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. 

July 18, 2013

Is there a Pause Button ?

My Blog is Not Dead!

I had a pause button, aka a 3-month, Adele-addicted, divorce fog hiatus. (And I tell my students not to go overboard writing odd strings of adjectives!)

New life.
New Affirmations.
Along with brand new students and a brand new home/work space and brand new ways of greeting the mornings solo sans husband, who, despite reading the iconic book, "I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret of Male Depression", slid into a shadow of grief and shred of his former self in the last year and finally said he could not "engage" anymore.

For over a decade he was a pillar of, model of, paragon of support, affection and representation of what men were capable of being: vulnerable, yet he could also fix an electrical short or a roof. But after losing his parents, then other losses toppling over the multi-layered mountain, he closed his nerves, eyes, heart, and sensitivities and became like my rusty stereotyped view of men!

So... in my private practice, in a much smaller office but an extremely organized space with lots of baskets and a downsized collection of books, I change brains and habits.

I have those boys who would rather be doing anything but writing, girls who have magnificent ideas but forget what they were when they put pen to paper, and everything in between. I said no to summer clients who wanted their children to spell better in first drafts, be able to write essays like the Common Core Standards criteria in 3rd grade, and more. I explained that I am not that kind of learning specialist.

I keep coming back to the 5 W's,  sentence-level work, Show Don't Tell drills, and just creating topic sentences and titles practice, to build the Main Idea concept, and learn the six formulas for Topic Sentences so well that they can then go on and make their own templates.

Joyed to hear one student say that he was reading to find good sentences instead of just reading for blood and guts, (tends to read graphic novels with graphic horror).

For your summer reading, here is my article on Handwriting Tips for Parents, in the recent issue of ADDitude.

Next BLOG will be meat-ier, in August.

April 9, 2013

Common Core Standards

Teachers are already up to their ears in tweaking and re-designing curriculum, staying on top of legalese, not to mention paperwork extraordinaire, plus technology integration and all the inservices that gives rise to. Then along come the Common Core State Standards

I am ALL for streamlining our goals and outcomes and assessment tools, but there is still a lot of wiggle room for teachers to interpret them however they want to, which can mean creativity, or mushy instruction. Each grade level sounds too much ilke the other. 

Cookie Cutters, anyone?

There is a lot of "What" and not a lot of "How", from what I have read through. And let me tell you, it is a LOT to read through.

The new writing terminology, which I see leaking into my student's HW that they bring me, is:


Okay? So? Same wolf, just fancy sheep's clothing that sounds more like a courtroom.

I am feeling old-fashioned now, longing for the familiar:

Thesis / Supporting Details / Elaboration and Explanation

And this is used in the primary grades, too! Talk about developmentally inappropriate!

Ruth Culham, seasoned educator and author, known by all in the Writing World, pretty much tells it like it is: (which always goes a long way in my book)

Writing instruction has been slow to change, in some measure due to its inherent complexity.                                        

It is, after all, thinking aloud on paper, and there is nothing easy about that.

What we’re doing in writing instruction now isn’t working. CCSS or not, changes need to be made. According to The Nation’s Report Card (NAEP, 2012), only 27 percent of eighth graders are proficient in writing and, of those students, only 3 percent are advanced.

She goes on to put forth the "4 W's" (and she is one who loves lists):

  • Writing process: the recursive steps writers go through to generate text
  • Writing traits: the language used to assess and teach writing
  • Writing modes: the purposes for writing
  • Writing workshop: the structure of the writing classroom
These are not covered deeply enough in the Common Core Standards. That leaves parents to fill in the gaps, or specialists like me, or for students to lean on some kind of inherent gift for language and written expression. 

And I go further with those 4 W's, like IEW does. We need to teach kids how to master language, have an ear for good word use, break down sentences into their kernels, examine how to construct a weak and then a strong sentence, and teach one or two concepts at a time.

I had an interview at a private school a couple of weeks ago, and they point blank asked me why I would consider giving up my private practice. I said I wanted to have my evenings free and I don't want to spend my 50's marketing myself. They said I should play a bigger game and go to D.C. and lobby for good literacy instruction. Anyone want to fund that little endeavor?

February 1, 2013

Reading Like a Writer; Writing Like a Reader?

2 months.
Mayan Calendar Prophecies did not destroy humanity. 
Shock and Numbness and then a thawing into rage about the Connecticut shootings.
Fine-tuning my submission to the talented and determined moms at IMPACT ADD:

Using “The Magic of 3” to Enhance Writing Skills for Kids

They kept saying I have to winnow it down because the audience is overwhelmed parents.

So hard to sound like you know what you are talking about when it is in a format that, in perspective, is sort of like a Super Bowl commercial. Not to dis dear Elaine, who is a do-gooder extraordinaire. She readily admits the irony that I am promoting and purporting to teach young and old minds alike how to write more concretely, thoroughly, specifically, elaborately, and powerfully, yet my guest writing piece had to be a shaved down version of all of those. 

What I have been thinking about lately, besides my new shelter miniature pinscher and the swift morphing of my rational Taurean self into a bona fide crazy dog lady, is that Writing remains hard and multi-faceted in its scope. 

I regularly read Anne Lamott, who writes about how out of a whole morning she gets a few stellar, keep-able sentences. Yes, she writes with both slang and broken grammar, about relying on the Bible and her own bodily nuances, but she is full of the touch of human frailty, with a sprinkle of non-TV humor on the top. Trivia Fact: She has almost 98,000 friends on her Facebook Page

This makes me more certain that good writing is way, way, way beyond just the "6 Traits"

......and that true masters of the craft are fewer and farther between than my "pie in the sky" "save the world via literacy" educator aspirations would have me believe.

And aren't all the teachers I talk to lately lamenting or adrenalized by (hah!) the Common Core Standards? They might not be the knight in shining armor we oh so hoped them to be. 
Don't get me wrong; I am psyched to finally witness some through lines being established in the wide spread of states that we live in (purposely omitted the word "united")

When I am asked for my opinion, I say that I think they are great overall, yet the explicit sub-skills of writing instruction are missing. And if I was a child right now and was suddenly told, "no more story writing" I would start to hate writing. I did not grasp the "voice" of an expository writer until college, and then it all came into my cells very quickly. 

But there are two sides to every argument:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

In true ADHD fashion, I am going to mention a classic book that I recommend and love, but that my students would loathe. So when I figure out the motivational and engagement piece about writing and reading, I will do a bang-up documentary, be on Oprah, and solve parent's teen problems. In the meantime, here is a plagiarized review of the book:

"Reading Like a Writer" is not a handbook or a manual. It is a love letter to the mysterious alchemy, the magic that occurs when a reader encounters a book, poem, or story that not only entertains him, but also moves and transforms him. Francine Prose's favorite writers may not be our favorites, but all readers who love literature will appreciate her enthusiasm and respect for the written word. Her suggestions about how to read more effectively are useful not just for budding writers but for anyone who would like to come away from a book with a deeper appreciation of the author's craft. As Prose says, "Reading this way requires a certain amount of stamina, concentration, and patience."