Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Key Influence: Peter Elbow

Peter Elbow has influenced my writing and teaching as well as work with other writers for decades. Freewriting and other techniques, such as writing workshop, designed to unlock the writer within have helped me grow as a writer and a writing teacher.

I continually return to Elbow’s work to help sustain writing workshop in my classroom and helping to help my students develop agency as well as become better writers. In fact, I believe re-reading some Elbow over winter break may just help me restructure my writing workshop and get back to the place I want to be with it and help me get out of my students’ way. I think I’ll need to revisit the criterion-based questions in particular to help my students give each other better feedback. Thinking it through from Elbow’s perspective I think I see where I strayed from the path and mucked things up a bit.

I cannot stress enough how much “Writing Without Teachers” has influenced the way that I teach writing and shape my own writing classroom. Elbow has also helped me gain a better understanding of good and bad writing which fits in well with my focus on writing self-efficacy. I rely on Elbow’s methods of freewriting as well as editing but I also love the emphasis that he places on confidence and dealing with anxiety as well as writing to learn.

Elbow’s work has made a tremendous contribution to the writer and writing teacher that I am and continues to shape my growth and development as a writer and teacher.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Important Influence: Anne Beaufort

From the moment that I first encountered Anne Beaufort’s work during my doctoral work at Texas Tech I wanted to learn more. Her ethnographic studies of writers moving from academic to workplace writing and theories of writing expertise have strongly influenced my teaching as well as my own research.

Learning more about Beaufort’s professional history only furthered my infatuation and interest. Like me, she began as a classroom teacher and discovered that writing was her first love. She has also written for weekly newspapers and worked in corporate communications as well as been involved with the National Writing Project.

It was her work drawing from cognitive psychology that led me to pursue my own interest and research in writing self-efficacy. In addition, her work on context and discourse communities as well as the development of writers continues to feed my teaching and research. She continues to be a source of inspiration and knowledge for how writers are made.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How well did my semester plan work?

As Robert Burns noted: “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley” or the more popularly known “The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry.” While my class plans rarely (I hope) lead to grief and pain or even joy, this quote is apt for my teaching experience. Every teacher knows that the “best laid” lesson plans rarely work out exactly as planned but as WC Fields wisely noted: “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Perhaps it is the second part of that quote that most applies to my blog post: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

If I want to learn and grow as a teacher then I must evaluate and reflect on the successes and failures of my past classes – and perhaps most important I must learn from them so I can avoid making the same “damn fool” mistakes. I try to keep this in mind every semester as I embark on the 3x3semester evaluation suggested by Profhacker.

First, three things that went well: focus on community, reading groups, and emphasizing reflection. This semester I focused on developing class community and teaching my students about why community is important (as students and as writers). I deliberately used Twitter as a tool to build community in my class as well as to teach students about community. I think this worked well and I’m finally realizing the potential of using Twitter as a teaching tool. I also created reading discussion groups to further support community and to solve some of the problems I’ve been having with my reading assignment. These were a definite improvement over letting students go solo and forming them around student interests solved some of the problems I experienced with past reading groups. Finally, I placed even more emphasis on reflection than before. I continued with literacy narratives as before but I added journals, reflection discussions, and Twitter notes to provide further opportunity for reflection throughout the semester. I had used all these in the past but was much more deliberate about connecting them this semester and I was pleased with how that worked out.

Now, three things that didn’t work so well: reading groups, writing workshop, and rubrics. Organizing the reading groups by interest worked really well and I think helped students connect with each other and the material in more meaningful ways. However, I am still doing too much of the heavy lifting here to organize them. I need to get out of their way and let them do the work. I definitely need to micromanage less next semester. Same is true for writing workshop. I need to orchestrate the process but be careful about stepping in too soon or they will never learn to do it without the training wheels. Finally, I need to redo/rework/reconsider my use of rubrics. I don’t feel they are adequately representing evaluation.

Finally, I plan to restructure both my reading group and writing workshop assignments as well as redo my rubrics. This last will be the most challenging because I’m thinking about making it a collaborative exercise with input from my students. I’m not prepared to totally relinquish my control over this but I think making it a collaborative exercise could be a good learning/teaching tool which will fit in well with my intended focus for the spring semester. I’m teaching Writing I for the first time in a while and I intend to focus on not only how we become (more) literate but why it is important. Our reading and writing will focus on that topic which still falls within my writing-about-writing interest of the past but will allow me to work with my increasing interest in reflection and community as well as the citizenship aspect my program assessment requires.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Postpartum Depression and suffering from the End-of-Semester Blues

Grades were due this morning at my institution and that may be a contributing factor in my end-of-semester blues. I hate assigning grades to papers and to students, but unfortunately it is a necessary evil. I would rather focus on helping my students learn and grow as writers, but too many other forces (including my students) demand that I assign a grade. Perhaps if we could find a way to measure and quantify that learning and growth I would feel better about the grades that I assign, however as scholars of writing studies know, that learning and growth is not confined to the 16 weeks they were assigned to my class and does not show up in easily quantifiable ways.

I can use my own hard-won expertise to study a variety of data sources and evaluate the successes and failures of the semester which can help me (if not my students) move past those grades. I hope this process will help move me out of my current funk which I describe as postpartum depression or the end-of-semester blues, but I just can’t summon the energy to do so. I should also be cleaning my house and wrapping presents, but I don’t see either of those tasks getting done today.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines postpartum depression as the depression that occurs in women after giving birth. While it may be caused by changes in hormonal levels, it can also be caused by nonhormonal factors such as lack of sleep and worries about her ability as a mother. I can certainly sympathize with both of those factors at this point in the academic calendar and so feel justified in using the term to describe my current state. I am lacking sleep and worried about my ability as a teacher.

I’ve also read that postpartum depression is also caused by a period of grief and mourning. While the birth of a child is certainly cause for celebration, it is also the death of the dreams and possibilities that the expectant mother held. It is also the loss of a closeness that can never be recaptured. In time, those losses will fade in importance as new dreams and possibilities center around the child and a new relationship is forged. I think teachers experience similar losses whenever a class ends. Certainly this is the point when we must accept that all the dreams and possibilities that existed at the beginning of the semester have now either been fulfilled (or dare we hope exceeded) or fizzled into something we neither expected nor wanted. Fortunately, we can start anew in the next semester, but that doesn’t seem like much of a consolation prize when we are tired from the end-of-semester grading onslaught and worn out from dealing with the angst of our students. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be better equipped to look back objectively at the Fall 2011 Semester and begin looking ahead to Spring 2012.