June 19, 2014

Taming the Octopus - The Many Arms of Writing: Common Core

Taming the Octopus - The Many Arms of Writing: Common Core: Okay, outta the way with my accusatory statements about Common Core and then we can get on to other topics in another blog post. I co...

June 15, 2014

Common Core



Okay, outta the way with my accusatory statements about Common Core and then we can get on to other topics in another blog post.

I could actually argue FOR or AGAINST the CC, with my ammunition of evidence and citations, to use a little lingo from the well-known source itself. 

I am becoming - via the Internet - uh oh - some sort of expert on the Common Core Standards because:

a) I spend a lot of time translating and navigating convoluted assignments given to my students in approx. 4th - 10th grade. Which are based on the Common Core. While I can beat the drum of critical thinking just as much as the average administrator, I also know that developmentally the writing brains of 11 year-olds are not ready for this level of argument. 

Talk about turning a kid OFF to writing!


       "Write and alternate ending to the short story, 
         Murders in the Rue Morgue                                 
        and analyze the two main character's motives in one paragraph, using textual evidence."

b) I like to find out what is on the minds of the majority of stressed-out teachers in the U.S., given that they are the unsung heroes and they don't really get their own form of Veteran's Day to honor their sacrifice.

c) I used to teach in a school where we had to turn in precise lesson plans to our principal, with the numerical listing of the Illinois State Standard right alongside them. It didn't make me a better teacher, but I learned to write tiny, and could spout some lingo in the standards to said principal.

d) I was initially excited years ago about the concept of standards being aligned between states. "Clear goals and confident, well-prepared students." It sounded so hopeful! Just like in this video!



e) Since some families move a lot, and teachers do too, it sounded promising. Plus, when I traveled and presented staff development I had to re-learn some particular differences between states. Confusing. Finally we could have the same oral reading fluency benchmarks, fractions taught in a hands-on way at about the same point in 4th grade, and history key points would not be sanitized of the Native American's impact on our country.

f) I am assisting two homeschooling families in teaching using CC starting next year. We don't have a principal observing our lessons, but we have to turn in monthly reports proving we did academically worthy, Common Core stamped of approval-ness instruction.


I am happy to find sources like this to pick and choose from. Phew. Lessons and example writings from actual kids, and a fairly easy-to-use website.


And then there are those techie people who save the day with websites like this one, where we have a fashion runway of apps and software to make teaching life easier or more complicated, depending on how organized or techie the reader of the website is!


Reflections on Google Apps for Common Core ELA


I am going to rebelliously NOT wrap this up with a neat little conclusion, because this was not a "5-paragraph essay" and it is midnight. 





April 24, 2014

Spray and Pray

Teachers who work with struggling readers think that they need more choice, and more freedom, and more time. Actually, NON-struggling writers need those things. Let's revisit the "Spray and Pray" strategy that teachers execute without knowing the anxiety they might be causing.

They tell a 5th grade class to write realistic fiction piece, with a certain amount of dialogue, and inner and outer character conflict. As a class they examine good models from well-known children's authors. ("Mentor Texts"). Then they are "free" to write. This is what Anita Archer calls "Spray and Pray."

So many times one of my students comes to my office and after much inquisitive wrangling from me admits that he has sat and "tried to think of something to write" for the last two days during writer's workshop time. I dig down to see if they had an idea but nixed it because it wasn't perfect, or had an idea for a story but didn't know how to start, or had a blank brain and couldn't find a thread of a story. 

And then there are those students who have an idea, but they want the FIRST Draft to be perfect so no revising will be asked of them, so they freeze.
This is where I pull out all the tools and practically decoupage my desk space with word lists, brainstorm guides, pre-write organizers, sentence starters, and so much more. And Color - Coding helps too with their first brainstorm or rough draft, for categories, or all of the W's and How.



As for ME....

I have 5 writing projects going at once, and my mind is batty like my pin-ball machine students.
Let's see, taking my own advice, I would first tell a student to write them down and look at the list and decide what CAN be done, in the next day.

So here is the dirty almost half dozen:
(at least each of them are over halfway complete)

1) My book on teaching writing to kids who struggle with writing. Working Title: "But I hate writing..." - Teaching a small step at a time to reluctant writers. Not very sexy. Not like, "Finding the joy in writing - Igniting the love of writing in all ages and stages."

2) A Ted Talk that someone dared me to write about the extensive closure ceremony with my ex husband on January 1st, after 8 months of nudging it to occur.

3) An article for a Twice Exceptional Newsletter for Parents, on teaching tips for written expression, for parents of Asperger-like kids.

4) A tip sheet on ADHD kids and how to teach and parent them while keeping your sanity, for a Fall Support Group I am going to facilitate.

5) My novel I haven't touched in 4 years and is forming cobwebs in my computer.

I write a lot of emails.
I write in my journal.
I write in the margins of many kid's papers.
YET
I don't write for extended periods of time in order to complete the above projects.
Do I hear an echo of irony in the tunnel of my professional trajectory?

On another note...

I have enjoyed watching some significant leaps in three of my resistant boy writers lately. They grasp the concept of "show don't tell" and it is no coincidence that all three of them are solid readers. This gives them that "ear" for language, and for elaboration.

I also heard from a former client. I worked with her daughter in 4th grade. Waldorf School. Loosey goosey about learning to read - so she needed decoding, and later she needed writing, since they presume that an exciting topic will launch deep writing. She needed to learn ways to write with coherence, using facts to back it up. Well, she has now won a mini award in high school for her composition. Well, that leaves a teensy weensy legacy in my corner of the universe.




February 16, 2014

A New Species of Thesis: Delayed Thesis, Equation Thesis, and Anti-thesis


Uncertainty as Opportunity


Of course, this phrase could be applied to a business strategy, philosophical treatise, spiritual discipline, or medical diagnosis. But in this case it was a blog post from this Valentine's weekend and stirred me to write on my blog for the first time since October. November was mom's health declining. December was her dying. January was the estate lawyer divining. 


This high school girl in the blog post has a paper due that requires a "delayed thesis" - which simply means that she has to write some introductory gobbledy gook and then....drum roll: the final thesis statement in the first paragraph. Nothing new under the sun there, except that I have never heard that term.


Delayed has a slightly negative association with it. 

And the phrase's fancy-ness makes it seem harder to master, in the mind of a high school sophomore.


The blog post is not particularly focused on the delayed thesis part, but rather on risk-taking, which I harp on as a teacher, and, in addition, that we should let students meander in the unknown of what it is to be a writer and not make them too attached to what the teacher wants.


Writing is an act of risk-taking on so many levels, emotionally, academically, personally, grammatically, artistically. You are on stage, improvising, constantly refining your craft, without any sense of the audience and how they are responding.  And if I am going to follow Common Core Standards, then I absolutely must set-up and introduce this quote from the blog that I am referencing, lest the quote police drag me away to those dark and punitive essay catacombs. This is what the author wants us to grapple with in his writing on uncertainty:


"How might we create the conditions in our conversations with young people so that they see it’s okay to try something new, to feel like they have a legitimate stake in what they are trying so that the uncertainty and struggle is worth it?"


And then there is the "equation thesis" where teachers literally take points off if your thesis does not wear the clothing of a math equation, where FACTS plus your ARGUMENT are woven eloquently together in a sentence that in my opinion ends up too long. 


And the antithesis is when you are presenting a counter-argument.

Here is the wording from my ballerina blonde very dyslexic high school junior's teacher:


"Your essay is a deficient argument if it does not address antithetical evidence. You should anticipate the strongest objections to your argument, and expound their merits and limitations. Your antithesis should make clear how this idea would contradict or qualify your thesis. You should give evidence in favor of the antithesis, followed by analysis. You should always explain how this antithesis, if valid, impacts your overall thesis."


Right now I have learned more about certain Civil War history and the Nazi sympathizer rocket scientists of the Cold War than I ever knew before. 

Did every black person agree that slavery should be ended? How can we know? 

Were most of the ground-breaking bomb makers and rocket scientists aware of what the Nazis were really up to, as they toiled in their laboratories with geeky but Hitler-loving fellow engineers?

Thesis-itis. I tell students we write with thesis statements but we never talk with them.

And then I surprise them with a personal truth:

I Did Not Learn All of This Until College.



October 1, 2013

Okay, so it was October instead of August when I finally wrote a blog post. Been reading a bunch of them, on everything from cancer to restoring our wildness, to learning to sing again, and yoga. I am living by the credo, though, of "Thou shalt not read blogs on divorce." It has been freeing not to do that, but instead do my own grieving, in my own living room, without expensive therapists, but a great journal and a whole lotta girlfriends on the phone.
Where was I? Blogs. Oh yeah, and Anne Lamont, and anything about reading and writing and, UGH(!) the Common Core. Much in the blogosphere that is being talked about on that topic. Teachers generally feel a sense of feeling hemmed in, and having to get up to speed on new vernacular, and teach aspects of literacy that are way above their student's heads and truly don't spark boys.

"Analyze The Westing Game and take notes on how the character's reveal their inner dialogue using the writer's inferred figurative language and write an essay from your notes on the theme of courage and speaking up for oneself."

Alright, I invented that one, but it was easy to blast out in writing because i have read many like it. The boys just yawn and get further turned off to reading and writing. (remember, Common Core authors, boys lag in development of cognition and emotional acuity, compared to girls, and they like more concrete things than inferences about character's moods and feelings!)
So I continue to do the two-step dance:
Liking the more specific and "aligned-between-state-lines" aspect of the Common Core, and disliking the over-emphasis on argumentative writing, which is not developmentally appropriate for a 5th grader, who doesn't know how to stand their ground, much less do they have the life experience to write 2 whole pages about a topic that they are arguing in favor of, or against. Talk about an equation for turning kids off to writing.

I mean, I work with kids who experience a breakthrough when they can stick with a thought long enough to form it onto the paper in two sentences (even though their IQ is higher than mine). What are we to do with them, in an average classroom?

And these are kind of DUH, and I would add a lot of sub skills to the list. And cautionary notes about how Assistive Technology is not a panacea.
I shortened each to the essential points (Common Core jargon there!)

Seven Facts About Learning Disabilities and Written Expression


  1. How can parents tell if a school’s writing program is effective? In addition to providing accommodations and modifications for students with LD, it should include explicit teaching of critical writing skills, processes and knowledge as well as less formal techniques like teacher-student conferences and peer-to-peer editing.
  2. One research-validated approach to teaching writing to students with LD is Self-Regulated Strategy Development for Writing (SRSD). Teachers using SRSD guide students through a process that includes:
    • Developing and activating students’ background knowledge
    • Discussion of students’ current abilities and self-regulation ability
    • Explicit teaching and memorization of strategies
    • Closely working with the teacher for support at early stages of writing
    • Finally, independent performance with teacher support only as necessary

  3. A common stumbling block in writing for students with LD is organization: keeping track of materials (e.g., note cards, research books) and in structuring/organizing an argument to support a thesis.
  4. It often takes a child with LD twice as long (or more) as other students to simply copy a piece of writing. Tasks like copying from the board may be less appropriate for students with writing LD. Also, when planning accommodations like extended time for testing, keep a student’s handwriting speed in mind.
  5. Assistive technology is increasingly opening doors to fluent writing for students with LD. Access to simple word processing software may be helpful to students who struggle with handwriting. Software with word prediction and screen reading capabilities is a powerful tool for many students.
  6. Many students with LD lack self-confidence in writing. Parents and teachers can help rebuild young writers’ confidence by teaching and developing writing strategies and self-monitoring the use of these strategies.
  7. As with other types of LD, early intervention for dysgraphia and dyslexia—LDs that especially impact writing—is important. Students who have speech and language difficulties are another group at-risk for writing problems.