Category Archives: Writing

donnabrown

Listing the Difference

This post is written by member Donna Brown.

As educators, we are constantly being asked to do more and perform better.  These expectations are an energy drainer that leads us to question ourselves.  Why do we teach? Are we truly making a difference?  Do policymakers really have the best interests of educators and students? These questions and many more can lead us to a place of negative thinking. I often find myself falling into this rut from time to time. Meeno Rami suggests that we take stock of energy drainers and find ways to refuel ourselves as teachers.  We can choose our attitude and how we interact with others.  I realized that how I take in information and store it in my mind controls my attitude.

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A tip that has helped me when I get to feeling negative, drained, or overwhelmed is to make lists.  The lists are not just what I need to do, but what I have done.  There are so many things that we do as teachers automatically, but do not give ourselves credit for.  We always have our “To Do” list.  The “To Do” list for me was an energy drainer.  I found that I always created a list that contained many tasks that no one could really accomplish in one day.  In order to make it a positive experience, I started a list for “I did this today. . . . ”  At the end of each day, I would take a few minutes and reflect on where I made a difference.
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For example:

  • I recommended three books to a reluctant reader and he took one.
  • I helped a parent relax through an email.
  • I taught an awesome lesson using persuasive texts.
  • I discussed writing with 14 kids today.
  • I said encouraging words to a colleague who is struggling.
  • I walked away from a debate that could take away my energy.

I would then sit back and reflect on what I have done. My lists are a positive reminder that my work matters to many people and that I make a difference.

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The questions of valuing our work will always be here.  As educators, we know that many people do not understand the needs or realities of teaching.  Those who make the laws and influence some of our day-to-day work do not see the entire picture as passionately as we do. We cannot allow the perspective of others to cause us to lose hope educating the students we see each day.  Negativity is always present. This is part of the world we live in; however, we can structure our own day and choose to live positively, making a difference to future generations.

Donna Brown is a Humanities Instructional Coach in Clear Creek ISD located near Houston, Texas.  She supports ELA staff in elementary and secondary schools.  Donna also is the Technology Chairperson for Texas Teachers of ELA and offers professional development to schools on ELA, instructional coaching, and best instructional practices.  Twitter @DonnaBr105

bethgulley

MLA 8: We Are Here, But Should We Have Come?

(American Attitudes toward the New Version of the Popular Documentation Style)

This post is written by member Beth Gulley.

I’m spending my sabbatical year teaching in Xi’an, China. As part of my work here, the faculty invited me to present something at an international workshop on comparative language education.  I wanted to speak on a topic important to US  teachers that would have relevance to the Chinese and European audience. I remembered that before I left the United States in August, faculty were wrestling with the new MLA guidelines. While I am teaching writing to English majors here in China, research and documentation seem to be absent from the textbook and other teaching materials. Teaching documentation could be a meaningful topic. I resolved to find out how American teachers thought the transition to MLA 8 was going.

In February 2017, I sent a query out to the Conference of Basic Writing listserv, the TYCA listerv, the Kansas Association of Teachers of English (KATE) Facebook page, and the Comp I listserv at my own institution—Johnson County Community College. (These are NCTE affiliate groups except for my own college.) I invited colleagues to send me answers to four questions:

1) Are you teaching MLA 8 to your students? If so, what level of
students are you teaching it to?
2) How are students responding to the change? Is MLA 8 easier or
harder for them to use than MLA 7?
3) What advice would you give to someone who was teaching MLA 8
for the first time?
4) What is the value of teaching a documentation style?

Shortly after I posed the questions, I received responses from all four of the places I asked the questions. In all, I collected nineteen responses that I could use; plus, three people responded just to say hello to me. Of course, English teachers are the best people in the world, and they often engage in the conversation in meaningful ways that do not in any way follow directions. Everyone wanted to share advice and resources, most people shared what they thought the value of teaching documentation was, but some people did not answer the question about how students are responding to the change.

In response to question one—Are you teaching MLA 8?—fifteen people said yes. Two people said they were teaching APA instead. Two people said they were still teaching MLA 7. The most important thing to me is that no one in the United States said they don’t believe in teaching documentation at all. The level of students learning MLA 8 included first-year composition students, basic writing students, English language learners, and high school students.

Fewer people responded directly to question two about students’ responses to the change. Of the people who answered, eight said they thought MLA 8 was easier for students. One said MLA 8 was harder for students. Four people were not teaching MLA 8. Six people did not answer the question. The main reason people thought MLA 8 worked better for students was because MLA 8 is more forgiving. The idea of the containers seems to connect with students as well. It doesn’t hurt that all the citation machines and writing center handouts were recently updated, too.

The richest part of the survey results were the answers to questions three and four. In fact, I was so honored and excited by the resources people shared with me that I built a website to house them so I could share them (MLA 8: We Are Here, but Should We Have Come?). In addition to the resources that are already there, I would be happy to add new ones that people share with me. The resources included handouts, presentations, lesson plans, and templates. One of my favorite lesson plans asked students to translate a works cited page from MLA 7 into MLA 8 after finding the sources from the page. Another teacher made pads of the MLA Practice Template for her students to use while working on their research papers.

After going through the responses, I found excellent arguments for teaching a documentation style. Mainly, in doing so we teach the values of our discipline—importance of authors, the location in a text, precise language. We help students think about the rhetoric of the citation as a way to evaluate their sources. We teach them academic honesty, to be excellent in small things, to use their handbooks, and to be organized. The complete list is on the resources website.

In the United States, we universally teach students to document their sources, but in China, teachers seem more apt to expect students to figure out documentation on their own. Despite this fact, my presentation was well received. Thank you to everyone who shared with me.

Beth Gulley teaches composition and basic writing at Johnson County Community College. She is currently using her sabbatical to teach English in Xi’an, China.

christophremargolin

How Students Helped to Discover the Relevancy of Poetry in the 21st Century

 This post is written by member Christopher Margolin.

Teachers tend to teach poetry because they feel it has supposed to be in the curriculum. They believe that students need to be familiar with sonnets, haikus, and acrostics, but what they neglect to do is allow their students the freedom to simply explore — and write poetry themselves. They spoon-feed old, outdated pieces that have not been relevant in decades, focusing on the dead white guy, or the poets they feel will strike a chord. They teach lessons from rote memory or out of textbooks. They do not watch for the yawns. Instead of partnering with their students to find out what might actually be of interest, they stifle their creativity and ruin poetry for the majority of students.

I am guilty of all the above.

I came out of college as an expert in sixteenth-to nineteenth-century British poetry, and when I started teaching, I thought these were the necessary poems for all students. I wanted them to hear the rich language, dive into the hefty topics, and talk about the importance of blah blah blah. I was excited about it, as were a few random students, but they didn’t really understand what I was talking about. Showing them poems by John Donne, or William Blake, or Samuel Coleridge didn’t inspire any real emotions, but I taught them all the same — because I liked them. The choice of texts had absolutely nothing to do with my students, and it showed on their faces — which I only noticed after a handful of years of digging through the obscure.

A few years ago, one of my students asked me to prove the relevancy of poetry in the twenty-first century. That’s when I realized I didn’t really know any current poets. I knew the laureates and a handful of current pieces I had read in different journals, and I could cite reasons why I found poetry to be important, but the challenge left me questioning how important the poems I had been teaching were in today’s world. Therefore, I stopped. And did some research. I had heard about Button Poetry, and I spent time sifting through YouTube videos of performance pieces and slam poetry competitions. I watched through five seasons of Def Poetry Jam and fell in love.

My students and I started a Twitter account (@poetryquestion) and began to send tweets to literally thousands of artists, poets, musicians, actors, authors, and anyone else we felt might offer 140 characters on how they felt about poetry in the modern world. Then our campaign started to work. We received more than 300 responses. Not only did we get responses, but we also had people reaching out to talk with my students. This was inspiring. This was what my students needed. Instead of staring at words they did not understand, they had real people talking to them — people they knew, people they enjoyed, and people who were relevant.

I had my students open up their Chromebooks, go to YouTube, type in “Button Poetry,” and hit play on whichever video popped up first. I told them to click on every poem they could find. They watched countless videos and wrote down what hit them the hardest. Then they filled my whiteboard with 183 names of poets. After that, they began to write their own poems. They wrote about the abuse they suffered, or family vacations, or fears, or joys, or teenage life, or school, or whatever made sense to them in the moment. They wrote, and they did not stop.

In addition to Twitter conversations with a number of the poets they had discovered, my students Skyped with Joel Madden of Good Charlotte and with Saul Williams. We held Twitter interviews with Marc Maron, Taylor Mali, and so many more. Alexander Dang and Clementine von Radics visited our classroom to perform.

And the students kept writing. They kept putting their emotions on paper and crafting them into performance pieces. I did not teach them how to format anything. Instead, I just told them to write. I told them to watch more poetry. I told them that we, as a class, valued their words and their lives, and that this would be a comfortable, judgment-free environment, — and they listened. They were one another’s allies and shoulders to cry on, and people with whom they could laugh and cheer on throughout the process. By the end of the unit, every student in every class had shared their poems with their peers, and some even went to a local poetry slam to share with complete strangers.

If we pay attention to the needs of our students, if we give them the freedom to explore and talk and watch and listen and teach themselves, they become excited. They want to learn. They want to write. They want to collaborate. But they only want these things if teachers stop giving the rote-memory rubbish and instead partner with them, enjoy their content, facilitate rather than lecture, and help to prove the relevancy of words in the twenty-first century.

Chris Margolin is the Vancouver Public Schools’ Curriculum Specialist for Secondary English Language Arts, Advanced Placement, College in the High Schools, and Running Start. He spent 12 years as a high school English teacher, working not only with students, but also as a member of the district curriculum design team, developing the district’s Creative Writing course. He currently resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife and daughter. 

ellenschubichlanguage

Writing Language and Culture

This is a guest post by Ellen Shubich. 

Language changes, as do the “rules” related to its usage.

My sixteen-year-old granddaughter drew my attention to this when she enlightened me about the unspoken rules widely adhered to by teens that apply to the social network she uses.

The directives of social networks have developed over time. For example, I found that My Space, an early network, had very strict indications. According to Clare Stephens,
“You had to put your very best friend in your Top Eight, or you might
as well have told the whole school they were a loser.” “You HAD to
reply ‘thnx 4 that add:)’ when someone added you, and you HAD to
reply to their comments on your page.”

Stephens adds that more recent networks, like Instagram and Snapchat, have their own rules. Instagram users want to have more followers than they follow. They know that to get the most likes, prime posting time is between 5 and 7 p.m.

Snapchatters often take as many selfies as possible, the uglier and weirder the better, rather than the posed snaps that are more customary on Instagram. Teens know to avoid overposting and to maintain streaks, especially long ones. They avoid posting the same content on Instagram, Snapchat, and private messages.

These emerging network directives reflect the social and emotional demands placed on teenagers. Peer pressures, the desire to belong and to be in fashion, and the extensive use of slang are characteristic of this stage of life. Teachers are aware of how these pressures affect class participation, relationships, and work. And as teachers of language, we often draw students’ attention to the types of language used in the different social networks, but I am not sure if we focus sufficiently on the languages’ social and emotional components.

A case in point: As the networks’ rules developed, the language(s) underwent transformations. New words such as Facebook’s unfriend appeared; trolls departed fairytales to do damage in new, more personal venues; emoticons imaged feelings.

Of itself, this is nothing new. Language has always undergone change. Authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented new words we use every day. New words are continually added to the dictionary. James Joyce changed the language by avoiding punctuation, and rap changed the rhythm of language.

No matter what grade or subject we teach, it is essential for students to understand that language is a living entity and the changes it undergoes affect the way we think, feel, and act. The language we use and the accompanying explicit and implicit rules influence social and emotional development. The relationship of language to bullying is a prime example. To be “unfriended” or trolled may be a truly disturbing experience.

It is essential for teachers to introduce this conversation. As we teach language, we are also responsible for the healthy growth of our children. Guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the implications of language is an important step toward that goal.

[1] Stephens, Clare. “There’s an unspoken set of ‘rules’ teenagers religiously follow on Instagram.” MamaMia. N.p., 10 Jan. 2017. Web.

[2] Choi, Mary H. K. “12 Rules for Winning at Snapchat Like a Boss—A Teen Boss.” Wired. N.p., 25 Aug. 2016. Web.

[3] Dickson, Paul. “How authors from Dickens to Dr. Seuss invented the words we use every day.” The Guardian. N.p., 17 June 2014. Web.

 Ellen Shubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren. 

arinabokas

Grading Practices That Grow Writers

This is a guest post by Arina Bokas. 

Two years ago, I started to question my grading practices and what they communicated to my students. What mattered in my class – the learning process and growth or the outcome and fixed skills?

Like many English teachers, I strove to help my students grow as writers and thinkers. However, this honorable intent, although supported by hours of dedicated effort to focus on the writing process, was inevitably sabotaged by the way I approached grading my students’ work.

My idea of assessing student writing, similar to many current practices, was about grading the output – such as an essay – with some consideration given to revision. This sent my students the message that it was okay to put minimal effort into “how” they wrote as long as “what” they wrote met all of the required criteria. As a result, my students rarely took revising seriously, while peer editing too often turned into a waste of time. Serious work took place a day or two before a paper was due.

 Growth Mindset or Fixed?

Awarding all of the points to the final product perpetuates a fixed mindset that students, especially those who lack confidence and those who excel in writing, develop about their writing abilities. When the focus is on the output, we de-emphasize growth and target existing skills students use to produce their work. Good writers don’t feel the need to push themselves to grow; not-so-good writers settle for what they can get, as “there is nothing they can do about it.”

The truth is that we grow as writers through investing time, thought, and meaningful effort in the process of writing. What if we stopped grading only papers and started assessing a writing project – the entire work that goes into understanding a particular genre and piece of writing?

Assessing the Process

Having realized that how I awarded points for assignments could make a difference in how students approached writing, I made drastic changes to my rubrics, shifting nearly 50 percent of the points toward the process. This meant that students began accumulating points early on, well before their essays were due.

I expected my students to produce a portfolio, not just a paper. They had to show their work by including documentation of thinking, observation notes, revisions, and post-assignment reflections, in addition to their final products. Each component was worth a specific amount of points, and omitting one would mean a lower grade.

bokas-research-surveyThinking/Notes – Depending on a writing unit, students were required to take a slow walk, observe something, interview a person, read an article, or test a product. During this action-based thinking activity, they were expected to record their thoughts, ideas, and observations. These notes made up 10 percent of the overall grade.

First Draft – This initial writing allowed students to put their thoughts on paper without worrying about polishing their prose. A completed first draft with a peer editor’s markings contributed to 10 percent of the overall grade.

bokas-peer-editing-sectionPeer Editing Workshop Work – Only students who had completed their essays prior to the workshop were qualified to participate; if students didn’t have a finished first draft, they worked on it during class and had the option to conduct a peer editing session on their own time. During the workshop, I gave students a peer editing worksheet with tasks and questions, asking them to highlight structural elements, comment on quality, and provide practical suggestions for improvement. This work was reflected in both the text of a reviewed paper and the provided worksheets. It determined 20 percent of the grade.

Final Draft – The final paper had to differ from the first draft and reflect revisions. I downscaled my usual rubrics to count it for 50 percent of the grade.

bokas-student-documentationPost-Assignment Reflections – Students had to reflect on their writing process after completing each writing project: what they found to be easy or difficult; their struggles and discoveries as writers. This not only provided students with an important conclusion to every unit, but it also served as invaluable feedback that allowed me to modify my teaching. Reflections made up 10 percent of the grade.

Outcomes

De-emphasizing the final product and focusing on the project one step at a time helped my students slow down. No longer could high achievers ride on their existing skills and excel in my class; they had to work through stages, think more deeply, and make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have made. Other students first saw this as an opportunity to improve their grades. As they embraced the process, they didn’t worry about the outcome, which helped them focus and better capture their thoughts.

Working on the process seemed to relax the atmosphere in class, brought a flare of humor, and sparked a lot of open thinking. And sure enough, as we took care of the process, outcomes took care of themselves. My students produced some of their best pieces, written with a strong writer’s voice.

Children are different from one another. How they approach their learning and the lessons they learn along the way vary greatly. When we tell them that their journey is just as important as the destination, they take the time to wander, discover, and understand themselves.

The best proof of my students’ growth as writers are their own testimonies that describe a shift in their thinking. One student’s reflection on a commentary project captures the moment of discovery that so many of my students found with this new approach to writing:

Standing there among the trash, I felt that my words had purpose. I wanted them to impact others so that they would never litter. I cared deeply about every possible word I could write on this subject. I went over my paper four or five times, trying to make every letter count. This essay project changed the way I was writing and the way I felt about my work.

 Arina Bokas, PhD, is an educator, author, presenter, and educational consultant . She is the editor of Kids Standard magazine and a faculty member at Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. Arina is the author of Building Powerful Learning Environments: From Schools to Communities (2017) and dozens of educational publications. Follow her on Twitter @arinabokas.