30 September 2012

Fired up about the Idea of a Writing Revolution

Peg Tyre’s article captured my interest when I saw The Atlantic link in my twitter feed.  I read it quickly, feeling fired up and knowing it would lead to a blog post later when I had some time.  Coincidentally, within a few days, seven different friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from various walks of my life sent the link to me and asked for my thoughts. 
If you’ve read Tyre’s article, you will know that she argues for a return to writing instruction circa 1950.  My first reaction was one of alarm because all I could think of was moving backward at the same time we are trying to propel literacy instruction forward for the next generation of students.  But as I continued to read and continued to receive the link in my inbox, on my Facebook page, and again in my twitter feed, I began to consider more carefully exactly what Tyre suggests—teaching the fundamentals. 
And then, Arthur Applebee published a response that read like some of the thoughts which had been floating in my mind.  On most accounts, I agree with Applebee, so here I will provide the link to both pieces and share some thoughts about how, pragmatically speaking, a writing revolution could happen in classrooms and schools if we remember a few important points.
Although the fundamentals may need to be reintroduced or reemphasized, they also need to be updated to meet the demands of communications in the 21st century and beyond.  So instead of bringing back the 1950s with its “rigid unswerving formula” we should think about what we can learn from the 50s—good analytic writing, drawing evidence from text, being able to think critically and express that thinking in lucid thought.  It’s not about a secret recipe, but it is about effective tools to provide the explicit instruction and layered skills instruction our students need.
It’s about balance, not rigid formulas memorized for the sake of formula.  For example, my son was taught the basic five paragraph essay in the fourth grade, perhaps appropriate given his general lack of interest in writing.  In fifth grade he again wrote a basic five paragraph essay over a trite topic.  However, now (in 6th grade) that he’s mastered this formula, he should be taught to move beyond the basic five paragraphs and encouraged to explore his real interests in understanding how the world works, the scientific process and ancient history.  A discovery approach like this makes more sense than requiring him write yet another five paragraph essay convincing us we should buy him a dog or arguing that dogs in the city should be kept on leashes.   Consider Applebee’s fourth point in his essay about what effective writing programs do/provide—“there was a recognition that writing is tied closely to thinking about new material, and requires tools and strategies that can and should be taught…"
While the Common Core does require more expository and argumentative texts be written, we should balance our explicit instruction of writing skills within the context of the ideas being explored.  To do this requires a delicate balance by thoughtful and reflective teachers who are themselves consistently honing their own skills.   My eleven years in the classroom affirms my understanding of the importance of the right tools balanced carefully with the right approach to writing instruction. 
We need to remember
  •  to convey purpose in instruction
  • to utilize essential questions that make students think
  • to teach students to ask questions
  • to encourage students to discuss and explore topics which interest them
  • to teach writing skills, not just assign writing via a prompt
  • to study language with our students
  • to utilize writing as a way to improve reading comprehension
  • to make writing an important  focus of instruction throughout our schools
Befittingly, I’ll end with my favorite quote from Applebee—“ the most effective writing programs are able to embed what is required by high stakes tests and then move beyond to a much richer vision of curriculum and instruction.”

18 September 2012

Thinking about Academic Knowledge and Discipline Literacy

I am currently participating in a preview to the Kentucky Reading Association Annual Conference through an online book discussion group using the Thinkfinity platform.  Our discussion facilitator posts thoughts and questions for each chapter of Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines by Doug Buehl, and each of the book discussion group participants responds to the chapter.  Since our discussion facilitator also happens to be the state literacy coordinator, she presented us each with a challenge, of sorts, as we read this week's chapter stating “the examples Buehl gives in the rest of the chapter, organized by content areas…we just need to get the information into the right hands. I hope each of you will be the vehicle for that!”

 I take this challenge seriously because it speaks to my interests and goals in my new position. After spending six of my first eleven days on the new job with teachers, I must say I am very pleased with my decision to accept this district level position.   I’m now serving at the Secondary English/Language Arts Specialist for the second largest district in Kentucky.  The title is slightly erroneous, given that I am doing more work of literacy specialist than just English/language arts, but I don’t care about the title as much as I care about the work I’m doing and the challenge ahead for helping discipline area literacy be a focus for improving student achievement in Lexington’s schools.

 While I’ll do my part, I can’t do this work alone, so I’m thankful for a team of colleagues who are also committed to discipline area literacy.  Yesterday, several of these colleagues witnessed my passion for literacy & education for the first time.  I was heated up as I talked with them about Buehl’s book and my online discussion group.  We are planning ways to bring the contents of this book into regular conversations with educators around the district whenever we are able.  Meetings with principals?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with teachers?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with instructional coaches?  Discuss discipline literacy.  What will we share?  We will always share the impact discipline literacy has on student achievement and the importance of bridging the academic gap, but other specifics will vary depending upon our audience.  Thankfully, Buehl offers many specifics in his book, providing us research, theories, and practical examples which often speak to educators.

 Two of my favorite quotes so far come from chapter three about bridging academic knowledge gaps.  This very rich chapter has thus far brought the most in-depth conversation in our online discussion, too.   Buehl writes about disciplinary learning and students’ lives and worlds, stating— “students will be at risk for feeling marginalized, becoming disconnected from academic tasks and texts, and be resistant to developing identities that area compatible with reading, writing, and thinking through different disciplinary lenses… the persistence of achievement gaps is one result (p.91).”

My second favorite quote so far became my favorite as another discussion ensued among my new colleagues.  Our boss sent us a link to a story by USA today and commented that the approach hi to teaching history  highlighted in the story might be more relevant for students.  He then asked us what we thought.  Well, since I was already fired up from my online discussion with the KRA preview group and had already shared my excitement with others in the content specialists’ office, I decided to send my favorite quotes from Buehl’s book to our department and our boss to encourage everyone to join me in reading the book. 

 “A major issue of teaching social science is generational knowledge, in which our students are immersed and which is highly motivational, can be hooked into the specific disciplinary goals for the social studies curriculum  (p.93).”    Buehl goes on to discuss the need to narrow history curriculum to get at the most important parts of history by using events of today to connect to the past and to make it relevant for students who are likely asking—“so what?”  

05 September 2012

Curiosity, Moths, and Moving Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

Tonight I should be working on final preparations for a workshop with English teachers tomorrow, but instead, I’m researching moths.   I can’t say I’ve ever had much interest in moths before, but I also have never before seen one like the one I saw today.  Today’s experience was even more sweet, given that I was with 35 middle and high school science teachers who regularly utilize literacy strategies to teach their content.

In between the sharing of strategies like word sort and concept ladders, someone from the facility came in the room to ask if there were any moth experts available.  Half a dozen science teachers rushed outside to see a moth.   My curiosity caught the best of me.  We called for a break and went outside to inspect this moth. 
Our best thoughts right now are that we saw a Pandora Sphinx Moth.  I tweeted a picture of the moth and received a reply from a friend and former colleague who reminded me “form matches function at every level.”  She, as she usually does, provided me more to consider in my musings, but I’ll have to get back to musing on moths later because right now I need to gather my wits for talks tomorrow about why we need to teach students to move beyond the five paragraph essay in English class.

Form does match function at every level.