Posts Tagged ‘writing’

So I’ve been thinking about doing student assignments again. I wrote about it a little while ago too.

This time I did the in-class writing for our summer reading book. The prompt is a little different than last year. The book is the same, but because I changed one of the essential questions for the course (it’s so much better now), changing the prompt a bit made sense as well. 

This is writing done in a single class period; students will have the topic in advance; they can come in with notes. We will spend an additional class period organizing thoughts and getting feedback on the initial idea. It’s not a surprise. However, I was wondering whether it really was too much to tackle in this one short assignment. My addition to the topic certainly makes it more interesting, but it also requires more thought.

I sat down to write the paper myself. I spent about a class period’s worth of time. Here’s what I discovered:

  • It’s a challenging topic and requires that students think not just about the book but about their personal experience with the book and how that experience is influenced by or connected to other reading experiences.
  • It’s also a reasonable topic that gives students room to move.
  • Although using evidence from the text will be important, referencing episodes or chapters may be more useful than actual direct quotations.
  • It made me clarify my own ideas more and get to more of a conclusion, even in the limited scope of this project. 
  • It also made me push my personal connections to the text in a way that ended up being surprising. I found connections to my other reading habits that I hadn’t thought about before.
  • I also realized that I did not organize my writing in the way that I said might be a good idea. A student had asked about a potential paragraphing strategy that I agreed would be an option, but I didn’t end up using that format.

So the next day I went to class. I put some process notes and guiding questions on the board for people to be working through with their planning. Then, I told the class that I had written the paper yesterday. I shared what I learned and how I ended up tackling the topic, always stressing that my plan was only one plan. I didn’t read them my paper, although I did share the gist of it and some personal connections I made. The class was pretty surprised. And in thinking about it later, it wasn’t just surprise, it was respect and feeling respected. 

I am reminded how much students appreciate me being a learner alongside them. I’m happy to share the fact that I am wrestling with the topic not only because it’s good work to do but also because I want to ensure that it’s work that is worth their time. They get that I might (or might not for some) read a lot more books than they do and that I get to set the syllabus, but they also appreciate and respond well to us being in it together. I can say we are a community of learners and are working on our collective understanding all I want. I can even write it down and pass it out. But if I’m not making my work visible, then my lovely ideas about community are just ideas. 

 

So, I’ve been thinking about modeling thought and making it visible. I’ve always been a big fan of the mindmap, web, chart, whatever you want to call it. The less linear the better. My brain does not like a straight line (unless it’s the edge of a picture frame on the wall, and then I will make that things straight). But in thinking, straight lines are boring to me and lonely, nothing connected to it, all organized and cut off from other ideas.

And, I am ALWAYS trying to get my students to do the hard work of thinking about something before they write about it. Seems obvious that this would be a good idea, but it’s a tough sell in some situations. 

This past spring I decided to demonstrate, again, how I do this. My YA fiction class had finished the first unit of three books. I chose the books because they have things in common, talked specifically about those things in class, and was prepping everyone for writing a paper on that topic. However, students had the option to come up with their own topic.

Writing about multiple texts is not something we do a lot. It’s hard, and I think it’s not only worth doing but also more realistic in terms of mirroring the way people usually think about books. Whenever I ask students about a particular book, invariably a second or third book enters the conversation by way of comparison. So, I think it’s really important that we practice serious thinking and writing about that. It may not surprise you to know that there was some whining about this. In particular there was a lot of talk about how there wasn’t enough to say.  I kept encouraging more thinking rather than starting writing and continued to meet with some resistance.

I went home and decided to do what I was encouraging the students to do. I sat down and  started thinking about these three books and things that stood out to me. I didn’t want to plan an essay about a topic a student had already chosen, so I came up with something else that I actually had noticed as I we were talking about the books in class, but that we hadn’t been able to focus on much. I started one web what you see in the diagram in purple. (Follow along in the order with the gray numbers) I moved on to the second book and took more notes about the general topic. As I was thinking about it I realized there was a connection to the third book. Great! I jotted down some more notes. Finally on that diagram I added a question that I had that applied to all the texts. I kept going. Made a pretty straightforward list of commonalities, transferred that to more of a few sentences that began to form an idea. The last step was a draft of what might be able to be worked into a thesis statement. I spend maybe 20-30 minutes on this.

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I brought all of this to class the next day and showed it to my students piece by piece. I tried to recreate my thinking in words to go with the diagrams to model how the ideas evolved and grew. I wanted to show them that I didn’t have all these ideas before I start thinking; I came to the ideas through thinking. There was some silence and looking at the web and then one person said, “you made that look so easy.”

I’m so glad she said that because that was certainly not my intention. I wanted to make it look doable, I wanted to make it look productive, I wanted to make it look like the result of effort. My student’s comment gave me the opportunity to say yes I did put in time, but I didn’t spend a long time doing this,  and I think it will be so valuable and speed up the writing process because it gives me a road map of exactly where I am going. I tried to reiterate the fact that it’s not easy so much as it is the inevitable result putting in thinking time. 

I was also trying to show was that my ideas changed, that a bunch of stuff was going to get left on the cutting room floor, and that I got somewhere that was interesting to me. I could totally write about that! 

I’m not sure why my initial demonstration missed the mark, or even if it totally did. Certainly for some, the webbing is just too disorganized, which I can respect even if I don’t think that way. I will definitely do something similar again, maybe frame it a little differently. Any suggestions?

CCO Creative commons image

So, I’ve been thinking about assessments. I worked really hard this year to develop assessments that addressed our essential questions, combined analytical and creative work, and pushed students to think.

I’ve already written about a brief research project where I used VoiceThread for the final, virtual presentations and the following installation art proposal project (more on that soon). But, here I want to describe two writing assignments that I think combined all the parts I mentioned above.

First up, my first-semester class (Fantasy literature with a focus on fantastic creatures, interdisciplinary approach). This paper was an early part of a larger project. We read most of The Odyssey and looked at images by a wide range of artists who interpreted Odysseus’ adventures, including Cy Twombly’s 50 Days at Ilium, a graphic novel interpretation by Seymour Chwast, and many works by Romare Bearden. Here’s what I asked students to do:

Think and Write:

  • How will you remember Odysseus in your personal, mental library? (look at the collection of epithets on the topics page) What characteristic stands out to you?
  • Which fantastic creature stands out and is particularly memorable to you? Why?
  • Who are your people* and how do your Odysseus and your fantastic creature speak to them?

No more than 800 words, a few, short quotes are a must. Share link to final draft in this chart. Read what your classmates wrote! (100 points) (Rubric)

(*This is based on the following from author Neil Gaiman “Mythologies tell us about being human. They are glorious; they are timeless. They need to be retold. . . When you’re retelling stories, you’re retelling them for your people.”)

I initially thought of this as something different to do with a text that was very familiar to them (many read a middle-grade version in 5th grade and almost all were familiar with many of the individual episodes). Since Odysseus is one of those characters who people tend to remember in some shorthand way, I thought it would be interesting for students to take a conscious look at something that we do unconsciously. And, considering how that choice of how to remember this character might be related to their own personalities seemed like an excellent option for seniors in the midst of writing college essays.

It was interesting to me that students found it difficult to make the personal connection between their choice of how to identify and remember Odysseus (the wily Odysseus, the old warrior etc) and themselves. It was hard for them to see that their choice perhaps said something about who they are or what they appreciate. Since I knew the students quite well, it was pretty easy for me to connect the dots. The dots appeared like lighted runway arrows to me. Most of the group ultimately found some connections, and they were amused to find that many of the connections were not that tricky to identify, although a few just totally could not or would not go to any personal reflection. I think that combining the analytical and the personal was a novel experience, and they were uncertain about leaping in.

In the second semester the course, still English with an interdisciplinary approach, focussed on fantastic places in literature. One of our texts was Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It is the story of Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about the cities in his empire. However, each city may actually be based on Venice or Marco Polo’s imagination. Each city is described in a few paragraphs or a few pages and is grouped into one of nine categories. The students had never read anything like it.

My assignment description was the following:

Post Invisible Cities writing project

This is NOT a research paper. Do NOT search for or use any other sources (criticism, reviews, wikipedia, etc). This is your own deep investigation of a piece of this text.

Part 1: Analysis of a collection of city passages (choose whichever topic you wish)

  • Formulate an original idea about these passages.
  • Analyze the passages, explain your notion of their identity, use quotations, etc
  • ~1100-1200 words (no more than 1250)
  • Assessed as a typical analytical paper (see English department general rubric on bulletin board)
  • Worth 50% of total points

Part 2: Creative descriptions of the place you chose

  • Write 2 short descriptions of your location in the style of the theme you analyzed
  • You do not need to imitate Calvino, but do use his writing as a model
  • Each one should be 250-350 words
  • Worth 25% of total points

Part 3: Connecting the dots Commentary

  • A commentary or reflection on your own writing and analysis
  • How have these two parts (analytical and creative) informed each other
  • 400-500 words
  • Worth 25 % of total points

Total points=200

All parts should be in one document. A simple row of asterisks can be used to indicate a move to the next section. No need to label the parts.

Although this description of word count and points makes it seem like this assignment was very rigid, there was A LOT of room to move within these boundaries. The book itself is hard to get a grip on so having so very set specifics for the writing was a good anchor. And, to spread out the work, we had worked on the descriptions of place a bit in advance.

The final products here were very successful, in my opinion, in that they pieces each contributed to the whole. I can’t imagine understanding any of the student’s thinking without all the pieces. In some ways, the commentary was the most valuable. By that point in the assignment, the student had done the thinking, analyzing, writing, and editing. For many, it was the place where everything came together the most succinctly. It also gave me some insights into the student’s process and intentions with the creative writing, in case they could not quite carry off what they intended. We talked about this quite a bit in class, and I wrote the creative pieces as well. I shared that my pieces were certainly more heavy-handed than Calvino’s in terms of the themes I wanted to get across. But I also reminded the group that Calvino is a pro; it’s ok for him to be better at this and it’s ok for us to try to copy some of his writer moves (as long as we say that is what we are doing). In giving them that permission, I got back all kinds of careful observation notes and comments about the writer moves each of them was trying. Plus, with the different parts of the assignment, there was something for everyone.

So, what I learned is that combining the analytical and the more creative or personal leads to good thinking, solid writing, and quality engagement from the students. Plus, the final products were interesting to read. Victory!

So, I’ve been thinking about the final writing assignment in my YA literature elective. Last year, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about the length. I wrote about it then.

Briefly, the students read an article from Slate by Ruth Graham (“Against YA“), several responses to Ms. Graham, and then entered the debate by writing their own article, either supporting or opposing Ms. Graham’s original. Last year, after all that complaining, the students’ articles were pretty solid. However, I thought they could have done a better job of dissecting the original article and either countering or agreeing with specific points. They had the same problem with the response articles–too general, not enough of the nitty gritty. This lead to some arguments that were too simplistic. As they did last year, again, students could take either side but needed to make solid and well-defended arguments, reference the first article, at least two others, and at least two books that we read during the semester.

For several students, this was the most successful writing of the semester in terms of their clarity and level of detail. I’ve been thinking about why that might be.

This year, I made sure that we analyzed the first article and several other examples in more detail. We I used the webtool hypothes.is to annotate collaboratively. For each response article, we looked more closely at the particular points of the original article the author chose to address, the tone of the response, and students’ responses to that tone. Some students liked an equally snarky response; others preferred a more neutral tone combined with evidence of experience or expertise. We spent more time talking about format options, and several students took good risks in that department. A few wrote as if they were YA bloggers, and one attempted the ‘take the argument to the extreme to prove its ridiculousness’ option.

Another important characteristic of this assignment, in terms of having more success for more students, was the fact that this writing did not need to have quite as serious an analytical tone. Although the assignment required significant thought and synthesis, it was not “an analytical essay” in their minds. There was some option for creativity of format and less formality in language. It is this language business that often trips them up. The clear writers are clear writers. The problem comes for the students who equate serious analysis with overly complex sentences and overly formal word choice, both of which lead to awkward writing that gets in the way of itself and any point to be made.

So, the better teaching of the arguments in the article is on me. Although, now I wonder if I went too far in terms of digesting so many of the articles together in class.  The part that I am really thinking about is the significant improvement in clarity of writing in this assignment (for some students).

  • Did they just relax with the less formal style and therefore write better?
  • Did they say to themselves, “hey it’s my last English paper, I’ll ease up on the fancy language I’ve been trying to use.”
  • Did they feel pressured in other assignments to write in a voice that is unnaturally serious and therefore awkward?

I tend to think that the understanding that this piece of writing could be less formal was the key for those students who were more successful than they had been earlier in the semester. Interesting to note though, the final articles were not all that casual. No one took it too far. Good thinking, synthesis of ideas, and integration of quations were all obvious.

What if it was all just the perception that they could write as themselves?

I have a lot to think about on this one.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about how students do or do not make good use of the processes we as teachers try to put in place for them. Since it’s summer, I have time to chat about this with the folks who just can’t stay away from school and end up on campus. This is one of the things I love about summer. Even though I now have to work all year, I am always getting to spend quality reflection time with other teachers.

Recently I have been talking with two colleagues in the math department. We have been talking about homework, effective study skills, making use of teacher time etc. In particular I was talking to @LisainPA about helping students see the process of preparation (for a test, for homework, for writing, for learning in general). We talked about how to impress upon students the impact of the decisions they student makes have the outcome. Of course, there are many students who understand this and act on it. However, for those who do not, what can we do to help them realize that they are in control of the situation? That their own actions, especially actions that happen significantly before any assessments, are the key stepping stones that create a path towards success? The conversation was going along, and I wondered if an infographic would be useful. I do love infographics. Then we agreed that really a flow chart was in order. I also love those silly flow charts for things like ‘should I keep or throw away this item of clothing’ or ‘is this hallowe’en costume appropriate’. Anyway I got excited to make some charts.

Then, I had to pick a web tool. Well, I didn’t want one of the true infographic tools because I was really after a flow chart. I usually use Easel.ly for infographic making. Moving on. I went through the following:  Piktochart (again more infographic than flow chart) Lucidchart for Education, MindMeister, Coggle, and MindMup. They each have their strong points, but since I wanted to be able to have a more free form linking pattern than org chart layers, I went with Lucidchart. I spent quite a while thinking about all the steps of the writing process, which of course actually starts with reading. I made a large and elaborate chart and sent if off to Lisa for feedback. Again, summer is awesome because not only did Lisa and I have time to have the conversation, I had time to test the tools I wanted to use, make a beta version, and ask for feedback. Lisa had time to look over my chart thoroughly and send my several paragraphs of thoughts. One of the things that Lisa mentioned was that the chart was pretty massive. True enough. Also, it seemed like it might be too hard to get off on a not-successful path and never have a way back. Another good point.

With solid feedback in hand, I went back to my chart and broke in into two charts tentatively called ‘Preparing to Write’ and ‘Writing Process’. I have to say I am quite proud of my little charts.

First up, the preparing to write flow chart. I wanted to stress that much of the preparation for writing about a book is done in the reading and discussing phases.

Next, the actual writing. Here I wanted to stress the time and thought that needs to go into the planning as well as the need for real revision, not just spell-check.

For the moment, I am going to let them be. I will come back to them closer to the start of the year to see if I want to change anything.

Any comments so far?

Public domain image from pixabay.com

Public domain image from pixabay.com

So, I’ve been thinking about this blog. I set a goal last summer to write 5 posts/month. At that time, that was a lot, and I thought I could only begin to consider that much writing in the summer when I may be working, but the pace is summerish.

It turns out, I could make the goal. I think maybe in August I didn’t make it, but that’s such a crazy month from the middle on, that I gave myself a bit of a break a bit. It also turns out that it wasn’t hard to do. Certainly it helped that I was participating in a great online mooc/community (CLMOOC–can’t wait to participate again.) That gave me a lot to consider and write about. What it also did was get me in the habit of writing.

Then, this past school year, I was teaching a new senior English elective each semester (Truth and Fiction in the fall and YA Literature in the spring), which also gave me a lot to ponder. In addition, I started thinking about sets of works (either art or poems or just creations) after hearing a colleague talk about her MFA course work (Taxonomy projects). And, finally, I have some wonderful colleagues with whom I chat regularly which also gives me plenty of food for thought. All of this is to say, I found I could keep writing during the school year as well.

Since June 2015, I have written 4 posts each in September and December, 5 posts each in October, November, January, and April, and 6 posts each in February, March, and May. I know these are not big numbers for serious bloggers, but they are huge numbers for me. I’m not getting many comments, so that’s certainly not keeping me going. And, I don’t get many reader either. However, I’m still writing. So far this month, I’m only on post 2, and it’s already mid-June. I still think I can make it to 5 this month.

I may not have been able to get in the habit of exercising this year, but I’m getting in the habit of writing, audience or no. Maybe I’ll get on the exercise thing this summer.

Public domain image from Pixabay.com

Public domain image from Pixabay.com

So, I’ve been thinking about YA literature all year. My second semester senior elective focused on YA literature. Part of the goal of the coarse was to read enough to think about YA literature and how it is similar to and also different from a lot of the literature they normally read in class.

The final assignment asked them to read “Against YA: Read What you want, but you should be Embarrassed to read what was written for Children” by Ruth Graham which appeared in Slate in June of 2014. I also collected several responses which we looked at as examples of various ways to engage in a debate of ideas. Students then had to weigh in on their own. (see my description below.)

You have now read a number of YA novels and heard about even more. In addition you have read the Ruth Graham article and several responses. It is now your turn to enter into the YA debate. You should write your own response to Graham’s article.

Your response will:

  • Be 1200+ words
  • Have an opinion as to the value or lack thereof of YA literature.
  • Define what “having value” or whatever criteria you use to evaluate YA literature means.
  • Defend that opinion in a way that allows the reader to understand your thought process.
  • Reference and cite specific points by Graham and at least one other article.
  • Reference with specifics at least two book that you read in the course to support your idea.
  • Be engaging

Process:

  • First, read and digest the articles. Determine what criteria Graham has used to reject YA literature and the criteria others have used to support it.
  • Decide where your opinion falls in the debate.
  • Determine what criteria you think are most important and how you will define them.
  • Determine which points are most important for you to refute or confirm. Find evidence for this.
  • Choose several books from the course that you will reference in your response.
  • Draft several paragraphs (there is nothing magical about 5) by Tuesday, May 3rd
  • Share this beginning with peers in class on Tuesday.
  • Complete a draft by Thursday, May 5th. Required. (could be completed earlier)
  • Review feedback.
  • Complete final draft by Wednesday, May 11th. Required. (could be extended to Friday 13th)

There was a lot of complaining about the 1200+ words. To hear some of them, you would have thought I had asked them to climb to the moon. Since I was not going to budge on it, so we did not discuss. What I said in class was that yes it would be possible to toss off a quick 300-400 word superficial answer, but that one of our critiques of Ms. Graham’s article included its generalities and lack of specifics. I stressed over and over that carefully analyzing her particular points was important. She may state her big point in the title of the article, but she has particular points that are much more specific. I’m not sure I was convincing.

Anyway, I thought I should maybe write my own article to see if my word count was in fact way off. Um, no. It was not. I sat down and just scratched the surface of what I wanted to say with 700 words. I know, I’m not a high school student (just had a big reunion to prove it), but I’m confident that the task does in fact warrant some words.

The next day students came in more ready to work. I arranged the room so that everyone was looking away from each other as much as possible and so that I could see screens. A number of students came in and went back to the Graham article, which is what they needed to do. So, I’m feeling decent about that. Also, midway through class an impromptu discussion broke out about some of the points she makes in the article. About half the group joined in for a bit. I am feeling somewhat optimistic about this.

Update: I made sure to set the rough draft due date before prom weekend, but I did not get all drafts. Ugh! The ones I got were solid, so there’s that.