As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

You can be a deviant, too

When asked to summarize this book, I will forefront it's focus on Common Core. More a handbook on navigation than an overt argument in favor of CCSS, the authors guide readers in connecting the dots between standards and best practice, emphasizing all along the agency of the teacher (138).

In the book's concluding chapter, the authors mention use the term positive deviance to describe the behavior of changing something from the inside, using what's available rather than more top-down, externally driven revisions. As it pertains to us, positive deviance means collaboration in groups like the Writing Project to identify and implement those uncommonly good ideas for getting our students writing, reading, speaking and listening effectively, and the unscripted CCSS allow us this latitude. 

Sure, the book collects many "uncommonly good ideas" ideas, like developing teacher questions along with student questions to guide lesson planning and teacher-teacher collaboration, modeling effective and ineffective peer responses, and capitalizing on student interest and authentic audiences to promote student collaboration (all from ch. 5). But more so, its case studies and commentaries thereof provide readers a pattern for using CCSS as a springboard for inquiry and exploration to maximize what works for their students. It's certainly helped me reflect on my practices and prepare some ideas for our action inquiry. 

Content, Then Structure

And in the pecking order of what comes first—content or structure—let content be the front-runner and the determiner of structure. (loc 1679)

Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for saying this. As a new teacher, I do not yet have the experience to know always what I should stress. Our school has been pushing to write all essays in the SAT format, and without enough content, our students were struggling. All content that is taught or learned by students is not suitable to be in the SAT essay format. Here is where other genres and transitional assignments come in.
I loved the idea of transitional writing assignments. Often the kids and I are so done with a unit that we want that clean break, but I think that it would be helpful to scaffold for the next unit. This is also that time where the writing can be low risk and personal, which they always are happy to do.
Taking the approach of examining writing as what works or doesn't work, what makes it effective, what do you personally like about the writing would also be an easy transition assignment is another low risk but meaningful activity for them. As students grow as writers, finding good mentor writers and mentor texts are beneficial to them. Being able to pick out these qualities in the texts is the first step; the next is imitation. 
This chapter soothed me in that I was not an AWOL teacher doing what I wanted in my classroom. I am very happy to have read this chapter as support for how and what I teach!

Home on the Range

One of the most successful writing units I have taught in many ways mirrors the investigative/informative writing process that Chapter Three outlines. We read texts that discussed different aspects of Detroit and its history, present, and future. Based on what we had learned as a class, students broke off to follow their own interests in learning about their city. The unit worked out really well because the kids got into it. It also meant that they could learn from each other's paper topics at the end, which was a great way to close out the semester.
That being said, if I had to teach the unit over again, using more of the framework presented in this book, I think I would give them less time to write in class and spend more time on model texts. A lot of the confusions that kids had during the drafting process would have been cleared up had we spent a little more time looking at what makes a successful informative essay paragraph and practiced on those.
All of that being said, it looks like I'm teaching the same kids next year that I taught this year, so I obviously can't repeat that unit. If anyone has some really creative writing unit ideas, I am all eyes.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Oh - so that's what Spiraling means...

You know how when someone asks you if you know a song - they name the artists and title, maybe even the album, but you don't recognize it. But then you're in the car and your favorite new tune comes on, you sing along, then the radio host says the name of the song, and it's the song your acquaintance was talking about?

That's what it was like when I read the section on spiraling in chapter 4. I knew the concept (teaching the same concept and skill again and again over time with increasing complexity and difficulty), but not by that name.

On pg 78, the authors write, "Our commitment is to helping our students develop intellectually, not to checking off skills as if they were items on a shopping list (or on a set of standards). By spiraling writing strategies, teachers can support growth - even growth spurts - by weaving together past and present writing experiences."

Happily, my district demonstrated such commitment by devoting time (and state approved PD hours) for middle and high school teachers to meet and discuss how best to support one another, both vertically across grade levels and horizontally across disciplines. The results were some hearty conversations about authentic audiences and applicable argumentation, ending in a rough outline of curriculum we'd all try to hit in grades 6-10. We'll see how it works. I have hope, but I'm young and naive, as my mentor likes to remind me.

The Conclusion Paragraph (Chapter 6)

Chapter six does what all good conclusions should do:  it brings us back to the thesis, recalls the main ideas, and leaves the reader thinking.

In that spirit, here are some quotes that left me thinking:

"The CCSS are not a curriculum.  They provide a flexible kind of road map for teaching writing and identify ultimate destinations, but they do not require a particular route to get there," (132).
-This is a great quote to use with the next non-teacher who engages me in a conversation about the "evil Common Core."

"School should never be just a preparation for the next grade level or for some unknown job... School is about the present moment," (133).
-One thing I try to remember is that the the teen world is just as complex as the adult world.  Meet them where they are, and stop minimizing their stress, relationships, and place in this world, just because they are not "adults" yet.

"School has to be more than getting ready, getting by, or getting through," (134). 
-I think that the above quote from 133 leads to this style of thinking when it comes to school for our students.

Alright everyone!  I am excited to meet all of you on Monday!


Blog Collaboration-Traveling the World (Chapter 5)

So much content, so little time! 

Part of the final that I wrote for last year's World Literature class, comprised of mostly seniors, was a question asking what they would add to the class if they could.  Students are good at reinforcing what a teacher already knows, and I was convinced that I needed to represent more cultures in the readings for this class.

How?  How does one travel the world in nine months?

Liz Harrigan, one of the teacher-examples from this chapter, nailed it.  Let the students do the exploring.  Could it be this easy?  I don't have to slave over shoehorning more Latin American, Africa, Asian, and European authors into my already-dense curriculum?  

This idea really got me going.  I know that student blogs are not a new concept, but I love the way that Harrigan implemented them, and I equally love that her guidelines were included (105).  With a little tweaking for my college-bound seniors, I think this is definitely a take-away from this book that I can use in my classroom.  

Question for my colleagues.   I think students could do this two ways:
1. For each of the four semesters, choose a book from a different region.  This way, students are getting a range of perspectives.
2. Students can choose a region that interests them, and deeply study that region only.  This way, the student gains deep knowledge of one region. 

Should I offer these two options, or, would you stick to number one only? 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Transitional Writing (ch. 3)

Chapter 3 was a nice explosion of CCSS possibilities. Murphy and Smith explored a number of demands and simply demonstrated how teachers have met those demands with variety and versatility to engage both students and - arguably - the content more effectively. But the item that stood out to me was less expansion and more connection.

On pg. 47, the authors introduce Jim Moffett's idea of using investigative writing as a bridge to informational writing from narrative writing. In order to mitigate the severity of transition between the two genres, wading into investigative writing allows students to gather and write stories as evidence and data to be applied in an informational way. "It captures the idea of writing across a range without having to put boxes around different kinds of writing. One kind of writing can actually support another, and indeed it can flow into and be incorporated into another" (47). The elimination of the boxes would also help the students integrate new skills with established ones, allowing for a more holistic mindset for writing.

I've had some success with investigative writing in my 9th grade class where I introduce freshmen to the high school research paper. I ask the students to write about a school or student-related topic - something that could potentially inspire some sort of revision to their student experience. In doing so, I allow (and therefore require) students to seek out and acquire first hand information, be it an interview, a survey, an observation or an experiment. The investigative component usually assuages the more difficult drills of contextualizing, deploying, and connecting textual or source evidence. It's worked alright thus far, but I think structuring my units so that my investigative component is actually a transition from a prior unit will increase the effectiveness.

Scrimmages (Chapter Four)

Where I teach, sports rule.  Without exaggeration, I can confidently say that ninety percent of my students participate in some sort of sport over the course of the school year.  I felt a little like a mal-placed jigsaw piece, as I fit the crazy-creative-theater-literature teacher to a "t".  Review games became competitions like I had never seen before.  

This is why I love the idea of "scrimmages" for my students (83).  I teach mainly juniors and seniors, so there is less of a need to use long stretches of class time for writing instruction.  It's time for refinement, and teaching them the tips and tricks of college/career writing.  We use OneNote at my school for classroom assignments, so it will be as easy as creating a "tab" in their computer's notebook, and away we go!  This can be an as-needed aspect of my class, and built into my classroom routines.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Chapter Two--So Many Ideas

I loved this chapter. There were many new strategies that I can immediately use or slightly manipulate strategies I already use. This chapter made me very excited for the rest of the book!

I liked that there is a major emphasis on reading and writing being integrated, and that they should be integrated regularly (loc 586). My project that I would like to focus on is using mentor texts so this has been helping me build my case for our curriculum.

Peer revision I think is scary for many teachers because you have to trust your students to do it. Often the outcomes of student feedback ranges from pointless to repetitive or not descriptive. One trick they mentioned is giving short periods of time for feedback (loc 937). I always gave more time because I thought it would allow them to think about it more, but perhaps that would be better towards the end of the semester when they have done this more. They also gave ideas of how to frontload peer revision so that students know how to respond to what to respond:

     The trick is to teach them ahead of time what constitutes a helpful
     response. For this purpose, teachers often conduct an actual student 
     response group while other students look on, and then ask everyone to note 
     what they have seen. Another teaching tool is to play with the size of the 
     group. Starting with partners often simplifies the dynamics as students are 
     learning to talk about and analyze each other’s writing. Teachers can add to 
     the mix as students become more proficient and competent, from duets to 
     triads, to quartets, and so on. (loc 932)

One thing I had never thought about was the "progression of writing continuum" (loc 1244). Murphy and Smith talk about theorists are trying to figure out what genres should be taught at what grades, but I never realized that was an issue. I guess I had expected that students would be exposed to many genres continuously during their academic careers. I'm curious to know the different theories on this.

On a side note, if anyone wants to borrow Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, I have it to lend out! She is a Michigan author and this book was the Great Michigan Read pick in 2009-2010.

Teaching Journalism (Application of Chapter Three)

Hello all,  I hope that your Fourth was as full of hot dogs and fireworks as mine was!

Chapter three is a nice dive into writing as it pertains to application.  By now, we all know that the trend among savvy writing teachers is the get away from that dreaded five paragraph essay (though, I like it as a skeleton.)  I enjoyed the one-theme approach to teaching multiple styles of writing.

I am going to steer away from further analysis of the chapter, and get right down to the ideas it inspired for my Yearbook class.  Last year, I took a new job, and one of the classes bundled in that package was the Yearbook class.  At the end of the year, my principal asked me to add more journalistic writing so we could appeal to more students.

Until now, I have not really done much journalistic writing instruction, and I admittedly floundered last year and focused what had always been done; simplistic, canned summaries of what had happened during the year on each spread.

My Idea:  Each student will pick a topic that is interesting to them.  It can be fashion, design, robotics, food, or whatever inspires that student.  As we move through the different types of journalistic writing, that student will create an article in that style, while sticking to the theme that he or she has chosen.  They can incorporate photography, surveys, interviews, and really make it their own.

Now, for the big question for those who have taught Yearbook or Journalism.  WHERE DO I START?  Is there a Holy Bible of journalistic writing out there?   Any good teacher websites/blogs I should browse?  Do any of you teach journalism, and can I pick your brain next week?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Chapter Two (hooray for original post titles!)

While reading chapter two, I found myself underlining, starring, and placing poorly drawn hearts all over the pages. The authors' insistence that reading and writing were "two sides of the same coin," while not really revolutionary, was refreshing to read. The first few pages, with Murphy and Smith discussing the ways language activities are connected, a quartet, spurred a conversation between me and my husband while we sat on our porch watching neighborhood fireworks. We both attended the same high school only one year apart, and can recall very few instances of meaningful writing that was tied into reading, or discussion, or anything really. This made me worry that my own students may feel the same way.

As a still fairly new teacher (I just completed my third year), it has been my continuous goal to create a community of readers and writers. Each year I've felt like I've made more and more progress with my reading community and have looked to others for inspiration. This past year especially, I've taken notes from Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle to adjust the way we practice reading in the classroom. I noticed a fairly dramatic change in my students' attitude towards reading, at least when it came to choice based novels, but I still felt like I struggled to build that community of writers that I yearned for. As I read this chapter, I felt like hitting myself on the head because, duh!, I should have been looking at them as one in the same. It makes sense, because, as the Murphy and Smith stated, "Seldom does the writing muse do a solo dance. It takes a flurry of language activity-- the quartet of reading, writing, speaking, and listening-- to move our ideas forward," (11)

I really appreciated the simplicity with which the lesson was laid out-- informative, but still bare bones enough to make it my own-- and I loved the idea of bringing the students back to the "show, not tell" format that they are familiar with. I especially loved the many ways a student could take ownership of their writing, and best of all practice and celebrate themselves as writers. It seems so simple, but celebration is probably the piece that I falter with the most. My school has a stringent writing policy (eight district required three-page essays per year, MLA style, etc) that keeps students writing at all times, but it often feels like we are just rushing to the next piece. This chapter reminded me that the celebration piece is fairly crucial when building that community, and how little I focus on it in my own classroom while I'm trying to move the curriculum along.

Even as I continue to plan for next year, I'm trying to find ways to build my community. How do you do it? Have there been moments that you felt you had a true writing community in your classroom? What strategies or routines did you use to build the sense of trust, respect, and ownership that is necessary to a classroom writing community?

Best Practice Patterns

Chapter 2's detailed tour of a narrative writing lesson provided some key practices for all writing in classrooms. For some I found myself happily checking boxes in my head, recalling successful executions of those strategies in my class. For others, I found myself writing "duh" on my sticky note. The prescribed-but-adaptable format goes as follows:

  1. Starter/warm-up - Murphy and Smith key in on the basic practice of getting kids thinking about a thing before divining into that thing. In college we learned the fancy vernacular: "activating schema." The idea is to get the kids generating and organizing ideas based on their prior knowledge and experience, priming them to use that knowledge or integrate new ideas by most effectively chunking and fitting it with established knowledge. Pragmatically, it's a necessary tactic to help adolescents compartmentalize the chaos of their brains: ten minutes ago they studied Pythagoras and three minutes ago they were making out in the hallway - it's a lot to navigate. 
  2. Workshops and Mentor Texts - This year my school offered PD with Kathleen Kryza, who - with the gift of alliteration - calls the cyclical pattern of introducing an skill, practicing a skill, and assessing the proficiency with the skill  "chunk, chew, check." I found notes of this practice in the section of work shopping with mentor texts. The lesson asks several times for students to repeat a process of looking at a mentor text for something specific - descriptive diction, dialogue, reflective conclusions, etc. - talking/reflecting about what they learned from that text, then work shopping those skills. The core of this practice as cyclical allows students to bounce back and forth between reflection through texts that do well (so as to not get bored with one) and practicing their own craft.
  3. Final Reading and Writing Assignment - Cumulative while also the next logical step in the pattern, the duo of final work caps the pattern established in 2. It's not foreign or tricky, just the next progression. This frames writing as a skill that demands the coalescence of many tactics; none exist in a vacuum. 
  4. Revision - Murphy and Smith emphasize peer response as their preferred means of revision. Peer response, they say, contains every facet of ELA CCSS: speaking and listening, acknowledging writing as a process, analysis/evaluation of texts, and collaboration. There was much in  this section that I will attempt with more care in the coming school year. A standout was focused peer-response groups. The authors provide the example of practicing reflective conclusions. The teacher references the mentor text again, then allows the students to help each other on that specific part of the paper, minimizing the pressure to evaluate an entire piece (at one time, at least), thereby allowing the students to give more helpful feedback. 
  5. Celebration- I've not yet mastered the art of timing. By the end of the trimester, I usually find myself cutting sustained reading time or journals to give the students enough class time to work on their final papers. The idea of "celebrating" their work has thus far been limited to me enjoying a beer upon completing the grading of their papers. But that mindset robs the students of a writing community. Despite our emphasis on revision, it tells them that writing was a task that you completed for a grade, just like last night's math homework. If I want the students to think differently about writing, it stands to reason that I ought to invest time in celebrating their accomplishment as - well - an accomplishment. 
The lesson's design highlights the importance of warm ups to jump start prior knowledge, cyclical workshops with multiple mentor texts to practice and reflect, a final assignment paired with a final reading, a peer-response oriented revision, and the celebration. All of these lesson facets can incorporate the writing, reading, speaking, and listening demands of CCSS. 

My concern, as I think about adopting ideas from this chapter, is with mentor texts. I often find myself writing articles tailored to my student's needs or specific lesson designs, but that's not always a sustainable option. I'm sure that with time I'll accrue a library of texts I find or teacher's recommend, but that doesn't help me now. Does anyone know of any resources that can help provide short mentor texts? Or does anyone have a way of keeping track of all of their mentor texts besides a file/folder of which they are particularly proud?