who thinks they've got Drama nailed?" and with hesitation, hands went up.
The next step was t get them to apply this to books. I pick up an old National Geographic, one about the Gray Whales, and read a few paragraphs. Then I read from an encyclopedia, an entry about Gray Whales. I asked them what the difference was. I asked them was the audience the same, and this is where we had some interesting dialogue: some thought it was the same because of the information given, some thought it was different because of how the writing "sounded" because it wasn't just facts, and was more entertaining.
So I hold up a children's book about the Sudan, a fairly thick book with small print, and some pictures through out--not too many. I made them tell me what the purpose of each was and who the audience was for each. Then, a Captain Underpants book. Then a G.I.R.L.S. Rule book.

The next day, it was time to take the next step, use some teacher lingo, and see what they know and what they can do.
I write, "Narrative, Expository, Persuasive, Descriptive" on the board, each in it's own little box. They fold their papers into quarters, do the same, and we talk about what genres fit under each. They immediately say books have to be under narrative, no shock, and then when one girl says books can go under Expository, students look like they've heard total heresy. I write it down, and they watch me carefully, as if I would say, "No, it goes here." Then, as our list grows for each of the four modes, they see how they can fit into more than one mode. I pull out the Grapes of Wrath, and read half of the first chapter, but before I do, I ask what the mode is. They agree it's expository. I read, and then ask again. One young lady, whom have known since she was a 4th grader--I pulled her from literacy to have her to a multi-genre research project with a 5th grade class I was team-teaching during my planning period--and she said, "I think it could be descriptive. He never mentions any people. It's just about the land."
You have to love these kids.
Then, I read the first page and a half from A Tale of Two Cities, and though no one said historical fiction, they said it was, "like, information."
They talked more about audience, purpose, and what they have read and where it would fit.
I've taught this to teachers who were so quick to argue about why I was wrong about mode and genre, What the hell do I know, I'm only a writer, that they didn't listen. These 11 and 12 year-olds took what I said, took the knowledge they had, and made their own understanding. They couldn't care if I was right, if some soon-to-be millionaire who teaches writing to our district (who by the way confuses mode and genre) is right. They wanted to learn, were so excited that by looking at the cover or by reading a little bit of the book, that they knew both the audience and purpose.
If only we all got this excited about learning.