That Writing Thing

(I apologize for the lame title…I’m a bit sleepy!)

I kept putting off writing this entry because I didn’t really feel like I had a good topic. However, as I neared the end of the Smith article on writing myths, I realized what I wanted to write about. Then I finished the article and realized he took the words right out of my mouth. So, here goes:

For the past two weeks, the seventh graders in the classroom where I do my practicum have been working on a names project. Basically, it is a research paper to get them geared up for the big science research paper they will have this year. This gives them time to practice their research and writing skills. Last week, they went over how to do their bibliographies – they need 1 book source, 1 web source, and 1 personal interview with a parent or relative. Then they had three days of research in the library for books & websites. The assignment is pretty neat, I think most of the kids are getting into it quite a bit. This week, they started out with a graphic organizer to organize their paragraphs – from my terrible memory, those included: what’s in a name?, how I got my name, what my name means, and then an intro and an “extension aspect,” which could be research on a middle name or surname or perhaps other names that they may have been named, or a paragraph about who they were named after. Then they moved on to doing one organization sheet for each paragraph in order to get a topic sentence, 1-3 facts, and explanations/elaborations on said facts, and then a conclusion sentence. This was their pencil draft, and my co-op modeled her own draft at each step in the project for the students. The students wrote during class and we were both there to answer questions. (Note: I know this assignment sounds very prescriptive, but trust me, this is not the only writing the students do in class, so I promise it is not all so “do this,” “put this here” kind of thing. Though we talk about the evilness of the five paragraph essay, I think in this instance, it works. Feel free to disagree, but it really isn’t as exact/demanding/I-can’t-think-of-the-right-word as I’m making it sound! I’m just not good at description at the moment :-).)

I mentioned to my co-op that I was finding some of the questions difficult to answer because it’s been a long time since I wrote in terms of organization like that. The next day, she handed me copies of each sheet and told me that she ALWAYS does the writing that she asks her students to do, and suggested me writing my own name report might help me better respond to students. I filled out the graphic organizer and the paragraph worksheets and came up with my own first draft of the name report. And I felt much more effective in answering student questions that day and the day after. I encouraged students to try an idea, reminding them that this was only a draft and that they could come back to make changes at any time.

While I think I *must* have realized (how could I not? It seems so obvious!) that it is easier to respond to student work when you yourself have done the same assignment, I was pleasantly surprised by how at ease I felt afterwards. Smith captures this perfectly when he states, “The assertion is that children will learn to write and to enjoy writing only in the presence of teachers (or other adults) who themselves write and enjoy writing” (31-32). I gave better advice when I had gone through my own name report process. When a student came to me with questions about how to write her conclusion, I shared mine with her and gave her some jumping off points based on what her own opinion on the importance of names might be. After assisting a student and asking, “Does that help?” the smile and nod I get in return remind me what is so great about teaching: about reaching the students and providing a good positive role model. After all, if their teacher AND Mrs. Moulton (who is a super cool University of Iowa student) both like writing, it must be pretty great! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Question: Have you had an experience like this, either with modeling for students or that “it’s-great-to-be-a-teacher” moments? I want to hear!

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Reflection on Writing Partnerships

I enjoyed my writing partnership. It gave me a chance to get a sense of the writing style and ability of a high school student, and also gave me a chance to exercise my own critiquing/providing constructive criticism skills again.

One thing that didn’t work for me was that I constantly lost track of what I was supposed to be doing during the writing partnership & when. This is mostly my fault as, due to a death in the family, I missed our second class and fell behind as a result. One suggestion I have for future writing partnerships is including the schedule in the syllabus, as I heavily rely on syllabi in all of my classes out of habit.

Another suggestion (and I’m not sure how possible this is/whether it was already covered and students just didn’t execute it well) would be for the high school students to receive some instruction on what exactly their roles in the partnership were. For example, in my partnership, the feedback I received on my first memoir draft was five or so mechanical error suggestions. The feedback on my second draft was along the lines of, “Wow, that was really great! I loved it!” While I won’t deny that I like positive feedback :), and I also realize it may seem intimidating for a high school student to give critical feedback on the writing of a college/graduate student, I think my partner at least could have benefited from more than my own modeling of how to provide useful positive feedback. Again, I obviously can’t say that students didn’t receive guidance in this direction, or if they did that they would have used it, but I think that was one weakness of the partnership from my point of view. I didn’t have unrealistic expectations (I don’t think!), but even a suggestion for “could you tell me more about this?” or “what do you mean by this?” would have been more helpful.

I had a positive experience with this partnership, and my partner has already emailed me telling me that I inspire her (what future teacher doesn’t love to hear that?!) and that she would like to continue the partnership, which I fully intend to do. I think it was a great project for me as a future teacher in gaining some insight into the secondary writing atmosphere as well as into the mind of a high school student, since I haven’t been in that role for over five years now. ๐Ÿ™‚ I wish that our class met more than once a week because I think that the partnership would be stronger and easier to implement, but I also realize that there’s really no way to change that. Overall, it was definitely worth the effort!

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Writing and Practicum

This was the first week of Secondary English practicum. I am exhausted. But I am also very excited about what is to come in the next seven weeks. Normally, I hope I’ll have more to blog about than practicum, but practicum is really all I’ve had time to think about this week, and, I promise, it’s related to writing. ๐Ÿ™‚

Students in the 7th grade language arts class where I am doing my practicum wrote short stories and poems this week. I made comments and suggestions on over 50 student poem drafts and helped with questions while they typed up their short stories from the written drafts they had done previously. Reading those poems, which were Bio Poems based on a template that the teacher provided, I was amazed. Several of the poems wowed me so much that I had to ask my coop what I should write as feedback! I don’t recall doing any creative writing (and by that, I mean writing aside from book reports or five paragraph persuasive essays) during my own junior high years (or in high school, for that matter), and I was amazed at the language these students used. Here is the script that I recall from the assignment, though I’m sure I’m missing a line or two. Also, keep in mind these were supposed to be written in third-person:

First Name

4 adjectives that describe me

Daughter/son/cousin/niece/nephew/sister/brother of _________

Lover of – 3 things

Who fears – 3 things

Who feels – 3 things

Who would like to see – 3 things

Last Name

 

They were encouraged to provide as much detail about each thing listed as possible. Of course, there were some students who did the bare minimum, and I commented on those papers that they did an okay job, but more detail would really be great. However, the vast majority of poems had some really creative use of language. Each student is at a different level of writing, but when they received their drafts back, each one had mechanics changes as well as comments on content and let the student know where he or she could move on from there. My overall point is that despite the fact that these students are newly from multiple elementary schools and have had different exposure to writing in school, and they are each at their own writing levels, they all had some really great writing skills. I think it is important as this age that their teacher is spending a lot of time on creative writing because not too long from now, if they have not been encouraged to write creatively, they will start to move away from the use of imaginative language, at least in my own personal experience.

90% of the poems I read had great use of description. At least 8 of the 50 or so I read had comments from me requesting that they make an extra copy for the teacher to save in her folder of “great examples.” And I could see the pride that these students had in their own work. Even (most of) those students who had suggestions about needing more detail in their writing did some great revision in their drafts and asked questions when they needed help.

I guess the overarching sentiment of this blog is that now I have seen in action the importance of writing in the classroom and the impact it has on students. I have also seen how writing can be implemented in the classroom in a practical way. Now that I’m back in a classroom, I realize how short a class period really is, which makes the fact that these students can accomplish some really great writing in such a short time span all the more impressive. I hope to see a lot more writing during my practicum, and hopefully next time I will have a little more insight on what I’ve learned!

Question: how do you feel about asking students to write scripted poems? My coop told me that she doesn’t particularly like assigning poems like this, but that at the beginning of the year, with students from all different backgrounds of writing, it can be daunting to students to say “lets write a poem!” This assignment was actually helpful for me, too, during my first week because it allowed me a chance to get to know some of the students with whom I’ll be working.

 

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Writing as Journaling

As we learn about teaching writing, I have had a lot of thoughts, as I’m sure you all have as well, on how I’m going to teach writing in my own classroom some day. This seems obvious, but aside from the overall idea of teaching writing, I’ve been considering specific ways in which I might get my own future students engaged with writing. One thought that keeps popping up is the idea of journaling. Journal writing is something that I never did in-school during my elementary or secondary years. In fact, I never journaled for a writing class until college, in some of the creative writing classes I took. I love the idea of journaling for class because I know that my own personal experiences with keeping a journal is what led me to truly like writing.

My creative writing professor during my undergrad at Central College (go Dutch!) insisted that we write in our journals a minimum of ten minutes a day for each day we had class, which for my Personal Essay class meant thirty minutes a week. Now that doesn’t seem like an awful lot of writing time. But I found that once I got writing, thirty minutes could pass by as I wrote one journal entry before I even noticed that the clock hand had moved. Some days, our professor would give us writing prompts, other days we had “free write” and could write about whatever we wanted. I remember our first journal entry assignment was this: Look out a window and write what you see. I remember sitting in the window seat of my townhouse room writing about the big oak tree right outside that towered over a sloping hill, where you could see our little path through the bushes, created by years of students taking a shortcut from Mentink townhouse to the Weller Center next door. Writing this one assignment, though my writing at first seemed forced as I got used to writing from a prompt, made me realize that it’s not just about saying “there is a tree outside my window and a building next door,” but rather about showing the reader (even if you’re only writing for yourself) what is there. I like the freedom that journaling gave me to investigate my own writing.

After that long spiel, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point. Well, I’m not sure where I stand on journaling. I know it is something that I would love to implement in my own English classroom, but how? In one of our first meetings of Orientation to Secondary Ed., the professor read a few things from Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Studentsย by Kathleen Cushman. One of the things that stuck out to me, as a future English/language arts teacher, is that students said they enjoy keeping journals in class and that they look forward to their teacher responding to those journal entries without criticism or a red pen for correcting. This kind of reminds me of what we’re accomplishing in our writing partnership. As soon as the professor mentioned this piece of advice, I knew I wanted to use it in my classroom someday. Though my creative writing professor never read our journal entries (he did check during one-on-one conferences to check that we had done them), I like the idea of teacher response to journaling. However, this is where I begin to question myself. In a reading for another class (I can’t recall whether it was for Approaches, Practicum, or Language & Learning), one writer mentioned that yes, you should have students keep a journal in class, but you as a teacher should never read or respond to those entries in any way. The contradiction here interests me because I wonder what led that particular article’s writer to say that. If it weren’t for the fact that the former advice about responding to journals actually came from students, I could probably convince myself that it were simply a difference in ideology formed by different classroom experiences. But this conundrum has repeatedly crossed my mind in the past weeks.

What is best? Is it invasive to read students’ journals? Obviously they would know ahead of time your intent to read and respond to their writing. Does this knowledge have a negative impact on the things they will write about? Will their writing seem contrived when they know they are writing to an audience, the teacher? Or will that knowledge encourage students to improve their writing, even when the teacher is not criticizing, but rather responding to the content of the writing? If a teacher decides not to use response as a part of student journaling, will the students take the assignment seriously?

I know that with the flood of insight and knowledge on methodology, I should expect differences in opinion among teachers. I should probably expect a whole lot of difference since each of these teachers whose articles we read, whether for this class or another, have had different classroom experiences; what works for one teacher might not work for the teacher down the hall. So my question to you is: what do you think? How do you feel about using journaling in the classroom? Will you use it in your classroom? And if so, how?

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Finding my voice

After reading almost everyone else’s blog posts, I am at a loss of what to write in this one. Mostly because the thoughts rocketing around my brain right now feel like a super-speed game of Pong. I told myself all week long “you should really get started on that blog post…after all, your last post was all about getting into a routine of writing. What on earth will people think if you talk about the importance of writing and then turn around and wait until the last minute again?” Well…I waited until the last minute again.

After a brief moment to open up Pandora and set a Mozart station, I feel much more ready to write. For some reason, Mozart is my thinking music. Perhaps the lack of words to distract me? Note: I think every blog I’m going to list questions for YOU all that pop into my head and post them at the end to answer as you please.

I am going to try to use this space as a place to free write and work in the readings as they fit, but mostly I want to get myself thinking and writing again in a way that never seems to happen when all I think of are scripted assignments. Hopefully re-educating myself on writing will make me a better teacher when it comes to writing. One thing I know I need to work on in my own writing is VOICE. When I read back on my writing, it always seems so stiff and formal. Which is good when the assignment is to write a formal paper, but not so good when I’m thinking about how I’m going to someday teach students how to write in a more natural and creative environment than “Write a five paragraph essay on this topic I chose for you.” Hopefully this blog will help me find my own voice in writing again, since it seems to have left me somewhere between my elementary and high school years. As an a exercise in the kind of writing I will encourage in my own students, here is an experiment of my own free writing…and now, I write.

I talked to one of my best friends earlier this week in preparation for my minilesson on “How to visit Wales” for my practicum class. Talking about Wales and all the memories we had and preparing for that lesson in general made me realize that writing is important not only as a memento of experiences that we ourselves want to remember (one way I’ve successfully used writing in the past), but also for another reason: to relate those experiences to other people. Okay, so that sounded completely obvious, but what I *really* mean is this: said friend and I again (it’s a frequent topic when we’re “homesick” for Wales) talked about how it is really impossible for anyone who hasn’t been in a similar experience (living three thousand+ miles from home in a foreign country with all these new places to see and things to do) to understand why we miss it so much. It is a constant frustration to me that no one I see/converse with on a regular basis (besides said friend) can seem to relate to this in any way: not my husband, not my parents, not my other geographically closer friends. This is it: writing. Cue lightbulb moment. Thinking about how I would want to explain my occasional homesickness for this land that no one around me has ever really thought of, let alone seen. The simplest mode: writing.

Putting words on a page (or in this case, a blank screen) is a much easier mode for me to express myself to other people. This is the easiest way for me to think of reader-based prose versus writer-based prose. If I need to explain something to someone who wasn’t there (and I’m talking NEED to explain, not just hopeful that someone else will interpret your meaning the way you intended it), what better lens to use than something I have already experienced? As the semester goes on, I hope that I can build on this. And I hope that when I become a fully-fledged teacher, this is something I can share with my students to help illustrate the importance and relevance of writing to their lives. Writing is practice at telling a story. It gives you more freedom and time and space to craft a story for the telling than does an on-the-spot conversation. Or at least it does for me! I hope I haven’t over-philosophized my point. I think the original point was for me to learn how to write in my own voice, which somehow turned into reader/writer-based prose. Note: this is what happens when you go into a blog post not sure of what to write!

Questions: Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what inspires you?

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Me as a writer…

I am a technically good writer. By this, I mean that I am good at writing correct papers. I have a thing for grammar and a love for words, a feeling to which I’m sure everyone in this course can relate. I enjoy writing literary analysis papers, which is probably a good thing since I spent three and half years of my undergrad career doing exactly that. I also took a few courses in creative writing: personal essay, an honors course on memoir writing, and travel writing. Each of these classes tested me as a writer, and I enjoyed the push to write; I realized I had more to write about than I could have imagined. But I am a reluctant writer. That is not to say that I do not enjoy writing, as I do enjoy the process, but I find myself wondering whether I have any stories left to tell.

To be honest, since my college graduation in May 2010, I have not written for myself at all, that I can recall. I have written papers and reflections for summer classes; grocery lists; reminders to myself; birthday cards; emails; personal letters; wedding thank yous; Facebook posts. For me, beginning this class is like swimming on a cool summer day – I want to jump into the pool to acclimate myself as quickly as possible, knowing that after the brief discomfort, I will enjoy the experience. But I find myself dipping in one toe at a time, unsure of myself. Reading Fletcher’s What a Writer Needs, I am reminded how much easier it is to write when you do so on a regular basis. Daily journals in my creative writing classes, even with the oftentimes prescribed topics, forced me to jump into the pool. I need to acclimate again.

In Fletcher’s book, “Chapter 11: A Playfulness with Time,” ย he points out the importance of consistency and how it is perhaps a writer’s most essential habit. While the consistency (and inconsistency) of writing is something I have personally dealt with, it is one of those times where what should be immediately apparent needs a big blinking orange sign before I can see it clearly. Based upon my own experience, and also after reflecting on Fletcher’s advice, I realize that my English classroom needs consistent time for students to write. I have no real sense yet of how I will implement the writing process in my classroom, but of course that is why I am here.

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