Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Note to Self (Yet Again): Teach don’t Tell

I think “teach don’t tell” might have been one of the first pedagogical concepts I truly learned. But for some reason, I forget this lesson regularly. It happens when students have particular problems, when they catch me off the cuff, or when my mind is pursuing another line of thought. Why is telling sometimes my default setting?

I recently caught myself mid-telling. A student committed copy/paste plagiarism in a last paragraph of an essay despite viewing a report that clearly caught the problem before the paper needed to be submitted to me. I discovered it on a Sunday night as I checked the reports for plagiarism. I sent the student an email that pointed out the problem and asked what the student thought when seeing the match on the report. The student emailed me that after looking at the report twice, the student hadn’t noticed any matches. (Right there, in the bright color—see?) The student assured me that had the match been noticed, the student would have been sure to “mix the words up a bit.” Not quite a substitute for full documentation. Sigh. Bite of chocolate.

I wanted to tell the student that all the lessons we’ve done on plagiarism and how to read a report should have prevented this problem. I wanted to tell the student that I did my job; I covered this content in a student-centered, interactive way, thanks very much. I wanted to tell the student that the learning process breakdown most likely happened on the student’s end—forgetting to scroll down and read the whole report, working too late to read carefully, giving in too easily to the challenges of developing a point and resorting to copy/paste to round out a paragraph. Another bite of chocolate.

Bolstered by sugar, I remembered to teach, and I instead asked the student to do these things:

1) Go back and review the excellent answers the you gave on the plagiarism quiz, including:

Even if the information you use is commonly known, if you borrow the exact wording from a source to explain that information, you'll need to use quotation marks and to credit the source. Your answer: True

2) With that fresh information, go back to review the report again.

3) Write down observations and realizations as you look at your report and then share them with me.

The student did it. The student owned the problem and told me if the mistake meant failing the class, then the student understood. Hooray! My news that the essay would need to be done on a new topic came as a relief instead of a great big hammer. Put chocolate away.

When I tell instead of teach, students tell me something right back, usually some version of, “You’re a crazy English teacher lady and you’re wrong about me.” Telling versus telling means nobody listens. Remembering to teach instead of tell bears much better learning fruit.

I think I sometimes tell despite knowing better because some student mistakes strike me as an accusation that I wasn’t clear, that I didn’t do my job well. When I’m not feeling defensive, I realize that’s stupid of me. I think I tell more often when I’m tired or overwhelmed or when the learning process gets sluggish. In the end, I think it’s my humanity butting up against their humanity, and it’s bound to happen now and again. Maybe I’ll just tell myself to relax…where’s that chocolate?

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

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dear Truant Student(s) Early in the Semester,

Hey, there! It’s me, your English teacher. We’ve only met a few times because you don’t come to class all that often. I’ve left a phone message or two, and I’ve sent some emails. You could have a personal issue I don’t know about; I wouldn’t know because I don’t know you because I get to know students when they come to class. So, I’m writing this letter as a therapeutic exercise for the helplessness I feel in this situation.

Listen, I get that writing may not be your thing. I may not be your thing either—that’s okay, too. If students come to class and participate, I can help them move forward. I’m not saying I can fix everything that frustrates you about writing, but I can help move you forward. Momentum comes from action, and your first action needs to be to come and participate. I don’t mind doing the heavy lifting. Just come. Just try.

Maybe you’re trying to forget about this class for whatever your reasons are, and I kind of wish I could just forget about students who stop coming to class, too, but that’s not how my job works. I’ve got to tally your attendance, so I see your name each class meeting, and I picture your face, and I wonder where you are, and I ask around, and I leave a message here or there, but you’re not really on anybody’s radar. Come and try for me and be on my radar. Please?

The more absences you accumulate, the less I can see your face in my mind’s eye. We’re approaching the tipping point, the point when I start to accept your absences as an immutable fact and dedicate myself fully to the students in attendance. You start to become a statistic, a stat pulling down my retention scores, one of the numerous reductive ways in which teachers are measured. That retention score doesn’t reflect the problem you have that isn’t getting help, and it doesn’t measure the earnestness I feel when I try to reach out into the ether and pull you into attendance. In fact, the statistic probably demoralizes both of us, racking up higher and higher numbers until we both feel like it’s insurmountable.

Please come to class. Come soon.

Take care,

Ms. K

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

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Remembering Reading

The developmental writing course I teach requires that the second test of the course be on the apostrophe. Yawn. Of course, the first test focused on capitalization--wow! The canned curriculum leads up to a state exam in the end. Big surprise, right?

So, it’s three weeks in, and I’m trying to weave magic with the apostrophe. (My best apostrophe joke? I put the sentence, "The class earned three A's, five B's and twelve C's on the test." Then I rub out the apostrophe on "A's" and say, "See if you take away the apostrophe, it looks like "as." If I say it quickly enough, they mishear me and we can all laugh. That's as good as it gets, folks.) In an effort to spice up the apostrophe's introduction, I asked students to open up their books to the twelve rules of the apostrophe. I linked to a selection of the Top Food Bloggers on the Internet and asked students to peruse the sites in search of six examples of the apostrophe in action. Of their six examples, they needed to find at least four different apostrophe rules. (Our state exam is on the computer, so we teach these courses in a lab. I think this assignment could work for homework or in groups at stations, too.)

It took most students over forty minutes to complete the assignment. They could find examples using the apostrophe from the blogs quickly, but differentiating between a singular noun being made possessive or a singular noun that ends in “s” being made possessive or an indefinite pronoun being made possessive or a contraction—well, that took much longer.

I know that reading enhances writing, but I’m continually surprised at the hefty academic contribution of a reading activity like this one. By the time we went to a practice test on the apostrophe, students could better understand what differences to look for in the sentences. Arguing that the apostrophe couldn’t possibly be that varied seemed out of place since they’d already found it in action. Unlike our textbook, in “real life writing” the apostrophe doesn’t sort itself into sets of ten examples that all use the apostrophe as a contraction. A few students mentioned wanting to revisit the blogs for fun—always a bonus—and no one complained that the reading content didn’t matter. I guess food, written about and photographed beautifully, is a universal.

Next week, I’m going to try introducing subject/verb agreement through some selections from Here’s hoping reading from life continues to root these grammar lessons in application and contextual interest…

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

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Revisiting Theory: Self Chat #1, Donald Murray’s “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product”

This fall marks my fifteenth year teaching English. The classrooms, districts, states, and ages of my students have varied, but here I am, fifteen years later, still teaching writing, reading, and critical thinking. Since the traditional teaching career lasts thirty years, I’m struck by this year fifteen, this mid-point between new teacher and indisputable lifer.

In a recent shifting of piles, I found the reading journal I kept for my Teaching of Writing course, taken at The College of New Jersey in the fall of 1993 with Michael Roberts. In it, my twenty-one year old self responds to articles discussing writing theory. I used brackets to record different insights as I continued to read across the semester. Our professor ran our class as a writing workshop, asking us to keep writing portfolios of varied pieces of writing in varied stages of development, so my change in perspective also came from experiencing the techniques as a student (many for the first time). For my fifteenth year of teaching, I thought it could be fun to shadow that journey from my mid career view point. I’m trying to find the articles and read them again, to rejoin myself in the pages of that 1993 journal to see what I think about the issues from this point in my teaching career. When I copy from my 1993 journal, I’ll be using blue italics…


Ideally, I think that Murray’s article, “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product,” is an excellent example of theory. I am cynical at how effective it would be in practice. Take for example a basic skills level class. Murray assumes in his Implication No. 2 that the student has the maturity to pick his own subject. Picture if you will the class of Compensatory Writing Skills. When asked what they would like to write about, a boy from the back jeeringly suggests sex. As I blush, he calls out, “What’s the matter Miz Nowak, don’tcha like sex? How do you guys think she likes it best?” I know that I personally would feel as though I had lost control. Memory is funny, but I’m fairly confident this exact thing did not happen to me. However, the semester before I wrote this example, my practicum experience put me with a self-contained special education class of sixteen year old boys. Suffice it say, I mastered very little that semester, but it did shatter many of my “We’ll read poems and cry together” illusions about teaching. It left me scared of deviating from worksheets, quite frankly. How are we to implement these implications at the high school level when the students do not bring with them the learned behavior and skills they need? Wow—why am I so ready to blame the previous teachers before I even get started teaching? Yikes! The ole’ “blame those middle school teachers” riff coming from my not-even-a-teacher-yet self. I find that disturbing. Perhaps it would be better to start with students choosing their subjects from a list, until they are comfortable within the choices of their new process of writing. We cannot jump in at the high school level with these wonderful examples of theory if the students are not used to them. They will respond with inhibition, embarrassment, and immaturity. The entire system of implementing writing needs to be changed within the alteration of product into process. [10/29/1993—Knee deep into our application of such theories, I have more confidence that students will be able to pick their own topics. As a student myself, I much more enjoy the opportunity to pick my own and feel I do a better job with them.] [11/30/1993—Now that we are at the end of the semester, I am sad to see how quickly I dismissed teaching writing as a process. True, perhaps the entire system of education needs to be changed, but if I am not willing to start, how can I ever expect changes to be made? That brings a tear to my eye…I hope I always retain a willingness to change…Students may respond with inhibition, embarrassment and immaturity—the first week or two. That is why I am there as the teacher, giving them the confidence, providing the security and controlling the environment in which to try.] Sigh. So much of the teaching I do now prepares students for state testing, which requires response to a prompt. Other assignments prepare students for college writing, where professors often give a focused assignment. I haven’t thought about 100% self-sponsored topics in a while. In my teaching practice, I most often let students choose from a list.

I heartily agree with No. 3, “The student uses his own language.” I think many students are limited by the widening gap between acceptable language and acceptable writing. All of his other implications seem very logical and hopeful, but I wish there were more details on how to avoid pitfalls. It is so easy to march into a classroom full of theory, and so difficult to march out with confident students and teacher. [9/8/1993—I feel a little better after reading Steven Zemelman and Harvey Daniels. Hopefully, A Community of Writers will provide me with all the realistic applications I will need…[11/30/1993—One of my biggest problems as an educator is that I try to prepare for the classroom like I would prepare for a test. I expect myself to walk in the first day and be able to solve all the problems. If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. I will probably learn more from my own pitfalls than Zemelman and Daniels could ever teach me.

Donald Murray’s piece introduced me to the idea of writing as a process, and I embrace that concept fully today. It tickles me how I skip commenting on eight of the ten implications. The whole concept blew my mind, I think, so I’m not sure I even understood what the implications would look like in application. I’m confident I didn’t understand No. 1, “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing.” I don’t follow it, Mr. Murray. I think No. 1 assumes students have a background as readers, which many of my students do not. Even in my writing courses that do not teach from literature, I use texts beyond students’ own writing; in fact, I’m required to by department and state policies. Some of them are textbook samples of other students’ writing, some of them are newspaper articles or short stories, and I use them to cultivate students’ inner ears for language and its possibilities.

I like No. 4, which advocates the drafting process, but I’m not sure what Murray means by “Each new draft, of course, is counted as equal to a new product.” Counted how? Scored? We don’t grade drafts, anymore than “a concert pianist is judged on his practice sessions,” right? Fifteen years in, I feel mired in a culture where students perform the tasks I “pay” them to do, by making it “count.” I give credit for a draft, in a pass/fail sort of scoring method, but no, drafts are not “counted as equal to a new product.” Final drafts are weighted more heavily in the grading formula than drafts, and at this point, I’m not sure how to escape such a system.

No. 5 strikes me as charming but unrealistic. Since much of my teaching of writing is test format driven, I don’t encourage students “to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say.” The concept attracts me, but my teaching reality has much more of a locked step curriculum, and we all work on mastery of academic essay structure rather than writing in variable forms. I can see how this is like teaching people how to cook one dish without educating them on flavors or the chemistry of heat and fats. The people can cook that one dish convincingly, but they may not have transferable cooking skills should they wish to vary the dish. I’ll chew on No. 5; I’m back here revisiting this theory for just this kind of idealism.

I recognize my teaching in Nos. 6, 7, and 8. It’s like revisiting my birthplace, finding my 1993 self and realizing here is where much of how I teach writing today was born.

Gosh, Nos. 9 and 10, huh? What’s not to like? Except I’m not consistent about either concept despite finding them appealing. It’s like my resolution as a parent to redirect rather than yell. Good idea—difficult to practice consistently…There are points in the semester when differentiated process time (as advised in No. 9) gets tossed. “People, we’ve got to move on! We need to be at point X by such and such a week.” And whoo-boy, do I have rules and absolutes despite liking the philosophy of No. 10’s “There are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives.” Nuanced directions foster miscomprehension in my experience, so I go for absolute directives: “Don’t use second person.” “Use MLA format.” And please forgive me, I’m pretty stringent about a paper’s heading, too. I like to think of myself as a process leaning teacher, but the sheer volume of papers and students has led me to rely heavily on some strict policies.

I find my last November comment sweet: If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. Oh, to be twenty one and anticipate changing public education without thinking pitfalls are okay and inevitable. I’m still not fully prepared for the test of new students. I still don’t have all the answers. I’m more comfortable climbing out of pitfalls, and I do think I learn quite a bit from them. Meeting up with myself in 1993 reminds me that the things I do well today came from the courage to try new things. I need to nurture my willingness to continue to do so…

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