“Who Made That?” A Writing Project from KG

Another wriWMT_07_RubiksCube_Rightting project idea from Kelly Gallagher that my reading group highlighted in our presentation of his book In the Best Interest of Students. Students do a mini-research project in which they research how an object, product, invention, etc. was created or became popularized. I love this idea for 9th graders, who need to be introduced to formal research in a small, manageable way. It also allows endless options for personal choice. The mentor text comes from the New York Times Magazine.

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6 Things You Should Know About

6 Things You Should Know About

This writing idea came from KG’s In the Best Interest of Students, which I’m reading this month. I can see using it at the beginning of a school year for students to introduce themselves to a class (“6 Things You Should Know About John Vasquez”) or for practice writing to explain (“6 Things You Should Know About Competitive Swimming”). I also like the idea of allowing students to play with layout and images, much like the ESPN Magazine itself does here (as the mentor text).

Those little things that make a huge difference

This year, I designed end-of-year surveys for both my general 9th and 10th grade classes. I do this for several reasons: 1) I want students to understand that I do really value their feedback about what we cover in the course 2) I want them to reflect a bit on how they have grown over the year and what they struggled with 3) I want them to consider what factors helped them through those struggles and 4) I’m curious about how much they actually read of the assigned books.
But an added bonus I hadn’t expected was that several students wrote very nice comments to me, usually in the “Anything else you want me to know?” section and I was truly touched by them. I have a shoebox full of nice notes given to me by students over the last three years and I think it’s important for teachers to keep these mementos to remind us on bad days of why we do this very challenging job. So here are a few of the highlights from the 2015-16 school year, mostly from my 9th graders:
“Thanks for helping everyone in your class.”
“You did a great job teaching and I want to thank you for that.”
“You are a great teacher and I enjoyed this class!”
“You are an awesome teacher and if I had you next year I’d be glad to be in your class.”
“you are a wonderful teacher”
“This year was hard for me, considering I had surgery and I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.”
“Thanks for being the best teacher. I learned a lot from the class and you.”
“I really enjoyed having Ms. ____ as my teacher and I felt that I really connected with her. She helped me improve my writing a lot more than other teachers have. She also made class enjoyable and seemed to actually care about my overall success.”

Answer to the question posed to repeating sophomores about what made a difference this year if they were passing now and had earlier failed: “I would say that the teacher helped me tremendously. Ms. ____ made it so much more fun and easy to learn. The classroom environment was great almost everyday, and I really enjoyed it.”

I’d encourage all teachers to keep a record or repository of the things students write or say that we can point to when answering the question, “Why do I teach?”

Sample Writing-to-Learn Prompts

Admit Slips: Upon entering the classroom, students write on an assigned topic: Examples: “Who was Gandhi and why should we care?” “Pick one word to describe the TONE of your evening last night and explain.” “Did you agree with Ellen’s actions in the chapters last night. Why or why not?”

Crystal Ball: Students describe what they think class might be about, what direction a discussion might take, or what might happen next in the novel.

Found Poems: Students reread a piece of text, either something they have written or something published, and find key phrases. They arrange these into poem structure without adding any new words.

Awards: Students recommend someone or something for an award the teacher has created, such as “Most helpful molecule” or “Most insidious leader.”

Yesterday’s News: Students summarize the information presented the day before in a film, lecture, discussion or reading

Exit Slips: As a closing activity, students write on an assigned prompt. Example: “The three best things I learned today were…” “Three aspects of my essay that I need to look at are…”

Adapted from Improving Adolescent Literacy by Fisher and Frey, p. 142-148

Book Review: Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary

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I first heard about Mike Rose’s book “Lives on the Boundary” when teaching first-year composition in graduate school. The program excerpted “I Just Wanna Be Average” in its first-year writing anthology so many of us taught it and discussed it with our college writers. Somehow I never came back to the book (so much other reading to do) until I stumbled on it at a used bookstore when in graduate school for my teaching license. But I still didn’t read it (still too much assigned teaching reading) until now, when I’m subbing and have no work to take home every night. The first time I picked it up I got bogged down towards the end of Rose’s history of his own education, which was unfortunate, because after he enters graduate school for English he eventually drops out of academic and entering the Teacher Corps. This is where he enters the real world of how people learn and makes his best observations about the educational system has done to underprepared students.

After working with the “slowest” elementary kids for a year in inner-city L.A., Rose gives us this reflection, which I love: “Teaching, I was coming to understand, is a romance. You didn’t just work with words or a chronicle of dates or facts about the suspension of protein in milk. You wooed kids with these things, invited a relationship of sorts, the terms of connection being the narrative, the historical event, the balance of casein and water. Maybe nothing was ‘intrinsically interesting.’  Knowledge gained its meaning, at least initially, through a touch on the shoulder, through a conversation of the kind Jack MacFarland and Frank Carothers and the others used to have with their students. My first enthusiasm about writing came because I wanted a teacher to like me” (102). Some of Rose’s first observations are that the kids he’s told to work with are very literate in their own ways, love to write, and come up with some wonderful reflections and descriptions once they’re given the opportunity to write for the sake of writing and not get bogged down in grammatical correctness. Later, when working with returning Vietnam vets in college, Rose reflects that academia uses a language and requires skills that go way beyond what many literate high school educated-students bring with them to the university. And research institutions are not in the slightest interested in introducing these under-prepared students into the language and conversation of academia, and in fact do not want to reflect on their undergraduate teaching at all. (This is still very much true, even though this book is almost 20 years old.)

Some other great points:

  • When pushed towards higher level skills, such as analysis or even more sophisticated diction, many writers will create more errors while dealing with these new skills, which often get taken as a sign of their inability. We should expect increased errors in writing while students are trying on these new voices, which may be very new to them.
  • Teachers should look for the causes behind poor performance in terms of cultural assumptions, resistance to certain ideas or skills, or misunderstanding of key concepts. One writer introduced fragments into her writing while trying to avoid the repetition of using the same subject “she.” She was trying to move towards more sophisticated writing but in doing so was creating another type of mistake.
  • Never discount the literacy a child has obtained in his native language, the beauty of his ideas despite grammatical errors, her ability to think deeply and reflect even if her writing
  • Kids in remedial college writing often are forced to write only at the sentence level to correct errors, giving them basically no practice actually writing, even though they are most in need of it.