Write Beside Them: This I Believe

The main message I took away from the second chapter of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them is that writing teachers will not be effective unless they are also writers.  She says, “We don’t learn many things well just by following directions” (7-8).  However, it was this remark that struck a chord with me: “[T]he instruction has to come during the process of creating a piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.  That’s a crucial error I was making for years” (8).  I think perhaps focusing on the product and not the process of creation may be why students flip to the last page to look at their grade.

Kittle compares learning to write to teaching her son to drive.  Parents wouldn’t send their sons and daughters out on road without being in the car with them, modeling first by “talking [them] through [our] decisions” (7).  The important thing to do is model writing: “If we don’t model smart thinking in writing, our students will write like kids who’ve read the driver’s manual but still hit the curve too fast and just about send us to the hospital” (8).

It’s interesting — I recall modeling writing poetry for my students years ago.  I slapped a poem in progress on the overhead and walked through developing it.  I remembered that it worked really well, too, and it’s a wonder I didn’t try other types of writing, too.

What Kittle learned are three important truths about teaching writing:

  1. Teachers needn’t be writers — “just someone trying to write” (9).  The process of modeling and thinking through a piece was the important part.  I would argue that Kittle was mistaken in not thinking of herself as a writer.  Our students don’t, either, and that’s why they think they’re no good at it.  One of the questions I often ask on a writing inventory I give my students is “Are you a writer?”  Almost none of them think of themselves as writers.  We make these arbitrary definitions of words like “writer”: writers are published and other people (important people who should know) consider them to be good.  Writers are people who use writing to communicate.  Period.  We can all consider ourselves writers.
  2. The books we read are great models of the product of writing, but it is the teacher’s job to model the process of writing.  We don’t see the effort that went into selecting the words and stringing them together.  We don’t see the painstaking process of editing.  All we see is a great piece of polished writing.  No wonder it looks daunting.
  3. We can learn how to teach writing by doing the writing ourselves.  Think how much easier it will be to plan for writing assignment instruction if we’ve already struggled through the assignment ourselves.

A few years back in order to better teach my students how to write a research paper, I wrote one myself.  It was probably the most effective thing I had ever done in terms of teaching the process; however, it might have been even more effective if the students could have seen me do it.  If they had seen me locating resources, taking notes, putting my notes in effective order, and outlining my ideas, it might have been even easier for them to figure out how to do it.  Well, there is always next year, and with my next class, I will write research paper beside them.

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Write Beside Them: It’s a Wonderful Life

I began Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, and even though I am posting at the Learners4Life wiki, I wanted to keep my own reading journal here.  In this chapter, I felt Kittle outlined some of her core beliefs:

  • Standardized testing does not rule how she teaches writing in her classroom.
  • The single greatest influence on a child’s learning is the effectiveness of a teacher.
  • We don’t tap into our students’ passions; therefore, they don’t care about what they write.
  • Students try to figure out what we want and deliver it — they believe there is a correct way to write.

In some ways I am fortunate that my school does not used standardized testing to dictate curriculum.  It is important for our students to do well on the SAT and AP tests, but we do not have to contend with testing requirements of NCLB as a private school.  I am, however, glad to see that Kittle, who does have to contend with standardized testing, doesn’t let tests determine all of her instructional decisions.  I would argue, however, that if a good teacher makes sound instructional decisions that truly teach her students what they need to know to be critical readers and effective writers, then the standardized test scores will follow.  I think perhaps Kittle included these thoughts to appeal to teachers who might be afraid to try her methods and are used to teaching to whatever test they have to worry about.

Kittle echoes research I have read elsewhere regarding the influence of a teacher in a student’s learning.  It is both empowering and daunting to know that teachers can have such an impact.  Teachers have a lot of responsibility, and I think sometimes we feel helpless in the face of all the problems our students have, testing, and other constraints.

Why aren’t students motivated?  Why won’t they revise?  How come after all the time I put into commenting on that paper, he just turns to the last page to find the grade?

If you ask them, they’ll tell you.  We aren’t tapping into their passions. (3)

I could have written the first three sentences.  In fact, I have often lamented about the fact that students don’t read my copious comments and focus on the grades.  My students are motivated, all right, but too often it’s a grade that motivated them instead of a desire to be a good writer or to learn.  In fact, one of the reasons I was attracted to this book is that I hoped I might be able to learn how to tap into my students’ passions so that grades will no longer be the motivator.

Kittle quotes the literacy biography of one of her former students — a man who entered university to major in writing:

My childhood love of books fizzled when I entered junior high — all of a sudden I was in an environment where I had hours and hours of required reading, so much homework about boring subjects that I had no time to read what I wanted to read.  With this went the writing — we never had “freewrite” time anymore, I always had to write what the teacher wanted, the “right” thing, what needed to be done for the grade.  Creativity was gone. (4)

His comments could have been written by any number of high school students who once loved school and enjoyed what they were learning only to discover at a certain point that they had to basically play a game — figure out what the teacher wants so she’ll give me an A.

I don’t want my students to feel that way.  I want them to enjoy writing, but also learn how to do it well at the same time.

I have created pages for each chapter and student focus in Kittle’s book over at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us.  If you want to go ahead and start reading, like I did, feel free.  I have posted a tentative reading schedule that allows for members to obtain copies of Kittle’s book and still finish before school begins again.

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Write Beside Them: Reading Schedule

Write Beside ThemI created a tentative reading schedule for parties interested in reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us if you are interested in participating.

I received my copy of the book today, and it looks really good.  I am feeling kind of tired, so I don’t think I’ll get started on it until tomorrow or Friday, but I’m really excited to get going.  It looks like this summer might be as good as last summer for professional development.  Speaking of last summer’s professional development, I would still love to have more folks, particularly active folks (no offense to lurkers, but it’s been kind of quiet over there) at the UbD Educators wiki.

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Georgia’s CRCT

When 40% of an individual teacher’s students fail a standardized test, I imagine the teacher would be scrutinized, and rightly so. Whatever I think of standardized tests, 40% of a teacher’s students shouldn’t fail one, or something’s wrong with the teacher’s instruction. If 40% of a school’s students failed a standardized test, the school might be sanctioned depending on other factors — part of making Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for NCLB means schools must maintain or even improve their pass rates for standardized tests. If schools fail to make AYP, a series of sanctions will follow, from losing funds to faculty “reorganization.” Again, if 40% of students at a school fail a test, there is something wrong with the school’s instruction.

But what if 40% of students in an entire state fail a test that they must pass in order to go to high school?

Unofficial results indicate that 40% of Georgia’s 8th grade students failed the math portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), the main standardized test used in Georgia to meet NCLB requirements regarding testing. Last year, about 19% of students failed the math portion of the test. Students must pass this section of the CRCT in order to proceed to high school. Some are blaming the new math curriculum, while others are saying the test must be poorly constructed. I can’t say, not having seen it. I asked my daughter, who took it, and she says she believed she passed, as she thought students at her school who didn’t were instructed to see the counselor, and she was given no such instruction. She has been an A-student in math all year, so I shouldn’t have cause to worry, but the fact that 40% of students failed the test worries me.

The news regarding social studies was even worse. Less than 30% of 6th and 7th graders passed the social studies portion of the CRCT. Again, results like this for one teacher or one school can be explained, but for a whole state? Especially troubling to me are reports from students that they were asked questions about material they hadn’t learned. How could that happen on a “criterion-referenced” test?

I know the perception exists that Georgia schools are universally backward, but after having graduated from a Georgia school and watching my children in Georgia schools, I have to say that like everywhere else, Georgia has good schools and poor schools. A pertinent quote from the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Public Education:

The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a college entrance exam often used to compare the performance of high school students among states and among school districts within a state. In 2003 Georgia students averaged 984 (combined verbal and math scores) on the SAT, compared with a national average score of 1026. When SAT scores are used to compare states, Georgia usually finishes near the bottom. The College Board, which administers the SAT, cautions against the use of SAT scores for this purpose, because the population of students taking the SAT in each state varies considerably. In some states, most students take a different test, the American College Testing [sic] (ACT). In those states, students who take the SAT generally have strong academic backgrounds and plan to apply to some of the nation’s most selective colleges and scholarship programs. For example, in 2002 there were nearly 54,000 Georgia students who took the SAT. In contrast, only 1,900 Iowa students took the SAT. (As a point of reference, Georgia had more than 72,000 high school graduates in 2002, while Iowa had nearly 34,000 high school graduates.)

My point in bringing this up is that I think it’s unfair to dismiss problems with the CRCT with a blanket generalization like “Georgia’s just got bad schools.”

So what happened, I wonder?

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Teaching “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning

As I mentioned over the weekend, on Friday, a colleague allowed me to teach her British literature class. I taught Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” This poem is anthologized in some literature texts and not in others; therefore, if you do not have it in your book, you can download it here: “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning.

First, I gave students some background on Robert Browning, dramatic monologue, and the poem itself. See this Power Point presentation:

I didn’t show students the final slide until after we read the poem. You could, if you like, change that slide so that it reveals some of the information provided. Feel free to download it and mix it up. In order to present the material, you will want access to information about the poem and the disease Porphyria. In addition to our textbook (citation at the end of the post), I used the following links in preparing for the poem:

The meat of the lesson is the debate. If Porphyria’s lover were tried in a courtroom for murder, would the evidence, as presented in the poem, show that he is guilty of murder — that he knowingly took Porphyria’s life, that he was entirely self-aware — or not guilty by reason of insanity — that he was not aware of what he was doing and acted out of madness. Evidence for either argument exists in the poem, and students can argue both sides successfully. They should be going back into the text for support of their argument. This assignment can even be extended into an argumentative or persuasive essay. I chose to make it a class discussion.

Work Consulted:

Pearson Education, Inc. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

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Write Beside Them: Summer PD Update

Write Beside ThemAs you may recall, I am reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them as part of a professional development project along with several other teachers this summer.  I am very excited about this project.  Using my experience with the UbD Educators’ wiki coupled with this upcoming experience, I plan to present a session at the next GISA convention in November on using blogs and wikis for professional development.  It is not too late to join us in reading Write Beside Them.  Just come on over to the wiki and follow the instructions Lisa Huff provided.

I encouraged visitors to order their copies of Write Beside Them from Amazon because the book qualifies for free shipping, which would save buyers about $8.  However, after two weeks with no word on when the book would ship or even when Amazon would consider a book that was released on May 1 as “released” (the button still says “preorder”), I decided that if I wanted to be sure of receiving my book before the reading begins, I had better cancel my order with Amazon and order the book directly from Heinemann, which is what I did just yesterday.  I will let you all know when I receive the book so you can decide whether you need to do the same thing (links to Heinemann’s product information for the book are provided above).  Amazon is generally really good about orders, and I don’t really think this problem is their fault.  I suspect it might be Heinemann’s.  I can’t recall the particulars, but I seem to remember having trouble ordering new Heinemann titles from Amazon before.  I don’t know what the reason for the delay is, so I won’t speculate.

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Week in Reflection, May 12-16

We’re truly in the home stretch now.  My own students have two more weeks of regular classes.  My children have just one more week.

Once again, poetry has been squished in at the end of the year.  I suppose this happens because poetry is generally short, and teachers can expose students to poetry (and do a pretty fair job) in a short period of time.  Still, if I teach 9th grade again next year, literature in general, and poetry in particular, is something I want to focus on improving.  In our curriculum, which emphasizes a grammar survey and composition, literature tends to get the short shrift, but with careful planning, it doesn’t have to.  I have to say I did a much better job this year than I have in the past with integrating more literature; however, room for improvement exists, and I will make it a focus next year if I teach the same course(s).

I had the opportunity to teach my colleague’s British literature class, which was a real treat for me.  Because I think the lesson is potentially useful, I will post it soon.  I taught Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover.”

In true “what works with one class doesn’t work with all of them” fashion, I am trying an SAT introduction unit with my own tenth grade class that worked beautifully in a colleague’s tenth grade class when I took it over for a couple of weeks.  My perception is that my own class resents the instruction.  That could be because of the time of year, and perhaps they would resent whatever I cooked up for the final few weeks, but it puzzles and bothers me that something that was so well-received and appreciated by one class is borderline rejected by the other.  I suppose I need to think about this unit over the weekend.

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Teaching Shakespeare Institute

I am very excited to tell you I was selected to participate in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute here in Decatur, Georgia next month.

If you haven’t checked out all the Folger Shakespeare Library has to offer teachers, go take a look now.

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