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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Designing Writing Assignments: Preparing for Standardized Testing

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsTraci Gardner begins her fifth chapter of Designing Writing Assignments, “Preparing for Standardized Testing,” with a sentence that sums up my own feeling about standardized writing assessments: “The prompts that students face on standardized writing tests are the antithesis of effective writing assignments” (67). Seeing as how they haven’t contacted me about it in a few years, I suppose it’s safe to disclose that I graded for the SAT in the first year that the essay portion of the test was added. I did it because I wanted to know what the College Board was looking for. I can tell you that the prompts are almost universally broad and, in my opinion, bad. Students’ guidance on using examples instructs them to draw from their personal experience, studies, and history. The prompts were often a quote from a famous person, and the student needs to respond either agreeing or disagreeing. In addition, students have 25 minutes to craft a well-developed essay. I know more than once I have told my own students, sadly, that in order to do well on the SAT essay, they need to forget the most important thing I’ve taught them about good writing—that it’s a process that requires planning and revision and, most importantly, time.

Gardner quotes Gregory Shafer1, who describes the effects of such testing as causing “students [to] abandon certain ideas about writing and embrace more reductive and less active approaches” (67), which is certainly what I’ve noticed about these kinds of essays. After a while, there was a sameness that crept in that ultimately made it impossible for me to do the job. I was not grading fast enough, and my accuracy (my score compared with the score given on random graded essays that were included to improve score validity) dropped.

Now that I’ve read this chapter, I will have a different and much better approach to helping my students do well on the SAT. Gardner has students discuss their experiences with timed writings first. The next step is to discuss other types of writing and their processes so they can “identify writing strategies they can use in test situations” (69). In scaffolding the process for standardized test writing, Gardner guides students to see that they “always have a process to compose their texts” (69). Obviously much more helpful than telling them to forget what they’ve learned about good writing!

Gardner’s suggestion of taking class time to understand the prompts through exploring samples in class is excellent. I’ve done that before, and it was great for helping students unpack the prompt so they could figure out what they were being asked to do. Her process for unpacking the question is great:

  • asking students to identify the audience and purpose behind the prompts (going beyond the simplistic answer of the testing company, of course)
  • having students identify what readers will look for and how they can present themselves as experts on the issue
  • demonstrating how to search through each writing prompt for significant words—both those that give clues to the content expected in response and those that suggest the structure and genre required
  • showing students how to find clues to the content and scope required by each prompt as well as to the organization and development that will be necessary for the response (70)

Gardner also includes a great handout that she gives students to help with this process. I would also suggest a book I’ve used in the past that does a good job helping students in this area and also has lots of sample questions on the usage portion of the SAT as well: Sadlier-Oxford’s Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests.

Gardner also suggests exploring rubrics with students and reading models, discussing the ways in which the models successfully meet expectations set forth in the rubrics. The College Board Web site has sample papers for students to explore for these purposes, and it was a great exercise to discuss rubrics and read model papers when I did it with my class.

Gardner describes helping students construct their own “mental writing kits” for the test situation. They should include what they need, so each student’s writing kit will differ. She shares one student’s writing kit on p. 73. It contains items such as “Begin with attention-getter and end with ‘So what?’” and “A/an for count and the for noncount.” Gardner also suggests that if students are given space for prewriting or notes or are allowed to write in the test booklet, they should write their writing kits down in that space and circle key words in the prompt, which is a another suggestion the Sadlier-Oxford book I mentioned has students employ as part of an exercise. I really do love this idea of a sort of Swiss army knife or toolkit. I created a presentation as part of a Schools Attuned workshop I participated in that uses a similar strategy for helping students be successful in language arts.

In all, I think the processes Gardner describes for helping students prepare for standardized tests are sound and helpful, even if the writing tasks themselves are not. I don’t imagine that standardized tests are going anywhere, and students do need to prepare for them. I would hate to see writing instructors focus on formulaic writing so that students are prepared for standardized tests at the expense of really learning how to write well, and I feel Gardner explains how to avoid that pitfall well. I have one more chapter in this book, and I hope to be able to read it and reflect on it here tomorrow.

1Shafer, Gregory. “Standardized Testing and the College Composition Instructor.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 32.3 (Mar. 2005): 238-46.

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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: Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments Book CoverThe title of this post is not a typo or hiccup. The third chapter of Traci Garder’s book Designing Writing Assignments is titled “Designing Writing Assignments,” too.

In this chapter, Garder addresses the reason why students might fail to meet our expectations: we didn’t communicate what we thought we did. I am guilty, as Gardner says, of simply trying to provide an assignment sheet, but we need to do more. First of all, when I define tasks, I’m not sure I have thought of “suggest[ing] steps in the process that students can complete” and “indicat[ing] different ways that students can work,” though I do usually “schedule multiple opportunities for students to write as they complete the assignment,” particularly if it’s a lower level or lower grade—9th graders versus 11th graders, for example (36). I think I should give all of my students more opportunitys to write in class than I currently do. It’s all about the balance of time, isn’t it?

In helping students comprehend our expectations, Gardner suggests we

  • unpack the meaning of the assignment, as described by Jim Burke, by explaining the assignment to create a shared understanding of the activity
  • provide model responses and demonstrate how to read and compose example texts
  • share rubrics, checklists, and other resources that highlight the requirements and goals for the assignment (36)

I do share rubrics, but I need to be more consistent, particularly as I use rubrics to grade. Checklists, my students also have. Models are an area in which I feel I’m weak. I do some modeling, but usually after the first draft. When I asked students to write a poetry explication, they asked me for models, and though I pointed them to one I found on the web, it didn’t appear to be enough. Over and over students told me they weren’t sure what to do. Jay McTighe describes a teacher who had a target on her bulletin board. A-papers were in the middle of the target, and B- and C-papers were farther out. Students could see exactly what they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted. On the other hand, does that encourage too much imitation and not enough creativity? It’s something I wrestle with when I use models.

Next, Gardner describes the importance of support and resources. When I have designed UbD units, my performance assessments have typically been really good in terms of support and resources, but I haven’t done it for all of the essays. And why not? I have a blog and a wiki! I can gather all kinds of resources for students to use with Web 2.0 tools.

Gardner models the process for creating three types of writing assignments, ending each vignette with an assessment of how well the assignment meets the criteria set forth in the General Writing Assignment Design section (defining task, expectations, and support and resources). In the vignette on expressive writing, Gardner mentions blogs. It sounds like she has used LiveJournal (she describes being able to add emoticons and what music the writer’s listening to, both LJ features) with students, but Ning would be great. It can be closed or open, and students can all be blogging in the same space. I can’t decide if I’m going to do some blogging with all my classes. I am already launching interactive notebooks, and I just don’t know. I don’t want to do too much that’s different or I’ll go crazy, but Gardner makes a good point about the audience for expressive writing being narrow if it’s just the student and me who read it. I really like commenting, too. Now if my students all had the same note-taking tools (like Curio, perhaps), we could probably make the interactive notebooks more of a shared item. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

As I read Garder’s process for reflecting on how she has met the criteria for designing assignments in each of the vignettes, I’m reminded again of the UbD process for designing any assignment—the filter in particular. If you want to see one of my filters, I created one for Beowulf when I wrote my UbD unit plan. As a side note, what’s great about the essential questions for that plan is that when I discovered Joe Scotese had some good close reading assignments for Beowulf, I was able to use them to explore the same questions even deeper. I need to revise my unit to include Joe’s ideas. I actually had an idea as I read Gardner’s description of her persuasive writing assignment. I have asked students to write Beowulf’s résumé in the past; I think a persuasive essay in which they are trying to convince someone to hire him on as a hero, perhaps even written from the viewpoint of King Hrothgar? Something’s always niggled at me about that résumé in the past. I worried that though it’s an authentic task, it wasn’t all that challenging, which is why I added annotations. A persuasive essay would definitely make me feel better about the performance task and make it more of a writing exercise. What do you think? If I remember right, Jim Burke even has a great graphic organizer for constructing an argument that would work well.

Let’s see, this kind of assignment would include an authentic audience—someone in need of a hero who has asked Hrothgar for a recommendation. Students are experts: they’ve read Beowulf and seen him in action (of course, he dies, so I could ask students to complete the assignment before we get to that part or they’ll bring it up for sure). Then again, I might be able to get around that snag by having Hrothgar write to the Geats to explain why Beowulf should be made king. It will set the letter more firmly at a certain place in the story. What do you think? They’ll need to interact with the text to provide examples of Beowulf’s heroism. How about choice? Well, they need to decide which acts are heroic enough to include and leave out things they don’t find heroic. Models. I don’t have any models on this particular assignment. I could provide them, but given the narrow scope, could I get away with sharing recommendation letters? I can include suggested steps in the process on the assignment sheet, and I can create peer review sheets that help the students with structure and audience/purpose. Graphic organizers and a cheat sheet for the grammar handbook students use might be helpful support as well.

I think I have just begun planning a writing assignment.

P. S. If you are a regular visitor or even a vistor whose been here before, you may notice a few differences in this site’s functionality. I was going to tack the description of some changes I’ve made to this post, but I decided they really merit a separate post, which is forthcoming.

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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,, 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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Editing Checklist

Let’s create an editing checklist. I think it’s helpful for students to have a guide for editing or peer editing. Suggest your idea for something that students should check for in the comments, and I will create the document and make it available here for free.

Here’s my contribution:

Mark every instance of the words “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Make sure these words are being used as adjectives rather than pronouns. If they’re being used as pronouns, consider adding a noun, revising the sentence, or combining sentences to avoid vague pronouns.

I ran into that particular issue quite a few times while reading essays today.

I will be cross-posting this request at the EC Ning.

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Week in Reflection: February 23-27

This week I am caught up on grading.  I’ve seen lots of talk out there among the English Edublogosphere and Twitter about feedback on student writing.  Something I do about once a semester is type comments as I read a student’s writing.  I usually wind up with about a page when I’m done.  It’s like a written conference.  I wish I had more time for writing conferences in my schedule.  I tried recording my feedback, and it felt like an awkward additional step.  Because I have smaller classes, I am able to give substantial feedback on writing and still ask my students to do plenty of writing.  That’s not to say it’s not a challenge to grade, but it’s such a reward when I can compare students’ progress.  It’s really evident when I compare ninth graders’ writing to eleventh graders’ writing.  It’s not that eleventh graders necessarily are inherently better writers, but I can see the growth that has taken place because I know they were writing like the ninth graders two years ago.  Another thing I have done is allow students to revise for a higher grade.  I gave my students a handout with Seven Deadly Sins — seven common grammatical issues I see in their writing — and a point value to be subtracted for each instance of the “sin” in their paper.  They can erase their sins by figuring out what they did, correcting it, and attaching an explanation of their errors and corrections to the second draft.  All is forgiven.

Right now my juniors are writing poetry explications.  I don’t think I was asked to write an explication until I was in college.  My freshmen are busily writing argumentative essays.  My sophomores are in the midst of a research paper.  Lots of writing going on!

I have really been enjoying the conversations with my department this week.  Teaching can be so isolating, and it is good to connect and discuss with those who share the same burdens and joys that we do as a result of working in the same place.  I feel sad when I hear stories of departments that aren’t close and refuse to collaborate.

My juniors read poetry (John Donne to John Milton) this last couple of weeks, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive comments regarding the readings that they were making on the classroom blog.  My students are generally, I believe, fairly honest about their likes and dislikes.  When I was first exposed to these writers, I admit I didn’t care much for them.  In fact, until college, I didn’t much care for writing before about 1800 or so.  All that changed, and I actually find I like the older literature more now (go figure), but I have to admit that my teachers in high school did very little to engage me in that literature.  I had one excellent English teacher in high school, and the rest of my English classes are a blur.  I remember a lot of what I did with her because it was engaging and interesting.  I hope I am not flattering myself too much to think I have actually engaged my juniors in Late Renaissance/Restoration poetry, but it feels good to read such positive comments.

What this post lacks in coherence chalk up to the fact that what I share is more or less stream of consciousness.  Grad school is starting to get challenging.  I’m learning, and I am enjoying my classes, but I can’t pretend it’s not difficult.

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I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

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I am often the last person to hear about the cool tools, but I don’t think I’ve seen Zotero mentioned in any other education blogs.

Zotero is a Firefox extension that helps “you collect, manage, and cite your research sources” within your browser.  Screencast tutorials at the Zotero site help you visualize what that means for your research.  I think students could potentially save a lot of time with Zotero.  It would be great for research papers.  I don’t know if I will need to write any scholarly papers for my ITMA program, but if so, I can see this extension can potentially save me a lot of time.

Zotero Screenshot

Zotero Screenshot

Zotero works for Firefox 2.0 or 3.0, Netscape Navigator 9.0, or Flock 0.9.1 for Windows, Mac, or Linux.  It is free and open source, and lots of good plugins can extend its capabilities with other software, such as Open Office, Microsoft Office, and WordPress.

My worry in using it with my own students is that it would be a learning curve for them.  As I have stated before elsewhere, it has not been my experience that students today are as tech savvy as we give them credit for, and many of them are not patient with tech tools either.

Everything I learned about technology, I learned because I sat down and played with it until I figured out how it worked, but my students do not always approach learning how to use new tools the same way.  I do have a few students I might recommend it to.

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Write Beside Them: The Opportunities in a Writer’s Workshop

Write Beside ThemIn chapter 6 of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, the reader gets a glimpse into how a writers’ workshop might run.  The first thing I wished was that I had a writing class all year next year on a block schedule.  I really want to go out and try everything!  Based on the schedule Kittle outlines, she has 90-classes, and she also mentions A and B schedules, so my hunch is that she’s on an alternating block schedule.  Her writing course is a one-semester course.  My own school schedule is so complicated that I’m wondering how and when I can implement some of her ideas that I really liked.  For example, I would really like to try Sustained Silent Reading.  When I was a student teacher, the high school where I did my student teaching assignment had school-wide SSR two days a week.  Everyone in the school — teachers, students, administrators, janitors, everyone — was expected to read for that twenty minutes.  Magazines were OK.

Here’s what my schedule looks like:

  • Mondays: Block 3: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:21; Block 4: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 5: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 6: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 7: 2:12-2:57; Block 8: 3:00-3:45.
  • Tuesdays: Block 5: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 6: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 7: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 8: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 1: 2:12-2:57; Block 2: 3:00-3:45.
  • Wednesdays: Faculty Meeting: 7:45-8:30; Block 1: 8:35-9:21; Block 2: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 3: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 4: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 5: 2:12-2:57; Block 6: 3:00-3:45.
  • Thursdays: Block 7: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 8: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 1: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 2: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 3: 2:12-2:57; Block 4: 3:00-3:45.
  • Fridays: Block 1: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:19; Block 2: 9:21-9:59; Block 3: 10:02-10:42; Block 4: 10:45-11:25; Lunch: 11:25-11:53; Block 5: 11:56-12:36; Block 6: 12:39-1:19; Block 7: 1:21-1:59; Block 8:  2:02-2:45.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it did take me a whole year to learn it.  We rotate the schedule so that each class has one double-block per week along with three regular blocks and one day off.  On Fridays, we finish up at 2:45 to allow students who travel from far away to get home in time to prepare for Shabbat in the winter.

So given that I don’t meet with my students on a schedule that’s regular, my first thought was that Fridays would be a good day for SSR, but how long can I realistically devote to it then?  I could make the day when the class has double-block another day, but again, how long?  Is 10 minutes OK?

Another thing I took away from this chapter is that I need to work on writing conferences.  I do not allow students to do enough of the talking, and they are walking away trying to fix their writing to please me so I will reward them with a good grade instead of really learning to write well.  The good news is that I can fix it, and happily, Kittle provides models on the DVD.  I wrote Listen more!  Talk less! in the margin of my book.

Finally, it occurred to me that two of the suggestions Kittle mentions — publishing writing students wish to share on a shared drive on the school’s network and creating posters for units of study — could also be done and perhaps even more effectively on a wiki, even if it was a closed wiki that only the students could use.  The added advantage would be that students could keep adding to the information and writing pieces gathered, even after they were no longer students if they wished, and they could also access the wiki at home.  Wikis would also have the advantage of being hyperlinked, so if students wanted to link to an online editorial they found interesting for further reading, they could easily do so.  Kittle has mentioned the multi-genre research paper, but so far only in passing.  I hope we get a good picture of what it looks like because based on what I’ve read, it also looks like a prime candidate for a wiki.

I’m guessing I should be getting my Teacher’s Daybook any time now.  I need to start planning, and I mean really planning.

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