You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Stupid is as Stupid Does: More on The Common Core

The other night we stumbled upon the movie Forrest Gump.  Man, I forget what a great movie it is on SO many levels.  The scene that really made me pause was when Forrest’s mother, played brilliantly by Sally Fields, is at the local public school and the principal holds up a life –sized graph with 3 sections.  He points out the top section and says this is Above Average, then to the middle section indicating Average (duh!) and then to a point in the Below Average section stating, this is where Forrest lies.  Her response is what I wish all of our responses are to the numbers we use to sum up our youth, our schools, our teachers and beyond.  She looks at the Principal like he has lost his mind when he says Forrest will need to attend a special school where she retorts in her perfect southern accent, “Oh for God’s Sake, It is only 5 silly little points, the boy will be going to school here.”  And that is the end of the scene.  Soon after you see Forrest getting on the big yellow school bus.

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Of course as you watch the embedded history lessons and how Forrest had a hand in so much that we never knew the one line that really sticks out is “Stupid is as stupid does.”

And that is where we are in education right now.  Stupid is as stupid does.  We are so caught up in those graphs and charts and data that we cant even see what is right in front of us.  The more I hear the more stupid it all becomes and I think we need to be more like Mrs. Gump and stop giving these tests and everything that surrounds them so much energy and weight.  Part of the problem is that there are so many stories, myths and misconceptions around the Common Core that nobody even knows what is going on.

See here to read “Ten Colossal Errors of the Common Core Standards:   http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/11/common_core_standards_ten_colo.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

Did you know there are some schools here in New Hampshire who are saying “NO” to the Common Core?  And while they ARE being penalized in terms of funding, losing about $100,000.00 they are looking forward realizing that to implement the tests surrounding the Common Core is going to cost their district over $200,000.00.  Why are we so incredibly short sighted when it comes to these top down mandates.  What are we so afraid of?

I have said it before and I will say it again, if my kids were starting in public school right now I would get them out!  Or in the words of Jenny, “Run Forrest Run!”  Run from the shackles of numbers and testing!  Our kids are being used as lab rats and caught up in a sea of bureaucratic and political snares that have nothing to do with a better education for each.  Our educational system is being bullied into the dregs of privatization where companies can and will dictate what happens in our schools.

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Pearson already is!  Pearson is an enormous conglomeration that has tentacles that reach into more areas of education than you cannot even imagine.  This octopus of a machine has created the tests that children will take that are too hard on many levels. The other day I was sent a link to the Smarter Balance site where I could go in and “take” the test at many different levels.  I chose 3rd grade and went to the LA section.  Immediately, I thought of all of the hundreds of 3rd graders I have worked with and my anxiety level started to rise.  The first question is about a Chinese child, Little Lang, who is learning his or her characters.  I think of those who don’t have the background knowledge that Chinese characters are letters.  This character goes off with his brush…how many 3rd graders “write” with a brush?  And it just goes from there.  At the end there were multiple questions to answer and of course lots of places for written responses.

As a highly analytical person I can often see at least 2 very distinct answers that “could” be true or right.   And after that question I went on to the second one and then realized this was only 2 out of 50!  And that is JUST the Language Arts section.

Here is a link to the test.  See for yourself!!

https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/

And once the numbers come out we will see exactly what these tests are designed to do, to create a new narrative of the epic failure of our public school system.  But as with every magical story there will be the night in shining armor who will show up in shiny new textbooks wrapped in bubble wrap, a colorful collage of books and workbooks to fix all of your districts woes in one fell swoop.  And the publisher will be….yes, you guessed it, Pearson.  The one who set up the tests in the first place.

And even more disturbing is that if you are really worried about test performance Pearson has test prep materials ready for sale to get all of your little lemmings in line.  In fact one teacher in New York City found one of the exact prep test questions on the “actual” test!   The message again?  If you want to do well on these tests then you must have Pearson test prep.  Do you see the irony here?   Do you taste the incredible conflict of interest?

There are many things that have started to rumble around the country that give me hope!  One group of parents in New York State sent all of their kids test scores back to the school and the company.  Great!  But the kids still had to suffer through the tests!  Other groups are opting out of these tests and the more we get on board with this the more likely is that we can take back our educational system and begin from the ground up to rebuild it.  Top down…stupid is as stupid does.

A link to Fair Test listing the many ways to Opt Out locally and Nationally:  http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out

And although this video is showing up all over my Facebook feed I am going to link to it here as well because this kid has guts and makes some great points!!  Again, he gives me hope.  Imagine if more of our students stood up for what they think is right and just and fair.

http://youngcons.com/legit-tennessee-high-school-senior-decimates-common-core/

He is something huh?  And as Forrest says “Momma always says life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”  In this case, if you dig to the bottom of the box you can see quite clearly what we are gonna get, and it tastes nothing like chocolates!!

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Teacher Feature with Mark Holt-Shannon on The Common Core: Getting There Quickly

In an effort to expand the conversation here on this blog,  I would like to introduce “Teacher Feature”, a place where I will post the reflections, thoughts, meanderings, writings and ideas of teachers.  In my work I have the privilege of working with so many amazing talented professionals.  I get the best of the best.  Think about it.  They take their own precious time during and at the end of the day to meet with me.  They attend classes after school to read, write and discuss their own professional development.  They are who you want teaching your child.

This week I feature Mark Holt-Shannon, an 8th grade teacher from Dover Middle School in Dover New Hampshire. When I first walked into Mark’s classroom several years ago there was a palpable energy that was inviting and invigorating.    He instructed the kids to get their “nets” (writer’s notebooks where you “catch” ideas) and do some writing about what they had just discussed.  There were all the elements of a Writer’s Workshop up and running like a fine tuned machine.  And  I wanted to stay, be a student and experience what those kids were experiencing.

When I first sat down with Mark I was amazed at just how hard he was on himself as a teacher, constantly questioning and wondering what he could or should be doing better. (A hallmark of brilliance in my book!)   There was a sense of something that was missing for him in his teaching as he wondered, was he doing all that he could?  He talked about feeling disorganized because he never had his entire week planned out or even months for that matter as others around him did.  Sure, he had a sense of the direction he was headed in, but he talked about how that plan changed every day based on the needs, demands and understandings of his students.  In short, he is a reflective, responsive and motivating teacher of reading and writing.  The kids LOVE him!

Today he talks about how his walks to and from school allow him the time to plan in his head how to pick up where he left off the day before, but again there is a sense that he is doing something “not quite right”.  In this piece Mark comments on the current culture in education and what it feels like to be teaching every day with so much other noise going on around him at more than lightning speed with the word “rigor” staring teachers in the face of every turn.  You will also see that he himself is a talented writer who writes and enjoys what words can do on the page.

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Mark conferring with student at UNH Writer’s Academy 2013

Common Core: getting there quickly  

By Mark Holt-Shannon

How often on this trip down the road of guiding students toward becoming better thinkers and perceivers and feelers and citizens, do we get to, or think to, stop and look closely at the map?  How often do we pull over in the dark, especially before we get to that point (a crossroads, an exit sign offering choices) where we have to make a decision about the best direction to take?  Where we have to push on the overhead light and consider the options, the routes?  Scenic or quick?  Doesn’t it feel, too often and instead, like we’re just trusting the GPS?  She’s telling us to go a particular way, maybe we agree, maybe we don’t.  Maybe her directions seem logical, maybe they don’t.  But we look at our watches and do the timetable math and just do what she says, hoping for the best.  Gotta be there by morning.  Gotta be there by morning.  Why?  Because come morning, we’re dropping them at the bus station so they can start their journey to the train station.

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My problem is that I like to look at the map, put my finger on where I am, put my finger on where I am supposed to go, and look in between to see what is there that would be cool to see.  What historical markers, what natural or physical beauty, what friends do I know, what cultural experiences, food, music, language, ethnicities exist along the way that we can come in contact with?  No, if I am heading north, I don’t want to spend too much time traveling south; though I may need to occasionally.  I can agree that we need to keep moving in an agreed upon direction.  There is merit and necessity in all of us meeting at a similar place.  Why?  Shit, good question.  I don’t want to sound like too much of a hippie here.  Why?  So that we can embrace each other.  Talk about what we’ve seen and how it affected us.  Learn from one another.  Discover places we’d like to travel back to some day.  Decide maybe if we’re ready to move on, to get on the bus—if that’s what we’re doing.

Rigor is not about having to hold your pee and stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened and not complain and have no say in the direction.  Is it?  Rigor is getting out of the car.  Not just looking at the world through the window and checking it off the list of markers we’ve passed.  Rigor is exposure and reflection.  “Look at this, what do you think?  How does it compare or contrast to something else we saw?”  Rigor is “No, you can’t stay in the car, you have to get out and step in it, speak the language, consider the beauty, consider the poverty, consider your place in it.  Try the food, listen to the music, shake the hands of the people.  Will you ever come back here?  Why?  Speak, write, listen, feel, love, read.  No, you cannot sleep the entire trip.  You have to find a way to be affected by what you are seeing and you have to make that affectation known.”  Rigor.

Why are listening to the GPS?  She wants me to go the fastest most efficient way.  But if I do that, what will I have brought with me?  What experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will I show up with?

Seriously, what “experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will” our kids show up with if we continue on this path of the GPS and don’t consider the journey of each child?

Thank you Mark!

THINKING is Passionate, Purposeful and Playful

 Lately I have been thinking about what creates real readers and writers.  Much of this thinking comes out of the work I am doing in creating and planning a graduate course I am teaching this summer called:  Passion, Purpose and Play: Creating Real Readers and Writers. 

(See here if you are interested in one of our UNH Summer Literacy Institute courses as we still have some openings.) http://www.unh.edu/english/media/pdfs/Archive%20NHLiteracy/2013SummerInstbrochure.pdf

 I think back…what made me a reader?  A writer?  And there are sharp moments in time  that changed my thinking and the way that I saw myself forever.  One of those moments was when I was a sophomore in High School and my teacher was Mr. Dave Krauss.  We were reading Lord of the Flies.  Nothing revolutionary as many high schools today are still doing the same thing and reading many of these same classics some 30 years later.  But something in this experience for me was different.

I recall heated class discussions and at one point I even remember my face flushing to a bright crimson red as I stood up and shouted out,   “That is NOT fair!”  The entire class stopped and looked back at me and Mr. Krauss said, “Tomasen, I need to see you after class.”  I was mortified.  As a resident “good girl”, always sitting in the back of the class, don’t make any trouble kind of student, I felt as if my face might pop as it got even redder and my eyes begin to sting with tears.

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Photo Credit: esioh.com

 

After class I walked up to Mr. Krauss’s desk full of shame and defeat he asked me to sit down and asked me what was so upsetting.  Our discussion started with the idea of fairness and he assured me that “nothing in life was fair”.  I argued that life should be.  He did not disagree but talked about how there would be merit to thinking about things not in terms of fairness, but in terms of how each individual person is in this world.  He didn’t yell at me.  I didn’t get in trouble.  In fact, it was the opposite.  He encouraged me to speak my mind more frequently and the he welcomed my thoughts and ideas just like everyone else’s.  For the first time in my life I realized that perhaps I had something to say “in class”.  This was huge for me.  My thinking mattered for the first time in my entire school career.

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Photo Credit: Facebook

Fast forward 30 plus years to where I am planning for this course and out of nowhere jumps into my hands the original copy of Lord of the Flies that I read in High School.  For the life of me I didn’t remember ever even having it, and yet here it was.  The cover looked outdated and as I opened the book the spine cracked with a pop as the old book cardboard smell wafted into my head.  What was revealed inside was sheer magic. 

 Marked in red pen and some pencil and then some blue pen was MY thinking as a sophomore in High School.  Words and phrases were underlined and in the margins were the words, authority, changes in attitude, role of society rules?  It had never dawned on me that perhaps the reason this book stuck with me, that this experience was one of great magnitude might also have been because I was able to actually WRITE in this book and keep track of my thinking.

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I wish I could remember the circumstances around this annotating.  Was the school getting a new set because these were worn out?  Was this common practice?  Not that I remembered.  What did Krauss know that nobody else did?  And as I looked at the red ink I was instantly transferred back to remembering the actual red pen, the one that I used to use in my practice teaching in my bedroom.  “The” red pen of authority.  It was old and clear and the ink was clotty.  As I looked at my own handwriting I could recall moments of writing in this book and feeling so “grown up”.  Grown up in a way that made me feel smart.  I recall writing things just because I could even if they were not great thinking.  I loved the act of writing in this book!!  I don’t remember doing this again until college and again the nostalgia of marking and writing in between and around the lines makes me feel giddy! 

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So could it be that something as simple as annotating a text is playful and inspires passion and great purpose?  These words, in our schools, are not in vogue.  It is rare we talk about the passions, the purposes or the play anymore.  And while I have always hated the red pen as a student and teacher of writing, it was this old crimson  that recorded my thinking and allowed me to participate in discussions that made me a real reader with authority.

 It was during this course that I decided I would be an English major.  I wonder if Mr. Krauss understood the power of what he was creating for me as a student in the name of passion, purpose and play?  And underlying all of these “p” is thinking.  Thinking is fun!  It promotes passion, creates purpose and is playful and discovering one’s own thinking is priceless.

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Photo Credit: jackgallery.wordpress.com

 

I would love to find Mr. Krauss.  The last I heard of him he was working at the Admissions office at UNH and when I was a student I visited him.  He has long been gone and I have no idea where he ended up.  As a fellow educator I wish he could read this and understand just what he did for me and how it created the path that I am still on…one that is still seeking equality.  One who still stands up, turns bright red and shouts, “That’s NOT fair” regardless of the lessons learned years ago that we live in an unfair world.

Somebody’s gotta do it!

It’s only fair.

Think about it.

 

Miss-Interpretations of The Common Core and Teaching Writing: Dumbing Down with Ridiculous Rules, Mortifying Myths and Loquacious Lies

I am just home after meeting with some very talented and knowledgeable 6th grade teachers.  Our goal, to discuss the Common Core standards and get a feel for where they were in planning for their upcoming insurgence.

Part of the discussion was that in writing a persuasive piece of writing that the use of “I” is forbidden.  I asked by whom it was forbidden and they both looked at me like, “everyone” knows this.  And in walks the infamous “They” that makes these rules.  Who is the “they” in this arena?  And while you can find that in certain places the use of “I” is frowned upon it is not in others.  What about the fact that some of the best persuasive pieces ever written have a very capital and strong sense of I!! 

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For instance, if you read through my blog entries, how would you classify (for lack of a better word) what kind of writing it is?  What box would you put it in? Persuasive?  Argument?  Narrative? Informational?  Fiction?  Non-Fiction? Opinion?  Or is it a brand new genre called blogging? Or are there strands of each and all of these?

Or is it just ranting from a girl who lives in the grey areas of life navigating through a world of black and white…forever bumping into the boundaries set by others; hard and fast rules that become the letter of the law lacking any theory to back it up.

I envision it as writing my own newspaper column each week.  Where would that fit in?

I see it as a place where I gather my thoughts, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to support them with the thoughts and ideas and opinions of others.  Sometimes they are simply ideas of my own that I attempt to connect to begin to make sense of what I am thinking about. I write for the surprise that Donald Murray always wrote about.   Does this change what “kind” of writing I am writing on each and every attempt?  Or does it even matter what “kind” of writing is if my readers are reading it and it is making them think and wonder and respond?

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Donald Murray

And why do we insist on creating “new” kinds of writing that only exist in the world of school?  Have you ever seen or read a book report in the “real” world?  What about the whopper of a 5-paragraph essay?  When is the last time your boss came to you and said you need to write up a 5-paragraph essay, due on my desk by Monday?  NO, you have not because the idea of 5 paragraphs is another myth created in the world of education in an attempt to dumb down the process of writing.

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These teachers showed me a template for a persuasive (yes 5 paragraphs in this one too) where the students could essentially fill in the blanks and create a piece of writing that would fulfill the requirements of the Common Core Standards.  I have to SHOUT out here that I really don’t believe these are the intentions behind the CCSS.  This narrow thinking goes back to what Don Graves speaks about as teaching writing in terms of painting by number.  All of the writing in these mythical genres look the same, feels the same, reads the same.  BORING!!!  BUT, as the teachers respond, if we do this then all of the standards will be met and we will be able to point out specifically in different colored pens which parts fulfill which standard.  This leaves teachers in an impossible stance.  They have to choose whether or not to do what they are told or to teach what they know is good writing.  Wouldn’t you think they would be the same thing?

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Donald Graves

Our car is making a horrible noise.  (Using a story/narrative strand here to make my point)  There is a screeching sound that just makes your ears quiver when you turn the wheel.  We need to take it to the mechanic to get it fixed.  When it arrives he will listen to it, diagnose it and make the necessary changes.  Imagine another world, say the world where school meets auto repair and instead of relying on the mechanic there is a checklist that says he must add some simile, a bit of metaphor as well as a heave dose of dialogue to fix and complete this engine repair.  When done he can return it to us with all the things he can check off the list, but still with a broken car.

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Taking the person OUT of the process only creates nonsensical ridiculous and completely absurd moves.  There is NO sense in it and yet this is exactly the response I am seeing to the CCSS.   It is about coverage and covering one’s ass, if I may be so blunt…but who cares if your ass is covered if you are turning out broken down cars and students?  Taking the writer, the “I” out of the process is not going to create confident writers who know and understand when and where to use a writerly move if they have never had the opportunity as writers to make those decisions.  (Using compare and contrast to drive my point home)

I do not start writing thinking; I will use metaphor, simile and dialogue in this piece.  I start out with an idea and then as I write there are opportunities where these moves may or may not be useful to make my writing what I envision it to be.  I may even remove my car metaphor before this piece is formally posted on my blog.  The point it that these decisions are made my ME, the writer, so that I can create something that makes sense and that will engage my readers (hopefully) and allow them to think about something in a way that maybe they had not thought about it before.

My daughter sent me a link the other day about some middle schoolers involved in inquiry projects and created controlled experiment and then wrote it up and submitted it to various scientific journals to share their findings.  Many of the journals, while they praised the work of the students and it’s originality were not open to accepting the work of these student because their report started with “Once upon a time”, in other words it did not follow the “rules” of the scientific genre.

And yet, you can see here on this link to TED that the work of these students was eventually published and is now one of the most read scientific reports on the Internet. http://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_amy_o_toole_science_is_for_everyone_kids_included.html

And here is a link to the actual paper that was published. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/12/18/rsbl.2010.1056.full

So why are so many people reading this and watching this TED talk?  I would argue (making this an argument piece now!) that they are reading it and listening to it because it is original and interesting and shows us what our kids CAN do if given the opportunity.

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So what are we doing?  In our efforts to do what is “right” we are forgetting to think about how kids learn, why kids learn and why they don’t.  Why are kids so totally removed from their own educations, their own thinking, their processes of discovery and wonder and curiosity?  Why?  Why?  Because that is exactly what we are asking of them.  To fill in the blank, not to think about what they are writing, check it off the list and move onto the next genre.  And the beat goes on…

Photo Credits: BLG Consulting Group, communicationissuccess.blogspot.com, http://unhmagazine.unh.edu, UNH Alumni, http://theclimatescepticsparty.blogspot.com/

Brick by Brick

I must confess.  I have been trying to write a book on education for years.  I have actually even put together what “looks” like a book, but if I am completely honest it sucks.  I love to write.  I love to write to discover what I am thinking or wondering about.  I love to play with words.  I love to write but I do not like the voice I put on when I am in book writing mode.  Why?

It dawned on me this morning that I hate what I have written in these books because as soon as I start to write something for the book I put on my slick persuasion blazer and bowler hat and begin the song and dance to show you my “expertise” in teaching and the classroom.  I become the evangelical used car salesperson of education.  I  try to cover everything that I know in order to create the be all and end all, the educational Bible of the century…and ultimately it is a massive failure.  In it I lose my truth, my voice, the essence of who I am which is not an expert of anything, but someone who thinks and wonders and reflects…alongside those I work with.

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So, how can I ask you to come along with me as I shed the slick suit with all the answers and indulge me in some way?  I have so many questions that I would like to explore and yet all of them seem are rooted in the theme of how to make our teaching and our classrooms authentic places where learning can and does happen.  How can we engage students instead of disengage them?   How can we change an entire system?  We can’t.  But perhaps what we can do is shift our thinking about our students, our classrooms, and the systems and begin to view them through a narrative lens.  What are the stories in your classroom?  What are the stories of those students you work with?  What are the stories in your literary life?

Research tells us that 70% of what we learn and remember is through a narrative form and yet 98% of the information we provide to our students is in the form of straight fact.

Elizabeth is a beautiful 7th grade soul struggling with a major disconnect between her Social Studies textbook and her sense of wanting to know and understand.  When I first worked with Elizabeth she took me up to her room and showed me her bookcase and all of the different books she liked to read.  She talked openly and freely and with great fluidity about who she was as a reader, what she liked, what she didn’t like and she laughed as we talked about “fake reading” and how she does it in school and so do all of her friends.  She was animated and those beautiful brown eyes danced with enthusiasm and purpose.

Fast forward to the dining room table 10 minutes later where Elizabeth and I will attempt to tackle her Social Studies homework for the night.  Her shoulders slump as she leans over and pulls out the Mount Everest of Textbooks.  It must weigh at least 5 pounds and it is only one of the many texts that Elizabeth is being asked to shoulder.  She lets it thunk down on the table and the reverberations from that book shudder across the table.  This is a heavy book, filled with endless information and Elizabeth’s long sigh confirms that the drudgery is about to begin.  First I ask her to tell me about the book.  She stops and thinks.  I wait.  I ask her what it feels like to read this book.  She thinks and eventually responds, “It is like reading a brick wall.  I try and I try but it is like I can never get through it.”  I am stunned and rendered speechless at Elizabeth’s ability to create such a powerful image for what this experience is like for her.  She is a deep thinker.  She likes to make sense of her world through simile and metaphor and I am in awe of her brilliance and so I tell her so.  She does not feel this way about herself, however.

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And we then begrudgingly open the monster of a book and begin.  She is reading about Russia.  Ahhh…yes Russia I begin to remember as both of my kids went through 7th grade with this same teacher and her passion for all things Russian in just one year.  The page she opens to is busy with color and information galore.  It is a smattering of information intended to inform, but to me it looks as though someone vomited everything they may or might want to cover in a chapter onto the page.

We begin with the title and I talk to Elizabeth about making these titles into questions.  Her eyes brighten.  She likes that there is something she can actually “do” to begin to make sense of the text in front of her.  We peruse the page and I move her to the bright green box at the left labeled major concepts and key vocabulary in an effort to activate schema and perhaps do some front-loading to guide her through the reading.

We get through one concept and as I try to conjure up as much information as I can about Russia I quickly realize I am as schema depleted as she is. We press on to vocabulary keeping the key ideas in mind as a purpose for our reading…should we actually get to the reading part.  There are 5 words and in each of those words lives worlds of information.  Elizabeth wants to know more.  What is a Czar?  How is that different than a president?  She is inquisitive, engaged and interested.  A half an our of our time has passed and we have yet to actually even “read” anything!  I move us along…feeling the time crushing in on us.

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We start with our questions to read with a purpose and not three words into her reading there is a vocabulary word that she is stumbling over.  She looks up at me and I continue on to the end of the paragraph. I ask her if she understands what she is reading. She shakes her head no.  We talk about stopping and thinking about her understanding and stopping at that point where nothing makes sense anymore.  She goes back and stops at the third word.  It is the same word that she looked up at me on.

We talked about how readers think about their own thinking and how knowing when to stop was as important as knowing when to read on.  I pointed out to her that she “knew” when she didn’t know because she looked up at me.  I want Elizabeth to think about her reading and her understanding as she moves through the text and to stop when she knows she has lost meaning.  She stops at a heavy-hitting vocabulary word, not identified in the neat green column that the publishers deemed as vocabulary.  I help her break down the word and ask her to think of what it reminds her of.  Together we make sense of the word and then she reads on.

And so we work and trudge on as far as we can together in this text knowing that IF Elizabeth is going to actually “get” anything out of this text then we must continue at this snail’s pace to ensure understanding.  It is a process that I am engaged in alongside her as I too question and attempt to make sense of the listing of facts and how they do or do not connect.

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There is no narrative in this text.  Nothing for us to grab onto in this endless sea of facts that now seems to weigh heavily on both of us.  And so I attempt to shorten her assignment, knowing she will not get to the questions she has to answer by the end of our time together, but making the choice to allow Elizabeth some true understanding, taking time “out” of the text to Google and get a sense of story that is so lacking in the text.

Who were this Czar and his crazy wife?  Why do they just mention these people in a list of others without letting us know why she was crazy?  And so we Google again and go deeper.

It is hard work.  And I have to question why so much is assigned in one night, but my questioning does not change the fact that those questions are due tomorrow.  She stops and flips through the pages ahead to see how much more she has to read for this one night’s assignment and a heavy groaning sigh escapes her mouth as she rolls her eyes to see we still have 6 more pages to go through.  I look at her and say, “Brick by Brick is all we can do here so let’s just keep keeping on.”  She rolls her eyes again as fatigue begins to move in and we press on.

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So how do we challenge this idea of more is better?  Do we want our students going nearly an inch deep and miles wide or do we want to advocate for depth over breadth?  Are we giving our students enough time and the right kind of books to gain a true understanding of whatever it is we are teaching?  Or are we more interested in coverage and checking things off a list?  Do we realize that each time a student comes to a text that is their FIRST reading and that the knowledge we have comes from numerous readings, rendering it much easier to understand?  Are we aware of what it is like for our students?  Are we thinking about that and what that assignment “looks” like for our kids at home?

Less is more.

And in my attempt to write “the” book I realize this too was my problem as I tried to cover everything and rarely went deeply with anything.  And so now I write this blog where I find myself going more deeply with my thinking.  I threw the book out the window because I realized what I was trying to do in all of those attempts was to cover EVERYthing and to do it from an all-knowing omniscient voice.

I do not know everything.  In fact there is so much more that I do not know than I do know.  Living in this information age, information is cheap, but connecting it and making sense of it is priceless.  And so in the name of less is more I write  to wonder, question and begin to figure out my thinking.. brick by brick.  And don’t we want the same for our kids?

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