Tag Archives: news

Thinking about Writing (Instruction)

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing — more specifically, writing instruction — this week. So when this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education came across my radar, I read it carefully. Barrett claims we’re not focusing on writing enough in the college classroom; I’ll respond to that argument in a moment. First, a little background: why I’m thinking about writing so much this week.

This week (actually, today), I will turn in my prospectus to my committee, so I’ve been doing a lot of writing.

This week, my English teaching methods students will enact writing mini-lessons in class.

This week, my tutoring students have brought me many examples of their writing for various classes in school and in response to prompts I have assigned them.

With writing instruction — how to do it best, how to respond to students, where to start in a one-on-one conference — coming at me from all sides of my life, this article made me pause for a minute. My first reaction came from the gut. Berrett’s first sentence:

Too many students aren’t learning enough.

Whoa there. Whoa. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about the crisis rhetoric. See here and here. I was immediately on the defensive, because this sort of talk has, I believe, had a negative impact on our nation’s portrayal of and understanding of the teaching profession. However, I respect both Chronicle and the friend who posted this article to facebook, so I read on.

The arguments that followed resonated with me.

…if academe and its critics want students to leave college with sharper thinking skills, writing ought to gain a higher priority, says Paul V. Anderson, a professor of English at Elon University.

He likens writing’s effect on students to the recently observed subatomic particle the Higgs boson. Just as particles gain mass as they move through the Higgs boson field, he says, “student learning gains heft as students interact through writing with the subjects they are studying.”

The article goes on to argue that writing is a way of capturing thinking, and is one of the best “tests” of student learning a professor can use, if they’re willing and able to sit down and respond to student writing. Agreed. By the time I was done reading, the only issues I had with the article were the opening sentence and the fact that Barrett makes the evaluation of writing sound relatively simple — which it’s not. Responding to student writing in meaningful ways takes time. A lot of it. Just ask my buddies over at The Paper Gradersor any English teacher you know, for that matter. Doing this with large college classes — even when it’s a “small assignment” of only one or two pages as Chronicle suggests, is nearly impossible and would require a lot of training in writing instruction and response. The temptations of the red pen, I’ve found, are strong, and it takes training and support for teachers to learn how to respond meaningfully. Lack of writing instruction in college classes isn’t the easy problem to fix that I think Barrett makes it here, but his point is taken — students need to do more writing, more often.

Speaking of which, I need to go do a little more writing before I pass this prospectus off to my committee, so time to sign off. Happy writing, everyone.

Reaction to CNN Post of Student Video

When I first viewed this video and the story that accompanies it, I had the following initial reactions. You’ll have to check out the video to understand the rest of this post, but it’s only about a minute long.

My first thoughts:

  1.  I should unsubscribe from CNN’s Schools of Thought Blog. I don’t keep it in my queue because I think they say brilliant things about education (sometimes they do, but it’s rare)… I keep it because it enables me to keep my finger on the proverbial pulse of public opinion about education. This, however, nearly made me unsubscribe.
  2. How unfortunate that this kid feels this way about his classmates.
  3. How in the world can I respond to this without invalidating what this kid feels?
  4. Does anyone else find this a little outraging/outrageous?

For the life of me, I couldn’t even start writing the reactionary post. I started, deleted, started again, revised, and finally gave up. For lack of a better plan, I turned to facebook, where I’m friends with other education scholars and a number of former students. I got the following couple of responses, and though I might have liked to hear more people’s two cents, their combined comments are worth quoting. Here’s what they said:

From a former colleague/fellow ed scholar:

‎”Lack of motivation” is nothing new–it’s been around as long as schools have. This kid seems like a disaffected outsider who’s using this forum to vent his frustrations with his peers. I don’t doubt that there’s some accuracy to what he’s saying, but it’s by no means the only–or even the greatest–problem with education. If a lot of students are truly unmotivated, then we need to examine why they lack motivation–a search that, I suspect, will lead us directly to parents and home environments
And from a former high school student, currently a senior:
Being a fellow student, I understand his view. But I don’t think kids don’t have a willingness to learn. Every year is seems more materials are added to the cirriculum that there isn’t time to gain thorough knowledge of a subject and with work, school, and social lives, many teens just go for the grade instead of learning so they can pass and move on, hindering them if the subject comes up again. However I don’t appreciate the attack on the arts. The arts apply what is taught in math, english, etc which should increase their “willingness to learn.”
These reactions essentially sum up my arguments. I was pleased to hear one of my former students argue that it’s not about whether students want to learn, but about how we’re going about delivering, deciding upon, and cramming in content. He’s right — current policies like the Common Core are pushing for even more content to be covered in each discipline over the course of a school year. Instead of making smart decisions about where depth is important, we simply continue adding breadth. My philosophy when I was teaching was always to value depth over breadth. That often meant that I would spend a lot of time on a few texts (by a few, though, I mean 7 major texts plus supplementals in my 9th grade classes, which is nothing to shake a stick at) instead of a little time on a ton of texts. This meant that we spent an entire quarter compiling revised, workshopped portfolios of writing. It meant that some things “went by the wayside” — for example, grammar, which I taught in the context of student writing (try explaining that to someone who wants to see the contents of your grammar unit).
And my colleague said it better than I could have — “If a lot of students are truly unmotivated, then we need to examine why they lack motivation.” He goes on to say that this might lead us straight to their home environments, and while I agree that’s a possibility, I think teachers and policymakers need to consider what’s going on in classrooms and how we can make content and delivery more relevant to the lives of today’s kids and tomorrow’s adults. Kids want to learn. They want to learn things that will help them succeed in life. Ask any kid — she’s unlikely to tell you “nah, I don’t care whether or not I succeed in life.” Ask any teacher, and I hope you’ll hear from her that she has kids who want to learn — kids who light up when they get excited about a project or an assignment or a unit. If that never happened, teaching would be a pretty awful job. Teachers are in it for those moments… they certainly aren’t in it for the money.
Thanks to my colleague and my student. I’m keeping them anonymous here, but they helped me write a reaction when I was pretty stumped.

Shocking Huffington Post Article

From the Huffington Post: California shuts down programs in two schools that color-code students’ ID cards and notebooks based on their standardized test scores.

Good for the state, I guess, but seriously? What administrator thinks it’s a good idea to color-code students based on test scores? School officials said:

At the time, school officials said they saw the cards as a motivator, citing “tremendous results, and the kids love it.”

Are you kidding me? I don’t even know how to comment on this, I find it so repulsive. I have known some incredible administrators, my mother included, and I can honestly say this is an anomaly. At least I hope it is. Thank goodness the state stepped in, but how sad that it was necessary. It’s up to the people closest to students to protect them from the idiocy of crappy educational policies.

Chicago Teachers Vote to Strike

Back in Chicago this past weekend for a familial gathering and a White Sox game (a-hem, go Cubs), I heard on the radio that the Chicago Teachers’ Union was voting this week to authorize a strike. The radio announcers didn’t seem too convinced that the vote would actually pass, because new rules require a 75% vote (which is ridiculously high).

But they did it.

According to this post by Diane Ravitch, union members not only voted in favor of the strike, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of it. Ravitch writes:

Nearly 90% of the members of CTU voted to authorize a strike to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s policies of more work for no more pay, privatization of public education, and increased class sizes. To be exact, 89,73% of the CTU voted to authorize a strike, 1.82% voted “no,” and 91.55% of members cast a vote.

After all the fights teachers’ unions have lost lately, this is a big win.

I have confused and mixed feelings about teachers’ unions. On the one hand, I lost a job I absolutely loved because of the seniority rules held in place by most teachers’ unions. That was really painful and really frustrating. However, unions protect teachers from the very things that are being upheld as positive — but aren’t — in today’s standardization age. Unions protect teachers, for example, from being laid off because their students’ test scores go down one year. They require due process for a teacher, and protection against wrongful termination. Unions bargain for fair pay and fair benefits. Things professionals deserve. Things that aren’t denied to auto workers or construction workers. Why would we deny teachers, who go through years of schooling (and many of them have graduate degrees), these same professional privileges?

As teachers’ professional judgment and knowledge continue to be undervalued, as textbook companies churn out scripted curricula and technologies that make the teacher irrelevant, I become more concerned about the lost battles of teachers’ unions. I admire those Chicago teachers who refused to sit  idly by. Good for you, sweet home Chicago teachers’ union.