In Progress: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

I began reading Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. I am only a little over 20 pages into the book, and I can already tell this is a book that teachers and parents need to pay attention to. I may journal my thoughts as I read here at this blog as I have with other professional reading in the past. I haven’t read any of Robbins’s other books, but I have heard that The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is also good.

As a child who had difficulty socially in school and who never was popular, I can relate the book’s message.

So… anyone want to read this one with me? I know that Gary Anderson is already reading it. Summer book club anyone?

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of this book (not that it will impact any future reviews).

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Andrew Young on the Youth of Today

We hear so much about how today’s youth are an instant gratification society, and we should be worried, very worried, about the future. It’s refreshing to hear Andrew Young offer a different perspective in this interview with Valerie Jackson on Between the Lines about his book with Kabir Sehgal, Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead. You will have to listen until the end of the podcast, but it’s worth it—it’s Andrew Young, after all.

Andrew Young on Between the Lines

As a teacher, I find his perspective refreshing. I teach these young people after all, and they’re not perfect, but I am often amazed by them, too.

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More on Homework

1 2 3A couple of years ago when I wrote a post for Grant Wiggins’s now defunct group blog The Faculty Room, I found myself in the midst of a tangle with Alfie Kohn about homework. After reading Shelly Blake-Plock’s post about homework today, I realized Kohn and I were talking about two different things: he was talking about busy work, worksheets, and the like, and I was really talking about preparing for class, although I couldn’t articulate what I meant at the time. Most of the homework my students have is class preparation: reading, answering questions we are going to discuss in class, anticipatory assignments, and the like. Wish I’d been able to explain that was what I meant at the time. However, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, at least not with that particular audience. I have found it interesting how many parents view a large amount of homework, even busy work, as a good thing—it proves their students are learning—and a lack of homework as a bad thing—students must not be learning anything. As in almost everything, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D’Arcy Norman

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Catching Up: Folger Education

English Journal September 2009I have been trying all week to finish the last English Journal so I can gush about all the Folger goodness, but I haven’t had a chance. Lest I let too much more time slip by, I’ll discuss the articles I have had a chance to read. Mike LoMonico, as usual, is on target with his suggestions for teaching Shakespeare in his editorial. The Shakespeare Set Free series taught me a great deal about how to teach Shakespeare, but participating in the the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Decatur last year transformed how I approach not just Shakespeare, but everything I do.

I also read my friend Joe Scotese’s editorial about reading Shakespeare’s text as opposed to easy versions with “translations.” Joe’s description of the words as the tools of Shakespeare’s art (Stephen Booth) was beautiful, and I have had the occasion to bring it up twice in the last couple of weeks during teaching. Thanks for the timely imagery, Joe!

I read Peggy O’Brien’s and Robert Young’s discussions of the history of Folger’s work with teachers (and students) and its present and future. I began reading Susan Biondo-Hench’s article “Shakespeare Troupe: An Adventure in Words, Fluid Text, and Comedy.” You might recall that Susan Biondo-Hench wrote the Romeo and Juliet unit in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.

Several of my friends have articles in this issue. Chris Shamburg and Cari Craighead collaborated on “Shakespeare, Our Digital Native.” Cari and I were in the same TSI, and Chris and I connected at NCTE and online. I also met Chris Renino, author of the Macbeth unit in SSF and the EJ article “‘Who’s There?’: Shakespeare and the Dragon of Autism,” at NCTE last year. Chris and I both have autistic children, and though mine are younger, I am obviously excited to read his article for personal reasons as well as professional ones. Christy Desmet, who wrote “Teaching Shakespeare with YouTube,” and I have a long history together. She teaches at my alma mater, UGA, and we worked together about 12 years ago in an online cohort of new teachers, professors, mentor teachers, and aspiring teachers. Our conversations were so helpful to me as a new teacher. We reconnected at the Folger TSI in Decatur last year.

I really wanted to submit an article for this issue, but I was struggling with new roles as department chair and graduate school student, among other duties. I just didn’t have time to do it. And now I’m kicking myself because I would have loved to have been a part of this issue.

In related news, Folger has a new blog: Making a Scene: Shakespeare in the Classroom. Definitely check it out! I’m really excited about it.

I want to talk about all of these articles and blog posts in more detail when I have a chance, but the weeks have been ticking by, and I didn’t want too much time to elapse before I brought your attention to these resources (if you didn’t know about them already).

In other news, I am not able to go to NCTE this year. I knew it was a long shot because I went last year, and the economy being what it is, well, let’s just say I was fairly sure it wouldn’t happen. I do wish I could go, however, because I really wanted to meet up with some friends (not to mention the learning!). I am planning to go to GCTE and possibly ISTE. ISTE takes place in Denver this year, and school will be out, so it would be a good opportunity for me to visit family in addition to attending my first ever technology education conference, so I would like to try to go.

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My Next Book: Readicide

Thank you to all of you who voted in the poll. It was a close one, but in the end Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide inched past Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them by a single vote. The final tally was as follows:

  1. Readicide, Kelly Gallagher—8 votes
  2. Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle—7 votes
  3. Blending Genre, Altering Style, Tom Romano—5 votes
  4. The First Days of School, Harry Wong—3 votes
  5. Genre Theory, Deborah Dean—1 vote

Because the voting was so close, I’ll probably read/revisit the books in the order of voters’ preference. I am going on vacation next week, so I’m not sure if I’ll do Readicide before or after, but it won’t happen at all from July 6-10.

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Designing Writing Assignments: More Writing Assignment Resources

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsI should begin this post by saying I have not heard from NCTE regarding my complaint that since they have changed their website, they have dropped Traci Gardner’s companion page for this book somewhere. Also, the page for this book still incorrectly links to a page that doesn’t exist. I find this extremely frustrating as I feel that Traci Gardner took some time to gather helpful resources together to accompany her book, and NCTE seemingly is not concerned that they remain available. Gardner begins the final chapter of Designing Writing Assignments with a pointer toward this resource that is no longer accessible. I have sent Traci Gardner a message on Twitter. Perhaps NCTE will be concerned about the issue if the writer says something to them. I’ll update with any responses I receive from Gardner or from NCTE.

The remainder of the chapter outlines several writing prompts that you can adapt for use in your own classroom. The writing prompts are grouped according to type of writing: narrative, informative, analysis, persuasion and literary analysis. I have to say the book is almost worth the purchase and read for this chapter alone. Gardner has some excellent writing prompts. Considering how difficult it can be to come up with writing tasks and performance tasks, I would imagine this chapter reflects a lot of time and hard work on Gardner’s part.

My final assessment of this book is that it is a good addition to any writing instructor’s arsenal, but I think especially middle and high school teachers should read it. In fact, I don’t think just English teachers could benefit. Any teacher who uses writing in his/her curriculum would do well to read it. It’s a very quick read, chock full of practical advice and tips for teaching writing. Highly recommended.

What should I read next? Don’ forget to vote in the poll.

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Professional Reading Survey

OK, just for fun, I thought I’d conduct a quick survey. I will finish Traci Gardner’s wonderful Designing Writing Assignments later today. Which of the following books do you think I should read (and reflect on here) next? Vote in the poll. You can only vote for one choice. Voting will close at midnight on July 2!

Which professional development book should I read next?

  • Readicide by Kelly Gallagher (33%)
  • Revisit and finish Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle (29%)
  • You need to finish Blending Genre, Altering Style by Tom Romano (21%)
  • Revisit The First Days of School by Harry Wong (13%)
  • Genre Theory by Deborah Dean (4%)
  • I think you should read something else (suggest in the comments) (0%)

Total Votes: 24

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Designing Writing Assignments: Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities

The fourth chapter in Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments focuses on “unusual or new alternatives to the standard kinds of writing that students are asked to complete” (48). Some of my best writing assignments have sprung from planning UbD performance tasks with an authentic audience. For example, two grammar UbD units I wrote concern the use of apostrophes and the use of commas. The performance task for the apostrophe unit concerns writing a letter to an elected official in Arkansas who presented a bill before the Arkansas legislature regarding the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive form of Arkansas. The comma assignment involved creating a comma usage manual for a company who lost over $2 million Canadian when a contract was interpreted in a way they didn’t foresee simply because of the placement of a comma. Both performance tasks have been successful in the past, which is one reason I think writing a letter of recommendation for Beowulf could work (see previous post).

Gardner suggests six questions you can use in framing alternative assignments:

  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (49)

Gardner includes a helpful table on p. 50 that lists potential authentic audiences for writing tasks. It would be a great starting point for any teacher creating a writing assignment or a performance task in another subject area. Gardner describes an audience that caught my attention in terms of being able to adapt it for an assignment in my class: how would one of Chaucer’s pilgrims react to the topic for the assignment? Gardner describes a new rule at school, but it could be adapted for a variety of purposes. How would Chaucer’s pilgrims react to some headline in the news? To a major event in politics? To a work of literature? I teach parts of The Canterbury Tales to students: the Prologue, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” It would be fun for the characters to comment on each other’s tales. I know there is some of that in the prologues to some of the tales, but not in all of them. I have traditionally had students write a compare/contrast essay. I could tell that assignment didn’t go over so well this year, so maybe next year this small adaptation of looking at the stories from a different audience angle could generate more enthusiasm.

In exploring different tones, again Gardner provides a helpful chart on p. 53. Some ideas for adaptation to the Chaucer assignment could be curious, condescending, discouraged, furious, injured, irritated, offended, resentful, shocked, or upset. Of course, some of the characters might feel more amused, which isn’t a choice in the list, but would be good to include in the assignment. Giving students some ideas about possible positions to take would be good exercise for voice and tone, and I have to admit, I don’t build in a lot of opportunities for students to explore different tones. I think I generally ask students write in a formal, scholarly tone, and it’s no wonder they don’t understand tone very well. They don’t get to explore different types of tone enough. In any case, as Gardner notes, I would need to “spend time unpacking the different stances on the list with the class” (52). I really like Gardner’s idea of putting these positions on a continuum given a scenario (such as not receiving a refund for a defective product) in a class discussion—students ranking the positions could see irritation as less extreme than anger, which will inform their writing.

Next, Gardner underscores the importance of freewriting to gather ideas when writing from other perspectives. With interactive notebooks next year, I plan to build in more time for journals and freewrites, and these will be good springboards for writing assignments.

In considering when the topic takes place, I am thinking again of the Beowulf assignment. One of the issues I want to explore when my students study Beowulf is the notion that though we have some ideas about heroism that are different from those held by Anglo-Saxons (or the Danes and Geats of Beowulf), some ideas have remained the same. Joe Scotese has a great exercise on his site that explores the way in which Beowulf is related to 9/11 and how one small act of heroism (that is even murkier because some translations do not highlight it or ascribe different motivations to Beowulf)—saving Brecca—is greater than killing Grendel.

I love Gardner’s idea for a cause/effect essay on p. 57:

If you could look in your crystal ball and determine the most significant thing that happened to you this week, what would it be? Write a cause-and-effect paper that explains what the event is and predicts how it will affect you.

It would be great for ninth graders writing a cause/effect paper. I also love the process of modeling and unpacking she describes for the assignment. I am definitely going to steal that assignment. With so many changes at the beginning of 9th grade—new school, new friends, new teachers, new expectations—early in the year would be a great time to do this assignment. It might even make a good first essay.

The list of alternative genres and subgenres for assignments on pp. 62-63 should be a good springboard for exploring different kinds of writing aside from the standard essay. In fact, Gardner mentions a recommendation report on p. 63, which may be how I can get out of my sticky problem with the Beowulf assignment. If Hrothgar is writing a recommendation report rather than a letter, it might not bother students so much that Beowulf dies at the end. I know writing a letter of recommendation for a deceased person would seem awkward, but a report might be less so.

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Designing Writing Assignments: Putting Beliefs Into Practice

Purchasing Designing Writing Assignments last November prompted me to introduce “NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing” into my department meetings as prompts for discussion. You read this important article at NCTE’s Web site.

Gardner begins the second chapter of her book with a discussion of these beliefs and includes the expanded article in an appendix.

One frustration I am having with the text is that Gardner helpfully references ReadWriteThink lesson plans that correspond with the lessons she describes in the book, but when I visit the link given in the back of the book, http://www.ncte.org/books/10850/, I receive an error message. Knowing NCTE moved things around some months back, I tried searching, but I was still unable to find the content. I can’t even access it using the Internet Archive. I did find a link to all of Gardner’s plans at ReadWriteThink, which at least narrows down the search for plans. I don’t blame Gardner; it’s one of the frustrations of dealing with the Web. On the other hand, if it inhibited a serious Web user like me, I imagine it will utterly prevent less-experienced users who will likely give up upon receiving an error message to the URL. I sent a request to NCTE explaining the problem, and I hope they’ll address it soon. I will let you know here what response I receive.

Gardner describes a misunderstanding she had about the word secular. In one essay, she used it interchangeably with religious, thinking they were synonyms, and she says that all she learned from the experience was not to use the word secular. Ever. Even to this day, she says, “I still have no confidence whatsoever in that word” (12). What a diplomatic way of saying a teacher tore up her paper and made her feel dumb. Writing teachers have a lot of power. When we see errors in student writing, we need to educate our students, but we need to do so in a way that helps rather than hurts. I myself can remember similar incidents in my own education, and if I’m being completely honest, I may have caused such incidents for my own students. Sometimes I cringe when I think about my first few years teaching.

I like what Gardner says about helping her students think like writers:

I encourage students to write for themselves as they discover and explore their topics. I ask them to write directly to me about the topic, their progress, and any concerns or questions. I ask them to write to each other, writing questions for the peer readers who consider their drafts. I encourage students to add sticky note annotations to their drafts as well as to the books that they are reading. (14)

It seems to me various Web 2.0 tools would be great for various aspects of this process. Gardner notes that “Students should never be forced to follow a single process, because no two writers are the same” (15). I wholeheartedly agree, and it’s one of the reasons I don’t usually ask students to turn in prewriting and outlines for a grade. I think it’s because I never make outlines when I write, and my prewriting mostly happens in my head. I remember having to turn in those kinds of assignments when I was in school. I almost always did the outline and prewriting after I’d written the assignment, which completely defeated the purpose my teachers had in mind. They were well-meaning, I’m sure, but they also enforced a single process that didn’t work for all students. I do think exposure to different kinds of planning is beneficial. I will never forget one student I had whose writing process utterly changed after he learned webbing in my class. Different systems of planning works for different students. Gardner is right that many times rigid requirements regarding writing process produce “forced or formulaic” writing (16).

I recognize an area where I need to do work. Gardner states that “We have to be explicit with students about what we really want: effective writing that pays attention to the audience and purpose we intend for the activity” (20). I think I probably emphasize writing conventions more than I should, which is not to say that they are unimportant. However, I need to target areas for minilessons so I’m not spending time seeing errors in papers. Collins’ writing method has focus correction areas that serve this purpose. When I attempted to implement focus correction areas, I found that method too constraining. Sometimes a student could address only the FCA’s and still produce a paper that did not really meet expectations for good writing. I know the theory is that over time you work on each common error as it comes up. Maybe I was too impatient. In all, I think the method would work very well for beginning writers or ELL students, but I’m not sure I felt it was as effective for my students, who tend to be more advanced writers. I also need to build time for writing conferences. I give too much feedback after the writing is done and not enough at the beginning of and during the writing process.

Some of what Gardner says about multimodal writing reminds me of the multigenre research paper concept. Students choose different artifacts to display their learning about a topic. Such projects allow for students who don’t have the same access to technology as others to show their learning. I teach at a private school and am always able to get into the computer lab (it should be a A LOT harder to do!), so my students typically have access to technology, but it’s an important point to remember. Virginia Tech, my grad school, requires all students to have their own computer. I’m sure VT isn’t the only school with this requirement. We are moving into an age when access to technology must be a given; how we ensure access is addressed in a variety of ways. One-to-one laptops are one way. I liked the idea of the OLPC project, too. I’m not sure how great the digital divide is anymore or what teachers can reasonably expect regarding access to technology, and I’m sure the answer varies widely depending on who and where you teach.

I love the idea of students writing letters of reflection about writing pieces and including those letters to help me focus on areas they have identified as needing attention. I think this sort of regular reflection could help students really think about the writing they are turning in. One question that kept recurring to me as I read this chapter is how many writing assignments is enough? I am thinking of major essays here because journals and other types of writing that my students do are not assessed in the same way and often do not go through the same process as an essay. I kept thinking of the writing workshop process on every major assignment, and while it’s good and worthwhile work, time would be a major issue. Or am I overthinking it? Porfolios could certainly address part of this issue with time.

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Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment

Last November at the NCTE convention, I purchased Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments with the intentions of reading it much earlier than I have. I find it helpful to reflect on my professional reading here, so I hope you’ll pardon me if this kind of thing isn’t why you visit the blog (why do you visit, anyway? I’m curious). I don’t intend to rush through the book, but I do have several professional books I want to read this summer.

As its title suggests, the first chapter discusses “the essentials of an effective writing assignment.” Gardner notes that the problem with the language we use in constructing writing assignments is that we typically use academic language the students have difficulty “unpacking” (6), or we use vague “stripped down” language that invites “extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences” (1). Gardner cites several research studies and articles, including Storms, Riazantseva, and Gentile (2000); NAEP/NWP (2001); Nelson (1990); Nelson (1995); and Yancey (2004) in support of her argument that one factor in students’ inability to meet expectations for writing assignments is ineffectively written prompts. Based on the NAEP/NWP study, Gardner suggests four essential characteristics of effective writing prompts:

  • The content and scope asked students to focus on critical thinking, rather than reiteration, by interacting with a text.
  • The organization and development provided scaffolding that supported students’ writing process.
  • The audience for the writing assignment focused on communication with an authentic group of readers regarding a topic on which the writer was an expert.
  • The range of choices for students’ focus was balanced with support and direction so that students could engage in the process as equal partners, rather than be directed to complete teacher-driven tasks. (Peterson qtd. in Gardner 2-3)

One area in which I can improve is creating more choices for students. UbD has really helped me think about how to create authentic performance tasks that address audience, and on reflection, I have to say my most effective writing assignments are performance tasks created as part of a UbD unit. I could do more with the writing process. With my lower level students, I build in a lot of in-class writing with the requirement of peer editing, and I think that scaffolding is effective, but it could be more effective if we went through the writing process in a more formal fashion. I noticed a key word in that sentence, too: we need to provide scaffolding for the students’ writing process. To me, that means it’s ineffective to require students create a formal outline as prewriting if a web, jot list, drawing, storyboard, or just plain plunging in and drafting works better for that student. I think construction of questions that focus on critical thinking is at the heart of UbD.

Gardner quotes Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice (2004), describing three (often different) curricula in the classroom. The “lived curriculum” is based on students’ prior experiences and knowledge; the “delivered curriculum” is “the one [teachers] design”; and the “experienced curriculum” is the result of the students’ prior knowledge and the delivered curriculum (qtd. in Gardner 5). Garder describes the experienced curriculum as a mashup of the other two types—a term I liked for its connotations with Web 2.0 interactivity. I think it’s important to remember that students don’t always make the connections we think they’re making or learn what we think they’re learning, but we can do more to enhance what Gardner calls overlap between the delivered curriculum and the experienced curriculum: “expand the writing assignment in ways that help students construct a reading that matches the goals for the activity” (6).

One of my favorite quotes from the chapter, which I tweeted in two sections earlier this evening: “Because all readers come to a text with different experiences and prior knowledge, all readings are different and none is absolutely identical to the writer’s original intentions” (6). Gardner isn’t suggesting that all readings are correct or that any interpretation goes, but I have a better answer for students who challenge my or their classmates interpretations of texts than I have in the past. We have all, at some point, been asked by a student if the writer intended something or other we have found in a text. My answer in the last few years or so has been close to Gardner’s, but her sentence captures the essence of what happens with interpretation so much more eloquently than I have been able to do thus far.

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