Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ringing in the New Year - pedagogically

I have often reflected at the end of the semester, in true Profhacker fashion, by giving a 3x3 course evaluation. This means sharing what worked, what didn’t, and what I plan to change.  This was easy to do when I was essentially teaching the same class in multiple sections. However, now that I am teaching composition and professional writing it is hard to make such comparisons so this evaluation and reflection will likely not fall into such neat categories.

Overall, I feel pretty good about how my professional writing class turned out. I taught this class for the first time in the Spring and that was OK but as I had barely a week to plan the class (for the first time) and I inherited a book it was a bit rough. This time around I had the benefit of experience and time to plan so it was much more thought out and I do not plan to make any major changes for the new Spring Semester. Students report that they learned a lot and had fun. I feel the same way so what’s not to like?

My Writing II class continues to be a work in progress and I plan to revamp it yet again for the Spring Semester. I have high hopes for the new version as it is an idea that excites me (see The Walking Dead in my writing classroom) and I had an additional brainstorm about how to marry my new idea to my old practice of focusing more on writing in the disciplines so it will be a course about walking/writing dead in the disciplines.  I have spent a lot of my gym time thinking about this class and can’t wait to see what comes of it!

What worked

I borrowed/adapted a Group Learning assignment from Cathy Davidson for my professional writing class and this turned out to be a great assignment. Students really did an amazing job with it and we all learned something from the process as well as the results. For this assignment students had to teach the class about some technology/tool that could be used to produce their final projects. Throughout the rest of the semester students referred back to these tips/tools and used them for their PW project as well as work in other classes and their professional lives.

Another success for the Fall Semester was the use of Google Chat to support virtual office hours. While overall my use of Google was a bit hit-and-miss (see Google vs. Blackboard) in terms of success, I can unequivocally say that Google Chat gave my students quick and easy access to my help and advice. Although it was not always convenient for me (having to interrupt my work or break a chain of thought), it definitely helped create a connection with my online students that is always difficult to forge in an online class.

Finally, the use of interactive journals was something that worked well and I will continue to use. Side discussions, support, and practical advice were all a part of the peer comments on student journals and I think contributed to a sense of class community. I was pleased with this activity/assignment and will definitely use it again. 

What didn’t work

My attempt at a peer leader assignment, during which students would take turns leading discussions and track participation, was a dismal failure. They were supposed to work in teams and that was always a problem as most of the teams did not work well together at all. The evaluation part of the assignment was also problematic even though it was really a matter of noting who had participated and who had not. I wonder if this type of assignment is simply more problematic in an online class as I’ve done similar things with traditional classes. I’m not going to use this assignment until I’ve thought it through again so probably not for the Spring Semester as I’m at a loss right now.

Similarly, my class reporter assignment was terrible. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of students creating a wiki, blog, or some other record of the lessons they learned in a class. However, the actual execution in both classes fell far short of my hope. I think the idea is still a good one but it may not work for a writing class as well as it does for a content-driven class and it may also be a problem for an online vs. traditional class. Either way, it is going back on the shelf for now while I mull it over.

My last failure is the scaffolding I prepared for my Writing II students as they worked on their final papers. I thought it would help them to chunk the paper but most were resistant to the idea and the final papers of those who did participate were often too chunky. I have some ideas for working the scaffolding into our discussion and reflection assignments that will make the support more subtle and allow students more room to grow. I read a blog post a few weeks ago (Intrusive Scaffolding) about how too much scaffolding is actually a disservice for students and I think this process assignment is a good example.

What will change

While I will still have students create Google accounts at the beginning of the semester, our early use of Google will be for interaction (Google chat) and social media (Google+). As I already noted (see Google vs. Blackboard), I used Google for journals, discussion, and writing workshop in the Fall Semester but this met with mixed results and I think sometimes the technology got in the way of the pedagogy which is never a good thing. I plan to use Blackboard’s blog tool for interactive journals and discussion but am reserving the option for using Google for writing workshop at the end of the semester.

As noted above (and in The Walking Dead in my writing classroom), we will discuss the big ideas found in our literary readings with those found in popular culture (specifically comic books and their related media). We will then explore (in discussion and in writing) the ways that those big ideas play out in the disciplines. Stay tuned for more on this idea!

This semester I am going to try out a journal assignment focused on self-assessment and self-regulation. One of the reasons I tried the peer leader assignment is that keeping track of all the posting/discussion activities is a logistical nightmare for me. It is a constant battle to find the right balance (not to mention the time) between teaching and evaluating. My hope is that by making a place/time for students to record (weekly) what they did to further their learning and meet the course goals will make them more aware of their own responsibility for their growth and grades. Plus, this will give me a private place to comment on their activities as a student separate from their writing and thinking. I hope that separating these enforcer activities from the writing coach/mentor activities (made in comments on class reflection and discussion) will allow me to focus my efforts as well.  Or maybe I have just devised another way to make my head spin. We’ll see!

How did your Fall Semester turn out? What are your plans for the Spring Semester? I always love to study (steal/copy/adapt/adopt) the assignments and class activities of other teachers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I have found balance and you can too

Those who spend time with me enough to know how extremely uncoordinated I am are probably laughing out loud, but it is true. I have found balance – or at least more balance than I may have ever had before in my adult life – and it is awesome. I am still not physically coordinated and I am often extremely busy but I have worked very hard this semester to achieve some balance in my life and I am pretty happy with what I have accomplished. Believe me, if I can do it then there is hope for you as well. This is my hope that you will make finding balance one of your resolutions for the new year.

This time last year my job was killing me. I was bone-tired and stressed to the limits of human endurance. Then in May my body sent me an urgent message to change or else! In May and June I wrote about the need to find more balance and my initial struggles with it (see Rising From the Ashes and Have You Got Balance). Six months later I can report that I am doing great physically and emotionally. I must say that the life changes I enacted this summer were the best decisions I ever made. Of course it is one thing to make changes during the summer, but another to keep them once the school year gets underway. The simple fact that I can report that I am happy and healthy now tells me that I have kept on my path and that is good news.

Drawing lines

Perhaps the most important part of this new life plan was changing the way that I work. In the past my flexible work schedule meant in reality that I was working seven days a week, morning, noon, and night.  Now I rarely work in the evening and while I still do some weekend work I try to restrict it to a few hours. It isn’t always easy but I accomplish this by following two strict rules:

·         You can’t and shouldn’t do everything
·         Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

That first rule is a tough one. It is so often easier (or so we think) to simply do something ourselves rather than to let someone else do it. Worse, it is often easier to do something ourselves than to find and convince someone else to take on a task (and then to provide the support they need to do it without micromanaging). However, I have delegated and divided a number of tasks that have made my life easier. Other jobs I eliminated altogether by reasoning that if no one else was interested in taking on that program then it was time to let it go. Quite simply it was about not doing anything just because I had always done it. I reevaluate regularly before putting a job on my list. Is this something that needs to be done? Really? If so then am I really the best, the only, person to do it?

I have always been the Queen of the To Do List, but I have learned to readjust my thinking there as well. I still use them to plan and manage my time, but now I make sure to spend time not just writing down the millions of things I need to do but also sifting and sorting. If this is a job that I need to do then I ask myself when it needs to be done. Does it need to be done today? What happens it if doesn’t get done until next week? Next month? Similarly, the tasks that don’t get done are not simply moved from one day to the next without asking the question – why didn’t this get done? It is about prioritizing every day and every week. The first week of classes means that course planning and management are top priorities just as last week was mostly about grading. However, there are other weeks when program planning or report writing might be the priority and my students drop to second place. Not everything can or should be top priority all the time. A hard lesson but I think I have it now!

Putting Me First

Changing my life has meant making a lot of hard decisions, and even more difficult, sticking with them. Now my priority list includes doing things for myself. Every week I make time to write because this is something I need and want to do. I make time to exercise regularly not because I want to (still waiting for that promised energy boost) but because it is important for my health and I have found I can get some good thinking time in on the elliptical so that is a plus. I make time to spend with my friends (although I still need to do better with this) because I need to laugh and vent and celebrate life. These are things I need to do for my mind, body, and soul. Carving time out of a busy schedule and putting off my real work to attend to my writing, my health, and my relationships is not selfish. OK, maybe it is, but being selfish is OK and even necessary when it comes to a balanced life. After all, if I don’t look out for me then who will?

Another difficult decision, especially after the fact that my job nearly killed me, was taking myself off the market this fall. I knew that I could not afford to devote the time and energy to an academic job search plus I knew from past experience how time-consuming, stressful, and soul-destroying such a search can be. I wanted to devote my time and energy to maintaining my new-found balance as well as the development of new projects and possibilities. I knew I was sacrificing opportunities and I still torture myself by reading the job ads and wondering “what if” but as I end the semester tired but not empty I know that I made the right decision. I am looking forward to the work currently on my list and I am satisfied with the work I completed this fall. My current job is not perfect. I am underpaid and under-recognized and under-appreciated. But I am doing important work that makes a difference. I am teaching, I am supporting practicing teachers on my campus as well as in my region, I am mentoring pre-service teachers and new teachers, and I have the opportunity to influence educational policy on my campus. That’s a pretty good gig so I’m not dwelling on the “what ifs” too much. Instead, I am focusing on celebrating and focusing on the positives.

My life and career path choices are not for everyone, but now I can look back over the past semester and know that I made the right ones for me. I am excited about the changes that 2013 can bring and happy that 2012 is wrapping up much better than I could have forseen back in May. If there is one gift that I would give to you (well after world peace) it would be for you to find more balance in your life. Happiness will follow I promise. Now ask yourself: What can you do to find more balance and happiness in your life?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Google vs. Blackboard

I use a lot of collaboration and interaction in my online writing classrooms with assignments including reflection journals, class discussion, and writing workshop. My institution’s course management system is Blackboard (I know, right) and like many I have not been particularly satisfied with the way Blackboard supports my pedagogy. The discussion forum in Blackboard does not allow the conversation to flow and develop organically but instead imposes a formal structure and makes it impossible to easily connect entries due to the need to click in and out of posts. The journal tool does not allow students to comment on the journals of their classmates. Writing workshop in Blackboard tends to be a one-way street with little collaboration. Blackboard does not offer any fun social media options or alternatives to support community development. Navigation in blackboard is just clunky and counterintuitive. None of my reasons for disliking Blackboard are unique to me and probably are not news to any experienced user.

This summer I abandoned Blackboard and taught an online graduate class entirely using Google tools and Twitter. We built collaborative docs for our discussion, posted journals that encouraged the free exchange of ideas, and, best of all, created a robust and lively online writing workshop. While no relationship is entirely free from challenges, I was in love with Google docs and wanted everyone to know about it (read more in “Teaching With Google Docs”).

Still caught up in the heady rush of a young love affair, I leapt into using Google for my online writing classes in the fall semester and abandoned my long-time practice of using Twitter for Google+. I knew there would be challenges. I was now teaching much larger sections and working with undergraduate rather than graduate students as well as all the baggage that accompanies students who are taking a required class rather than an option or elective. However, I was sure that the good would outweigh the bad and that we could work through whatever ugliness Murphy’s Law threw in our path. Now in the final days of the semester I can look back at such naiveté and laugh. It wasn’t a complete disaster and certainly some good things happened this semester, but in the spring semester I will move the bulk of my class activities back to Blackboard.

Better Communication

Using Google opened up an additional channel of communication that Blackboard just can’t match and for that reason alone I will continue to use Google in some way. The chat option cannot be matched for an online class because I have my Gmail window open most of the day so students can usually catch me for some quick help. I wanted to use Hangout as well but it seemed most were just as comfortable using Chat and perhaps using the other features in Google docs made Hangout extraneous for them. I do love having that as an option though. I also like Google+. I love Twitter and continue to use it outside the classroom but I like the ability to separate groups in Google+ and I like the posting/commenting features better for the purposes of classroom communication and community building. Right now I plan to continue requiring students create a Google account (if they don’t already have one) and we will use Google+ as our social media and community building tool.

Messy and Distracted

I still love the idea of creating discussion documents and journals in Google rather than Blackboard as they are much more collaborative and organic than any options available in Blackboard but they are also messy and because they are removed from Blackboard I think for many students it seemed to be a case of out-of-sight then out-of-mind. I suspect part of the problem is that it was just one more place to check in and so students would simply forgot about it or put it off. It seemed to me that discussion participation was down (which did solve one of my initial worries about the number of people who could collaborate on a document without it spinning out of control) as the semester progressed. Journal posts also seemed to drop off. We can never know all the reasons why students don’t do their work for a class, but I suspect that in this case another channel created more problems and interference. Of course, it did not help that in the middle of the semester we were all forced to switch to Drive and I really don’t like Drive as much as I liked Docs (but that is another post). We had a number of problems with disappearing posts and folders. I expected some of that but it certainly contributed to student dissatisfaction and lack of engagement (understandably). Logistics was also an issue for me. With a full undergraduate class (rather than a small graduate seminar) it was often difficult to keep track of participation in discussion and while it was easier with journals I still had to do a lot of clicking. This was made even more complicated by the fact that some students did not follow naming conventions and did not always properly use folders. Of course these things happen in Blackboard too.

My New Plan

While I will continue to use Google for the chat and social media features, I plan to move journals and discussion back to Blackboard. However, this time around I am going to experiment with using the Blog tool for our weekly topic discussions and reflections. While it may not be as organic as a Google doc I think it will be more so than the discussion board and it will be less messy (and therefore better for logistics) than Google. I also hope that by keeping discussion and reflection in Blackboard so that students are not switching back and forth between tools will remove one obstacle to student participation.

I have not yet decided what to do about writing workshop. I still love the options that Google offers for this and as students will have Google accounts I can reserve that option. Traditionally, we don’t start off with workshop so I will have some weeks to ponder our options and perhaps by the time it becomes an issue students will be ready to make the leap with me or I will know that this specific group of students is not ready to use a new tool.

Once again I am reinventing my online classroom. Is all this innovation a good thing? Some days I wonder. Which Blackboard and Google tools do you recommend for fostering class discussion, reflection, interaction, and workshop?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Writers as Reflective Practitioners

This week our Faculty Learning Community focused on the Morehead Writing Project met and we talked about our top priority for our writing classrooms and because many of us are also engaged in mentoring instructors and tutors we also talked about our primary goal for those writing instructors and tutors. It was a lively and interesting conversation, but what really struck me is that ultimately all our answers could be boiled down to one simple response: reflective practice.

The concept of reflective practice is to engage in continuous learning. Engaging in reflective practice requires an inherent belief that we are never done learning and growing. Reflective practice requires that we learn from experience rather than teaching or knowledge transfer.

The teacher as reflective practitioner is an important part of our work with the National Writing Project. We encourage the teachers we work with to continually reflect on what is happening in their classrooms to think about what is working and what is not as well as why. It is that reflection upon the why that is key to this practice of growth and development.

In recent years I have incorporated reflective practice into my work with writers as well as teachers. Writers learn and grow by writing but also by reflecting on their past experience, both challenges and successes. What were their goals? What did they do to achieve those goals? What worked? What did not? Understanding the answers to these questions can help writers adapt their practice to future situations and better position them to make better choices.

My goal is always to make my students into writers, but more important, to make them into self-regulating writers. Reflective practice is essential to this transformation into self-regulating writer. With reflection, with a recognition and practice of continually reflecting on the lessons offered by each experience, writers can continue to learn and grow long after they leave the writing classroom and hopefully throughout the rest of their lives. That is my goal for my students and I am continually refining my pedagogical strategies to achieve this goal.

This blog is my own struggle to be a reflective practitioner. I hope that others benefit from my posts, but ultimately I know I am the primary beneficiary as I record my achievements, defeats, struggles, and progress. Do you engage in reflective practice? Do your students?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Walking Dead in my writing classroom

How to kill those zombie students before campus is overrun

Yes, I am talking about the comic book and TV series, but in some ways this is also an apt description of the level of engagement most of my students bring to Eng 200 or Writing II. We have a two course general education writing sequence at my institution – Writing I and Writing II. Writing I is the typical freshmen writing class that has been around for decades and similar to offerings on other campuses around the United States. Writing II is a different animal entirely. It is rather like the platypus in that no one really knows what it is. Is it a bird or a reptile or a mammal? I plagued my co-workers when I started at MSU to help me identify the species of Writing II but much like the blind men describing the elephant I could not get the big picture based on their individual responses. During my decade at this institution, the course has gone through two revisions and yet we still grapple with it. The other day I had a conversation with a new hire that echoed my own struggle to come to terms with the class more than 10 years ago. And much like colleagues then (and now) all I can do is share my own interpretation of the class and wish him the best of luck.

The most current version, born of frustration, is a compromise and no one is entirely happy with it. The concept itself is OK in that we explore humanity’s “big ideas” through reading and writing, but the actual execution is somewhat lacking. While some instructors are offering some interesting versions and some students are doing some interesting work within the framework, the hallway conversations frequently confess that overall the class is not accomplishing its primary goal (improving student writing). Worse, faculty and student engagement in the class is low. Many instructors dread teaching it and students dread taking it.

However, this week after engaging in an animated discussion about my current obsession with The WalkingDead (shared by many of my friends and family and millions of others), I had a bit of a brainstorm. What if I could have my students explore those “big ideas” not just as they are found in these important cultural readings (mostly by long dead people who are not going to reanimate) but also as they are explored in popular culture – specifically comic books. Now, I am not a comic book scholar but as the mother of an 11-year-old boy I have spent quite a bit of time in recent years becoming conversant in comic book heroes and viewing my share of comic book heroes brought to life (via the magic of movies not a zombie virus). After all, our comic book heroes (and villains) are grappling with the same issues that drive the philosophers we are studying in our reader – good vs. evil, the needs of the individual vs. society, and defining/defending humanity (literally and figuratively), and so on.

I think this class can be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to get started. I am sure there are many of you out there who have are already doing something similar (in fact I can name some friends that I’m almost sure are doing so). Probably that is where my idea came from after percolating in my brain. I hope you’ll share your thoughts and suggestions with me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Measuring growth and change in our Writing Studio

This semester our National Writing Project site, the Morehead Writing Project, embarked on a new adventure. We created a Writing Studio by drafting five English Education students to serve as Peer Writers, or writing tutors, and provided support in the form of a learning community. In our pilot semester we worked with three developmental writing classes. At our institution students who score between 14 and 17 on the ACT are placed in these classes. Morehead State University offered 14 sections of this class during the Fall semester so we worked with just over 20% of the developmental writing students enrolled in English 099.

While we will not be able to determine the impact of our pilot program on retention and success until the semester is over, I am giddy about the results we have already determined. I know for the powers-that-be the ultimate success will be judged by how many students stay in school to complete a degree, but we expect to see that our three sections will have higher retention for the semester as well as a higher degree of success (earning a C or better) than other sections both for this semester and historically. How much higher we cannot know until December, but the results of a recent survey administered to the developmental students working with the Writing Studio demonstrates to me that we have had an impact in important ways.


Many developmental writing students come into the class with a negative attitude – toward writing in general, their writing in specific, and the very idea of taking this writing class. They do not want to take this class and resist the idea that they can learn to be a better writer based on their previous experience. They also come in lacking confidence in their ability to write. This trifecta of doom – a negative attitude toward writing, low confidence, and lack of ability – creates a cycle of failure that can prevent students from achieving success in college and their profession. Our goal for the Writing Studio is to break that cycle of failure.

We think we have succeeded with a number of our students as 63% of the students in our pilot study reported a change in one or more areas of attitude, confidence, or competence and another 16% reported a small change in one or more areas. We are so excited to see the students’ self-awareness increase and even more important to see that they have grown as a result of our work together. We think this is a very big deal because we know as experienced developmental writing teachers that attitude has to change before anything else can change. If students don’t believe in their own ability to change then they won’t change their behaviors or thinking. However, discovering how they have grown is even more exciting for us.

According to our survey results, 55% percent of the students reported that they now like or love writing and another 39% indicated they neither like nor dislike it. Overall, 94% do not dislike writing after working with the Writing Studio for 10 weeks. It is human nature to spend less time on an activity that you dislike and so this change in attitude will play an important role in the students’ future success. We doubt that we can make every student love writing, but believe this move away from the hate and dislike of writing is important.

Low confidence is widespread in developmental writing. Most students were apprehensive during their middle and high school careers and then placement into a developmental writing class only confirmed their existing belief. However, at the end of the Writing Studio, 37% of our students reported that they were confident about their writing ability and 44% reported that they were neither confident nor apprehensive with a total of 81% indicating that they were not apprehensive about writing. Over and over again, students noted on their surveys that they were “more confident” than at the beginning of the class. Studies have shown that students with high writing apprehension are less likely to spend much time writing and persevere through difficult writing assignments, so improving student writing confidence can also be important to their future success.

Previous experience has taught these students that they are not good writers, but they also reported that this changed as a result of their participation in the Writing Studio. When asked to rate their ability to “write a well-organized and sequenced paper with good introduction, body, and conclusion,” 37% believed they could write a good or great paper and another 53% indicated that they could do OK which indicates that 91% of the students could demonstrate competence. Our hope is that we have given these students tools that will help them continue to develop their competence as well as confidence.


We have seen evidence of many changes in behavior and thinking that indicate our students are becoming writers and developing an understanding of how writers think and act. Perhaps most telling is the simple fact that they named  extra feedback as the number one benefit of the Writing Studio. Students reported enjoying the small group work and peer feedback as well as feedback they received from the instructor and peer writers. Several students indicated that this feedback was key to their growth as writers and that writers need feedback to learn and improve.

Every studio participant who completed a survey said that we should continue the program. Many simply argued that it was helpful, but those who offered more specific explanations described the small groups and opportunity for one-on-one feedback and support as key benefits.

We need to wait until the end of the semester before we determine how many of our students succeeded this semester using the simple measuring stick of grades, but for now I am more than satisfied with the results of our work. The students who worked with our Writing Studio have described changes in their attitude toward writing, their writing confidence, and their writing ability. That is success in my book. Only time will tell if we have truly broken the cycle of defeat that has plagued so many of these students in the past, but I am full of hope.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why doesn’t the teaching of writing matter?

Or, How I would fix education if I had any power

I spent Saturday celebrating the very essence of the National Writing Project at the Morehead Writing Project’s 2012 Writing Eastern Kentucky Conference. The NWP mission is to foster the teaching of writing and central to that mission is the belief that teachers who write are better writing teachers. Our annual conference revels in both ideas: Teacher as Writer and Teacher as Reflective Practitioner. Also, in true NWP fashion, we bring together educators from K-16 in a variety of content areas and roles. We cross boundaries and make connections in ways that celebrate and facilitate learning – our own learning as well as for our students. Words cannot express how proud I am of the teachers I work with from the Peer Writers who run our Writing Studio to the 2012 Summer Institute Fellows to the Morehead State University faculty who led sessions and participated in every sense of the word. It was an amazing day filled with wonderful words and people.

But now that my feet have recovered (mostly) from running up and down three flights of stairs many times every hour and my Saturday buzz has faded, I have to wonder. Why don’t more educators get involved in the writing project? Why don’t more educators attend writing project events? Why don’t educators want to be better teachers of writers?

Don’t give me the “too busy” excuse. We are all busy. Every one of the educators at our conference on Saturday is too busy. We make time for the things that matter. I suppose that makes the real question – why doesn’t the teaching of writing matter? We all know it does. We know that writing (and the interconnected ideas of reading and thinking) is the most important subject we teach. Without writing (and reading and thinking) our students will not be able to demonstrate what they have learned (filling in bubbles does not demonstrate learning) or effectively communicate in school, on the job, or in the world. Writing can and does change the world every day and if we do not adequately prepare our students to be effective writers then we have damaged, if not destroyed, not only their future but our own.

Sure our leaders pay lip service to the idea that writing is important. Surveys of government, corporate, and education leadership always give writing top billing and yet…  One of my colleagues recently pointed out a fact that I had heard before but hadn’t really understood. If you want to know what is important just follow the money. In K-12 we see the emphasis given to on-demand writing (short essays). Our writing project site receives a continual stream of requests for quick fix professional development sessions on this topic. We never receive requests for help transforming their students into writers. K-12 teachers with writing project training often find it an uphill battle to implement writing workshop and assign writing that does not have a direct correlation to test preparation even though research shows that the students of writing project participants show more writing gains.

And do not even get me started regarding the financial support for my beloved National Writing Project. For 20 years we were a national program with bipartisan support but that all changed in 2011 when we lost our direct federal funding. Here in Kentucky we are fortunate because we continue to receive support from the Kentucky Department of Education but in recent years even that funding has shrunk by 1/3.

In higher education, there is lip service again to the importance of writing. Most campuses require some introductory writing classes and many also emphasize writing across the curriculum or writing-intensive classes as well. Yet, the actual administrative support for the teaching of writing is minimal. The majority of introductory writing classes, or first-year writing, are taught by ill-paid adjunct faculty and graduate students with no job security and often no benefits. Similarly, these programs and their support systems, such as writing centers, are often administered by faculty living on the edge (in terms of respect, remuneration, recognition, tenure, etc.).

In the end, despite the wonderful afterglow of our amazing conference, I continue to despair regarding the future of education and especially the teaching of writing – in Eastern Kentucky and in the United States. We need to put our money and our time on the line if we really want to make our students and teachers into writers.

Wonder what our conference looked like? Check out the 2012 Writing Eastern Kentucky Conference on Storify. Wonder what topics we covered? Check out our conference schedule. Not only did our sessions cover a wide variety of topics specifically designed to support the teaching of writing, but we also featured sessions to help writers and brought in four guest writers to further promote writing including R.D. Hall, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Annie Jones, and George Eklund.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Make Time To Refresh and Refill

I wasn’t going to blog this week. It is a perfect storm of professional and personal responsibilities. I have an article revision due, a conference to host on Saturday, a slew of student assignments to grade, and it is Halloween. But, if I am honest, every week is filled with similar if different challenges. If I wait until I have the time to blog then I never would and this is true for other choices I make as well.

The Morehead Writing Project is hosting a conference on Saturday (Nov. 3). Writing Eastern Kentucky is a small regional conference but we bring together the best of the writing project for one pretty terrific day. We will celebrate writing and writers by bringing in published authors of poetry, novels, and graphic narratives and we celebrate teaching and teachers by showcasing some of our rock star teacher-leaders and their outstanding classroom practice.

It is going to be a great day full of writing and learning and connecting with ideas and people and it is the perfect antidote to the mid-semester blues. I am hopeful it will give me the energy and excitement I need to power through the rest of the semester and the marathon of grading and feedback that is finals week. I love teaching and working with teachers, but sometimes I get caught up in the daily grind and feel more than a little overwhelmed by the size of my “To Do” list. No matter how much you love your job it is easy to lose the joy when the grading piles up and your email box overflows. It is too easy then to cross nonessential items off your list. That grading has to get done but attending a conference is a luxury we simply can’t afford, we think. How can we spend half our weekend just writing and hanging out with other teachers when we have lessons and lectures to plan?

Now that’s where we are wrong. Spending a day celebrating the work that we love with others who get “it” is not a luxury – especially when the job gets demanding. That is the best time to step off the treadmill to refresh and refill your teaching spirit. As a rule, teachers are givers and rarely feel comfortable taking time for themselves, but if you do not take time to refill your spirit and your energy and your creativity then you might find the well has gone dry. Taking time to refresh and refill yourself as a teacher, as a writer, as a person, is never a waste of time and your students and colleagues will be the better for your renewal as well.

Remember, just like anything else, if you do not make the time to refresh and renew then you will never find it. If you are within driving distance of Eastern Kentucky on Saturday then we hope you choose to join us at Writing Eastern Kentucky. Don’t even worry about finding your writing journal, we’ll provide one for you! Come write with us and come learn with us. You will be the better for it. I promise.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Workshop and the rule of Garbage In, Garbage Out

A letter to my students: 

How can you benefit from our writing workshop?

I know most of you would rather visit the dentist than participate in writing workshop. I understand that you have had painful and often time-wasting experiences with peer review in the past and I cannot promise this won’t be equally awful or worse in different ways. In fact, if you let those past experiences drive the way you participate in this workshop then I can actually promise you this workshop will be awful and useless. That is because the benefits of writing workshop participation are based entirely on one simple rule -- garbage in, garbage out. I am not talking about your actual writing here, but rather the effort and time and energy you put into asking for help and offering it others.

Writers are people too

This is one of the reasons I spent so much time and effort on building community at the beginning of our class. The better you know the others in your writing group then the easier it is to ask for and offer help. It is never an easy thing to share a part of yourself with strangers so try to get to know your classmates and understand the talents and knowledge and skills as well as unique challenges they bring to the group. Also remember, that as humans we are inclined to be lazy. By default we will want to expend the least amount of time and energy possible. Call each other out on this when you spot it. Don’t just let unexplained comments and criticisms hang in the ether. Push for explanations and more details. Question!

Give us some direction

As you know, one of my biggest pet peeves is the plaintive cry for help without asking for anything specific. Simply posting your writing to the workshop and asking for help to make it better does not put us in a position to help you. Help us help you by telling us: What are you still struggling with the most? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this piece of writing?  What do you want to know from a reader? This is your chance to get individually-tailored advice to improve your writing – grab it with both hands.

Provide an audience not a proofreader

Perhaps the biggest mistake that many people make during workshop is approaching peer review as a writer. This is especially fatal if you lack confidence in your own writing ability. Your job here is to provide an audience for your fellow writers and give your honest feedback. Whenever you get lost or confused; whenever you are jarred by the text by the writing, ideas, or presentation; and especially whenever you are interested and pleased by the message and/or writing make a note on the text. After your initial reading, provide a gut reaction to the piece on an emotional and intellectual level then provide more detailed explanations regarding the notes you marked throughout the piece. Finally, go back through and offer as much advice and support as possible to offer solutions to the problems and challenges you identify.

I believe strongly in the power of writing workshop. You can learn from real readers and you can learn by being a real reader, but you have to come fully suited up and ready to play. You have to get in the game before you can score. You have to get a little sweaty and play through the pain and discomfort. Do you want to be a better writer? Then do writing workshop like you mean it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Scared and Scarred No More

Last week I made the argument in “Breaking the Cycle of Defeat” that we need to spend more time in our classrooms attending to the self-beliefs of our students as well as the specific writing lessons we want/need to impart. I contended that if we want to break the cycle of despair and defeat then we must help our students become confident writers so they take more from our classes than scar tissue and a lifelong aversion to writing. This week I want to address the ways that we can help those scared and scarred students become writers. 

We must begin by making our classrooms a safe place to try and to fail. If students are given the chance to participate in low-stakes writing that is offered an audience but not assessment then they are more likely to write – both more often and at greater length. In addition, they will be more willing to experiment and take risks with their writing once they learn that the writing will be not be assessed. Examples of the types of low-stakes writing assignments I use in my own classes include brainstorming activities, reflection journals, and discussion board posts. These writings are shared with the class and receive comments which are focused on the content and not the form of the message.

Writers also need to read. They need to read to inspire and spark new ideas as well as to find models and mentors. Student writers should definitely read professional, polished writing, but they should also read the work of peers – especially pieces not yet polished and still in process. Even better, developing writers should see the early drafts and unpolished pieces of their mentors and teachers. Too often, struggling writers believe they are the only writers who struggle – and worse, they believe that good writing arrives fully formed and polished to other writers. They do not understand the time and work that goes into writing – and telling them is not enough. They need to see it happen and they need to experience it. They need to be led through the process before they will attempt it on their own. In my classes I use writing workshop to guide students through this process. We brainstorm and plan writing together, students share writing in various stages so everyone can see their process and progress, and then we revise and edit their writing together.

However, the most crucial aspect of writing workshop is feedback. Students should receive various types and levels of feedback from a variety of sources. Most important, that feedback should be focused on providing useful, supportive information – not simply negative assessment. During workshop, the idea is to provide feedback to help develop and shape a piece of writing. In addition, student writers should provide feedback to others. Engaging in discussions of writing as writers and with other writers can not only help student writers improve the specific piece they bring to the workshop, but also teach them how writers work and collaborate. My hope is that providing this type of guided feedback will help them learn and grow as writers as well as develop their own writing process which will support that continued growth and development long after they leave my class.

While I hope these steps will help my students become less scared and more hopeful about their progress as writers, I also like to have conversations about the struggles and fears that all writers face no matter how much writing success they may have achieved. In this way, our writing workshop offers support for the improvement of the writer as well as the writing. I understand well, as a result of my own research focused on writing apprehension and writing self-efficacy, how the past can so dominate a writer emotionally that there are actual physical manifestations of that fear. How can we expect a struggling writer to work through something that causes physical and emotional stress without addressing it? That is why we need to have real conversations and share real stories – our own as well as those of our students plus a judicious sprinkling of the stories of more famous writers. I cannot promise that working through these four steps will erase the scars that our student writers bear, but I know thanks to my own research as well as that of Albert Bandura and others that we can reduce writing apprehension and increase writing confidence by attending more closely to our students self-beliefs.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Breaking the cycle of defeat: Transforming students into writers

I teach writing for a living and I direct a National Writing Project site which means I work with both pre-service teachers and practicing teachers to improve their writing pedagogy. As a result I reflect and study a great deal of research and theory concerning the teaching of writing.

But what does it mean to teach writing or, as I like to think of it, to teach writers? Pat Schneider defines a writer as someone who writes and I won’t argue with that definition. I typically begin my semester with a discussion about what it means to be a writer and this is ultimately where we end up. However, even though they accept this definition, many of my students do not really believe they are writers even though they write. How do we make our students believe they are writers or can be? I know most of my students come to me believing that they are not writers and they cannot become writers. Can we change those beliefs? Is it important to change those beliefs?

Schneider describes “not being able to write” as a “learned disability” which is the result of “scar tissue” or a lack of confidence developed in reaction to unhelpful responses to your writing in school and at home. This rings true with the stories that my students tell about their previous experiences with writing. These students have been told through verbal and written comments as well as grades that they are not writers. It seems quite natural to me that they would take that feedback one step further to believe that they cannot become writers. Why does this matter?

Research shows that students with high writing apprehension or the scar tissue that Schneider describes are much less likely to engage in writing activities, are much more likely to give up when faced with writing challenges, and simply do not work at writing and learning to write to the same degree as their more confident peers. Blythe et al argue that for many at-risk students writing failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as students do not work as hard because they already believe they are doomed to failure. It is also possible that this sense of doom and failure has much broader impact as well. Patrick Sullivan writes “Is it possible that the most lasting and significant learning outcome many students take away from English classes is a lifelong aversion to writing?” He argues that at least part of our national education challenges, namely our “college readiness crisis” and “remediation problem,” stem directly from this aversion.

Sullivan’s argument struck a chord that reverberated to the core of my teacher soul and resonates strongly with my own belief that we focus too much on forms and failures in our writing classrooms. I am not arguing that grammar, spelling, punctuation, and proper format are not important – they are – but too many teachers and hence too many students see these as the only measures of good writing. It is possible to master these skills but only through practice – which those scarred and scared students will not even attempt unless we can find a way to break the cycle of defeat.

Among the arguments that Blythe et al make about teaching writing is that more writing instruction is not always the answer for these students – at least not until we have addressed their low self-efficacy. If we do not attend to their self-beliefs and break that cycle of defeat then writing instruction will likely be for naught. White and Bruning posit that without considering beliefs, teachers may view dimensions of writing quality too simply. The authors argue that explicitly addressing beliefs improves opportunities for students who may not have been taught adequate writing skills and lack positive beliefs to support their positive engagement in the writing process. We must spend more time in our classrooms attending to the self-beliefs of our students as well as attending to specific writing lessons if we want to break the cycle of despair and defeat. We must help our students become confident writers or it may well be that the only things they take away from our writing classes are scar tissue and a lifelong aversion to writing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Are you spending enough time thinking about writing?

My students don’t spend enough time thinking about writing – and probably yours don’t either. I understand why. After all, they have lots of other things on their mind. And to be honest, I sometimes don’t think about writing as much as I should and this is my field of interest, my passion, and the driving force behind my paycheck.

As a writer who spends a lot of time with other writers, I also know that too much thinking about writing can be a bad thing – a dangerous thing. It often leads to the two primary dangers facing writers (well the two leading dangers after avoiding the siren call of Words With Friends) -- spending so much time thinking about what to write or how to write it you actually forget to write. Either rabbit hole can lead to madness and put an immediate end to productivity.

 The truth is that for most of our students too much thinking is not a problem. I want to blame our current education system for this lack of thinking. After all, our obsession with assessment and interminable pushing to teach to the test has created a monstrous education system which offers very little time for simple thinking and reflection. Even worse, there are only penalties and no rewards for encouraging thought and inquiry in the typical K-12 setting. But that is another blog post. I must confess that even though I grew up in a kinder, gentler era of education where there was time and energy devoted to reading, writing, and creativity, and my teachers were not worried about how test scores would impact their job, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about the art and craft of writing. And I KNEW that I wanted to be a writer, so I can only imagine that my classmates spent even less time on it.

I believe that this is a problem, this lack of thinking about writing, we should worry about as writing teachers. Many of my peers want to spend a great deal of time obsessing about the two dangers I mentioned above – the what and the how of writing. In fact, that is what my students obsess about the most as well (hmmm, perhaps there is a relationship there). We spend meetings debating whether to assign a persuasive essay or an analytical essay and, of course, students’ punctuation choices often provoke hilarity, but is that where we should be spending our time and our students’ time?

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of grammatical knowledge or genre awareness, but I believe we will not solve the challenges of either without helping our student writers develop a deeper awareness of writing. Writing is not WHAT we write and it is much more than following formatting, grammar, and spelling rules. We need to help our students think like writers before they can become writers. This concern is one of the primary motivations behind the “writing about writing” movement in composition studies. In WAW-based classes, students read theory and research about writing studies, think and discuss their reading, and then write about these ideas as well as study writing on their own.

While I have moved my own teaching away from a WAW-focus, I still focus a great deal of class time and energy on reflection and discussion about writing because I believe that writers do obsess about what and how as well as why. Writers write but they also think about writing -- and, in particular, they think about their writing. I want my students to become writers and I believe an essential part of that transformation must involve learning to think like a writer which means we must think about writing and how writers think and behave. I do this by leading weekly class discussions on these issues and requiring students spend reflective time each week on these issues as well. Not only do I hope to use these tools to transform my students into writers, but this process also helps me spend more time thinking about writing. Win-Win. Do you spend enough time thinking about writing? Do you spend enough time encouraging your students to think about writing?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Community building with Google+ and Twitter

I have always worked to build community in my writing classes. I believe that community helps improve learning in general, but it is essential when working with writers (see Writing Networks or Creating a Community of Writers).  However, as I teach online, building community in my writing classes is often fraught with challenges. As we are not physically together we do not gain all the typical visual clues that help us get to know each other. As we do not gather on a specific schedule there is not the usual casual chatter during breaks about weekend activities or physical well-being. I try to combat these problems with a two-pronged approach.

I begin the semester with activities designed to help us get to know each other. Specifically, I use six-word memoirs and Me Museums. These activities help us get to know each a little better as well as help me provide more targeted support and direction for future assignments and projects as I now know something about my students’ program of study and interests. In addition, I have tried to provide a channel for the sort of informal conversation you have in a typical class where conversations take place before and after class as well as during breaks or group activities. For several semesters, that back channel was Twitter (see Tweeting the Semester Away). However, this semester I decided to teach using Google docs as my primary content management system and I didn’t want to overwhelm my students by using too many new tools, so I opted to use Google+ instead of Twitter.

I have grown to love using Twitter personally and as a teaching tool. I have my Twitter feed running in the background much of the day so I can drop in on conversations whenever I need a break or get a little lonely (teaching online is sometimes lonely, my dog Max is an awesome listener but not much of a conversationalist). In addition, Twitter allows me to connect my conversations with those of others around the world through the use of hashtags. Much of my daily professional reading comes to me via Twitter. As a teaching tool, I also find Twitter useful. Not just for creating community but I believe the limited character count also makes students think more about their word choice and the open channel requires them to think more about their message than they might in a closed forum. I also think connecting their writing to a larger community gives them an authentic audience for their writing.

Of course, there are disadvantages to Twitter as a teaching tool. Some students are resistant and only go through the motions to meet the assignment criteria and never really engage. I have tried any number of combinations (hashtags, separate accounts, lists, etc.) to separate my personal/professional Twitter account from my student account but there always tends to be a messy overlap. Of course, it has made me be much more deliberate about the things I Tweet which is not a bad thing but still a bit messy personally. Of course, an advantage of this is that I have stayed connected with some students long after a class is over. It is also a challenge to monitor participation and some students like to set privacy settings which hinder the collaboration and communication I intend. However, I still believe the advantages of using Twitter in the classroom outweigh the disadvantages and I continue to be an advocate.

The switch to Google+ was not as easy as I expected it to be. I was experienced with using social media in the classroom and they already had Google accounts so how hard could it be? I was so naïve… Well, for those new users (and that was the majority) it was confusing to use both Google docs and Google+ and they didn’t always understand the difference between the two. And of course, using Google chat for individual conversations with me (while handy) sometimes added another layer of complications (just how many channels are there?). Simply navigating between Gmail to Docs to Google+ was just confusing to some students. In the future I will need to break this into separate steps – introducing each tool separately with more scaffolding and clear separation about the ways we will use each. Of course, there was always a learning curve with Twitter as well and I do not think learning Google+ was any more of challenge just perhaps a tad more complicated.

I like the use of Circles to clearly group my classes and I prefer that to the Twitter options of lists or separate accounts. It is easy to send a message directly to one or two groups rather than my entire audience and I have not had a problem with interlopers or hijackers like I have had with Twitter. It is also nice to have the ability to easily share photos and links. You can do this with Twitter but the limited character count often restricts the message you want to send with the link and it requires an extra step to view the photo. Personally, because I have always tended to use Google+ for professional purposes rather than personal (plus the use of Circles), it seems as if there is less messy overlap between my personal and teaching lives on Google+. Of course, it could also be that I’ve learned from my Twitter experiences and am more comfortable with it now.

However, I am still not entirely happy about the switch from Twitter to Google+. It does not appear that students are as active on Google+ as they were on Twitter. This might be my fault as I am not as active on Google+ as I am on Twitter so I am not modeling/prompting enough. I post much more frequently to Twitter than I do on Google+ so that could be the simple answer. Maybe it is not too late to jumpstart more Google+ activity now that I have identified one problem area. I also think I need to be more deliberate about how I use Google+ in supporting our coursework as well as our community. I think there are more opportunities to engage in discussion and the exchange of ideas using Google+ than on Twitter. There is a definite learning curve for me as well as my students. I have to remind myself that my use of Twitter as a teaching tool evolved over several semesters and this is only my first attempt with Google+. As I remind my students, I am learning too and that is clear as I struggle with using a new tool (for teaching).

I know many others who teach with Twitter but would love to learn more about the ways folks are using Google+ as a teaching tool! I plan to continue using Google+ in the Spring semester and hope I can learn from both my mistakes this semester and others in order to make it a better experience.