Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Friday, January 20, 2012

My Child will be Left Behind

My son was both pleased and proud when we found out that he was one of the select few fourth graders at his elementary school to be enrolled in both advanced reading and math classes. My husband and I were as well. We were proud that his hard work (and our nagging attention to homework) had paid off, but it was more important to us that he would be challenged to learn and grow in these classes. The classes came at a great time for Noah as a student. He had always enjoyed school but was just starting to get a bit bored with it and there were times in third grade when he got in trouble for talking or goofing around because he was done with his work ahead of most of his classmates. He loved his new classes and teachers and we were pleased that the lessons focused on exploring advanced material as well as taking a more in-depth look at reading and content. He didn’t achieve straight As but he was learning and working hard while engaged in challenging projects and lessons so we were happy.

Following Christmas break, Noah came home from school with the news that the advanced classes would be cancelled and he (and the other advanced students) would now spend the day taking classes with his fifth-grade classmates. Now, for the first time in his school career, Noah doesn’t want to go to school. He is bored and often left with nothing to do but read or draw because he is done with his work or they are covering material he has already completed. If his attitude has deteriorated so quickly in just two weeks I dread the remainder of the school year.

I was very proud of my son’s initial reaction to the situation. He wrote an email to his principal protesting the policy and met with the principal to discuss the situation. Not many 10 year old kids would stand up for themselves and their education like that. I only wish his first official protest had ended on a more positive note.

Now Tod and I are left with more questions than answers. What can we do to make sure our kid is challenged and engaged in school? What can we do to foster and encourage his love of learning? This is a kid who regularly asks me questions about history and current events then carries on an intelligent conversation with interesting opinions about those events. This is a kid who taught himself to write HTML code over Christmas break and keeps a journal and started his own production company with a friend to create videos and games.

I don’t want my son to hate school and not just because it makes my life a lot more difficult. I want him to love learning as much I do because I believe very strongly that curiosity and quest for knowledge are keys to success in life. I don’t want him to see school as some sort of purgatory where he is simply serving time.

As an educator I have been increasingly distraught by the direction that U.S. schools have taken. I cannot believe how many hours of my child’s education have already been spent preparing and taking standardized tests to the detriment of real learning and engagement. I continue to be appalled at the many ways that administrators and politicians undermine the ability of classroom teachers to teach and meet the needs of their students. Until this most recent incident I was able to take comfort from the many wonderful teachers who were able to work around, through, and under the system to engage their students in the fun and thrill of learning, but now, as a parent, I fear that my son has learned the ultimate lesson of his education and that my child will be left behind.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Setting my class agenda

I am teaching two very different writing classes this semester and I am excited about my plans but a bit worried about juggling the two without dropping balls (combined with the flaming swords and sharp knives I am already juggling as part of my administrative duties for the National Writing Project). I am teaching first-year writing (aka Writing I or Eng 100 at my institution) and professional writing (which is a 300-level class).

I have two primary goals for my first-year writing students. I first and foremost want them to develop as reflective and self-regulating writers but I also hope to increase their understanding community and collaboration. I think focusing on those two aspects of writing development will set a strong foundation for their continued growth and development.

Our first week of classes (which officially begin tomorrow) will include elements of both. I will continue to use Twitter to help us develop classroom community which includes individual and class Twitter feeds, introducing ourselves via Twitter, and socializing via TwitterIn addition, I’m asking students to keep a journal to record their reflections on weekly topics, discuss those topics as a class, and Tweet about those topics as well.

Our first weekly reflection and discussion topic will focus on writers. I posted a prompt on the class blog that included the National Conversation on Writing’s video “Everyone’s a writer” and some interviews with students about how they define themselves as writers.

My goals for my professional writing students are more sophisticated versions of those for Eng 100 (at least I’m consistent). I also want my professional writing students to develop as reflective and self-regulating writers, but our focus in this class will be on discourse community, audience, and genre.

I am also using Twitter for this class and they have the same initial Twitter assignments and, in fact, will engage in similarly-structured reflective assignment that includes a cycle of reflective journal posts, class discussion, and Twitter posts.

Our first weekly reflection and discussion topic for professional writing will explore what we mean when use the term professional writing and what they hope to learn from the class. I share some definitions that others have given and then bring it back to the study of rhetoric sharing with them a personal blog of mine about rhetoric as well as the "In Defense of Rhetoric" video. I then conclude with a selection of Drucker’s “The Age of Social Transformation” about knowledge workers. Hopefully I haven’t set too ambitious of an agenda. I guess I’ll find out this week.

I can’t wait to begin our discussions. Do you think my students are excited, too?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Importance of the Right Teacher

Hello, as your writing teacher for this semester I want you to understand a little about why I teach the way that I teach. Not every student responds to my teaching style and I want you to understand what you are getting yourself into while there is still time to take another class.

I am a big believer that people learn from doing and trying and pursuing their own investigations. I can’t teach you (very much) – but I can help you learn (a great deal). Teaching does not equal learning.

I have spent my professional life writing but I still remember a time when I thought the ability to write well was a gift that some people possessed – and that I did not. I know better now but I still secretly (and sometimes out loud) suspect that everyone else writes better than I do. What saves me from quitting is the knowledge that I know that many people who are better writers – and make their living from writing – feel those same doubts. Maybe that makes me a lesser person but it comforts me nonetheless.

I have learned that the best way to become a better writer is to write, get some feedback (including my own), think about what I’ve written and that feedback, then write some more. I have learned this the hard way in newsrooms and slaving away at magazine articles and novels and I am still grateful to the many writing groups who helped me improve my craft.

Each of these beliefs shapes the kind of teacher that I am and the way that I teach. What does this mean for you?

Believing that people learn by doing means that while I will deliberately present you with learning challenges in an effort to drive your learning experience, I will not give you an instruction manual, recipe, or formula. Rarely is there one magical perfect way to do something so why would I make you learn that way? I’d much rather you work out the best way for you. This is difficult for many students – especially those who want a recipe for getting an A. Another important aspect of this belief is that I rarely answer a question right off the bat. I’ll meet you halfway, but I expect you to give as well as receive. This means that I don’t want to hear that you are confused. I want to hear what you do understand and at what point you got confused as well as what you think/guess. I will never penalize you for thinking, but I do get frustrated when you don’t think and sometimes when I’m tired and cranky that frustration shows.

I never believed I could be a writer. I totally get the fear of writing that many of you possess and the bone-deep knowledge that you will never ever be a writer because writing is easy for other people. Let me clue you in. Writing is hard – for everyone. There are days when I wish I could be back hauling kegs of beer and boxes of chicken parts because that work would be easier and grease burns less painful than banging my head on my desk. Yes, there are days when my writing goes well but that is not because I have a gift or talent (or secret formula), but because I have a lot of experience and practice. I know how to prime the pump to get the words flowing and I know a number of tricks to help me when the flow stops. There will be a number of writing assignments that don’t result in a grade or have a word count – just an expectation – because I am teaching you some of those tricks so when the time comes to draft a paper it won’t be as painful as it has been in the past. This is not meaningless make-work but it might feel like it at the time.

Finally, I’m going to ask you to engage in a level of thinking about your writing that you have likely never engaged in before. This is not simply giving the writing process a wink and a nod. This is not going through the motions of peer review. This is honest reflection about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what you need to do to become a better writer. The key here is not what you need to do to earn an A or whatever goal you have set for yourself, but what will make you a better writer. Grades come and go but improving yourself is forever and that is my goal.

Ultimately, you have to decide if you want to really learn how to be a better writer and start working on that goal or if you would rather take a safer and more straight-forward writing class.