Flat Judaism?

Many of my students feel a strong connection to Israel and have visited Israel at least once.  Some of my students are Israeli.  When an opportunity for my students to work with students in Israel on a “flat classroom” type of project, I jumped at the chance.  I am pleased to introduce you to our project, which I am calling “Faces of Judaism.”  Together with the Neveh Channah Torah High School for Girls, my students at the Weber School are exploring their Jewish identity through writing.  Some questions guiding our exploration:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish in Israel?  In America?
  • What is my home really like from my point of view as compared with how others see it or portray it in the media?
  • Who am I, and how does my religion form that identity?

We are still very much in the nascent stages of our joint writing venture, and unfortunately, a teacher strike in Israel didn’t come at the most opportune time, but we are soldiering forward despite this setback.

You can check us out at the Weber Writers Wiki and Israel Faces Wiki.

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Best Practices for Teaching Writing

I want to thank everyone who commented on my previous post, “Writing: Best Practices.” I said I would share my own thoughts, but wanted to hear what you all had to say first.

First of all, I am a firm believer in teaching students how to write using the process model. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who tried to turn in first drafts that had not only not been edited, but hadn’t even been outlined or planned first, and it always shows. Their writing tended to be disorganized and weak on development. I think, however, that we have to help students find a prewriting format that works for them. One student of mine never did prewriting until I showed him how to organize his papers using webbing. He mentioned offhand some time very much later that he found it very helpful and used it all the time. I utilize peer editing, and I have to give credit to the Reflective Teacher who comes up with great peer editing activities. I found great success with peer editing in my class last year.

Depending on the assignment, I like to try to book the computer lab so that we can write the essays in class. Conversations that happen between the students and me as I look over their writing are invaluable. They can catch it if they’re way off track early on. Also, if they are on the right track, they feel more confident continuing if I can tell them so. They can ask me questions about something they’re just having trouble with. I think writing in class is especially valuable if you are dealing with younger writers or weaker writers. I teach a writing seminar course, and last year, our class became quite close as we shared our writing and helped each other improve. It was a wonderful teaching experience.

One thing I am still working on is an effective way to deliver feedback. I would like to do more conferencing, but I also think having written feedback so that when the students walk away to do revisions and forget what we said (which happens to the best of us), they have written suggestions. I admit I usually write comments in cursive, which many of my students have trouble reading. It’s not that my handwriting is bad, but I am finding that my students are arriving at high school in increasing numbers without being able to read or write cursive. I suppose it’s going the way of the dinosaur, but it frustrates me that a mode of communication I have successfully used so often in the past is now becoming closed to me. One thing I do occasionally — not with each essay — is type comments and attach them to the essay. These comments are usually quite long — anywhere from a half a page to a page single-spaced. I’m a very fast typist, so sometimes these comments take me about as much time as handwriting about a paragraph’s worth of comments on a student essay.

One thing I have found extremely effective is to use models or pull samples from students’ own writing to share. In a recent class, my students who had read A Lesson Before Dying wrote persuasive essays about whether or not we should abolish the death penalty. I pulled example paragraphs from three student essays (with their permission, of course) using statistics and the Torah to develop arguments. I think it really helped the students to see what a really good paragraph written by one of their peers looks like. I showed the same paragraphs to another class with students who have more writing problems before they began their essays. It will be interesting to see what effect seeing the models beforehand has on the student writers. What I don’t do well and need to improve is saving examples like this from year to year so I have a repository of examples. Frankly, now that I have a SMART Board, I have no excuse for not saving these samples from year to year. There’s nothing like seeing a model to help a student realize how they can improve.

I like to ask students to reflect, which I admit I don’t do often enough. I think portfolios are valuable. Something I am trying this year is to allow students to revise one graded essay each nine weeks for a higher grade. I will ask them to attach a reflection to these pieces, although I haven’t yet determined what sorts of questions I will want them to answer for the reflection. I do think using guiding questions will be important.

Basically, I was just curious to see what others are or were doing. I knew I was getting good results based on what I was doing, so I wasn’t worried about my practices. I suppose I just wanted to collect some data. Thanks for sharing if you did, and if you didn’t, feel free to chime in.

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