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Friday, June 9, 2017

Please Disturb My Beliefs



Okay, reader, I have a challenge for you before you read this blog. If you were to read a student’s IEP and learned that he had been diagnosed with all of the following, what would be your first thoughts?

·      Chronic anxiety
·      Obsessive compulsive thinking
·      Tourette’s syndrome
·      Asperger’s syndrome
·      Depression

Really, don’t read any further until you’ve thought about teaching this student. How would you plan for him (or her)? What would you expect or his (or her) behavior, attitude, scholarly abilities? And if you were to predict his (or her) future, what would your prediction be?

Now read on.

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I’m not sure when I ran across Peter Smagorinsky’s work, but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 80s when studying writing pedagogy. What I do know is that his writing has influenced me for, literally, decades. When coming to terms with standards, his Standards in Practice pushed me out of my knee jerk resistance. When planning my first English methods class, his How English Teachers Get Taught guided the trajectory of my course. And more recently while working on argument, I ran across Teaching Students to Write Argument, his small but fun book chocked full of ideas. Not only have I read his books, but I’ve followed him on numerous NCTE postings and have even sat in on several of his conference sessions.

So it was quite a shock when I encountered an article by him in Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled column. Writing about the “mentally ill,” he explains:

In fact, I am among them, as are several people in my family. Various people in my gene pool have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, chronic anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive thinking, oppositional-defiance, and other conditions. I suspect that many readers can say the same.

You might have guessed from my opening challenge that this would be true of Peter, but it was a great surprise to me and sent me into the research mode. From his vita, I discovered that he has written or co-written over 15 books and a ridiculous number of articles for professional journals, has been honored with numerous awards, and currently holds the title of Distinguished Research Professor of English Education.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you needed to rethink an assumption that you didn’t even know you held? That’s what happened to me as I read about Peter. All too clearly I recall in the past saying something like, “For a special ed kiddo, he’s doing okay.” Or – I confess this with great embarrassment – “I’ll cut him some slack. After all, he is in special ed.” And as a consultant, I don’t know how many times I nodded in empathy with a teacher when she talked about low test scores and all of “those” students or I indicated my understanding when the teacher said, “Oh, she has an IEP. Of course, she’s struggling.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately, and Peter’s story has stirred up beliefs that lay dormant, beliefs that I hadn’t examined. My discomfort reminded me of what Margaret Wheatley describes in her essay “Willing to be Disturbed”:

Lately, I've been listening for what surprises me. What did I just hear that startled me? This isn't easy-I'm accustomed to sitting there nodding my head to those saying things I agree with. But when I notice what surprises me, I'm able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

And Peter’s column dredged up assumptions that I would have denied. For years, I’ve argued for thinking of kids from an asset perspective, but buried deep within me reigned a deficit orientation.

As I kept reading more of Peter’s writing, I encountered his push for neurodiversity in which teachers recognize that there is a range of neurological orientations and, therefore, it’s important to “foreground potential, not disorder.” Peter argues:

Rather, I think that I follow a different order, like many who share my classifications. In fact, it’s quite ordered. There probably is no more ordered way of being than to live on the autism spectrum. It’s a life of pattern, ritual, and clarity of purpose. The problem is that those purposes can seem odd to those who believe that having a narrow or unusual way of being in the world is a problem to be fixed, a sickness to be cured.

Looking at more of his writing, some in blogs and some in academic essays, I found provocative gems such as these:

·      “I am confident that having Asperger’s is probably a key to whatever success I’ve had in my field.”
·      “My ability to complete work quickly and efficiently is, I believe, a consequence of having Asperger’s in conjunction with OCD.”
·      “As part of my rebellion against … stereotype, I have begun referring to my Asperger’s Advantage, especially when Asperger’s is bundled with my anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.”

In one essay, he credits Tourette’s for his prodigious writing career, explaining that when he reads, he picks at his nails and goes into endless tapping routines, but writing channels his nervous tics into productive and satisfying work.

What if I had viewed my students with “special” needs – just think of the condescending tone of that phrase – as seeing the world differently and my job was to figure out their strengths and ways I could build from those strengths? My buried beliefs were madly disconnected from my espoused beliefs.

Yes, Peter disturbed me, surfaced my beliefs, and challenged my assumptions. And the troubling question is: what other negative beliefs are tucked away, needing to be disturbed?

--June 8, 2017




Saturday, July 30, 2016

30 Years Ago and the Kaypro, Phone with Cords, and Writing Workshop


Thirty years ago, I talked on a phone with a long cord that I could carry from the kitchen into the living room and even the bathroom. I bought my first microwave and worried about radiation.  I gave my son a "portable" computer to take to college: a Kaypro II that weighed 26 pounds and was about sixteen inches long while the screen couldn’t have been more than 10 inches wide.

In my high school classroom those 30 years ago, on Monday I assigned students topics for their five paragraph essays, collected them on Friday and spent Sunday night grading like mad so I could hand them back the next day. Knowing the reputation of the red pen, I corrected those run-ons and punctuation errors with a green felt tip pen, softening the demand of “get your writing right!”

And then thirty years ago in the summer, most of my colleagues in Thornton High’s  English department spent two weeks with Colorado Writing Project. We wrote on topics of our choice, shared our work with each, received smart feedback from our mentor, Judy Gilbert, and studied Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Dan Kirby’s Inside Out. We fell in love with writing and the teaching of it.

And together the next few years we figured out how to bring choice, time to write, a variety of ways to respond to drafts, and teacher modeling into the classroom. We devoured Tom Romano’s Clearing the Way and Zemelman and Daniels’ A Community of Writers. We mined Donald Murray’s wisdom and taught our students about the myriad decisions writers make. 

We figured out what a writing workshop looked like in a high school setting. 

And our classrooms shifted but not completely. Some of us held on tenaciously to practices that we were convinced also mattered.



Meet the five paragraph essay.

In the 10th grade Introduction to Composition, we taught the comparison/contrast essay, the cause/effect essay, and the precis. Sure, students selected their topics, and we worked on strategies for generating ideas, but the structure was a given: first paragraph had to hook the reader and end with the thesis, the next three paragraphs had to support the thesis, and then that closing paragraph had to pull it all together. Simple! So students created webs or free wrote to generate ideas. We had choice, and, yep, response. Every Wednesday students brought drafts to their workshop group, and I modeled. Yep – I wrote those god-awful essays side by side with them.

A couple of years passed. I applied for a sabbatical leave to work on my masters and took the year off to study. Borrowing my son’s old Kaypro II, I headed to Fort Collins to further my studies in writing pedagogy. One of the first books we read in Bill McBride’s Theories of Composition class was by Knoblauch and Brannan, and in that book, the researchers  slammed the five paragraph essay as an artificial structure that existed no where outside of school. Knoblauch and Brannan were my nemesis. “Why,” I argued over and over, “can’t we have lively writing within the five paragraph essay? What’s the deal here? After all, students need to learn the structure of an essay.” Even as I worked at synthesizing what I was learning from Ken Macrorie, Linda Flower, and Peter Elbow, I fought with Knoblauch and Brannon. If I’d had an email account, I might have sent them an angry missive, but email was rare then.

I still remember the great epiphany – the moment it hit me that the formula was outmoded and ill-conceived and that Knoblauch and Brannon were right. It was after dinner and while studying another chapter of their book when that proverbial lightening blot hit me. I had to stop privileging form before ideas, and writing didn’t begin with structure unless it was a limerick or a sonnet.

Again my high school classes changed. In Intro to Comp, we kept a writer’s notebook, learned strategies for drafting and revising, experimented with structure, and read each other’s work.  We played with organization and experimented with leads and closings. We played, worked hard, and celebrated our work.

Sometime about then I bought my first cell phone though I rarely used it and thought about buying my first Apple. I no longer feared my microwave and set up my AOL email account and wondered about buying a fax machine.

No longer did my classroom look the same as a few years earlier. Students sat in small groups and collaborative work really required the thinking of all students. I wrote along with them: stories, poems, essays, biographies. I chucked those formulaic assignments along with the overheads that described the opening paragraph and listed transitions to start each of the body paragraphs.

Over the years my writers workshop evolved. Genre shaped the curriculum, and mentor text grew our craft. We wrote for a broad range of audiences, from the principal as students argued that they had earned the right of an open campus to their senators when some disagreed with our entry into the Gulf War.

Today I rarely use my landline (didn’t even know that’s what it was called a few years ago). I carry my cell everywhere so I can check emails and recipes and snap pictures. Not too long ago I ditched my fax machine. It no longer served a purpose.

And yet….

And yet….

And yet this is what this essay is about.

Thirty years ago our high school English department learned about writing processes and the writing workshop. For a decade or more we studied what it meant to grow the adolescent writer and figured out how to teach grammar in context. So given the long history and the research base about teaching writing, why is it that when I walk into high school classrooms across the nation and, literally, the world, I watch hard working, smart teachers assign an essay topic, explain the structure of the five paragraph essay, and grade those essays on Sunday night, sometimes in red ink, sometimes in green, and sometimes online? Why is that I see students’ eyes glaze over when their teacher explains once again the importance of having a strong thesis before moving forward with drafting? Why is it that I see learning targets that urge writers to "wrap up their essay in a tidy package and bring it home to the reader"? Why is it that I don’t see students writing side by side with their students? Why am I not seeing writing workshop as the norm and instruction in the multiple processes for composing?

What is there about our profession that keeps us the same so that even as teachers use “TurnItIn.com” and No Red Ink and text message students on their phones, their classrooms look like mine did over 30 years ago? Was Seymour Sarason right when he complained that the school system itself creates an “intractability to significant reform and change”?

Does each generation need to learn anew? Do we really grow as a profession? Why was it easier to move from the ditto machine to the print option on laptops than it is to move from a teacher-centered writing classroom to a writing workshop?

A phone with a long cord, anyone? I've got one somewhere in an attic, one I used over 30 years ago.