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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.







Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My wonderful CFG challenged each of us to write our professional creed/belief statement, so this is what I wrote:

My Bottom Lines

Teachers and students deserve respect.
“To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

To work from respect means that my stance is grounded in positive assumptions and that my mission isn’t about fixing anyone. (I’m not a handyman nor do I want to be.) Respect means that I trust that teachers and students are capable, competent, and well intentioned. And how does that translate into practice?
  •      Relationships underpin the risky, challenging work that we do as educators. To the best of my ability, I need to know the teachers, the administrators, and the students.
  •      Instead of rushing right into the work, I need to slow down and say hello, check in, and see how life is.
  •      Agendas need to be built so that all voices are a part of the conversation right at the start.
  •       Kids have stories, and so do their teachers. It’s those stories that shape who they are, and it’s my obligation to seek out those stories.
  •      Peter Johnston’s caution must be kept in mind: “there are hidden costs in telling people things. If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence…”
    Substitute teacher with student and a good share of my work is about asking, listening, probing, and paraphrasing, and then, perhaps, consulting.

All voices, including the dissenting voice, matter. Instead of labeling someone a resister, I owe it to her tobe disturbed, to listen, and to come to understand, but with no obligation to agree. When students say that work is stupid, my job isn’t to correct that perception but to understand if the level of difficulty is out of reach or if something else is at play. When teachers say that students can’t write a counterclaim, my job isn’t to say “yes but.” Instead, my job is to figure out if it’s really about belief in students or doubt about a teacher’s capacity or simply a question about how to do the work.

Students and their teachers deserve to do work that matters. Time is the nemesis of all in education, so it cannot be squandered. The work done within schools must be purposeful, meaningful, and relevant. There’s no reason that students can’t write for authentic audiences, solve problems that reside in the world, or contribute to our society. Likewise, there’s no reason for teachers to collect data that has nothing to do with their instruction but everything to do with a misguided policy or to complete other tasks that take them away from doing the work of planning, teaching, and checking on students’ understanding.

Vision determines future steps. As students grow, they need a vision of what’s possible: to see people like them doing important work, to study models of work that can serve as mentors, and be inspired by people who have achieved despite the odds. Likewise, teachers need a vision of classrooms and schools where students are highly engaged regardless of their home situations. Schools/districts/policy makers need a vision of schools where students thrive regardless of their past. Vision creates possibilities and generates hope.

Engagement is the trump card. Even before standards, before assessments, and before strategies, teachers must plan for student engagement. Thinking about whether the work requires attention, persistence, and commitment is critical. Holding the tenets of Pink and others of autonomy, mastery,
purpose, and belonging is critical. Likewise, teachers need to be engaged in the work that they do. They need to know that their work matters and that it’s work that they can and must do.

  • What does this look like in terms of practice?
  •  Lessons live within a context: a unit of study, a year’s curriculum, a life.
  • Students need to be the workers, the thinkers, the do-ers, and teachers need to be the ones planning for these students at this time.
  • Teachers can create the conditions that nurture engagement (the 6 Cs).
  • Choice, choice, choice.



--- Stevi, December 2015

Saturday, December 5, 2015




The Power of Ideas

"Those things you learn without joy, you will forget easily." -- Finnish proverb


When I first started attending NCTE, I stalked the footnotes. I made sure I was up early to claim a front row seat to listen to Nancie Atwell, hoping she’d help me figure out that one part of my workshop that was still rough. I pushed through the crowds to listen to Donald Murray, yearning for that one nugget that would move those reluctant writers. I searched for the specific activity, the practical idea, the thing to do on December 1. I was in search of the tip and trick, the cool activity that would hook my kids.

Times have changed. Now I’m not stalking the footnotes in search of the practical; I’m no longer pushing through crowds to get that last handout.  Yes, I still get up early to listen to the keynoters and make my way through the crowds to listen to Tom Newkirk or Jeff Wilhelm or Vicki Vinton. But the aura surrounding the famous has faded, and I don’t gasp when I see Lucy Calkins. Now I’m stalking for a different purpose: someone who will provoke me, nudge my thinking, make me think in new ways. Now I want to stalk the idea. It’s the idea that lures me back each year to NCTE, ideas swirling around the heads of those most prominent in our field, ideas that are about to – or should be about to – catch on fire, ideas that like the wind force the skyscape of my mind to be a bit brighter, look a little different.

And what were the ideas that most grabbed me this year?

Bring on the joy and the pleasure
No, no one said it exactly like this, but joy was in the air. When Ellin Keene talked about engagement, she was talking about joy. Engagement, Ellin argued, is “born of  emotional response to ideas.” Isn’t that joyfulness? When Jeff Wilhelm challenged us to reflect on whether or not “we would do the crap that we assign students,” he urged us to think about the role of pleasure. Why wouldn’t we think about pleasure as we nurture our readers, our students? Why wouldn’t we remember that pleasure exists in the world of play, work, the intellect, and the social? And when Penny Kittle advocated for students selecting their own books 75% of the time, she too was talking about joy and pleasure. What if, she asked, students didn’t fake read? What if it were otherwise? After all, if our kids don’t love reading, they’re not going to do it when we leave the room.

Oh, yeah, bring on that joy! Invite pleasure into the classroom!

Eliminate the great divide
Tom Newkirk warned us that we are plagued by a category problem. Yep, it’s CCSS’s three categories of writing:  narrative, information, and argument. Good writing, he reminded us, crosses that great divide and blurs the lines between categories. All writing that we want to read is told by a narrator that we want to follow and that kind of writing leads us through surprise after surprise. Yes, the writing might convey information, but it’s the story that carries the day.

Linda Hoyt and Seymour Simon disabused us of the notion that good nonfiction writing is devoid of voice and style. Instead beautifully crafted sentences belong to the both the worlds of fiction and nonfiction. The beauty and power of a well-crafted sentence ushers us into the factual world of the gorillas and nudges us into the fiction of Joseph Conrad.

And, by the way, how is it that we have the categories of fiction and non-fiction? Doesn’t fiction contain truth, and doesn’t non-fiction carry us away through the story?  Perhaps that’s another divide that we need to close.

Get curious
Sessions on inquiry filled the conference docket, and Steph Harvey, Smokey Daniels, and Sara 
Ahmed  did a great job getting us curious. Steph Harvey reminded us of Sir Ken Robinson's statement:  Curiosity is the engine that drives achievement. Inquiry doesn't just lead to a cool project at the end of a unit; instead, it's how we should live our lives. To illustrate the importance of teachers living a curious life, Sara Ahmed showed us images of Syrian ruins in the desert and of beautiful Syrian children, images not often seen in popular media. Smokey nudged us to develop an inquiry question that emerged from studying those provocative images. For about 10 minutes 100 educators or more engaged in inquiry, and when Smokey and Sara tried to call us back, a good share of us tried to ignore them so that we could continue exploring. Inquiry is addicting.

Carol Jago's message at CEL dovetailed Smokey's and Sara's work with visual images and inquiry. After showing us a few images from Gordon Park's A Harlem Argument, she invited us to talk about how those stunning images build a visual argument.  Our job was to figure out that argument and determine who the argument was for. After showing us beautiful and provocative paintings by  Kehinde Wiley, she juxtaposed  Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”  and invited us to write. Those images promoted curiosity and heightened our response to the literature she had paired with them.

Even though I was ready to head home after the conference -- already I had been away for over a week and a half, I left refreshed and so glad that I had stalked the idea makers. The skyscape of my mind had altered. Already I’m planning for next year, curious about what joy will look like in 2016 and what ideas will dominate.