The Science of Teaching Writing

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

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.