Things I Know 352 of 365: I support the National Writing Project, and you should too

Every day, in every state, we make a difference in the lives of students of all ages — breaking new ground and preparing students for success in school, college, the workplace, and in life.

– National Writing Project

As I’ve written before, the national education budget was extremely shortsighted and ended direct federal funding for the National Writing Project and programs like it. This was despite the fact the NWP continually met or exceeded federal benchmarks for program success in improving writing and writing instruction in classrooms around the country.

Proving ever-nimble and adaptive, the NWP is not going gently into that good night. In fact, it has no plans of leaving. As of this Fall, the NWP has begun a capital campaign to shore up support for the NWP and its regional sites around the country.

Contributions to local sites will be used to help fund the sites while contributions to the NWP “will be used for areas of greatest need, infrastructure, research and cross-site programs, and new sites,” according to the NWP.

I made room in my budget to make a small donation a few moments ago. You should too.

Once grad school’s behind me and I’m back among the land of the employed I plan on contributing to the NWP the way some people contribute to their alma maters. That’s how much I believe in the work they do.

Please, do the same.

When completing my donation, I was given the choice of donating in honor of someone. I chose Dr. Justice, one of my mentor professors in undergrad. The effects of her tutelage on living and breathing the written word have had innumerable echoes in my life as a writer and teacher.

When you donate, I encourage you to think about the writer or writing teacher in your life who inspired your voice and donate in their honor or memory.

While I’m saddened that the NWP has been forced to dedicated resources to fundraising that could otherwise be turned to improving teaching and learning, I’m happy to know it is an organization of impassioned professionals dedicated to continuing their mission, no matter the obstacles.

Please, help.


Things I Know 205 of 365: There’s a new poet in town

The truth of poetry is not the truth of history.

– Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate

We’ve a new poet laureate.
We had an old poet laureate.
Digest it quickly,
Move on.

No hippy, liberal elitist.
No ivory tower academic.
He’s from Detroit.
He worked the line.
He’s gotten his hands dirty.
Some of it rubbed off on his soul.

America has a poet.
This feels right.
At it’s best,
America strives to be poetry.

At our worst,
We clunk along like prose,
In a technical manual,
From when we needed stereo instructions.

I met a Poet Laureate once.
He shook my hand.
He signed my book.

Later, before sleep,
his words filled me with the capital “T”
Only poets can tell.

If we wanted School Improvement Plans
That told us where we’re going,
That reminded us where we’ve been,
That showed us the best and worst
Of who we are and what we could do,
Every budget would include

… a Poet Laureate.

Things I Know 78 of 365: I Blog4NWP

As of write now, the country will shut down April 8.

Unless Congress can write the ship of the federal budget to the degree that both bickering parties can stand back and say, “That’s alwrite,” then write at the stroke of midnight the federal government will be write back where it was in 1995.

Though some clearly partisan issues lurk in the spending of the federal government, some issues belong neither to the left nor the write.

Some issues transcend.

As I’ve said before, the National Writing Project is one of those issues. Never, ever before has the country benefited from such a grassroots network of professional development that has consistently been proven to improve student learning and teacher performance.

In an educational climate where we are to be racing to the top, I’m certain of one thing, the National Writing Project has already been to the top and circled back to help the rest of us get there.

Name a metric of programatic success and the NWP will impress you. Worried about fiduciary inefficiency? Don’t look at the NWP, almost 100 percent of its federal funding is matched at its more than 200 sites by local dollars.

Or, it was.

March 2, President Obama signed a bill eliminating direct federal funding for the National Writing Project.

According to a statement by NWP Executive Director Sharon J. Washington:

National Writing Project teachers provide more than 7,000 professional development activities annually, reaching 130,000 educators, and through them, 1.4 million students. These programs are designed locally to meet the specific needs of the students, teachers, and communities served. The loss of the National Writing Project will have an immediate impact on teachers and students across the country.

I am ashamed of a congress and president that would tout the importance of education and the need for preparing our students for the future and then eliminate funding to a program that has done nothing but good for over three decades.

We will enact laws to accommodate the wills of billionaire philanthropists as they try this and then that approach to education as though all it takes to inspire learning is pushing the write button in the Wonkavator, but we will not support the work of a network of teachers across the country to continue on with what is a golden ticket of an approach to improving teaching and learning.

I am saddened and ashamed.

And, tomorrow, I’ll be calling my congressmen – again.

Things I Know 20 of 365: If I’d “taught” him, I’d have broken him

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

– Albert Einstein

We were playing with outlining today.

Rather than peddle the same kind of linear thinking Mrs. Rupple taught me in 7th grade, I tried a different approach.

“What are some ways you’ve planned your writing that have been successful?”

And then they shared.

“Write these down,” said I, “You might need them when you get stuck.”

The old favorites such as Roman numerals and webs and bullet points were offered up.

They weren’t alone.

One student talked about coming up with a topic, journaling about it and then moving the pieces around until they made sense. Where she sensed weakness, she knew she needed to do research.

Another student picks a topic, starts researching and tags the useful articles in delicious. When tagging, he lists the important points he wants to reference in his paper as bullet points in the notes section of the tag. When it’s time to write, he calls up the tag and has all his notes listed.

Then there was Andre.

He didn’t know it, but Andre was the inspiration for today’s lesson.

Yesterday, as the students were preparing the information they’d uncovered from their research, Andre spoke up.

“Mr. Chase, yo, I don’t do outlining. That’s not how I think.”

“How do you plan your writing?”

“I see it in pictures.”

He explained it to the class today:

  1. Pick a topic. (effects of integration on minorities)
  2. Picture the topic. (historically black towns)
  3. Zoom in on the picture. (citizens of those towns of different classes interacting)
  4. Picture how things change with outside influences. (black citizens with wealth moved closer to white citizens of wealth and separated from their previous communities)
  5. Cut to the effects of the change. (citizens without wealth suffered because the community structure had been compromised)

And that is his process.

It works for him. More to the point, it’s how his brain works for him.

I could never have taught Andre this method.

More frightening, if I’d attempted to teach Andre outlining, my method would have worked against everything his brain was telling him.

“What about when you need to find outside sources to back up your arguments?” asked I.

Easy. He does an image search using the keywords from his topic. When he finds a picture that appears to fit the bill, he goes to the source page and reads the related information.

It’s not how my brain works.

It’s how Andre’s brain works.

It works well.

I’m so glad I asked.

Classy: Journaling with choice

Having kids write is important.
Shocking, right?
According to a April 2008 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Eighty-six percent of teens believe good writing is important to success in life — some 56% describe it as essential and another 30% describe it as important.”
It’s nice when the kids are on our side.
Parents are on our side as well –  “Eighty-six percent of teens believe good writing is important to success in life — some 56% describe it as essential and another 30% describe it as important.”
Unfortunately, the kids say our writing instruction is not alright.
“Overall, 82% of teens feel that additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities and 78% feel the same way about their teachers using computer-based writing tools.”
I’m trying to work on this.
Aside from the various “bigger” writing projects I ask of students, I’m a huge proponent of journaling.
My journaling practice has evolved over time. It started as I was taught to journal by Mrs. Haake; a prompt was on the board and they responded to it.
Turns out, the tools at my disposal give me more options.
Here are the frequent options:

  • Use the picture for inspiration (always an image pulled from creative commons-licensed flickr archives).
  • Listen to the song on repeat for inspiration (generally connected, at least tacitly, to whatever we’re reading or discussing in class).
  • Watch this video (a few times) and respond.
  • Respond to this quotation.
  • Free write.

Variations, of course, exist.
The last option is universally on the table. My students come to me from somewhere. It’s easy to forget.
Allowing freewriting allows them to unpack whatever they carry with them into the room.
Journaling can be drawing, journaling can be poetry, journaling can be lists.
The rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Don’t think.
  3. Write.

I don’t read the journals. Scratch that, I don’t make sharing journal entries compulsory. If a student wants to, he or she leaves his journal in a designated location and I read only the last entry. I promise them that’s all I’ll read. If they trust me, they’ll share. If they don’t, they won’t. If they don’t, I work harder.
Here is today’s prompt:

One final finding:

Teens who enjoy their school writing more are more likely to engage in creative writing at school compared with teens who report very little enjoyment of school writing (81% vs. 69%). In our focus groups, teens report being motivated to write by relevant, interesting, self-selected topics, and attention and feedback from engaged adults who challenged them.

So, choice, relevance and discussion. Shocking, right?

Do This: Preserve the National Writing Project…Monday

I’m not a member of the National Writing Project. And, if you don’t call your senators tomorrow, it’s entirely likely I never will be.

May I explain?

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has attached an amendment to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that would ban all congressional earmarks for the next three years. Yea! right?

Not so much.

Because NWP is noncompetitive, its federal funding (which it’s depended on since 1991) is technically considered an earmark.

I definitely get the idea of eliminating earmarks and wasteful government spending. I’m a big fan of it.

Here’s the thing, the NWP bears no resemblance to wasteful spending. Nearly every dollar of federal funding awarded to the 200+ NWP sites is matched by site-procured funding.

What’s more, the NWP consistently meets or exceeds the metrics on which its program effectiveness is measured. For more than three decades, the NWP has been helping teachers teach children better.

Again, I’m a proponent of eliminating wasteful government spending. Before slashing budgets, though, let’s be clear on which programs are wasteful.

If you’re reading this, I’m asking you to help.

Call your senators tomorrow – both of them.

Ask them to vote no on Coburn amendment #4697 to S. 510 that would ban all congressionally directed spending in FY2011, FY2012 and FY2013.

According to NWP Works!, the Senate is expected to vote on the measure Monday, November 29, so call.

Then, call, IM or e-mail anyone you know who’s ever learned how to write and ask them to call their senators.

I’m not kidding. Seriously.

The NWP should serve as the model of efficiency in organically building national systems for teacher development. Instead, it’s fighting for survival.


Classy: Rethinking the conversation of revision in writing

As much as I believe the tools should be in the background, this is as much about tools as it is about learning.

Two years ago, I started asking my G11 students to write bi-weekly analytical essays on topics of their choosing. Every other week, they are responsible for drafting an original thesis, doing research to back it up and then composing a brief analytical essay proving their points.

The essays were dubbed “2fers,” as they were due every two weeks and assigned as being 2 pages in length.

Larissa Pahomov, my G11 English teaching counterpart also decided to have her students complete these papers. This quickly became a lesson in the effects of a grade-wide assignment. Every SLA senior knows 2fers, and every SLA sophomore knows they’re on the horizon.

This year, we tried something new.

Revision and editing are always difficult components of the writing process in a 1:1 program (and any other program, for that matter). Whereas my English teachers asked me to turn in copies of each of my drafts with my final copy, writing on the computer calls for something else.

I edit and revise as I compose on the computer. I’m editing and revising as I type this. My first sentence of this piece went through three drafts the world will never see.

Still, when I’m done writing something that’s a little shaky, I’ll send it to someone else to check out.

Most of my students don’t have that switch in their brain.

Physiologically, the adolescent brain isn’t built for reflection. Sharing an electronic doc via e-mail can end up with many copies. Printing can waste paper and creates one more thing to keep track of. If I think I’ve edited it whilst writing, wasting time to have someone else do the same thing, well, wastes time.

This year, the students are utilizing our new installation of google apps for education in their 2fer writing.

Here’s how it went down:

  • With a max of three 2fers per quarter, each student created a file in the first quarter that would contain that quarter’s 2fers.
  • Those files were shared with me.
  • I dropped each file in a shared folder so all students could see every other student’s work.

At first, students were told to pick the most ruthless editor they could think of and ask them to look at their first papers.

The first go wasn’t great. Not everyone looked at their chosen partner’s essay. Some people chose editors with skill levels insufficient for pushing their writing forward as far as possible.

For the second go round, I assigned each student to a group of three. They kept their original editors, but were also responsible for looking at the two others in their group.

Results improved.

Now, this is not to say I was completely removed from the process. On the contrary, I was in there as well.

When I was assessing, my comments were added to their peers’. The rubric was pasted at the end of each essay with targeted comments for improvement.

Here’s the beauty. On the second round of 2fers, I saw the students using the same language as I had used in my feedback. I didn’t need to correct formatting, they were doing it for one another.

At its best, the revision became wonderful asynchronous conversations about the ideas and arguments being made. At its worst, it was surface level revision. Either way, it brought improvement, and students were learning the habits and language of revision.

I know this looks like a writing workshop, but it’s not quite. I know it looks like an electronic portfolio, but it’s not quite.

It’s asynchronous nature challenges that. The fact that no conversation or draft is never really done challenges that.

What’s more, in a writing workshop, what gets turned in at the end is usually the final copy. The conversation that led to that copy is hidden or lost unless, like my high school English teachers, students are asked to turn in all drafts. Even then, I’m fairly certain that was a check for completion, not a check for conversation.

At the start of the second quarter, I asked students to review their Q1 docs and look for trends in the comments their editors and I left. From their, they wrote goals for improvement in the second quarter. Those goals were posted at the top of their Q2 2fer doc.

They brought the most important pieces of the old conversation with them to the new conversation.

I realize the pieces of this aren’t anything new. The process, on the other hand, and the tools utilize to build the process, strike me as something new. I’m throwing this in the “Doing old things better in new ways” category.