Monday, April 19, 2010

Hidden Gems and the LA Review

 "An inclusive, collaborative approach to developing a planned writing curriculum is of prime importance".  I wholeheartedly agree with this statement from the Engel and Streich article.  I was also impressed that each teacher was involved in creating the curriculum and was therefore in support of the new curriculum (though some were hesitant at first).  I loved the idea that each teacher brought his/her favorite writing activity to the group who then decided which genre it fit best with and then created mini-lessons and found accompanying literature.    

 This article made me think of 2 things: 1) the amount of creativity hidden in our district and 2) the upcoming language arts review.  I sometimes get frustrated that there are so many hidden gems in our district – actually so many hidden in my very school!  One of the fun parts about teaching is the ability to tweak lessons so both my students and I find them interesting and motivating.  I have particular lessons that I have put more energy into crafting.  Can you image how wonderful my 4th grade classroom would be if I not only had my favorite lessons but if I also had those lessons from each 4th grade teacher in the district!?!  
We are also approaching a language arts review.  I hope that our review committee does not turn into a group of “star teachers” (who are excited about making improvements) that makes changes that others have a hard time supporting.  I’m not sure exactly what the plan for this review is but I would love to see a collaborative and inclusive approach.   To help strengthen our writing instruction we ALL need to share our ideas, be flexible but also be held accountable.  I look forward to helping in the LA review!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Not assessment, but a most interesting observation

This morning I was in the 1/2 day Kindergarten for Writer's Workshop. The students had been writing little three page booklets for several weeks (one day a week). The teacher had encouraged their own ideas, invented spelling, and the other supports for initial writers. Today's lesson was on revision.

Revision! for Kindergarteners? The teacher modeled rereading her pieces and choosing one to make better--ready to publish. The topic was going outside to see the class tree in spring, which they had done on Tuesday. The first page example was one where she had omitted a pronoun--I or we in her sentence. The students read the sample on the smartboard and told her what was missing. They also had discussion as to whether it should be I or we; she showed that her picture had several stick figures, so agreed that we was the better choice. They also recognized that the sentence needed a period. The second page was "I saw stuf." What did we see? she asked. The picture showed ground and a bare-limbed tree. The children suggested a flower and leaves on the tree and a bird. She added both the picture and the words. Wow! Was I impressed!

Then I saw the children take out their folders, read through their own pieces, and begin to work. I was working with one of my ELL students trying to get oral language (he doesn't have sound/symbol correspondence yet). I prompted, tell me more, which he did. He doesn't have letter sounds yet, but even he tried to do more and revise.

This lesson gave me a little hope that the writing process is not dead or discarded.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Assigned Topic vs Choice

I have always struggled with whether or not to assign the writing topic to my fourth graders. It seems fairly obvious that to get students motivated you have to let them write about what interests them. Dohrer, in his article “Do teachers’ comments on students’ papers help?”, agrees saying “assigned papers seemed to provide a way for students to demonstrate command of class content rather than to communicate their own ideas”. Dohrer also explains that the motivation to revise a paper is “rooted in the child’s voice, the urge to express”. To have this urge, this motivation students need to care about what they are writing.

This makes sense and is why I have offered students time during “free writing” to write about what they choose. I have however also assigned the writing topic. I have done this so I am able to tailor my mini lessons to be more useful to the entire class. I also create/use mini lessons once I see what the students are writing and where they need help.

My problem is, I find it easier to help more students when they are writing similar genres. When the genres are spread out it seems hard to find common themes for mini lessons and I find myself trying to teach each individual student a different lesson. While this works great with “individualized learning” (which the district urges us to do) it is hard to find the time to teach 26 different writing lessons each week!

I would love to hear how others find common mini lessons while still offering choice to their students.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How many errors are too many?

Ferris’ article “Preparing teachers to respond to student writing” deepened my thinking about commenting on student papers, especially through the lens of second language (L2) learning. In an L2 world, errors in syntax, grammar and spelling are sometimes so numerous that they interfere with the writer’s message. As teachers, we want to “fix” the writing, we want the message to be clear and we struggle with what to comment on, how much to correct, etc. When we “fix” the glaring mistakes of L2 learners, we often fail to see the devastating impact on the writer. This is also true of native English-speaking writers in the pre K-primary grades.

In my writing methods’ course many years ago, we shared the example of a 3 year-old who wrote long stories and letters to her Grandma, which only she could read (and which varied each time she read her text). Her stories were full of details and plot twists. When you looked at her writing, you realized that this little girl knew about lines, reading from left to right and top to bottom, and she even had some consonant sounds. Then she started Kindergarten. And after several weeks of waiting anxiously for a new story, Grandma finally received a story. In perfect handwriting and spelling it simply read “The cat is black.” Another writer smothered.

Ferris talks about the need to convince teachers that their job is NOT to produce the “ideal text.” Rather, our work should focus on “each student’s progress and increasing awareness of and skill in using various strategies to compose, revise, and edit their own work (p. 167).” She goes on to explain that giving “thoughtful feedback tailored to the needs of an individual student and his/her evolving text and writing is a gift, and perhaps the most important thing a writing instructor can do for his/her students (p. 169).” The article features great examples and strategies for commenting on students’ writing, which could be adapted for younger grade level. Throughout the article, Ferris also comments on the opposing forces of content and form but offers a solution in the way of “error conferences.”

This brings me to Kelsey’s post, which triggered so many thoughts that I couldn’t put them all in one comment. Kelsey talked about the dichotomy of expectations between “published" written work—which needs to be completely error free—and writing for the sake of writing—which emphasizes the message and overlooks the errors. This is the dilemma of all second language teachers. I see both sides. In an immersion or second language setting, we want to encourage every baby step students take in writing by emphasizing message over form. We need to reward students’ risk taking, their play with language, their attempt to connect with a reader. Yet at the same time we need to teach and expect students to correct their form and those dreaded fossilized errors. If we don’t hold them to a higher standard of grammatical and spelling accuracy, they could very likely never get there. One look at the writing of many secondary immersion students from any program makes that point all too well.

I haven't read the Bernstein's article that Kelsey referenced but I agree with her point that “programs and teachers need to carefully discuss and agree to common philosophies and expectations for writing assessment and instruction.” If "published" work needs to be free of errors to emphasize correct form, what does "published" work mean? It certainly can't be every final draft. It could mean anything posted publicly on a wall for all to see, as was the case in Kelsey’s example. A compromise could be to leave the work as is and include a disclaimer, in French, that these are exemplars of students’ best writing at this point in the year which show the developmental stages of inventive spelling, etc.

The plot thickens if we consider digital writing. Does every digital piece that sits on the Web have to be held to the perfection standard of so-called “published work?” Or do we hold that standard only for projects that truly reach a very broad audience? For example, if 4th graders create websites about US regions for a worldwide francophone audience, shouldn’t their writing be error free? How do you react when you read a webpage riddled with mistakes? Again a compromise could be to emphasize the use of multimedia storytelling tools that allow students to write digitally without having to correct every little accent mark, verb conjugation, or adjective agreement.

There isn’t any easy answer about content vs. form in L2 writing. My belief is that the vast majority of the time we need to nourish with kindness the hesitant steps of L2 writers, while holding their work to higher standards of accuracy for some key pieces each year. And perhaps we can keep in mind Ferris’ point that the “long-term goal of moving students toward improved writing and increased autonomy in assessing and revising their own work is more important than the short-term aim of ‘fixing’ the particular paper under construction (p. 170).”

Bits and Pieces

Not written feedback, but oral feedback; this is what I kept thinking about as I went through the articles for this week. As I read through Tess and Elizabeth's posts, I wondered about putting myself in their shoes, green pen in hand and having to go through the process of giving written feedback. I have since realized this is a perk (in my eyes) of teaching first graders. I guess what that perk comes down to is time. TIME! Don't we all need more of that?

In the beginning of the Ferris article she discusses what she tells beginning teachers: "I do try to seer trainees toward a selective, prioritized approach to responding rather than attempting to address every problem they see in every student paper" (170). I was then thinking about the book How's It Going (my book study book) and how Anderson also gives us permission to NOT address every problem you see in a paper. Ferris discusses how to be "selective and prioritizing" (170) when giving feedback. Thinking about a few things rather than fixing the whole paper is something I need to keep in mind when I read my first grader's writing with them. They have tried their best and have many grammatical errors along with structural pieces that are not in place. However I need to be sure to focus on one (maybe 2) things for that piece of writing. I can only imagine how they feel if I begin saying, "Well, this doesn't make sense, and you're making progress with punctuation, but..." I can think back to conferences that have been similar to that, but I continue to try and improve and learn!

I also thought the Adger article was interesting simply because I haven't really thought about writing from that angle before. Isn't is interesting, based on where you teach/have taught, how different experiences can be when looking at written work. I think back to a child I had 2 years ago, and his verbiage within his writing: I tried to change it to be "right." Using my schema and experiences, that's what I had to go from. My experiences with vernacular dialects was and still is limited. I loved reading through Elizabeth's post because it really brings this article to "real meaning." I also recalled our conversation in class about standardized tests and who the tests are really written for in connection to page 123 of the Adger article. Here he states, "There is also some possibility of cultural bias in the topics assigned by the test." This really made a connection to what we've discussed, and continues to remind me to look at things differently, rather than the "normal" way.

Bits and pieces...that's what these articles gave me. Bits and pieces of information about dialect, feedback and approach to conferencing in a written way, but also things I can take with me in an oral way. There are things to try and remember. It means I'm still learning!

Supporting the developement of writng in vernacular-speaking students

I found the article by Adger to be very helpful. I have quite a few ELL students in my class this year. I think the list of things that teachers can do to support the writing of these students on page 118 was very practical advice. I find myself doing some of these things and I could definitely include more in my teaching. Exposing students to different models of writing is something that I could include in an upcoming writing assignment on wolf reintroduction.

Million Dollar Answer

When reading the Hyland article, I found myself taking lots of deep breathes and being grateful that I teach primary grades. Who knew that teacher written feedback on student writing could be taken and analyzed in so many ways??!
It was easy for me to relate to many of the experiences of the ESL teachers because, although my students are much younger than the case studies, they are also struggling to "break the code" of writing in the English language. Like Hyland discussed, I find myself struggling to find the best way to give feedback to my developing writers in a way that encourages their growth, is honest, and praises them for what they are trying to do. With most of my writing instruction rotating around Lucy Calkins Writer's Workshop, I find that I focus on giving the students positive feedback (more through discussion than writing) and trying to point out what they are doing as writers, while gently giving them ideas on what they can do make it even better. I found it very interesting when Hyland referenced a study that argued "Writing can be stolen from a writer by the teacher's comments. They suggest that if students follow directive feedback too closely, they may develop neither their cognitive skills nor their writing ailities, but merely rewrite texts to reflect their teachers concerns." Too often when I discuss a piece of writing with one of my second graders, their story turns into a copy of our discussion, rather than a reflection of that child's voice, thoughts and experience.
Another area that I connected with was the idea of finding "the balance between being a realist and being positive." When a child comes to me with a story that they have so proudly been working on for the past few days, wanting me to read it aloud to them, and I have no idea what it says, what am I supposed to do in that situation? Sure, I suggest they read it to me...but what do I do when they can't even read it and seem to have no idea what the entire story was about??! There they sit...many words and letters on a page and neither one of us has a clue what it is about. Sometimes, they can give you a main idea...but what is the best kind-of feedback to give there? The akward uncomfortable seconds pass as I try to think of something positive to say that will not turn them off to writing completely.
So now that we have been/are discussing all these different ways of assessing writing, I am anxious to get the million dollar answer...What is the best way to help writers, of all ages, grow in this craft, while fostering their self-esteem, teaching them what to do with criticism, appreciating who they are, and all the while making sure that I am giving them feedback that they can appreciate, understand and grow from?