California English Journal
Someone said that the old days couldn't have been that bad because the people who went to school back then are running the republic today, and the republic runs pretty well today, thank you very much. So whatever characterized the republic's schools thirty and forty years ago might not have been as we would like, but it schooled a generation of citizens who continue to advance the system. Those of us who go back that far remember diagramming sentences, circling adjectives in naked lists, defining verbs as action and state of being (whatever that meant). We also remember submitting papers on many Fridays that our teachers read and marked up, or down, over the weekend and returned early in the week with some "awks," encircled words, "very goods," and a score or grade. Most of us got "awks" because few teachers taught us how to think and write clearly. But it wasn't so very bad. Most of us grew up to vote, work, and have effective children. And a few of us grew up to be English teachers.
For those of us who grew up to be English teachers, somewhere between our graduation from high school in the late 1950s and our entrance into the profession in the middle 1970s, things changed. We left the product-centered English teacher in the past generation and became the new generation's process-centered English teacher.
It turns out that our process-centered generation is probably better than the product-centered generations of the past. It also turns out that, as futurists persist in reminding us, the rate of change increases geometrically. So while the change from product to process took a long time, the next change won't take nearly so long.
The last dramatic change found us looking at how young writers write (i.e., "process"), and the instructional emphasis focused on how to promote writing more effectively. We predict the next dramatic change will find us looking at both how and what young writers write, but the change will emphasize both what and how their teachers teach, as well. The specific distinction between promoting writing and teaching writing will be important because the record from the latter portion of the 20th Century suggests that teachers promoted writing more effectively than ever before, and young writers, therefore, wrote more, but little or no better (Greenwald, et al, 1999). Changes in the first half of the 21st Century will feature what teaching writing looks like.
Writing is a discipline that can be taught and learned. Because it is a critical literacy discipline, it must be taught with at least the thoughtful planning and commitment we apply to teaching boys and girls reading and mathematics; and the plan must have at its foundation what we know about effective writing, idiosyncratic thinking and writing processes, and the demands of various writing tasks.
Changes in the 21st Century represent an elevated level of inquiry and conversation about writing and writing instruction that clusters in four broad areas:
doesn't leave what young writers (and young historians, scientists,
mathematicians, and artists) learn to chance. Direct instruction teachers
tend to let young learners in on how historians and mathematicians
think, how scientists explore the world, and how experienced writers
think as they write.
It is not uncommon for third-grade teachers to teach the various uses of the comma. It is also not uncommon for the comma to be an instructional focus in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades as well. It is not uncommon for middle school teachers and high school teachers to be teaching the comma, still. And yet, a distressing number of the best high school graduates still use the comma clumsily when they are upper division university students and even graduate students.
Now there are only about five or six high-frequency uses for the comma in most writing, and all of them are required in sentences that young writers are able to write before they are finished with the fourth or fifth grade. The reason for this lack of understanding of how to use the comma can be gleaned from university students' self-reports. Many report that they had never been told exactly how to use the comma and that they had been told to get their ideas out on paper and take care of the punctuation later. Many also report that their teachers have always given then two grades -- one for content and one for mechanics -- and the content grade was invariably the one that ended up on the report card.
From the students' self-reports, we can draw three conclusions: 1) they weren't given clear directions about how to use commas in their own writing, 2) their teachers believed they would gradually learn on their own, and 3) the students weren't paying attention, which may be true for some students. We can draw one inescapable conclusion: mechanical correctness does not result from merely writing a lot.
This is where direct or intentional instruction enters the conversation. Throughout the language arts, to say nothing of the larger curriculum, an indirect approach toward teaching can result in some serious misconceptions by children and adolescent learners. In the larger curriculum, it is dangerously late in the educational process when students come to understand the nature of history. They tend to have learned the chronologies found in history books, but many have little or no sense of the voices of history, the problem of lack of availability of primary sources, and an essential sense of what historians do. It's the same in science. High school science students, and even university science students, confuse the method of science with the laboratory reporting format, assuming the latter is the former. The assumption is that if history and science students read enough history and participate in enough laboratory demonstrations, they will eventually figure out what history and science are.
Direct instruction teachers let young writers in on the systems for how writing works, the various formats, procedural knowledge, and conventions (Fearn, Leif and Nancy Farnan. Interactions: Teaching Writing and the Language Arts. Copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Used with permission. pp. 36-37).
The 21st Century will find teachers demonstrating the clear distinction between teaching writing and merely promoting writing. Twenty-first Century teachers will teach writing intentionally, and their teaching will focus on three forms of content critical to writing well: craft, processes, and the relationship between form and function (often operationalized as genres).
The writer also crafts the language by using tools and materials to make meaning. Writers don't master their craft, or master the art of crafting effectively, through mere practice any more than musicians master their craft through mere practice or sculptors craft statues by endlessly chipping stone. Mozart and Michelangelo had teachers who taught what young musicians and sculptors have to know if they are to become artists. They practiced, of course, but all of their practice rested on intentional instruction early, and both intentional instruction and guided apprenticeship later. Their teachers knew that practice makes permanent, not perfect, and without instruction and guidance, young sculptors simply habituate, at best, pedestrian art.
The 21st Century will see daily, systematic, and intentional instruction in the writer's craft. For example, teachers will teach intentionally how to think in and write a sentence, in the context of young writers' own writing and without reference to descriptive terminology that no one, novice or experienced, uses as a writing template. Teachers will teach sentencing without reference to the impossible abstraction of a thought that is not complete. Teachers will teach paragraphs as organizational units, they'll teach how to select appropriate words, and they'll teach how to use conventions as meaning markers.
and Performing Writing
The iterative model for the interactive writing process accounts for interactions between writing process elements over and over again. The model shows repeated interactions -- not recursive applications of process elements, but repeated application of the interactions between process elements.
Writing instruction in the 21st Century will be explicitly faithful to what writers do when they write. The watchword will be authenticity. Writing as a creative act will be enhanced precisely because it will be regarded instructionally for what it is in its most pristine form -- the generation, embellishment, and management of ideas arranged according to a discipline that creates meaning.
That authenticity demands that young writers are not deluded into believing that they think in and write sentences and paragraphs in order to demonstrate that they can think in and write sentences and paragraphs. Writers write to make meaning, and the meaning flows on the interactions between form and function, rhetorical design, and purpose (genres).
To write persuasion, then, young writers must learn how to think in and write arguments that can influence the ideas of their audience. Their teachers teach them to think with and write facts and examples, reasons, comparisons, and analogies.
That is simple enough, at least in the description, but what about the noun that follows the adjective form of "persuasion?" If we're going to teach persuasion honestly, we have to teach the form, the essay , honestly, as well. It comes from Michel de Montaigne's invention from some 500 years ago (1958).
A 21st Century writing teacher will not require that every student's essay appear as a classic exploration that contains a point only if the writer finds one during the trip. (S)he also won't require that every student's essay rest on a predetermined point that appears in the opening paragraph. The next generation of young writers will learn how to use the essay to explore and to explicate ideas. And what young writers in the 21st Century will know most of all is what quality looks like in each genre, so they'll know what they're trying to achieve. And the attributes of quality will come from what practitioners of the genres consider quality criteria. In the case of persuasive writing, the wall chart might look like this.
How Will the
Teachers from college and university teacher education programs will work with experienced teachers who are making and have made the necessary changes. However, they'll also come from university classrooms under the direction of professors who, themselves, have come to understand that writing is taught, not caught, and, therefore, teach their students how to teach, not merely promote, writing.
Change means rethinking terminology and the attendant meanings. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It means altering our practices, and it means altering our understanding of our practices. Of course, there will be some who persist in promoting writing as a single stage-bound recursive process. Some third graders will still be circling adjectives, and ninth graders will be typing (as distinct from writing) with formulaic "training wheels" installed in the fourth grade and never removed. Change will occur, however, as it always does. We will teach children and youth to write well. That is the professional promise of the 21st Century.
BE CAREFUL WHAT
YOU ASK FOR
"High school teachers don't teach the thesis," my first-born son declared. This is precisely the kind of comment Craig knows will get me riled up, but this comment started a conversation that ended in a presentation to high school teachers about "teaching the essay." The High School Exit Exam, the Star 9, and the API scores are fodder for those who want to point fingers at our high schools, particularly by those not in the teaching profession. As a high school college prep English and English as a Second Language teacher who does in fact teach the thesis, I reacted defensively to Craig's comment. However, since the person delivering the criticism was my son and a teacher of Writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I listened. Craig teaches some of the top freshman students who exit our high schools. Many of these students take our very best classes and are taught to write an analytical essay with a thesis. But many of these same students go to the university still needing introductory writing courses.
At the high school level, I find that the analytical essay is a difficult form of writing for students, particularly for students in the lower grades. Their vocabulary, cognitive thinking skills, and understanding of complex writing forms improve with each successive year. Learning writing skills is a long process, and high school teachers play a crucial role in the teaching of the essay.
Students do work on the essay with multiple revisions and drafts, but not as often as needed. This is the kind of process, though, that is necessary to master the essay and to sufficiently prepare students for the university. Unfortunately, the high school curriculum is not created to master any one form of writing. Students are asked to split their time working on narratives, journals, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and literary analysis, among other forms of writing.
Another problem is the semantics used to talk to our students about the essay form. The term "short answer essay" is used across the curriculum. Many of these "essays" are not really essays; they are assigned as short answer responses to a test or are reader response answers. If teachers want an essay with a clear thesis, they need to ask for an essay. If the desired response is a short answer or free-write to test knowledge, we need to be specific. If we ask for a retelling of information for a final test, the students should not be told they are writing a short "essay." On a test of limited time, students can assume the teacher knows the topic and information. On a test, there is no need for a well-constructed introduction and thesis in the first paragraph. In fact, often three paragraphs suffice as the whole answer. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of test. However, these are short answers to a question, not an essay response to an essay prompt. These kinds of problems led us to investigate the ways that essay prompts can cause student confusion.
When we looked at prompts, I soon realized that my son not only had an excellent point, but also that teachers need to look at "the prompt" as a potential problem. (During the student teaching year, we begin to accumulate anything we don't have to invent. Inherited prompts, literature guides, and the and the Internet are some sources for essay questions.) After analyzing many, we picked out those assigned for an essay using To Kill A Mockingbird. These prompts illustrate the problems that the student might face when constructing an essay with a thesis that can be defended.
Though these distinctions may seem subtle or even insignificant, a defined and consistent use of the term "essay" relieves student anxiety, and well-written prompts will elicit better student writing.
* * * * * * *
I would not qualify
my comment "High School teachers don't teach the thesis" as sarcasm
or humor, but it was said to tease my mother into a defensive position.
I do not remember the particular day vividly, but I probably visited
after a day of instruction on "the thesis" in one of my introductory
writing courses at the university. I tell my students to think of the "thesis" synonymously
The issue of students writing effective thesis statements is inextricably linked to teacher prompts. Without a prompt that clearly invites an argument and a developed support of that argument, students become confused about the "essay" and what it entails. The "teasing" episode about instruction on the thesis led to a presentation to high school teachers about how to better structure prompts. We learned that a great prompt will not guarantee a great essay, but it will help students understand the kind of writing expected from them.
Essays are difficult enough to write, and a good prompt will help students more clearly see the purpose of an assignment. As we analyzed teacher prompts for essays, we recognized some patterns in problematic essay prompts: they were often too long; they were assigned to text knowledge; they asked for a re-telling of a story; they did not ask for the development of a thesis; they asked too many questions; or they asked for description of plot, character, or setting.
Prompt # 1
This asks for a definition essay, in which students will explain how their conceptions of the word "courage" were re-defined or just slightly changed by Harper Lee's novel. As the question is now framed, though, students must follow a three-step process before arriving at the final demand of the essay.
The first question asks students to describe the different "aspects" of courage in the novel, and most likely, students will believe that this is their first task rather than a step in a process. Students, then, relate incidents in the story where courage is illustrated, but they do not incorporate this step into the other two. If students treated this single question as the essay question, they would come up with a thesis that focused on Harper Lee's conception of courage.
The next question builds on the first, in that the question is targeted more toward students than toward Harper Lee. It now asks for a more "objective" definition of courage, demonstrated by the use of the word "we." Students here come up with various definitions of courage, and these definitions do not necessarily refer back to the incidents in the novel where courage is illustrated. Students often do not see the relation between these first two questions, and this is partly because they are framed as separate questions that do not reference each other. These first two sentences could easily be combined so that the student clearly sees that each type of courage defined must be supported with evidence from the text.
We believe that the last question is the most important question because it asks students to arrive at a final definition of courage, assuming that Lee's novel has reformulated their initial definition of courage. This last question also presumes that students will contrast their initial definition of courage with their "final" definition of courage. But this final question shifts the focus from the "we" to the "you," and students may again view this shift as a call for a separate answer rather than for a unified answer.
Students treat this prompt as a three-part response, and they do not come up with a single thesis statement that incorporates all three questions into a single answer. To elicit a better response, we rewrote the prompt as seen below.
REWRITE: In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee reformulates (changes) the meaning of courage. How is courage redefined in the novel?
This single question captures the essence of the assignment-it asks students to recognize that Lee plays with and ultimately changes our conception of courage. Students are asked to state how courage is re-defined, and this will involve showing how the author does this. Showing how, or illustrating how, the author does this involves bringing in examples from the text. Writing a Directive above the prompt such as "Incorporate examples from the novel to support your claims," will ensure that this is done.
Here is an example of a schizophrenic prompt. This prompt asks four different questions, and each of these could sustain an essay. The first question asks for an analysis of the title in relation to the text. This is a good question, but it is extremely general. Students can take this question in many different directions, depending on their interpretation of the novel. For teachers who do not want to read 20 papers that sound the same, this general prompt may be appealing. For those teachers looking for something more uniform, this prompt may not be the best choice.
The second question is much more specific in terms of direction. Students know they must choose two characters and then show how these characters "represent" mockingbirds. This demands a two-fold interpretation.
The third sentence is repetitive, since this guideline is already stated in the Directions. It is best to avoid writing rules or guidelines within the prompt itself, for this distracts students from the goal of the prompt: to clearly understand what is being asked of them.
The last sentence includes a third and fourth question. These last two questions are subordinate to the first two questions, but because these come last, students may interpret these last questions as the most important. Students will probably include parts of the last questions in answering either of the first two, but this prompt structure will confuse the reader.
Lee uses the theme of "mockingbirds" throughout the novel. Choose two
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
to Student Writing
At the beginning of every section of "Writing and the Young Writer," a class for senior English majors who plan to teach high school, I focus their attention on the mathematics of responding to student writing:
How many classes a day do you expect to teach? We settle on five.
How many students in each class? We settle on 30, recognizing that some classes are more and some less.
How many 2-page formal papers do you think students should write? We figure it out at one every two weeks, though they always think it should be more.
How many weeks in the school year? We settle for 30, given the weeks lost to beginnings and endings and testing.
So how many pages are you going to have to read each year?
How long will it take you to read and respond to those pages? We figure it at 6 minutes per page - just to make the math easy!
Over and above
lesson preparation and committee work and back to school
It's no wonder
that formal papers, which are so labor intensive both for the student
and the teacher, are not assigned more often. No-one has that kind
We have to do
whatever it takes to free up enough time to respond to their writing,
but even if we manage to do that, we still need to make the most
What is needed
if student writing is to improve is that each effort, each "essay,"must
be taken seriously by a skilled reader. When a student writes
Even so, under
the best of circumstances, it sometimes seems as though our feedback
doesnât help anyway. Some writers get better and some don't,
But one small sign I have seen that my comments and questions on student papers can sometimes produce good results comes out of my practice of asking for a post script in place of a full blown revision. On my best days, I type my comments on studnets's essays on a separate sheet of paper, using numbers in the margins of the text as reference points.
I try to use the full range of comments suggested by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff in Sharing and Responding. I imagine the student getting the paper back and attempting to figure out what my comments mean, so I try to put them in the form of complete sentences. I say, "I was confused here because you just said that TV is a good thing and now you're saying it's a bad thing. How can it be both?" rather than simply "This is confusing." Or perhaps: "Do you mean that in his novels he writes about his own childhood fantasies?"rather than "Unclear."
It only makes sense
for me to write extensive comments and questions in response to their
papers if they are prepared to reconsider what they have written in
I realized the potential of this method a few years ago when I handed back a paper in my Childrenâs Literature class and then a few days later received a ten page typed response to my comments. The young man in question was a good writer, used to getting good grades. I had noted several passages in his paper that were unclear to me, asked questions in other places and generally taken him seriously. Partly out of irritation at the grade Iâd given him, but mostly out of a need to explain what heâd meant, he had taken my invitation to write a post script seriously. What he wrote was quite unlike his more conventional student paper. He wrote with the authority of one who has thought deeply about a subject. In answering my questions and addressing my reservations, he went on to anticipate further objections and carefully argued around them. His tone and voice changed from bland competence, albeit at a pretty high level, to engaged sophistication.
It doesn't always
work this way. Sometimes students will simply get defensive and more
or less re-state their original arguments, but even here I note a change
Here is Terri's original passage from a paper in which she was asked to reflect on an early writing experience:
I wrote a paper
that I was really proud of, and I looked forward to reading the comments
that my teacher would write back to me. But, I received a D on the
paper. I was completely crushed. I had never received anything less
than an A on an essay before. It was very embarrassing for me. The
teacher's only explanation of my grade was that my writing was too "wordy,"and
that I used unnecessarily large vocabulary words. My friend, who
I knew did not truly understand the novel, received an A on the paper.
I could not understand it. I came to the conclusion that although
my writing had been well enough for an elementary and junior high
student, that it could not cut it in high school. I decided to give
up my dream of becoming a writer. Not wanting to risk failure again,
I quit really trying in my English classes after that. My writing
In my comments
on this section I wrote that although her teacher's explanation, "too
wordy,"didnât sound very convincing, perhaps the paper really
In her post script Terri wrote:
I agree that
the essay may have deserved a D, although it seems unlikely that
it did, based on what I remember of the essay itself and the teacher's
an essential part of writing. Like Nancy Atwell, I believe students
should be encouraged to resubmit papers. It seems ludicrous to me
to turn away a student who is asking to rewrite a paper that received
a poor grade. Because of my experiences, when I teach language arts
I will be very careful to explain to students precisely why they
received a grade, and to encourage rewrites from students. If a teacher
is not very careful and sensitive when giving out poor grades, studentsâ
This is not the most dramatic example of writing improvement one could produce, and there are still some mistakes one could correct, but what I want to point out here is that without any direct instruction, Terri now looks like a much more competent writer.
In the extract from her original paper she writes 191 words in 14 sentences, an average of under 14 words per sentence. Two of the three longer sentences are made longer by the use of "and;"only one is formed with a subordinate clause. I find only 4 instances of "moves"that indicate her understanding of the needs of a reader or that show some syntactic sophistication: "but"at the beginning of the second sentence; the simple relative clause "who I knew did not truly understand the novel;" the subordinate clause beginning "although;"and the negative participle phrase before ãI quit really trying.ä And her lack of interest or involvement is shown in the sentence that's probably not even proofread ("I came to the conclusion etc").
In her post script, Terri writes 245 words in 12 sentences, for an average sentence length of 20 words. Even the shorter sentences are longer than in the original. I have underlined twelve examples of the more sophisticated "moves"I mentioned earlier. Two of the texts Terri had been asked to read are also mentioned appropriately, albeit briefly, in this sample, which also adds to the general air of confidence and thoughtfulness. There is also a greater sense of coherence in the second passage. Notice how, for the most part, there's a clear verbal connection or echo between sentences:
In drawing attention to the difference in average sentence length, I am not suggesting that better writing is always marked by longer sentences. But it is clear that a pattern of short sentences without any logically linking terms (like 'but," "nevertheless," and "although"), and without any repeated or echoing words or phrases is a feature of less proficient, less sophisticated, more dull writing.
The growth of
thought and speech, James Moffett argued, is a process of elaboration, "away
from lumping things together globally, and towards separating things
About the Author:
Is it possible to be committed to teaching a quality writing program and have a life? My sons tell me that they never wanted to be teachers because of all the time they saw me at the dining room table grading papers. Of course, I graded papers at baseball, basketball, and soccer games, in the doctor's waiting room, on buses, and after the kids went to bed at night. I labored under the delusion that if I worked harder, my students would write better. Now I am convinced it's possible for students to learn and grow when the teacher works smarter not harder. Some of the techniques involve what to do before a paper touches your hands, some require that the students be trained in reader response, others are short tips and tricks for saving time. All have been gleaned somewhere from other teachers, whom I will credit when I remember their names.
The writing piece is merely the tip of the iceberg, I tell my students. For example, what I am writing now represents over thirty years of hunting and gathering. Thus teachers need to make sure that students are ready to write. They need to see good models of the type of writing they are studying and need to talk about what features make the writing successful. They need to learn different types brainstorming, and they need to be given springboards for writing, such as graphic organizers, discussion in large and small groups, viewing media, reading, searching, and interviewing. We need to give lead time for large projects so students may gather information and percolate their ideas.
Some students, particularly English language learners and reluctant and/or inexperienced writers, may need even more structure than a graphic organizer provides. They may need to be taught the age old-technique of imitation. For example, students love imitating poems such as Judith Viorst's "If I Were in Charge of the World" or her book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. Literature abounds with good writing that children can make their own through creative imitation. For the English language learner, this type of writing helps them discover English sentence structure as well as experience success.
My friend, Peggy Dewar Bowen, retired third grade teacher extraordinaire, reminds me often that teachers need to model carefully what they want. Children deserve to hear and/or read a rich sampling of student work from former classes as well as professional writing.
If we use the work of students, by the way, we must ask them to fill out a release form and have their parents sign it, too. My colleague, Alane Vaughn, who often presents workshops for the Great Valley Writing Project, has her students complete the form at the beginning of the year.
Another great form of modeling is used by kindergarten teachers, such as Beth Doe, teacher emeritus in the Lodi District. The class writes together to the prompt. As the teacher records the story, she carries on a conversation with the students in which they review conventions, discuss various ways of phrasing the ideas, and talk about structure. She also has students handle the pen, allowing the teacher to do internal evaluation of the student's knowledge as they sound out the word or phrase each records on the class story chart. Teachers throughout the grades can use this technique, as well as the others mentioned above, to assure that when the students produce their first draft, they will have a clearer idea of what they are supposed to produce and how to do it. When we pave the way for quality work in the first draft, we save ourselves some quality time.
In addition to the various forms of modeling good performance, we need to teach our students good response techniques. Rebekah Kaplan recommends a way of doing this which also cuts down on the paper load. For example, when she is trying to teach a particular skill such as writing good descriptive paragraphs, she collects a set of papers and randomly reads some aloud. At first she models a response to stellar paragraph or essay. After the students hear several model responses, she asks them to respond to other essays.
Ms. Kaplan gives credit to everyone who submits a writing assignment, but she only grades the ones she reads aloud. Not only is she modeling peer response, but she also provides the students many writing opportunities without overloading herself. Later the students choose from among several of these first drafts which they will move to a final draft. Over the course of a term, everyone will likely hear several of their compositions read aloud.
Students need even more specific training in being peer responders. After they have practiced the method described above, they need to be taught to use writing rubrics to judge their own work as well as the work of others. Sometimes a ready-made rubric is foreign to the students. What can make it more personal for them is to develop class rubric before studying one that is ready-made. Linda Chittenden has done this with fifth graders. Students may be surprised to see how much their idea of good writing resembles that of professionals.
Here's a way to use rubrics in a way that resembles daily oral language but uses the real live student work--Keep a class set of overhead transparencies, overhead marking pens, and paper with visible line guides to use under the transparency. Occasionally assign short compositions (identified with a code and not a name) to be written directly on the transparencies. Put a few on the overhead each day and have the class use the rubric you've developed to analyze and critique the compositions.
Ms. Chittenden has another method to teach children to help each other with their writing. She will read a student paper to them until she comes to a bland "telling" sentence and will ask everyone in the class to make it a magic moment by infusing it with sensory detail and dialogue. Students volunteer to read these magic moments aloud. The writer can then choose one of these or use it as a model to revise the piece of writing. She uses another technique to help students achieve more specific writing and therefore writing that has less for the teacher to "correct." As the children are reading, they look for vivid verbs. When they find one they really like, they create a chart with a picture and a sentence using the verb.
Helen Yee teaches her students a questioning technique to help them help each other revise. She asks them to write questions on the peer's essay that will encourage the writer to flesh in the composition. Of course, she models this technique for them until they understand it.
It's a wonderful world if you have access to a bank of computers to aid you in giving the students practice in peer editing and response. I have a most vivid memory of this process working. My students were putting together a multi-language folk tale book. Some of the stories were in Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and Tagalog. If was fun to hear them arguing among themselves about what needed to be corrected. Since I didn't know these languages, they had to rely on one another.
Every writing assignment does not have to teach every writing skill known to the human race! Develop a checklist for each composition which relates to limited, specific objectives that you established when you introduced the style of writing. Do not try to cover every writing skill each time. Do not write every correction on every page. Instead take note of some of the problems everyone is having and discuss those problems with the class or tailor direct instruction to those areas of concern.
use this simple revision technique--ask students to work in pairs or
small groups in which they take turns either reading their papers aloud
to each other or having someone in the group read it. This reading
aloud will help them discover when they've left out words or written
something that doesn't make sense. Occasionally let the students use
the "author's chair." It gives students a chance to hear themselves
trying to communicate to a real audience. In addition, it gives the
teacher a way of diagnosing the individuals strengths and where improvement
is needed. In addition, the students and the teacher can enjoy the
response of the audience. Students who are motivated by audience response
are easier to teach because they start to see themselves as writers.
Speaking of burdens, student distaste for the act of writing weighs us down. The cure--broaden their audience. Could they write letters to other people? Could their work be videotaped and shown to the class? Could they transform a piece of fiction into a play? Could they prepare material for an oral presentation? Could they submit work to the school newspaper? Could they write letters to the editor or to their favorite celebrity? The average child may not find sufficient motivation in writing class assignments merely as practice for a distant writing assessment.
Many writing teachers use journals to help students develop a wealth of resources that they may use later for more formal assignments. You can also use journals as learning logs to discover how well your students are understanding what you have just taught. If you feel you must grade every entry, this could be another terrible burden. Collect the journals every few days instead of every day. Respond to a few students at random each day, or collect the journals weekly and select one entry to comment on. Better yet, use Sheila Landre's self-evaluation method. She allows time for journals, observes what the students are doing and gives them credit based on their consistency and productivity. They fill out the evaluation form themselves. She can balance these evaluations with the observations she has made over time.
My friend and colleague Jana Lane has a wonderful energy-saving technique which also helps build her class community. Every day three students take notes on the activities of the class. The students can file these in a class binder along with extra handouts for students who have been absent. When the students return, they know they must go to the binder to gather the information they need to know to catch up. The job of "secretary" rotates every day, and students receive credit for this work.
If you have structured your lessons so that the students are well prepared to write, and you have trained them to become active participants in your classroom writing community, you should be on the path to freedom from the paper load. Now I'd like to share some other simple hints and tips gathered from colleagues I've worked with over the years.
About the Author:
A Positive Outcome from the Tests?
Do you think because you have an expensive school system there shall be no more spelling mistakes? Free compulsory "education is a great thing, an indispensable thing, but it will not make the City of God out of Public School No. 26. -Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
I have been casting about, angling to find a positive take in California's testing obsession. Discovering what's good about the loss of teaching days, disrupted schedules, the tension, contention, and pretension endured at the school sites is a stretch. Imagine the excruciating temptation to write ironically or sarcastically. Oscar would be just wild, but I will maintain a mature point of view.
It occurs to me that there is a kind of sideways benefit from the past years' brouhaha concerning the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE-Gesundheit!). Despite the minuscule and variable influence teaching professionals had in framing the framework and standardizing the standards, English departments around California have spent some quality time looking at what they teach and the way and the how they teach what they teach. Most of these English departments glanced over their shoulders aware that the exit exam lurked, slunk, or skulked in the distant shadows.
One outcome of these quality discussions ought to be that English teachers can finally agree on a standard group of skills and knowledge that California students ought to master. While teachers looked at their courses, their texts, their support materials, and their lesson plans, they also thought about the exit exam that is supposed to reflect a standardized curriculum. Sinclair Lewis demonstrated the benefit of standardized behaviors in Babbitt: standardized behaviors have certain predictable benefits, predictability being a major benefit in itself. The standardized product that the CAHSEE purports to measure ought to be predictable and therefore a scientific documentation or ersatz student learning. Some forty of us at the Asilomar Spring Conference learned more than we wanted about the science of standardized tests.
Standardized, predictable test scores on the CAHSEE could provide the impetus to create a California version of the old French lycée system in which the central government knows what children are studying on Tuesday at 1015 hours, Thursday at 1300 hours, and so forth. The benefit, obviously, is that a child can transfer from a school in Ceres and know what he or she will study in Cool, Inverness, or Yucaipa without missing a page of homework. The complete knowledge of a civilization could be condensed and standardized and placed Readers' Digest-like between the covers of four or five good textbooks created by four or five good textbook-cum-testing companies.
The CAHSEE will test, among other skills, a student's facility with literary terms: the student will "recognize literary devices and figurative language ." Student should be able to talk about the subject matter using the correct terms. It occurs to me that such a skill probably indicates some learning. Theoretically, a set of useful literary terms should be easy to agree on. We're all professionals. If the recognition of literary devices and figurative language is somehow dependent on the glossaries included in various literature anthologies available to the largest textbook market in the US of A, then there's trouble in River City. A very random and unscientific sampling from about eight anthologies on a shelf in my classroom discloses a huge difference in approaches, definitions, examples, and sophistication in twelfth grade anthologies. One text provided only 70 terms; another provided more than 130 terms. If we can't get the publishers to agree on whether to keep anaphora or monostich or zeugma in the canonical list of terms, how can we possibly decide whether our students are educated enough to enter the worlds of academe or work?
Jacques Barzun, writing nearly sixty years ago in Teacher in America referred to "the inherent weakness of all modern literacy: it is half-baked and arrogant. It trifles solemnly with the externals of things, neglecting even the surfaces of the handles by which truth may be seized; it goes like a child for false glint or striking triviality of detail ." Any test that tries to quantify real education is half-baked; it necessarily seeks the striking triviality of detail. An educational system that tries to apply a numeric value and then translates that number into money is arrogantly seeking the false glint. How could Professor Barzun know that the State would implicate its teachers with bribes and incentives to go along with the trifling solemnity of an API score. What Barzun calls "addiction to fact" trivializes knowledge and understanding by reducing assessment to black and white contrasts bubbled in patterns in number two pencil .
The CAHSEE will also check whether students understand the difference between the literal meaning of a word and its figurative meaning. Students must also tell connotative from denotative. No one can argue that these standards probably help to demonstrate competence in language facility. What's missing, of course, is whether we've found a way to assess real learning. Any assessment instrument is only a shorthand exercise in abstraction. I have said before that I do not doubt that California English teachers will exceed the nominal challenge of the CAHSEE. The grand conversation (to borrow a California Lit Project term) about what, why and how we teach must continue in spite of bureaucratic edict, rolling blackouts, scores-for-dollars scams, to say nothing of the sea of troubles and bearing fardels.
Wayne Booth in The Vocation of Teacher reminds us, "I must underline the obvious point that curiously ambiguous term 'English' names the most important subject in the curriculum most important partly because it is subversive of values conventional or dominant in our culture ." Over the next five to ten years California will watch the single largest cohort of teachers in history retire. Many will choose to leave a year or two or three earlier than they might have because they don't feel connected to so-called "reform." Their idealism and optimism have been undermined or corroded by an educational culture that places more emphasis on testing than on academic growth or intellectual engagement. Will school districts select eager replacements who value subject matter over test-taking strategies? Test scores count for more than mere bragging rights.
The Boomer generation will pass the torch (is that literal, figurative, connotative, denotative, or cliché?) straining its fiery idealistic, experienced illumination toward a more youthful corp conditioned by conflict and criticism. The Boomer legacy in teaching English ought to be subversive in its sensitivity to the poetry and language of living. A nuanced vocabulary is only the beginning if we want to undermine the Babbitry that passes for bureaucratically imposed reform. Unlike a certain Dickensian gang of pickpockets, English teachers could deposit the occasional non-canonical literary term into the collective pocket of vocab lessons. Think of it: an "Alice's Restaurant and Massacree" for English teachers with its own non-conforming shibboleths - subtexts for subversives. You shall know them by the way they pronounce antonomasia or epyllion or stychomythia or ubi sunt. There is an American tradition of resisting authority and avoiding confrontation while sitting on the "Group W Bench." Since before Socrates' time, creative teachers have found ways to cultivate the seeds of doubt regarding received knowledge. You know the conceit. Because English teaching ought to translate the vocabulary of the everyday into language of the extraordinary, English teachers might heed John Adams' words just before the American Revolution: "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write." A subtle and far-reaching revolution may yet appear in California.
This issue includes persuasive research on the need for "intentional instruction" in writing by Leif Fearn and Nancy Farnan from San Diego State University. Joan and Craig Cotich from San Marcos High School and the University of California at Santa Barbara offer practical guidelines for improving analytical writing prompts. Angus Dunstan, Pat Egenberger, and Kathleen Gonzalez offer suggestions for helping you survive the paper load. By the time you turn the last page, I hope you will have garnered many useful ideas for teaching writing well.
Specific information about the STAR Writing Standards Tests and the writing portion of the CAHSEE can be found on the California Department of Education Standards and Assessments web page at http://goldmine.cde.ca.gov/statetests/. There you will see the four-point rubrics that have been used to score student papers as well as the prompts themselves and anchor papers with teacher commentaries. All of this information should help teachers to have a much clearer sense of what is expected of students on these standardized assessments. I believe that teachers should continue to use six-point rubrics in their classrooms as they offer more detailed and useful information to student writers and parents. The four-point rubric simply facilitates scoring. If you would like to see a copy of the six-point scoring guide Santa Monica High School uses, you can find it at http://english.samohi.org/. As with all living rubrics, it is a work in progress.
The grades 4 and 7 Writing Standards Tests include response to literature as one of the writing types, but the "responses" that students are asked to produce may look quite different from the responses you are currently eliciting from students. California law prohibits test items that ask students about their feelings or beliefs. Students will not be penalized if they write about their feelings in their responses, but test-takers will be expected to go beyond a personal response to interpretation. The STAR writing prompts ask students to interpret and analyze a piece of literature. If students offer only a personal response, they will not have met the dictates of the task.
California English, CATEnet, and CATE (www.cateweb.org) will continue to monitor the evolution of standardized testing and do our best to provide you with the information you need to make informed instructional decisions.