Thursday, April 21, 2011

What I'm Reading Now: Too Many Books

My current crop of YA reading includes Jonathan Stroud's new Bartimaeus book, The Ring of Solomon, which reveals some of the demon's past in Jerusalem, where he makes sassy djinn comments on humanity's weaknesses, with footnotes; Helen Frost's Keesha's House, a book in poems (starting off with sestinas! not an easy form) about kids in trouble who need a safe house; Paul B. Janeczko's Worlds Afire, also poems, telling the story of a 1944 circus fire; Paul Fleischman's Dateline: Troy, which I've meant to read for some time now and which tells the Trojan story in spare text juxtaposed with newspaper clippings from the present to make the visual as well as textual point that our great stories from the past are repeated today; Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, a werewolf story told in two voices.

Then there are the professional books: Steven L. Layne's Igniting a Passion for Reading: Successful Strategies for Building Lifetime Readers; Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers; Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child; Kelly Gallagher's Teaching Adolescent Writers; two by Tom Romano, Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers and Crafting Authentic Voice. I just finished Cynthia Carbone Ward's How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers. I think that's all I'll admit to reading concurrently right now, though I've dipped into a few more that I plan to commit to quite soon--Packing for Mars by Mary Roach, Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, and Storm Front by Jim Butcher (because Karrah loves the Dresden Files so much), along with James Bucky Carter's edited collection, Building Literary Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel and Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing.

I am a grazer and sampler of books. I love moving back and forth among a variety of genres and styles. At Christmas time I was rereading Jane Austen, and I've been working at a biography of Coleridge on and off for close to a year. Last (academic) year, I taught Senior Seminar in English and spent lots of time with nineteenth-century British lit (my first love as a reader--unless you count my childhood obsession with fairy tales), and while I was writing Reading Julia Alvarez (just released March 30), I read several Caribbean and U.S. Latino writers' works. Last fall I took a big turn back into the literature related to my upper-level writing classes, mostly creative nonfiction, and I just bought a William Stafford book I didn't already own, along with Bret Lott's Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life and Amy Tan's The Opposite of Fate.

It's obvious that something ignited "a lifelong passion for reading" in me! In the past couple weeks I've loaned out several of my YA novels to students, borrowed a book from a student, and ordered Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers. I attended a library-sponsored discussion of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love about three weeks ago and a conference panel on To Kill a Mockingbird more recently. And the Teaching Writing students are writing annotations of picture books, so my head's full of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Stinky Cheese Man, and wondrous books for kids.

There. I've done it. I've admitted to my addiction. Where's my list of those twelve steps, now? Under that pile of books, no doubt.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Voice for First-Year College Students

The power of voice is instantly recognizable in any writing we read. Voice is easy to see, difficult to define, because its very individuality is the point. If it's difficult to define, it's even more difficult to teach. How do you teach uniqueness?

So much of our schooling has drained voice out of our writing. The impersonality of so much "academic" writing, which we are trained to practice, and to value, leaches color from our prose.

As a college student, I aspired to be a writer. I had exploded into poetry in my teens--as so many teens do--and I loved to write. The courses that convinced me that I wasn't a wrter were my Advanced Composition and Journalism courses. I wish I'd never taken them.

I continued writing--I've abandoned my share of novel manuscripts--and I started producing some short stories that I thought were passable and publishable. But I took the wrong direction for a writer: I went back to school--a graduate program in English literature. I certainly enjoyed my Master's program, but reading fourteenth- through seventeenth-century poetry didn't do a whole lot for my writing.

I diverted my generative energies into child-bearing. After two babies, my marriage broke down. I wrote. There's nothing like emotional pain to drive the creative impulse. More short stories!

But needing to support us, I started teaching in the local community colleges. I immersed myself in trying to indoctrinate students in the academic non-voice that I'd mastered myself--students who came with colorful non-academic voices. I used to keep a count of how many classes of first-year writing (I and II) and basic writing (I and II) I'd taught, but I stopped somewhere around 100. Now I'd be hard-pressed to estimate how many students I've tried to teach "academic writing" to.

And now I want to teach voice. The books I love are full of personality--books by Jon Krakauer and Peter Hessler and Azar Nafizi and Elizabeth Gilbert and David Sedaris. The young adult literature I teach would fall flat without strong voices created by Laurie Halse Anderson and M. T. Anderson and Virginia Euwer Wolff and Chris Lynch. Their protagonists follow in the footsteps of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield--so memorable that we feel that we know them personally.

The calm, dispassionate voice deemed suitable for academic argument is, however, a convetion, and it is a convention that students need to adopt for success in upper-level courses. The often flat voice of inexperienced academic writers comes from disengagement in their writing tasks. "Tell me what you want," they demand, "and I'll give it to you. How many pages? How Many sources?" Every time I say, "As many pages as you need to make your point" or "As many reliable sources as you need to make a good case." They put up with it, mostly, because I also meet with them individually and look at evolving drafts, and they end up with the 5-page academic essays that is the goal.

I'm hoping they'll bust open the academic paper in the next couple weeks, though, as we finish our semester with research-based multi-genre papers. They've done enough academic essay writing for the semester, I think. They're certainly engaged right now, as they develop their fictional diary entries, trifold brochures, and PowerPoint presentations incorporating their research. I don't think I'll get any perfunctory writing--but something I'll enjoy reading just as much as I enjoy those books by my favorite stylists.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Student Choices in Writing Assignments

Giving students choices in writing assignments makes students better writers. The process model of writing instruction draws its rationale from the practices of "real" writers--professionals. Professional writers select topics and make choices about genre, style, length, and so forth. In many cases, they write to others' specifications (say, when writing for a specific publication or under contract for a book), but they do so by choice. When students can select their topics and make choices about genre, style, and length, they make writerly choices--not student choices. Too often in the classroom, we strictly limit these kinds of decisions. We tell students, "An essay should have five paragraphs and a three-part thesis sentence," "A paragraph should be five to seven sentences long," "Each paragraph should include a quotation from the text you are writing about," "Each quotation should be introduced with one of these phrases," etc. (Have you read an essay by Francis Bacon or George Orwell or Joan Didion?!) Students have figured out how school works, and when they associate writing with school, they boil it down to, "Tell me what you want, and I'll give it to you." Believe me, they will give you exactly what you have asked for. But what does this have to do with writing?

I don't want my students to "give me what I want." I want students to be good writers. I want students to surprise me with their insights and creativity. Most importantly, I want my students to understand that you write when you have something to say--about an academic topic or about a personal topic, for the campus newspaper or for a loved one, to make sense of life challenges or to organize a voluntary activity. To be good writers, they must make choices. If I am making all the choices, all my students are doing is playing at advanced Mad Libs.

If I'm not telling them how to write, what am I teaching? I can teach students how to pay attention to their choices and the choices that other, published writers or peer writers have made. I can teach students a repertoire of strategies for organizing, improving style, following academic conventions, incorporating dialogue, or overcoming writer's block. There are some elements that they must pay attention to in order to achieve maximum growth as writers. Paying attention to their writing and the writing of others facilitates their decision-making about their own writing.

Are there drawbacks for a teacher of writing in giving students a wide range of options? Yes, we don't get comparable "products" from students, and some might see this as creating more difficulty in grading consistently. Sam turns in an informal five-page narrative, and Sue turns in a succinct academic argument. Can we apply the same standards to these two texts? One way is to grade students' performance in realizing their rhetorical goals: we can assess whether they made good choices for the audience and purpose they envisioned for their writing; we can assess appropriateness of style and tone; we can assess adequacy of development. Another way is to assess individual development over time: is paragraph focus in this narrative more successful than it was in the letter to the editor that this student wrote two weeks ago? We can assess portfolios and require all the students to submit specific kinds of papers over the course of a semester, to be written in the order that each student chooses. And of course, another way is the tried-and-true assignment of a specific genre with student choice of topics, along the lines of the "I Search" paper, for which students conduct personally meaningful topics.

In most cases, students choose topics and styles that interest them, that are meaningful to them, given true choice. This makes the writing process more interesting for them, and it makes the products that we read more interesting for us as well.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fragmenting my focus

I am reading too many books, talking to students about too many topics, and I can't keep up with my responses to student papers this semester.

It's my own fault that I'm behind. Not only am I teaching an overload--2 sections of first-year composition and 2 sections of Teaching Writing--and directing the writing center, but I've agreed to too many "classes by appointment" (one-to-one teaching arrangements that allow students to take a class that conflicts with another class or take a class in a different semester than the one it's typically offered in, etc.). So I meet with one student to discuss 19th-century British novels and another to discuss writing memoir and another to discuss contemporary lit and another two to discuss YA lit. And then there's the research I'm doing on Julia Alvarez, re/reading all her books, looking up critical material, watching videos of interviews and talks.

But it's making me feel a bit like I'm suffering from multiple-personality disorder. This week I'm reading from a book on 6-trait writing assessment, rereading a memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family, combing through something like 20 recent books of poetry to select poems I really want to share with a student, rereading a YA novel about a protagonist who's falling apart emotionally, and rereading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with In the Name of Salome. (Actually, I'm beginning to see a couple of emergent themes, just listing these books--except for the 6-trait writing assessment, that is.)
I'm split between the freshness of immigrant experience and the familiar, loved territory of canonical Victorian texts, between making sure I know all the well-established critical arguments about a text and forming a critical perspective on poems and novels that haven't yet been loaded with the baggage of a dozen critical arguments.

The good thing about all this is the fun of sitting down with a pile of books, telling myself, "I'll assign myself about 50 pages of the YA novel, and then I'll read about 25 poems, and then I'll reread the last part of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Then maybe I'll read 3-4 of my students' essays comparing the graphic novel American Born Chinese with the play Golden Child. And I'll check a couple of the logs that my upper-level students turned in."

The bad thing is that at some point I suffer brain fatigue, and I start watching Japanese anime, or I find a really good reason to go scoop out the cats' litter pan, or I get out my cell phone and watch all my videos of my infant granddaughter. Hmm, as I'm writing this, I'm thinking it's about time to get back to those essays . . . or maybe that YA novel . . . or maybe video . . . .

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writing Circles

Thanks, Jim Vopat, for a wonderful idea--the writing circle. I selected the book Writing Circles (Heinemann, 2009) for my Teaching Writing class, on the basis of a quick review of the exam copy, and I've been delighted with it. The writing circles are modeled on literature circles, and they incorporate all the elements of writing workshop and process that I want students to be conversant with after taking the class, but they also give an extra dimension of structure to a couple of workshop features that can be challenging to manage: peer response and student choice of topics. The approach is suggested for all levels of writing instruction, and I look forward to incorporating it in my first-year and upper-level writing classes next year.

Personally, I've long been ambivalent about peer response, and I really distrust peer editing--something I've never implemented but that some of my students have participated in at some point in their writing careers prior to college. When peer response happens only a few days throughout the semester, it can be awkward and artificial. I usually give somewhat specific guidelines for peer response sessions, but I feel that students often go through the motions--knowing that what "counts" is the teacher's response because it's the teacher who gives the grade.

Moreover, I'm a great believer in more or less individual choice in writing topics, within certain parameters. It can be difficult for students to respond well to their peers' writing if their peers are writing about different topics. Yet I really like giving students some control over topics. In first-year writing, sometimes this takes the form of giving them a choice among readings from a limited list I've generated, and then writing essays in response to their readings that have specific parameters--such as a research base, or a requirement that their essay refer specifically to material in three different chapters of a book they've read, etc.

In the writing circles approach, the small group selects the topic all members will write on, but each student chooses the genre and style for the writing, the length of the text, and so on, individually. What this suggests, to me, is that students can explore a topic together, so that they share a knowledge base that will help them think critically about each other's writing. But the individual choices they make will mean that they aren't looking for cookie-cutter essays that follow teacher dictates.

The book has a lovely chart (on page 7) that shows how the small-group approach creates an important balance between student-directed and teacher-directed activities. Vopat also includes great suggestions for building rapport, generating ideas (with an impressive list of potential genres), incorporating the writing notebook, selecting topics for minilessons, giving response, and assessing writers' progress.

My Teaching Writing students, upper-level undergraduates who plan to teach at all levels from kindergarten through college (and some in Special Ed), have been practicing writing circles for several weeks. I've been impressed with their investment in their writing for their peers, and most days they sound like they're having fun reading aloud to one another and selecting the next topic. I'm really happy that I selected this book.

Why blog?

Why blog anyway? That's the question I ask myself after long lapses between my posts. Nearly every time I start writing again, my writing is prompted by an assignment that I've given my students, when I ask, "How can I ask them to do something that I have such a hard time keeping up with myself?" I see two questions emerging here: (1) Is a teacher obligated to complete the assignments she gives to her students? (2) What are the advantages of writing in a blog as compared with other venues or genres?

(1) I believe that a teacher should complete a fair proportion of the assignments she gives, to make sure that she understands the effort and time involved in the work. When I assign poems, for instance, I think I should write in the same genres because I don't often write poems, and I need to remind myself of the challenges they pose: succinctness, use of metaphor, rhythm, precision in word choice. When I assign memoirs, I need to remember how scary it is to be nakedly honest, as is necessary in good memoir writing (and to remember it's especially scary to share that honest writing). When I assign blog writing, I want students to write regularly and to choose a tone appropriate to the subject of the blog--and to maintain a reasonable succinctness (something I have a hard time doing myself). Practicing blog writing throughout the duration of the assignment helps me appreciate the time and thought that goes into this regular writing on the web.

(2) Which brings me to the second point: why the blog, particularly? I think the blog is the best current venue for timely professional exchanges of opinion and ideas about teaching. When we articulate our ideas for the potentially larger audience that reads blogs on the web, we need to think through those ideas more thoroughly than often happens when we're writing for the classroom audience in a (relatively) safe space. When students know that the English teacher will give them another chance with revising, they sometimes turn in really rough rough drafts. In another manifestation of their feeling of safety, many students will write just about anything for an English teacher's eyes, sometimes confessional writing that I'd really rather not read! In contrast, much of the writing we do in the "real world" is not one bit safe--as young adults have been learning in social networking sites, sometimes to their great harm. So it seems to me appropriate to ask students to think carefully about what they can say for a potentially wide audience of people they don't know personally.

Today I got an email from someone who'd happened on one of the webpages I've posted as a resource for students and colleagues. The sender informed me that one of the links no longer works and suggested an additional link, something I really appreciated. I haven't used the page and haven't updated it for several years, and I'd completely forgotten it was still on the server. This email was a timely reminder that the web documents created for a specific, timely purpose remain available to a wide audience, once they're on the web. It reminded me that writing for that large, unknown audience puts us on our best professional behavior--a lesson worth learning by prospective teachers.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Teaching Writing One-to-One

This is not news. One-to-one teaching is more effective than one-to-many teaching. As a Writing Center person, I know that I can have a real impact on a student's writing when I can sit beside her and ask her about her ideas and push her to say more and to make connections. And we can talk about the stylistic choices she's making--word choice, sentence length--and what the implications of those choices are. Then, I hope, the student goes away with ideas she can put to use in further revising or in drafting the next text on her own.

So why have I structured my Professional Writing class with lots of class activities and readings this fall? Wouldn't it have been better to have set it up to revolve around regular conferences? Of course it would! That's the way I'll do it next time--since it's now too late to build in very many more conferences this semester.

And the books that I love--books like Bird by Bird and One Year to a Writing Life and Fearless Confessions and Eats, Shoots & Leaves--maybe I should make fewer reading assignments in this course. Since I get so much out of them, maybe I should take activities and short quotations from them into the classroom and give students short in-class assignments but stop expecting them to take away the gold from whole-chapter reading assignments.

I should know by now that most students will not read assignments if they are not tested on the reading, and they define learning in terms of the least they need to do to get a satisfactory grade in a class. But I read writing books that inspire me and make me excited about writing and I (foolishly?) imagine the students will love to read about writing and will suck up these ideas like thirsty sponges. Perhaps I'll continue to be a misguided idealist, counting on these English majors and Comm Studies majors and pre-service teachers to appreciate the writing advice these wonderful writers share.