Sunday, March 8, 2015

Letting Go

I've been thinking a lot recently about the purpose of ELA specifically the purpose of writing. Why do we write? Why do I want my students to write? What do I hope that they will take away from my writing instruction? You'd assume I'd have a go-to answer for this; I am after all an English teacher. But the more I wrestle with this question, the
more complex and elusive the answer seems.

I want to say that the reason I teach writing is to empower students to express themselves in meaningful ways but if I'm honest that is not often what I find myself doing in the classroom. In reality much of my writing instruction centers around preparing my students to perform well on the myriad of standardized tests--MCAS/PARCC, PSATs, SATs, AP, etc.-- that they will be required to take before they receive a diploma. Now I know that one could argue that I don't really have to prepare my students for these tests, that good teaching should prepare them by default, but that would be to trivialize the very real consequences of my students' failure to perform on these aforementioned assessments.

Is it not my responsibility to make sure that by the time my sophomores sit down to take the ELA MCAS that they know how to dissect an MCAS-style prompt, have seen models of high scoring MCAS essays, are aware of the little tricks and pitfalls that can boost or reduce their overall score? And if our school's overall writing scores plateau somewhere in the middle of the long composition rubric, is it not my responsibility to figure out what's keeping our students' writing from reaching the top tier of that rubric, to crunch numbers and analyze writing samples in order to craft more effective writing instruction?

The rebel in me wants to shout: No! It is not my job to pander to the absent overlords of high-stakes assessment. My job is to make students see the value/power in writing, to help make their voices heard. But the realist in me, isn't so sure.

What I am sure of is that my students don't get excited about writing MCAS essays. And not because the prompts themselves are without possibility. It's just that they don't offer students the opportunity to connect with the material or to write for a purpose other than a grade. You give them a prompt about overcoming hardship, something that far too many of our students know about first hand, and then tell them they aren't allowed to write about what really matters to them (their lives). Rather than capitalize on their initial enthusiasm, I tell them no--No, you can't write about your own experiences. No, you can't write about that movie/video game you love. And without fail, the assignment goes from possibility to obligation taking the students enthusiasm with it.

Gregory Shafer (2000) writes of how “students lose their will to write when their words are controlled and limited by the whims of their teachers” (p. 30). Essentially by prescribing what students can/cannot write about, by making students passive recipients of their learning, we are hobbling their sense of agency which in turn lowers their motivation and engagement. If students are to engage in the writing process, they need “ownership of topics, choice, extended opportunities to write, freedom to rewrite with a focus on sharpening and reseeding their content, engrossing models of writing, provocative pre-writing stimulation and productive timely feedback” (Thomas, 2000, p. 41).

At the high school level, ELA instruction forces almost exclusively on argumentative writing. Much of our writing PD is focused on how to help the students craft better arguments. The problem isn't really about argumentation, as I think most people would agree that critical thinking and argumentation are at the foundation of "college readiness," but rather with our refusal to relinquish control of our content. Instead of allowing students to choose issues they feel passionate about, we force them to write about prescribed topics. And we wonder why so many students hate to write.

One way educators can help increase student engagement is by providing them with more authentic, relevant writing experiences. Student desire for choice and relevance in their assignments is essentially a demand for agency (Lenters 2006). Authentic writing increases students agency because it allows for students to use their personal experiences and knowledge in a meaningful way. When students are given the opportunity to write about what they know, it increases their confidence and thus their engagement.

In his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, Thomas Newkirk (2009) emphasizes the importance of validating student interest arguing that "the surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interest are not respected." (109). Just because you could care less about Assassins Creed or Asking Alexandria (ugh) doesn't mean that your students' interests aren't worth exploring. Interest fosters engagement.

 If we forget this, we alienate students from their own learning.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On the Loss of a Mentor

My practicum cohort and our fearless leader (May 2002)
I met Jenn Cook in the spring of 2002 while doing my teaching practicum at UMass Amherst. A doctoral student herself, Jenn had stepped in to help guide our haphazard group of pre-service teachers because the professor assigned to our cohort had to take an emergency leave of absence. Little did I know then just how profound an impact this amazing woman would have on my life.

During our time together that semester, Jenn helped to forge the very core of my educational philosophy. One rooted in compassion, innovation, and more than a little bit of mischief. She pushed me to see passed perceived limitations, to resist the pull of the status quo. Most importantly she taught me the importance of figuring out what I believed in and staying true to it no matter what.

Midway through my practicum, I was having difficulty getting my sophomores to read Lord of the Flies for homework. After listening to me lament their lack of investment and responsibility, Jenn gently asked me whether I thought it was more important for my students to learn to do their homework or to read Lord of the Flies. There was no judgement in her question. No right answer that she was hoping for. She just wanted me to think about it. To figure out what I, as a soon to be educator, believed was most important. And it was by this process of gentle nudging and encouragement that Jenn helped me establish my beliefs about teaching and learning.  

Years later as I left Dr. Carolyn Panofsky's office having just established my plan of study for getting my M. Ed at RIC, I noticed Jenn's name on a placard in the hallway and decided to see if she was in. I was a bit nervous that she wouldn't remember me right away as we'd not seen each other in more than seven years. But those fears were immediately put to rest when Jenn looked up from her work, saw me and literally jumped out of her seat to give me a bear hug exclaiming "Kelly Visconti! How the hell are you?!" She then proceeded to ask me all kinds of questions about my family and work. I couldn't believe she remembered all of these details about my life. 

But that was Jenn. She had this incredible knack for making you feel like you were the most important person in the room. She was one the most genuine, kind spirited people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. 

RIWP Summer Institute (July 2013)
This past July I signed up to participate in the Rhode Island Writing Project's Summer Institute. As luck would have it, Jenn had taken over as the co-director of the program and thus was slated to be the facilitator for that summer's institute along with the incomparable Madonna Thompson. I had heard nothing but good things about the program and was excited to be a part of what was sure to be an amazing summer of professional development. But my experience far exceeded those expectations.

Those three weeks during the SI were magical. How could you not love an experience that Jenn would later describe as a "fantastic creative free-for-all"? Jenn's willingness to take risks, to push the envelope was infectious. It inspired me to try things I'd never had the time or the confidence to attempt. That summer changed me profoundly not only as a teacher of writing but as a human being. I rediscovered the joy of creating. I redefined myself as a creator, a person with something of worth to offer.

Jenn did that. She inspired us to be our best selves. 

If there is any solace to be found in this awful situation, it is that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jenn--by her kindness, her passion, and her general bad-assery. Her spirit shines through every time we see things not only as they are but for what they could be, every time we take flying leaps of faith, or throw away all that is safe in favor of what is right.

RIWP Renewal RISD Museum Field Trip (November 2013)
I will miss this woman terribly but I feel her presence every time I meet up with my RIWP friends or read tweets from #digitink31, #teachouse or #actofhope. We may not all know each other personally but we are all connected by our love for this amazing woman.  And it is this legacy, this beautiful community that Jenn pieced together, that gives me comfort.

Rest in peace my friend.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What I Have to Say Matters

I recently wrote my first #25WordStory.
Anne Barnhart, an amazing English teacher in my Writing Project cohort, first introduced me to the concept of the #25WordStory. The #25WordStory challenge, pioneered by the great Kevin Hodgson, is to write a story in exactly 25 words--no cheating--and then share it on Twitter.

The actual writing of the story was a lot of fun (even if I did miscount and create a #24WordStory which I embarrassingly shared with the world). The word limit forced me to be more deliberate with with my diction and creative with my syntax--two places that I can get lazy when writing longer prose. Keeping my story within the bounds of the 25 word limit was tricky enough but couple that restriction with Twitter's 140 character limit and now you've got a real challenge.  Goodbye empty modifiers!  I can afford you no longer.

Now the sharing of my piece was another story altogether. Up until this point I had used Twitter primarily as a means to find and share professional resources.  I had yet to take the next step of creating original content. I felt vulnerable putting my work on display for strangers.  And yet there is something exhilarating about a person who you have never met liking your stuff.  It's different than the feedback you get from trusted peers/colleagues.  This person who chanced upon your work does not owe you their attention, they are not obligated to validate your work because familial, social, or business ties.  Thus when they favorite or share your material, it is a encouraging reminder that what you have to say matters (at least to the two people who retweeted your stuff).

And so I took a risk, shared my story, and loved it. When my time at the Writing Project came to the close, I didn't want to squander the creative energy I'd built up. I wanted to immediately set to work on my blog, to create lessons based on the incredible stuff we'd just done. Yet on our last day, I headed to the Cape for a week long family vacation. On our way there, sitting in an endless sea of traffic, I came up with an idea to keep up the energy flowing. . .#25WordPostcards!

I quickly put out an offer to my Writing Project peeps and Twitter friends to send them a postcard from the Cape.  To my excitement several people took me up on the offer.  Off to the gift shops I went in search of funky postcards to use (FYI: The National Seashore Visitor Center in Eastham, MA had the best ones).  I decided at the start to use our real life vacation exploits as inspiration for the #25WordPostcards.  I also wanted to make each one unique (no repeats).  Boiling down our outings at the Cape to 25 words gave them a sort of magical quality.  Little things like reading the information board at Coast Guard Beach morphed into dramatic scenes of joy, wonder, disappointment, even conflict.

Below is a photo of my son Malcolm getting ready to turn in for his first night of camping and on the right is the postcard inspired by this adventure:

He did really make it to 11 p.m. and he did suddenly stop crying when he noticed the stars.  It was a special moment that may have only lived in my memory if not for the #25WordPostcard.

So what does this all mean for teaching?  
Since participating in the Rhode Island Writing Project: Summer Institute, I've been more committed than ever to daily writing. The #25WordStory is a clever alternative to the free write. It's word limit forces the writer to think more carefully about his/her word choice and syntax. And unlike longer pieces we can be daunting to revise, the pithiness of the #25WordStory encourages multiple attempts at perfection.

This school year, my co-teacher and I have instituted Free Write Fridays.  We challenged our sophomores to create and share a #25WordStory every week.  Our students were intrigued.  So much so, that before I could finish explaining the concept of the #25WordStory, my student, Patrick, interrupted me to inquire when I'd be done talking because he had a great idea for a story and he wanted to write it down before he forgot. Here was a student who had barely passed English his freshman year, clamoring for a chance to write.

Inspired by his love of the Walking Dead, Patrick wrote the following story:

The end- 
I woke up at 12 pm and everyone was dead. 
All I could see was walkers everywhere so it was time to kill!!     

It's not quite Shakespeare but it is beautiful.  It represents a "in" for a young man who for so much of his school career has been on the outs. You should have seen him when I asked for his permission to share his work on our class website and in my blog.  He was at first flabbergasted then bashfully proud.  By asking to share his piece, I was validating his work, his voice like those wonderful strangers on Twitter had validated my own work.  And just like me, Patrick got a boost of confidence in his ability to create meaningful pieces of writing.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that the #25WordStory changed Patrick's life.  Honestly Patrick continues to struggle to find the meaning/purpose in school.  But regardless of how the rest of the week has played out for him, every Friday without fail, Patrick is the first to write his #25WordStory.

No Excuses

We must hold our students to high standards. Unfortunately in my experience this sometimes translates into a "no excuses" approach to education.  

It's not about giving Jimmy a pass because his home life is a wreck.  But we often contextualize situations through our own experiences, our own stories.  Most teachers at my school are middle-class Caucasians like myself.  And while I cannot speak for my colleagues, I know that my own childhood was idyllic when compared to those of some of my students.  I could never have imagined the kids of things my students have gone through--homelessness, abuse, foster care, rape, etc.  And this ignorance, this reliance on an incomplete story, has dangerous consequences in the classroom. 

When we hold kids to high standards without doing the hard work of building appropriate scaffolds to help them live up to those expectations, we send the message that our curriculum is more important than they are.  It's lazy teaching disguised as rigor.  We can be both mindful of our students stories AND support them in accessing the skills they need to be successful.  But to do so, we must first be willing to listen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Opening The Door A Bit Wider

The chaos of my learning
Premises I believe in:  People are messy.  Learning is messy.  And people learning stuff is super messy.

I kind of fell in love with Thomas Newkirk (shhh, don't tell Tobey) while reading the first chapter of his book, Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones.  I really liked how he described expression as "too individual and idiosyncratic to be evaluated by a machine" (4).  And then he started dropping expressions like "mechanized literacy" and "totalitarian logic" and I was hooked.

And while I could go on at length about the ideas I found interesting and applicable in this book, I am going to focus on two--depth over breath people!  My first "Ah ha!" moment in the reading was in Chapter Five "Popular Culture as a Literacy Tool" when Newkirk describes the use of movies as a "scaffold" for writing.  Mind blown.  Seriously.  I'd never thought of it that way. Allowing/encouraging students to create a new writing piece based on a pre-existing story is the equivalent of using sentence starters to help them transition to a new idea or refute a claim.  Students don't have to worry about being overwhelmed by the possibilities, the paralysis that sometimes overtakes us when we must build from scratch.
Unconstrained choice can be as disabling, as paralyzing as unconstrained direction (147).
The characters, conflict, props, setting, etc. have all been established allowing students to build upon or remix the basic elements of the story.  It's a way in for students who are overwhelmed by writing.  Training wheels for would-be storytellers.  Genius!

Newkirk also emphasizes the importance of validating student interest arguing that "the surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interest are not respected." (109).  Just because you could care less about dragons or Asking Alexandria (ugh) doesn't mean that your students interests aren't worth exploring.  Interest fosters engagement.  If we forget this, we alienate students from their own learning.  At the high school level, the emphasis is on analytic writing.  All of our writing PD is focused on how to help the students craft better arguments.  Yet instead of allowing them to choose issues they feel passionate about, we force students to write about prescribed MCAS driven topics.  And we wonder why so many students hate to write.

I loved how Newkirk challenged the artificial dichotomy between "serious" writing and pleasure:

Any effort to teach analytic or reflective literacy skills [. . .] is built on the premise of engagement, for analysis is an unpacking of our reactions and involvement.  Without that engagement, there is nothing to unpack--indeed, no reason to read or write in the first place (129).
So that's my goal this year.  To provide students with more opportunities to play, to explore, to create.  I still want them to learn to construct powerful arguments but I'm going to take a cue from Gary McPail and open the door a little wider when it comes to what kids write about.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What the Hack?

Confession:  I hate the use of the word "hack" in educational context--Hack Jam, Toy Hack, what have you. It just feels gimmicky.  But I love, repeat love, the concept of hacking (ugh. I feel dirty writing it).  So I've opted to use the words tinker, remix, reimagine, redefine in its place.

I thought about my toy remix the entire drive home from RIC.  I even forced my husband to help me brainstorm some ideas.  The best we could come up with was to melt down some of Malcolm's toy soliders and recreate them into something innocuous like a bunny.  I nixed this concept because I felt like a true remix should leave some trace of the original toy.  If we'd melted down the soldiers, at some point they would cease being soldiers and just revert to liquidified plastic.  While I'm sure there's some fancy way to explain that transformation--Who are we really? Are we all just liquidified plastic at the core waiting for society to mold us into being?--I didn't want to go there.  I was more interested in the notion of relooking at something whose purpose/function you have taken for granted and trying to figure out what else it could be.

This is what I love about the concept of tinkering.  It forces you to not only think outside the box but to reimagine the box althogether.  (It's not a box, dammit!  It's a portal to the Xeres quadrant in the Flotsum galaxy!)  Just because Toy R Us says this thing is a sandtoy doesn't mean that it's the only thing it can be.  It gives you the creator control, puts you in the driver seat.

Little kids are good at this kind of thinking.  That's not a bucket, it's a hat.

That's shovel?  See that shovel there?  Yes, the one as big as my head.  That'd make an awesome spoon. Hand it over.

But as the opportunities to tinker, discover, and create are slowly replaced by more passive forms of learning, our ability to see possibilities atrophies.  And so we begin to accept the version of the world that is presented to us.  It is, what it is.

There is a danger to this kind of thinking.  It breeds cynicism and hopelessness; it makes you feel powerless. Tinkering helps to remind us of the complexity of things and empowers us by giving us license to explore, to fail, to try again in pursuit of a it self-determined objective.

And on that hefty note, let me present to a quick overview of my toy remix.  After abandoing the toy soldier idea, I decided to turn an old sand toy into a post-apocalyptic survival garden.  I chose the sand toy because I liked how the sand made the wheels move.  I thought it would be neat to water plants this way so I cut off the strainer at the bottom of the toy and replaced it with a plastic frying pan to make a container garden.    

In the end, my creation was only a partial success.  For while the garden actually came out quite lovely, the water stream is a bit too forceful (not to mention messy) to be a great watering mechanism.  I'm still thinking of  ways to modify my creation to make it truly functional.  Even though it's kind of jacked up, I'm ridiculously proud of it.  So much so, that I created a backstory to explain the concept behind the toy.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

25 (ahhh make that 24) Word Story

When I checked my phone today, in the car on the way home from Mystic Aquarium, I noticed a tweet from Anne.
Hmmm. . .was I? Creative writing has never come as easily to me as other forms of writing. I fall into the "It was a dark and stormy night" category of would be authors. Did I really want thousands of strangers to bear witness to my feeble attempt at creativity? After thinking it over for the rest of the car ride, I decided to go for it. Why not? What did I really have to lose? And taking risks is what we, writing workshop people, are all about, right? So I wrote (or at least tried to write) a #25WordStory:
I know. I know. It's really a 24 word story. An embarrassing fact that I didn't noticed until after I tweeted it out to the masses.  Sigh.  I blame the aforementioned gremlin who was trying desperately to stand on the kitchen table whilst I was composing.  Still 25 words or 24, I feel pretty proud of my piece.

This is another reason I dig Twitter.  There I was just going about my day trying to keep my kids from jumping into the belgua whale tank when out of the blue I get a message from Anne seeing if I want to write a story (albeit a very short story).  Without Anne's gentle prodding and words of encouragement, I would never have written that piece, never have felt the satisfaction of creating it, sharing it.  Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are many things.  I'm not just a mom or an educator; I'm also a writer, a creator.  And I have things to say worth hearing.

Thanks for reminding me of that today Anne.  You rock!