Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thoughts as I Crawl out from the Grading Pile

Another semester's research essays have been drafted, revised, and graded. I haven’t run a marathon, but I imagine the months of preparing and then the grueling mile after mile with “just five more” miles than seems possible might be a physical facsimile to the mental task of grading multiple class sections of six to eight page research essays. It feels good to be on this side of the finish line!

I’ve shared my trusty research essay grading tool before, but my students remarked that they found my comments especially helpful this semester, so I’ve been thinking about the evolution of my written feedback to students on how to improve their writing. In college, we studied Peter Elbow, Donald Murray, and Nancy Atwell, and fifteen years later, I don’t remember which concepts and influences came from which person. I’ll credit all three of them with forming my dedication to revision. My own schooling did not model revision or teach the writing process. Some of us intuited it and used it either internally or privately; other students struggled.

At this point, my written feedback to students couches itself in the language of revision. While my grading charts and line markings might itemize things that are missing, the language of my end of essay feedback focuses on the next version of the essay (or the way the next assignment should be written). Instead of writing, as I did years ago, “You’ve lost points for writing with second person,” I write, “In your next draft, please avoid second person; use more specific nouns to strengthen your use of third person.” “Frequent comma splices distract from your content” has become “Better editing of your use of the comma will prevent the comma splice from diminishing the power of your prose.” I stopped writing things like, “Pervasive errors with your MLA make your use of research distracting instead of persuasive” and started writing things like “Once you fix your MLA, your integration of research will better support your argument.” I’m not saying this is an earth shattering technique; I think it’s a focus, a perspective, to which students respond, especially touchy, self-esteem-full millennial students. I use the feedback to describe the changes needed to create the next, better, more successful product. For discouraged students, it helps them see the next step. For students lacking editorial judgment, it helps them identify the missing elements that can still be added. It keeps the focus on moving forward.

In recent years (probably since becoming a parent), I’ve noticed my feedback getting peppered with a more parental tone. I write things like, “I’m confident you can create a stronger vehicle for your ideas,” which seems to me an English teacher variation of “Your father and I know you can do better.” I use more phrases like “I enjoyed…, but I wish…” “In the future, I look forward to seeing…” I don’t know when exactly I made this shift, but it seems to be helping. Mostly, I teach discouraged or disinterested writers. I think by using my feedback to imagine a better product for their writing, I am establishing the idea for the first time in their minds. (Gosh, that’s a little depressing, but I’m thinking it may be true…) I took driving lessons from the gym teacher at my high school, and he told me, “The car goes where you’re looking.” I’ve always thought of that as a powerful metaphor for most anything in life. The essay goes where the writer imagines it. Let’s face it--many developing writers don’t give their essays’ horizons much imagining. By sketching a more powerful written product out in my feedback, I’ve nudged more writers towards improvement than when I itemized the troubles within the existing product. Like the influences of wind or surf upon a rock, my revision minded feedback might make small, incremental changes in the way students see their own writing over time. However, at this point in the semester, I’m just glad I can see any change!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Monday, April 20, 2009

Do They See What I See?

As I graded students’ products from my shiny new unit, I realized many of them gathered all the research assigned, but they didn’t get how to combine those elements into a new product. Like players in a game of fetch, they went out and did an interview, looked up information online, and recorded their own opinions in neat, separate little piles, which they stacked end-to-end into a final written product.

After successful completion of this course, students move on to an argument and research writing course, a course which makes up the majority of my teaching load. I designed this unit in part to prepare students for that class, but I really forgot that at this point in their writing development, their concept of an integrated writing product is fuzzy at best. My shiny new unit really needed a model of the finished writing product for students to see before they got started.

I knew my students would be disappointed that their efforts garnered mediocre grades; I really wanted a way to show them the difference between what they gave me and an integrated, synthesized new writing product. I considered the question as I prepared to bake cupcakes. Voila! Cupcakes are a favored writing metaphor for me anyway, so it makes sense for me to call upon them for this. First, I showed students this picture and explained how they gathered elements with lots of admirable individual integrity:


However, I really wanted them to combine those elements into something new, to choose more of some elements than others, and to blend them together:


They nodded. Students recognized that their efforts had been more like piling the ingredients on the table than combining them into something new. I think if I start with this metaphor (complete with visuals!) and a sample product next time, my shiny new unit has a good future ahead of it.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dialing down the Bling

We started the new unit. The one I mentioned being excited about…Yeah. Well. I guess for every great lesson like the “Here is New York” copy/change, I owe the teacher karma universe a dud. Mission accomplished!

What went wrong? Well, for starters, I think I oversold it. Too much, “Guess what, folks? We’re about to start the most exciting thing ever!” Too little, “Look, here’s the deal. You may have passed the state exam, but until you pass this class, it isn’t over.” In fact, I think all my mistakes designing and launching this unit fall under the category of overkill. See, I’ve made “engaging and educational” units for this course before, with tepid results. Students struggle to maintain motivation once the deal breaker exam has passed. My teacher narcissism tells me that with the perfect unit, I can counter this emotional backlash. To woo students into focused attention, I dolled up a unit with group work, technology, interviews, and real life case studies.

I think my unit’s academic core got obscured by all the bells and whistles. As I explained the three day activity, I could feel students shift back in their seats. I could taste their determination of “busywork” in the air. I purposely put this showoff unit before a more old school read-n-write unit because I wanted to appeal to students’ appetites, to see their eyes light up with interest. (Whenever I reach for the emotional payoff, I lose ground on powerful lessons. Apparently, I seek to prove this to myself over and over again.) I know not all is lost; students will trudge dutifully through the assignment and meet the writing and critical thinking objectives. It just didn’t engage them the way that I’d hoped.

In hindsight, I think I’ll put a sensible shoes kind of unit after the exam next year. Instead of trying to create a level of engagement after the state exam that might not be psychologically realistic, I’m going to reassert the quiet purposefulness of our writing work with a more standard unit. Maybe students need routine after the big emotional upheaval of the deal breaker exam. Like coming home from school and finding Mom dressed up for a big night out instead of khaki pants and a pocket tee, my students started at all my lesson glam at 9 a.m. in the morning. I guess my own post exam emotional backlash, after weeks of mundane test preparation, makes me want to dazzle students with my ability to make learning fun. I’ll need to measure out my lesson bling with greater moderation next time!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Saturday, April 4, 2009

S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g Students' Prose Style

Well, the state exam is over. After two full days of testing, I had one day’s lesson to fill before any results came in. Like an island, this single day sits between psychological oceans: preparing for the test on one side and relishing the test being successfully completed on the other. My students trooped in dutifully, but in truth, they simply wanted their tests results, which I didn’t have to give them. As I prepared for this single day’s lesson, I went through old piles for a good, reliable, sturdy writing exercise that would foster both focus and confidence, provide both distraction and satisfaction.

What did I find? Aha. An oldie but goodie as the saying goes…Copy/change writing. A poet first introduced my college Teaching Writing class to the technique of copy/change poetry years ago. Essentially, the teacher provides a professional poem with a clear structure and syntax, walks students through identification of the key elements of that structure, and invites students to write their own poems, with original content, borrowing the structure and syntax of the original poem. I’ve used the technique to help students write poetry, and I found it to be a good exercise there. Somewhere around 1999, I decided to try the technique with prose, and I almost always do the exercise with the first paragraph from E.B.White’s “Here is New York.”

First of all, students usually recall Stuart Little and/or Charlotte’s Web (be it the books or the movies) fondly. Unlike other authors I mention with rapture, White’s name is greeted with grudging enthusiasm. As a full-blooded city person, I cannot help but read the first paragraph of “Here is New York” with excitement. I used the round-robin technique for the first reading, so students could roll the prose around in their own mouths, and then I re-read sentences as we highlighted the patterns in the prose. I used a website to introduce the concept of copy/change and gave them my own example: “Shakespeare wrote, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ but my copy/change could say, ‘To eat or not to eat, that is my refrigerator dilemma.’” In my experience, explaining the technique at length confuses students and makes the assignment sound more difficult than it is. Instead, I put a copy of the excerpt on the big screen and marked which parts of the original structure/syntax should remain the same once students copy/change it. Students marked their own handouts. Then we brainstormed on the board kinds of people students could divide into groups of three. I encouraged them to think about customers where they work, fellow fans or team members of a sport, or even the citizens of their own communities. Then I set them going.

My students amazed themselves with their efforts. White’s prose in this paragraph (well, let’s face it—in lots of paragraphs!) is so well-structured, that a mimic can’t help but look good. I explained to students that this exercise gives them a chance to “try on” more sophisticated prose stylings. Maybe they’ll want to consider the dash in the future! The clean rhythm and juxtaposition in the sentence, “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion,” has an easy cadence for students to shadow. Their own copy/change sentences (with three clauses!) came out strong and clear as well. I almost always read that one aloud from their drafts as I walked along. They sat a little straighter, grinned a little, and often mumbled, “Yeah, that does sound good!”

Alas, like Cinderalla’s midnight, our single day’s lesson came and went. The test results will be in next time we meet; some students will need to shoulder bad news and work again for a re-take. Other students will have to reach down deep to still care once the “big exam” has passed. We’ll start another unit, one I’m also excited about, but I don’t know that we’ll experience the quick elation of the copy/change prose exercise we experienced with White soon again.

* In courses that integrate writing and literature, I often would assign students a single sentence from the current text we were studying for copy/change as a warm-up activity. (Works great with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby...) We would identify the parts of speech, even sometimes diagram the original sentence, and then students would write their own shadow. I think it’s a great way to help students internalize great writing, be it poetry or prose.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher