The Atlantic Magazine Series: Why American Students Can’t Write

Education Debate bug

Have you been following the ongoing series of posts at The Atlantic Magazine on the theme of writing?

I’ve been back and forth over the past few weeks as the magazine first featured a controversial but very insightful article about a turnaround school that focused its writing curriculum almost solely on expository writing and grammar instruction. This was spurred on by poor test scores and the admission that its students were struggling to write even complete sentences. What the real theme of the series centers around, it seems to me, is the role and balance of creative, narrative writing and expository information writing — which really drives into the heart of the discussion of the Common Core. The first article by Peg Tyre kicked off a series of other posts about the craft of teaching writing with students, and the pieces have been very interesting to read and think about.

I take my hat off to Cindy O’Donnell-Allen (a National Writing Project colleague) who argued that teachers need to be writers, and viewed as writers, for students to really take writing seriously as a means of expression. And there have been insightful pieces about the creative process (about developing strategies for ideas) and the need for poetry in the curriculum to nurture logical thinking, and how organizations like Dave Eggers’ Valencia 826 writing centers have energized and supported young writers.

And a high school student even responded with a fantastic piece of writing, talking about how some of her best teachers have shown her how to see her own writing through various lenses.

And then there are the two technology-related pieces that caught my attention.

The first piece talks about how teachers need to start envisioning the assessment and support of student writing with technology as a tool. The notes in the margins to students rarely get read. What if our time was spent more wisely, the authors write, in the early stages of writing, conferring directly with students (or outside of class, with online conferences) and using the technology tools to help with the grammar and syntax. The authors also suggest that the advent of software to read essays might be one of those tools. I’m still not sure about that.

The second piece makes interesting connections between traditional writing skills and programmers creating code, and ponders the question of whether software would be less buggy and more innovative if programmers had better writing skills. He notes that documentation of software is often a mess, and that writing focuses a person on logic, and sequence, and clarity.

I also appreciated that Tyre came back after those other articles were posted, and responded with another insightful piece, arguing again about the need for balance. Of course, if you look at how The Atlantic frames the series — with the overarching title of Why American Students Can’t Write, you get a sense of rhetorical stance via writing, right? The unspoken answer is that students can write because teachers can’t teach writing. Or don’t.

Here’s how Tyre ends the series:

What I have seen in my many years writing about education is that teaching creative writing in place of the mechanics of writing is a disaster for children at the other end of the economic spectrum. Many enter high school unable to write a coherent paragraph. At the tender age of 16 or so, at a time when affluent children are thinking about SAT prep classes and service projects in warm countries, it becomes obvious to some underserved students that they have not acquired the ability to reflect, analyze, and dissect ideas in writing – a set of skills that will enable them to persist through high school English and history and into college.

Others, unable to keep up, simply become bored, disengaged, and academically disconnected. They drop out and, if they are lucky, begin working a job or series of part-time jobs for hourly wages behind fast food counters, in retail, in a garage, or for a cleaner or landscaper. At the end of the workday, the conditions of their employment often causes parts of their bodies to ache.

I suggest to you that these young people needed more from their teachers than inspiration and a safe space. All students should have a chance to write poetry in school. But all students need the opportunity to gain the basic skills that will allow them to move forward in school and make a decent life for themselves and their children. Shame on us if we fail to provide that.

from The Atlantic

Peace (in the writing),
Kevin

 

Considering Digital Writing Month

I never did try National Novel Writing Month. Thought about it … but never did it. Now, an offshoot is Digital Writing Month in which folks are encouraged to compose 50,000 words of digital words over the month of November. (Words, I hope, meaning text, image, video and multimedia … and comics). I might try it … or maybe I already do it? In either case, I hope to add some webcomics about the month to the mix every now and then.
Digital Writing Comic1
Digital Writing Comic2

 

Peace (in the frames),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans

I’ll be the first to admit that I get turned off by publishers who put Common Core in the title of their teaching resource books. I know it probably sells books off the shelves like crazy (particularly for administrators desperate to be doing something, anything, to shift forward with their staff), but I am sensitive to marketing gimmicks. So when Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, by editor Lauren Davis, arrived at my house from the publisher (Eye on Education), I was wary (although they get points for honesty in advertising, since the title pretty much directly sums up the content of the book in a no-nonsense way).

Luckily, I looked inside.

The book, which is geared towards middle school, is chock full of well thought-out lesson plans, activities and handouts that might connect to the Common Core in overt ways, but are just as likely to be good ideas that teachers can pull into the classroom around reading and writing and research. In fact, the book is built around the main themes of the Common Core: Writing, Reading, Speaking/Listening, and Language. Even if your state and school is not a Common Core follower (mine is), that organizational strategy makes sense. Each section has a solid introduction, with tips for teachers to pay attention to, and many of the lessons have reproducible handouts (which are also available online, with a code from the book)

In fact, the day after I got Common Core Literacy Lesson Plans, I was using one of its resources with a lesson that I had designed for my sixth graders around paraphrasing, summarizing and quoting from direct sources. This tied in perfectly with our inquiry research project, and the handout that we used from the book included as short piece of reading and three questions, which led to some great discussions in class about how to use sources without the “copy/paste” mentality. Over the next few days, as my students were writing, I reminded them about our work around paraphrasing and summarizing.

I know I will be returning to this book when we get to our Digital Lives unit because some of the lessons and handouts here around evaluating websites and understanding the influence of media are part of the work that my students do to understand their role as writers and readers in the digital age. I’ll also be sharing it with my sixth grade teaching team as part of our Community of Practice meetings, as we talk about how to keep moving reading and writing and literacy more and more into the content areas.

Peace (outside the core),
Kevin

 

 

An Inquiry into Technology, Student Voice and Social Justice

I’ve written about this a few times, but our inquiry theme this year the Western Massachusetts Writing Project is digital literacies. A keynote address that I gave the other week at a WMWP event centered on valuing the emerging literacies of the digital age.

And yesterday, as a follow up to that keynote, I helped facilitate an inquiry session with about a dozen WMWP folks around the idea of valuing student voices. In particular, much of our discussion and exploration centered around the ways that podcasting and audio recording can open up doors for expression for students.

We began with a writing prompt, on which we wrote about one of those “aha! moments” around technology — that time when something happened that you suddenly realized some possibilities. We then used Audacity to share out some of our moments. We didn’t save the audio file, however, since it was an experiment in the session and I was working on the school’s computer. But here is a podcast version of what I wrote about, centering on a student with learning disabilities who discovered some tools that helped re-envision himself as a writer.

We then spent some time on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website, considering the rationale and reasons why technology can have an impact on learning, and empowering students. In particularly, we read and watched the videos related to this fantastic resource by some friends in California: The Change Writers. What we really loved is how the resource shows a project that merges the power of digital media and production with writing and research, in a meaningful way. That resource also connected last year’s of WMWP around social justice with this year’s digital literacy theme.

Check out one of the videos from the resource that really shows the value of podcasting and Voicethread for student voice and motivation and audience:

Finally, we used Voicethread, too, and we began with a short writing prompt, asking the folks what kind of change they would bring to the world. I’ve kept the thread open, if you want add your ideas, too. Please, do.

And for a final reflection, we used Wallwisher to add a final thought to the inquiry session. I was happy to be part of this group, diving into the possibilities of digital literacies and tools, and keeping our focus on student learning as writers and as producers of content.

Peace (in the inquiry),
Kevin

 

Duke Rushmore at the Brewery

Our bass player for my band — Duke Rushmore — put together these two videos from the first set of our gig the other night at the Paper City Brewery in Holyoke. It captures some nice energy of the stage that night, I think.

Peace (and thanks for listening!),
Kevin (the sax player)

The Influence of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project

At our annual conference last weekend with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, we asked teachers to reflect on what impact the WMWP has had on their professional and personal lives. Here are some of the responses, which demonstrate the power of being connected to a strong network of teachers and colleagues who value not only writing, but also all aspects of teaching, and who reach out to support and encourage others in the WMWP network.

Peace (in the project),
Kevin

Digital Citzenship: A K12 Online Conference Keynote

My National Writing Project friends Gail Desler and Natalie Bernasconi have given the first of a handful of keynote presentations for this year’s K12 Online Conference, and it is such a wonderful and insightful, and important, look at the need and imperative of teaching all students the merits of digital citizenship and digital footprints.

If you are not moving into this content area with your students, you probably should. And Gail and Natalie give a great overview, with examples, and a path forward. Check out their Digital ID Project presentation.

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

Updated: The What We Write Classroom Mural

natl day on writing2
Since the National Day on Writing, a number of students from other grades have come into our classroom to add their own sticky notes about “what we write” to our classroom mural. So, I updated the video and stretched it out a bit (and fixed a nagging missing letter that Animoto dropped off on me). The photo above shows what the huge WRITE looks like now, and just in time for parent-teacher conferences, too.

 

Peace (in the share),
Kevin