Category Archives: Inquiry

Keeping a Record of the Reading Life

This post is written by member Molly Sutton Kiefer.

When I was young, I’d ask my father, a literature and composition professor, to give me reading challenges. As an upper elementary student, I spent one summer day plowing through 100 picture books. On Thanksgiving break from college, I brought a sack of books, which he balked at, and I said, “Challenge me to read one a day—you pick which ones—and if I make it, you can buy me a book.” I jokingly asked for the OED (Oxford-English Dictionary) I had my eye on in the bookstore where I worked.

I started keeping a record of my reading on my birthday in 2001. It was through these cream-colored journals that I began counting books for each year. 256. 211. When Good Reads came along, I went digital, logging each book, tracking little unformed thoughts, which became the foundation for professional book reviews. I kept marginalia in a conversation I was having with the future-self who loved re-reading.

I started teaching mostly high school freshmen, hoards of freshmen with puppy energy and stumbling prose. On Mondays, we read. The whole period. There were forms all freshmen teachers had in their rooms, little book reportish things on colored paper with rote questions. They’d staple the batch together, and earn fakeable points each semester.

The requirement set out by department was 600 pages a semester. Most students would reach that line and duly toe it. I made attempts at revealing my own reading self, at challenging my already-readers in the room, by keeping a tally of my own pages on the board. Some years, other children would step up and write their own name and the tallies would edge up. Another boy was too shy to participate, but at the end of the semester, I heard him mutter to his seatmate, “Only two thousand eight hundred sixty-three pages? I had over three thousand, easy.”

The thing was, the kids who loved to read would read. They didn’t need to fill in a chart to tell me this. The kids who didn’t, wouldn’t. They’d spin it, or refuse to turn in the sheets and those points would drop away from an already low-slung grade. We weren’t spreading the romance of reading in this way.

And I had begun to dull my own love for reading in my manic acquisition of pages, of book numbers. Good Reads began its own challenge: select a number of books you will read for the year! My log-in page would tell me where I was lining up. I would scurry to surge ahead and suddenly I wondered where my stopwatch was, why I wasn’t wearing cleats, and just where did the true love of reading go, anyway? The accomplishment of the goal had eclipsed the deliciousness of language, the breathless admiration of a muscular text. I had forgotten how to slow down.

Worse, I was perpetuating the habit with my students.

As educators, as parents, we model. To raise readers, we model reading. It’s a beautiful excuse for me to flounce onto the couch or, in the summer, the hammock and declare to my partner, “I am parenting right now.” And then get lost in the thick of the novel.

I began to model active reading with my own students. As part of my greet-at-the-door, I’d stand in the hallway with a book of poetry in hand. When my students silently read, rather than grade frantically, I’d perch on a stool in the front of the room, reading with a pen in hand, modeling the pleasure of marginalia. I told them about the books I kept with my friends from my MFA days, where we’d read the same book together and write notes in the margins specifically for a fellow reader—like writing letters as we read.

This summer, I began to keep a paper reading journal. I’m using a gorgeous herringbone Moleskine—we writers are particular about our materials—to show my students how valuable this book is to me. In it, I still jot down the small details side of things: dates, genres, name, author. I still keep data, and I’ll still keep data on my students. I have a binder that was once folders that was once loose sheets—reading logs that became carrots for some, daunting tasks for others. Two of my carrot-boys decided to make an informal book club and keep their own log of what they read together. I need the lists, because I need to know where to go from last month, the month before.

This year, I’m giving my students blank books to keep as their reading logs, and I’ll give them many examples of ways they can log. Some will stick with the lists because it works. Some will be like me and begin to copy quotes, write responses, fill it with words of their own. Others, like my carrot-boys, who also fill their days drawing elaborate scenes in the margins of their work—bows and arrows and robots and planets—I envision their turning this into a graphic log. Some will write skits, creating dialog between characters with unresolved issues, characters from other books climbing over the marginalia and into the pages of other books. Some will paint in watercolor and paste collages, words clipped from their mother’s discarded magazines, pasted along the curve of a mountain representing the plot line. Some will break out of the book-logs and rip out pieces of butcher paper and create enormous and intricate maps, scenes, lists. I had my creative writing students collect words and put them on paper, transfer them when they entered my classroom onto that paper and braced myself for observation days when the principal might stare at best-loved and most-hated words of teenagers.

This summer, I learned this: marginalia need not stop in the margins. Reading logs need not exist between parallel lines.

Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary and three poetry chapbooks. She is publisher at Tinderbox Editions, and her work appears in Orion, The Rumpus, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She lives and teaches in Minnesota

Why We Write

This post is written by members Amy Miller and Meghan Jones.

“Writing can be my best friend.”

“Writing to me is the tool for creating a world that otherwise could not exist.”

“I want to be a writer who can write about things that are important not just in school. But world things.”

“Writing can bring life back to you when life is the worst it could possibly be.”

“Writing reminds me that the best is yet to come.”

After navigating our first year of heterogeneously grouped classes, the English 100H team, a group of teachers responsible for the ninth-grade classes, realized the need for a dramatic change for our first unit—we had to start the year off with a stronger push to rope all kids into what really matters in English class.

We wanted to cultivate in students the skills necessary to be successful learners and begin to instill in them the importance of being active, engaged readers and thoughtful writers. We worked backward with the idea of a summative assignment for which students reflected on who they are as writers, and we built a unit that provided students multiple opportunities to reflect on their own writing, engage with mentor texts, learn from their peers’ writing, and make choices about their learning along the way.

Here’s an overview of the two-to-three week process:

As a culture builder, a lesson in active listening, and a brainstorming activity, we began with peer interviews. Students asked each other questions about their memories of learning to write and the role of writing in their lives today. They recorded key words or phrases from their peers’ responses. Students then used the interview content to flash-draft responses to the question, Who I am as a writer?

Students explored mentor texts of published writers reflecting on why they write or read and identified strategies to then apply to their own writing. The idea of “reading like a writer” came from Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti of Moving Writers in their book Writing with Mentors. In a mini-lesson, we modeled the process of noticing and then naming strategies in our own words with a class model from short, accessible reflections by well-known authors. Students then explored other mentors in small groups, adding to our growing class list of strategies.

Students then personalized their learning by independently exploring an amassed list of mentors, including writers’ reflections, podcasts, TED Talks, and interviews with well-known writers and musicians. We continued to expand and refine our strategy list. After each successive round of exploring mentor texts, students returned to their own writing and tried a mentor strategy to revise what they had written. To ensure that students were meeting learning targets, we utilized exit passes as formative checks for understanding.

As the drafts took shape, teachers shared their own “Why I Write” drafts and had students locate strategies and offer feedback. Students then offered each other peer feedback on which strategies were working and which needed further attention.

Eventually, we turned to writing conferences during which students identified areas of revision and generated questions for the conference using a writer’s checklist. During the conferences, students took their own notes. Literacy specialists pushed into classes to help confer with students and ensure that each student received meaningful formative feedback.

On the day their writing was due, we held a celebration of writing. NCTE’s #WhyIWrite site reminded us that collectively, telling why we write “gives voice to who you are and enables you to give voice to the things that matter to you.” So we decided to frame our celebration around “raising the volume”. In a gallery walk, students perused each other’s writing, located memorable lines, and quoted each other to build a collage of words on the whiteboard under #WhyIWrite. Placing the markers in students’ hands compelled them to appreciate each other’s words and to call out the student who uses writing to cope with reality, the friend whose journals capture everyday musings, and the peer whose written words create rich, imaginative worlds.

The written products were genuine in their self-reflection, rich with strategies gleaned from the mentor texts, authentic in voice and expression. We read stories of academic triumphs, sacred family reading times, private chronicles of the intimacies of their daily lives, and beaming elementary teachers who inspired our students to see themselves as writers for the very first time. Most importantly, students expressed that their love of writing dramatically waned as they advanced through the grades. Their pieces echoed a resounding desire to regain the love of writing that they once had as younger students. This not only validated our work but reinforces the enormity of the task we face as English teachers. It is our responsibility to teach all students at all levels that writing matters. Our students are writers with stories to tell—stories that deserve to be heard. Hopefully, we have brought them one step closer to gaining the tools and confidence needed to believe in themselves once again as writers who can change the world.

Amy Miller (Twitter @FHSEnglishCT) is the English department leader and Meghan Jones (Twitter @FHSliteracy) is a literacy specialist and instructional coach at Farmington High School in Farmington, CT.

Teaching Composition Using Transcripts

This post is written by members Kate Artz, Danah Hashem, and Anne Mooney.

One of the biggest challenges of teaching composition to a new group of students often isn’t what they don’t know, but what they do know. Bad writing habits and rigid, formulaic structures can become a comfort zone for insecure student writers, holding them back from more authentic and effective writing. A potential strategy for helping students break out of those comfort zones is teaching the skills of composition through unfamiliar genres of writing. Written transcripts of audio compositions such as podcasts, speeches, or interviews are a particularly useful genre for helping students explore compositions in new and different ways. Using transcripts to teach composition enables students to make meaningful rhetorical decisions about how to write, what to include, and what to exclude from their writing.

Transcripts are compositions

We believe that transcripts of audio work hold equal value and weight to the original piece. In many cases, transcripts are treated like the silver medal consolation prize for those who are unable to access the real work, the audio work. A transcript can be a way of exploring more deeply the work being transcribed and requires an intricate set of rhetorical decisions in which the author carefully considers audience, goals, and genre.

The importance of being comfortable being uncomfortable.

By teaching transcripts as composition, we are allowing our students to take more risks with their learning. Because they are likely unfamiliar with the genre and the act of translating a piece from one mode to another, there will be less pressure to be perfect (they won’t easily recognize what perfect is). This not only promotes play, flexibility, and creativity, but it creates a more even starting point for our students. Students who often struggle may find themselves learning at a similar pace to their more advanced peers, and the students who are used to moving at a faster pace are prompted to slow down and carefully consider their writing process.

Valuing all of our students’ means of expression.

Having students produce work in this new genre promotes their unique ways of creating and expressing themselves. For students who struggle with more traditional writing, transcripts may offer them a new and meaningful way to engage in composing. Incorporating lessons and assignments that foreground transcript writing asks students to seriously undertake the task of creating alternative ways of approaching a particular composition. This prompts them to engage multiple modes, ways of thinking, and genres, creating more opportunities for authentic student voices.

Promoting inclusivity in the classroom.

By familiarizing our students with the process of transcript writing and its inherent value, we reaffirm that inclusivity and accessibility concerns are normal parts of the composing process. Students are clearly able to see how conveying a message in multiple modes, genres, and styles increases the audience and enriches the message.  Although a written transcript can’t always capture perfectly every aspect of an audio composition, there are also things a transcript can convey that audio cannot. Therefore, multiple modes and styles can support one another and can be taken together as part of one rich and complex composition, to the benefit of all audiences.

Often we approach inclusivity in the classroom from a teacher-centric perspective; however, using transcripts to teach composition places the responsibility and empowerment on students. This approach asks students to build and direct a culture of accessibility within their own learning communities. Incorporating more inclusive and accessible ways to experience compositions, by creating high-quality transcripts, becomes a creative, student-motivated endeavor.

Transcription in practice.

We have created an assignment that gives students an opportunity to explore some of the rhetorical complexities involved in transcription of audio pieces. As outlined in the assignment, after a discussion on the rhetorical strategies of transcription, students each create individual transcripts for a single piece. Once students have completed their transcripts, they can trade with a partner or work in groups in order to collaboratively consider the different approaches, understandings, and perspectives that led them to their different rhetorical choices. This simple activity enables students to understand and discuss the individual and often subtle choices that different authors make. Additionally, students will be able to explore the idea that no text is neutral; even the smallest rhetorical choice, from font choice to punctuation placement, expresses the perspective and intention of its author.

Audio Transcript Assignment

Prewriting Activity:

  • Give everyone a transcript for a common audio piece.
  • Read these transcripts individually and answer the following questions:
    • What do you expect the speaker(s) to sound like?
    • Do you expect music or sound effects? If so, what kind and how much?
    • What do you expect the tone of the audio piece to be?
  • Listen to the chosen audio piece.
  • Individually answer the following questions:
    • Was there anything in the audio file that you did not expect or that was distinctly different from the way you imagined it?
    • In what ways did the audio file meet your expectations based on what you read in the transcript?
    • What is something specific that the transcript author did that you found particularly effective or interesting?
  • Discuss answers as a large group.
Assignment:
  • Choose 3 audio clips. Below are some recommended categories to choose from (Suggested audio clip length: 1.5 to 3 minutes):
    • Radio commercials
    • Podcasts
    • TED talks
    • Famous recorded speeches
  • Divide the class into 3 groups with each group receiving one of the selected clips.
  • Individually, each student writes a transcript for the clip they have received. It is important that they do not discuss their process with their group members until after the transcript is written!
In-Class Activity:
  • Within their groups, have students get into pairs and swap transcripts with one another.
  • Read transcripts and annotate while reading.
  • Answer the following questions on a piece of paper that will be returned to the transcript’s author at the end of the discussion:
    • What is something specific that your partner did in their transcript that you found particularly effective or interesting?
    • What is something that your partner included in their transcript that you omitted in yours? Why do you think they may have made that choice?
    • What is something that your partner omitted in their transcript that you included in yours? Why do you think they may have made that choice?
    • What do you think the author’s rhetorical goal was overall?
    • If you could propose one potential change to your partner, what would it be and why?
  • Reassemble into groups and discuss answers within each group.
    • Students are encouraged to point to textual evidence in their partner’s transcripts.
    • Students are encouraged to explain their rhetorical choices and corresponding goals to their groupmates.
  • Students return annotated transcripts and question answers to transcript authors.
  • Allow authors to review comments and reflect on the impact of the choices they made.
  • Authors should submit answers to the following questions:
    • Would you adopt the change your partner recommended? Why or why not?
    • Did any part of your transcript have an unexpected impact on your partner? Explain.
    • What is one thing in your transcript that effectively did what you wanted it to? Explain.
    • What is one thing you might do differently if you were to rework this transcript? Explain.
    • Alternative options for responding to these questions:
      • Reflection Essay
      • Journal Entry
      • Blog Entry
      • Post-Class Discussion Forum

Although it can be intimidating to bring a new genre into the classroom, if we ask our students to take risks and push themselves outside their comfort zones, we must be willing to do the same. Students may not often compose transcripts; however, the rhetorical awareness and skills that transcription teaches are broadly applicable to a variety of situations calling for effective writing.

Authors:

Kate Artz is a PhD student and Teaching Associate at University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, MA. Her academic and research interests include feminist and queer theory, digital and multimodal composition, creative writing pedagogy, and issues of accessibility in composition. Follow her on Twitter at @artz_kate or on her blog at www.kateartz.com

Danah Hashem teaches tenth-grade World Literature at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, MA, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, Middle Eastern literature, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog, www.pencilsandpatience.wordpress.com.

Anne Mooney teaches eleventh and twelfth grade English at Malden High School in Malden, MA; her academic interests of digital literacies and trauma theory have inspired both her classroom and her scholarship. Follow her on Twitter at @ammoons or on her blog, www.habitsofela.wordpress.com.  

 

The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report, Part II

(Adapted from the book Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.

Prior to my research efforts at the Jackson Police Department,[i]  I had always heard that police could not write, that police reports were worthless documents, and that no one should ever trust what a cop wrote down. It was also well known in my academic and social circles that police reports were not allowed in court because of how poorly they were written (a misnomer). My initial research into police writing revealed similar sentiments. Prosecutors, police chiefs, defense attorneys, and even officers all complained to me about how poorly police reports are written. I heard this anecdotally in casual conversations and in formal interviews with police chiefs, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. The mountain of texts dedicated to improving officer report writing skills demonstrates the problems associated with report writing. Names like How to Really Really Write those Boring Police Reports, Plain English for Cops, Painless Police Report Writing, and my favorite, The Best Police Report Writing Book with Samples: Written for Police by Police, This is not an English Lesson, say a lot about how reports are viewed by officers and superiors. Report writing is seen as boring, difficult, convoluted, painful, and overly concerned with grammar. The manuals typical solutions are templates and simplified demands to include the Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why of every encounter. They largely avoid the context of police writing as a rhetorical situation fraught with complicated audience needs and multiple, often conflicting, purposes.

It became clear after reviewing police academy materials and sitting in two different report-training sessions that report writing was always discussed from a deficit model. Police cadets were instructed on how to write a coherent paragraph and use the correct word for a specific meaning. They were also instructed on how to organize the report, detailing the events chronologically. However, the majority of the police academy training I researched was spent on ground-fighting tactics, shooting practice, crime-scene investigation, and multiple-choice test preparation. At the police academy in Arkansas, only 8 hours out of 430 were devoted to report writing (Seawright).

When I asked officers, lawyers, supervisors and others what made a police report a “poor report,” the answers varied wildly. Officers seemed to think that poor grammar created poor reports. Supervisors and chiefs complained about a lack of professionalism in reports. Stephen Mathes, the police chief at Jackson Police Department, complained that “basic grammar” just was not present in police reports. He noted,

We are not just taking a raw recruit and trying to teach them law and                                               police tactics but basic grammar in some instances. . . . [I]f a defense attorney                             picked up a report that was poorly written they are automatically going to                                   say, here is a person I can attack. I can attack credibility.

However, the lawyers I spoke with complained that their most serious concern regarding police reports was the amount of information that was often left out. Two hours after my interview with the Jackson police chief, I sat in the office of Chad Rucker, a local defense attorney, who stressed the importance of the police-officer narrative over grammar in report writing. He emphasized, “Only in telling the story can all the details of the case come to light. Grammar does not matter. It could be written phonetically for all I care, just put down everything that happened.”

So in a matter of hours, a police chief told me that grammar really mattered to defense lawyers, and a defense lawyer told me he could not care less about grammar in reports. How was it that the police report genre could elicit such varied and contradicting expectations from its readers?

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

[i] Jackson Police Department is an alias.

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication. 

The Complex Work of a Simple Police Report

(Adapted from the book Genres of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System)

This post was written by member Leslie Seawright. This is the first of two parts.

Six years into our marriage, my husband came to me to express his desire to quit his job and become a police officer. After the initial surprise of his decision had passed, I supported his career change and watched from the sidelines as he entered the Arkansas Police Academy. Shortly after, I decided to make my own drastic career change and enrolled as a full-time graduate student at the University of Arkansas. While my husband was learning how to interview a suspect, perform a J-turn in his patrol car, and defend himself from a knife attack, I was learning how to question students about their writing processes, perform a discourse analysis, and defend an argument.

On most Friday and Saturday nights you could find me riding shotgun in his patrol car as a “citizen ride-along.”  I became a staple at pre-shift officer briefings and Jackson Police Department charity events and award ceremonies. The more time I spent with officers, watching them perform their jobs, the more I realized how critical the writing that officers produced was in the justice system. I started asking my husband about his writing process, what went into writing a report, and how that report was used by the prosecutor’s office. My initial investigation led to more questions than answers. I soon found myself committed to a research project that spanned seven years, five research sites in three different states, and hundreds of hours observing and interviewing officers, lawyers, judges, and police academy trainers.

Genre of Power: Police Report Writers and Readers in the Justice System tells the story of one police report as it travels through the judicial system. The chapters are organized in order to analyze the writing and reading process of the officer writing the report and the report’s subsequent readers. By highlighting the work that a police report does and the multiple purposes and audiences it must serve, the book ultimately addresses the power dynamics of writers and readers in the judicial system, and examines who is served (or not served) by police reports.

The book begins on the scene of a domestic disturbance with Officer Lewis (pseudonym) interviewing suspects and witnesses. It then follows his police report as it makes its way to several different readers in the court system. At each stop in the literacy-event chain, the report is critiqued in ways not envisioned by Officer Lewis. The police supervisor needs more information about injuries sustained in the disturbance. The prosecutor is infuriated by witness information left out of the report. The defense attorney questions the lack of explicit consent in the report for the officer to enter and speak to the suspects in the home. Finally, the judge assumes the officer is apathetic and thus forgives his lack of details in the report, including a lack of information on whether or not Miranda rights were read prior to questioning the suspects.

Despite these reader critiques, I suggest that Officer Lewis is not a bad, misguided, or nefarious police officer. Officer Lewis and nearly all police officers are asked to produce objective, rhetorical documents, a request most of us in English studies realize is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. This book seeks to examine the conditions under which officers write reports and the police report genre itself. In addition, it analyzes how power is circulated and distributed to readers through the police report.

When officers are limited by genre constraints and their misinformed notions of reader expectations, it does not merely impact the officer, the department, or even the court.  Police reports that leave out important details or fail to piece together critical evidence impact victims, suspects, their loved ones, and all who work in the system. If we can understand how officers write reports and why they make the choices they do, we can then address issues we find in report writing and create changes in the power dynamics that shape the justice system across the nation.

It is important for us and for our students to understand how genres operate in powerful institutions. We can prepare students for these environments by helping them think critically about the role that written texts play in organizations and the complicity employees have in recreating the institution through documents. When students understand the role that employees play in supporting powerful systems, they can better decide what role they want to play or how they might change that role, versus blindly following the dictates of the genre and the system.

Leslie Seawright is assistant professor of English at Missouri State University. Seawright’s research interests include workplace communication, community literacy practices, technical writing and intercultural communication.