Thursday, May 3, 2012

Nearing the Beginning

I am tempted to say that we are nearing the end.  After all, it is almost the close of another school year, and everyone is counting down the days (that is not just a turn of phrase...someone really is sending daily emails with the countdown).  What happens, though, at this time of year is the big planning for the beginning of the new school year.  We take notes throughout the school year, we assess students' progress, we discuss best practices, and finally we decide on the next year's starting point.  The new Common Core Standards for Reading, Writing, Language, and Speaking and Listening pose new challenges for the language arts classrooms.  The standards are more rigorous and indeed ask us to up our game...but this is so students can up theirs.

Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them, 2008), Laura Robb (Teaching Middle School Writers, 2010), Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer, 2009), Ralph Fletcher (A Writer's Notebook, 1996), and Jeff Anderson (Mechanically Inclined, 2005) have inspired me to create a workshop out of a classroom.  Each of these writers discuss the importance of writing and reading...not just for the students, but for their teachers.  That means us!  Does that mean we should read or write when we aren't grading papers, or taking attendance, or checking students' notebooks?  Actually, we should be modeling writing before we circulate and work with students.  At least that's the lesson I am hearing these authors preach.  And that's the lesson that the Louisville Writing Project taught me as well.

When I first experienced intense writing during the LWP last summer (partner of the National Writing Project), I was confused, frustrated, intimidated, and very unsure of what to do.  Then day two came, and day three, and, well, by day four I began to see how a familiar routine (music, reading selections, invitations to write) helped generate ideas.  My pen glided across the page with fresh energy.  I "got" it.  Of course, times of frustration still annoyed me during revision stages, but I watched my writing grow through these revisions.  Four finished pieces of writing emerged as a result of drafting, reading, reflecting, rewriting, peer conferences, revision, and more peer conferences:  two Erma Bombeck style essays, a Civil Rights monologue, and a Civil Rights poem.  Probably more importantly, I have the history behind each piece to show me the work that resulted in that final publication.

Fast forward to the end of summer and the beginning of this last school year.  This "teacher as writer" philosophy would take me on a journey through several entries but nothing polished.  Each time I asked my students to write, though, they would...if I wrote with them.  I started many stories but had not ever arrived to the end of one until now.  Without the daily energy of my peers, the words of encouragement and support, I am focusing on the lessons I've learned in the classroom.  That summer reminded me how to be a student again.  With that in mind, I want to plan for next year because there are a few things I don't want to forget.

First of all, students need to write consistently.  Writing should be routine and, well, Pavlovian.  Dinner bell = drool; music/quiet/beginning of class/end of class = write (or whatever routine a teacher wants to set).

Second, students also need to produce sufficient writing early enough in the year for me to make a determination about their skills.  That is definitely a "do over" wish I have for some of my classes.  If you have read earlier blog posts, you know that I have enjoyed assigning group research projects centered on the First Amendment.  What you would not know is that I regret it when I do not have an evaluative piece of individual and independent writing before we embark on this endeavor.  When I did assign an essay (most often about their names) near the beginning of the term I always had better products when it came to the more complicated I-search essays.  During this last rotation of classes I did not assign that beginning essay.  There are lessons I would have addressed earlier on if I had known then what I know now.

Third, students need to read.  We need to show students examples of great writing and help them read like writers.  What makes a book good?  Is it the character or how the author helps us visualize the character?  And maybe this should be fourth, but students need to have opportunities to talk about what they read.  Why should the teacher have all the hassle of selecting the best texts?  Students tell me about great books all the time.  Why can't they just tell each other?  In class?  In discussion groups?

We can complain about time.  There is never enough of it.  When has there ever been?  Yet I can waste plenty of time on Google Play looking for a new app to organize my books.  How is that any different in our classrooms?  We complain that we don't have time to read or write in class, yet waste our time on activities that don't push our students' writing in any direction.  I can't even pretend to know all the answers...I wish I did.  But then, that's why I look for the experts, my inspirations, to help me find them.