As Dave Stone predicted, the individual writing time in the mornings of the UIWP 2012 Summer Institute has been my favorite part of the institute. I think of myself as someone who writes a lot for my job and for pleasure (assignments, curriculum, comments on essays, blogs posts, emails, and letters), but I don’t often block out time just to write and see where it takes me. I always have an objective and a deadline for my writing time.
During the summer institute, I have been working on a piece about my experience of being a stepmother that I’ve wanted to write for awhile but haven’t been able to conceive of how to start. It isn’t writing that has an audience yet (although at one point I thought I was trying to write an article for Bitch Magazine, but I’ve since realized that I was working too hard to force my memoirish writing into an analytical piece about cultural messages about parenting). Despite having worked at it every day during the summer institue, the writing is still unfinished.
I was terribly afraid to show it to my writing group, but Warner and Grace were good readers and gave me solid advice. I also realized that despite being nervous about it, I need a lot of feedback in the writing process, and when writing about things that have happened to me, it is helpful to get feedback from people who have know me during the time I’m writing about. After surviving sharing my writing with my writing group, I felt like I could send it on to a couple of close friends who I’ve processed a lot of the incidents and ideas I’m writing about (oh, and I shared it with the lovely Kara because, well, she’s just awesome).
I want to include a small piece of this writing in my online portfolio, because otherwise I don’t have much to show for the individual writing portion of the summer institute, but I’m not ready to show the full piece (because it is so, so unfinished). Here is what I’m thinking about including in the portfolio–it’s the first page.
The first time she ran away we spent the night chasing her. From house to house we went, disrupting dinners and upsetting parents. “No, we haven’t seen her, but we will let you know if we do.” “I’m so sorry, but for the grace of God…”
Meanwhile a secret network of teenage text messages zing around, “You dad wuz jst here.” “OMG, where are you?” After hours of knocking on doors, dragging children out of their rooms, unwelcome phantoms on the front yard, we had a phone number that led to her return, a shifty eyed, baggy panted boy saying, “I don’t want any trouble, I didn’t know she had run away, she’s in my car but won’t get out.”
When I met their father, she was 7 and her brother was 6. Her father told me her brother was the cuddly one who would talk to anyone, that she took a little more time to warm up. But her brother was always careful with me, already sensing at 6 that his mother believed love to be in limited supply and wouldn’t want him spending any of her portion on me. She, on the other hand, took to me right away, pulling me out of bed to draw pictures with her, smothering me on a lounge chair at the pool, wanting to be so close I worried she was trying to climb inside.
The second time she ran away, we didn’t know she was gone until it was too late. She was out the window and whisked away while we slept in the room above her. She walked in the door at 7:30 am on Valentine’s Day, me making heart shaped pancakes to serve her when she woke up.
I had chosen The Digital Writing Workshop to read as my third book choice for the summer institute, and I imagine I will eventually get around to reading it, despite the fact that I suspect the technology explained in it is already outdated (woe to the poor book author who writes 21st Century Literacy How-to Guides for Teachers. If I ever write a book, I hope it is something that can be reprinted ad infinitum without the technology going out of date. Probably not going to be writing a book).
However, I will not be writing about The Digital Writing Workshop today, because I was distracted by this piece, written by 4th year teacher Michele Kerr and reprinted on the Washington Post online. In it she describes a “perfect moment” in her classroom where 16th century poetry and 21st century pop music came together in a moment of clear and perfect learning for her students. It was the kind of moment that keeps teachers coming back to the classroom. She writes:
Some students literally jumped up and down as they realized that over three hundred years earlier, poets had gotten there first, that all those years ago grief and sadness, loss and longing were still best told in verse, not prose, and they began feverishly writing, underlining and circling words to make it clear that John Mayer and John Milton were writing about the same thing.
She goes on to write about how the lesson didn’t teach her students how to correctly spell “wife” or “grief” (they spell both incorrectly in their reaction paragraphs) and it did not conform to the format of lessons that her administrator expected her to prepare (no vocabulary lists, no pre-reading strategies), but that she knew real learning was going on in the classroom. She could feel it. And there is an energy that changes in the room when real learning starts to take place—it’s electric and sensual and rare—and it is not measurable on any standardized test. I have the tremendous privilege of teaching at a school that understands this and doesn’t require me to quantify those moments.
My own stepdaughter, however, is more like the students Kerr describes in her article, and I mourn that while she may well have given up on her education (she’s certainly given up on being interested in anything at school), her school seems to have sanctioned that surrender. In the words of Kerr:
Today, our educational system has no interest in truck drivers, manicurists, and retail clerks. All students must perform as if they are college bound. Since most of them can’t perform at that level, regardless of their desires, teachers must spend all their time getting as many students as possible close enough to understanding to fake it on a multiple choice question, to get those test scores as high as possible, even knowing that many students will never gain a real understanding of the demanded material. We can’t teach them what they need to know, and we can’t spare any time to give them knowledge they might find actually interesting, or experiences they can enjoy without forcing them to process it into analysis.
Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.
It was hot and getting hotter, the morning of my first writing marathon. It’s possible I had a bad attitude even before I got to the writing project. My only objective was to find a group of people who were willing to write inside where there was air conditioning–inside a cafe, a library, a meeting room–I didn’t care, so long as I didn’t have to sit outside and wilt. I found a group of similarly heat adverse writers and we decided to start in the tunnel that connects the University of Illinois Undergraduate Library (underground) to the main library. Little did we know where our decision to start writing in the tunnel would lead us.
Here is the plan I wrote for us in the tunnel:
Setting: The underground tunnel between the UGL and the main library. Fluorescent light flicker, illuminating the co-conspirators, cackling as they plan their attack.
The mission: access the Rare Book and Manuscript library and find the earliest example of grammar instruction in the collection.
The plan: send Charlie in as a distraction. As he flirts with uber librarian Valerie Hotchkiss, Dave will hover sweatily over a First Folio, distracting the other curators. Steve, Katie, and Suzanne will speed read the shelves until they find Lily’s Grammar at which point Charlie will cut the power to the library, Steve will swipe the grammar and another victory will be won for whole language instruction.
Here’s the short film I composed of our visit (no actual rare books or manuscripts were damaged in the composition of this film). I took the photos and videos with my iPad and composed the video in iMovie for the iPad during the last twenty minutes of the writing marathon.
Respond to each statement in two sentences or less. Limit response time to five minutes or less. Submit your responses as a blog entry.
1. What have you learned during production of Video #2?
That like writing, I started out with a distinct idea of where I wanted to go with video 2, and as I gathered my sources (particularly the interview I did with my mom) that idea evolved into something related but very different from where I thought I was going.
2. What are the major challenges you encountered?
Before I realized that the “thesis” of my video had changed, I was trying to do two competing things with my video and it felt like it might never end. Once I realized that I needed to focus on just one thread, I was able to finish the video in the time allotted.
3. What are your plans for the evening?
Wouldn’t you like to know.
Successful High School Writing Center: Building the Best Program with your Students
Edited by Dawn Fels / Jennifer Wells
This book of essays was conveniently released in the fall of 2011, just as I was starting to think about my role coordinating the writing center at Uni High. I read the two chapters, “The Promise of Change with One-to-One Instruction” by Rafoth, Wells, and Fels and “The Idea of a High School Writing Center” by Kerri Mulqueen immediately upon receipt of the book and I found the ideas in those chapters to be very helpful in shaping our nascent writing center philosophy. I again found the Rafoth et. al. chapter to be helpful in articulating my contentions for my demo. For these reasons, I was looking forward to finishing the book during the professional reading time this week.
Unfortunately, I may have gleaned most of what I needed from those two chapters. The following chapters manage to be both too specific and not specific enough. For example, there is a chapter on using pre-service teachers in a high school writing centers that sounded promising, but ended up being a straightforward run down of how one university created a service-learning project wherein pre-service teachers created a writing center in a local high school. It had nice reflection from the pre-service teachers on what they gained from the experience, but the high school students did not have a voice in the chapter and I firmly believe that my high school students are capable of doing the tutoring themselves. I would have been interested in reading additional ideas about college / HS writing center collaboration, but this chapter did not extend their experience to other possible contexts.
I also would still like to read a detailed account of how a high school writing center trains their student tutors. Andrew Jeter’s chapter about the Literacy Center at Niles West comes the closest, but he spends more time on celebrating the tutors and the tutees than he does on what he tells the tutors during their training. I know from having visited the Niles West Literacy Center and meeting with Andrew that his tutors are doing really exciting work, but I was not able, from spending a morning with him or reading his chapter, to get much of a handle on the curriculum he uses to train them.
Jennifer Wells’ chapter, on integrating reading into a writing center, again seemed promising from the title, but was short on practical ideas that I could apply. Like Andrew, I met Jennifer at a conference this fall and was very inspired by her presentation and her ideas about using writing center techniques to reform how we do peer editing. Unfortunately, her use of the royal we in her narration of a day in the Mercy Reading and Writing Center (which was an intentional choice she made and explained) meant that I couldn’t tell when she was talking about tutoring she or other adults had done or tutoring that students had done. Because my interest (and agenda for the summer) is to prepare for training my student tutors in September, this was a major problem for me.
Perhaps the most important lesson I need to take from this book is that simply reporting on a project you have done does not make for the most useful writing. There were bits and pieces that I could take away from the book, but I would have appreciated something that was either more theoretical / philosophical that would have challenged how I conceptualize our program or something that was able to generalize more from individual experiences to posit possibilities for applications in other situations.
There were a few practical and specific ideas I took from the reading this week. In list form they are:
- I need to strategize with my student tutors to promote center to their classmates in the early fall. Perhaps we can assign tutors to speak to their English, History, Math, and Science (core) classes about the writing center and why they might want to use it.
- Use excerpts from the book to train tutors about varying tutoring styles. Particularly where the tutors are describing their tutoring style (pp. 56-57).
- I want to modify my demonstration to be about ways to use the writing center model and philosophy to enrich peer feedback in the classroom. I would like to figure out how to do this both for my own school, where peer tutors are doing a lot of this education in their classes, and to present again.
- Final chapter (on evaluation) has very good questions. Pull some to use. Also argues to connect philosophy and pedagogy to assessment.