Metawriting posts from the new blog location

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 na├»ve… 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.