Metawriting posts from the new blog location

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.