Archives For Writing

There is a gap between writing for school and authentic writing.

Just how big is that gap? If you consider an NPR interview with E.L. Doctorow that was recently replayed on the airwaves, the gap is a chasm….nay, an unmeasurable abyss.

What Doctorow said about his approach to the writing process, leads to only one conclusion about the teaching of writing:

We’re doing it wrong.

Doctorow’s original interview was replayed after his death on July 21st, 2015. His initials E.L. stood for Edgar Lawrence, and he was noted for his work with historical fiction including  Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The March (2005).

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

E.L. Doctorow: American historical fiction writer, 1931-2015

The NPR broadcast (7/22/15) was created from a collection of interviews from their archives. In one exchange with Scott Simon, Doctorow had responded to a question about his writing process by saying,

DOCTOROW: The ideal way to get involved in this sort of work is to write in order to find out what you’re writing. You don’t start with an outline and a plan.

Maybe you can feel the shudder of writing teachers everywhere, especially those insist that students first draft an outline or use a five paragraph template for any piece of writing. Of course, Doctorow was writing in the narrative format, where his plan started with the use of particularly “vocative images” to begin his stories:

And in this case, it’s the first line in the book where Andrew’s saying I can tell you what I’m about to tell you, but it’s not pretty. And suddenly you find yourself with your character.

The narrative genre may lend itself to Doctorow’s approach of “finding yourself with your character,” but writing in schools, especially at the secondary level, is in the expository/informational or persuasive genres. The Common Core State Standards have reinforced very deliberate borders between these genres. But Doctorow confounds these boundaries, incorporating factual information into his historical imaginings that play with the “myth of history” as an end product.

In a 2008 interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review (“The Art of Fiction, No.94″), Doctorow boasted about his use of history:

So to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.

History teachers may get sidetracked with Doctorow’s argument that history is a battlefield, “constantly being fought over because the past controls the present.” Yet, in taking the risks in “letting in light and air” to history,  Doctorow’s created another truth, a truth that did not require writing from his own experiences:

Writing teachers invariably tell students, Write about what you know. That’s, of course, what you have to do, but on the other hand, how do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.

Again, there may be a palpable shudder from writing teachers who have used “writing from your experience” as a mantra.

Analysis of literature was another area that Doctorow explained to NPR’s Steve Inskeep (in archived interviews) that almost kept him from being a writer:

That kind of analytical action of the mind is not the way you work when you write. You bring things together, you synthesize, you connect things that have had no previous connection when you write. So, all in all, as valuable as my [analysis] training was, it took me through language in the wrong direction.

Apparently, all those literary essays assigned by English teachers could be stifling this next generation of writers.

In making the connection between reading and writing, however, Doctorow described his own experience and this would win approval from teachers:

 I was reading constantly everything I could get my hands on. And, you know, at that age, something else happens if you’re going to be a writer. You’re reading for the excitement of it and to find out what happens next, just racing along. And then another little line of inquiry comes into your head. You say, well, how is this done?

So, what can writing teachers learn from one of America’s most celebrated novelists? What advice might they consider in writing instruction?

  1. Students should not limit themselves to write from experience;
  2. In narratives, students should not use an outline as they find the story through a character instead;
  3. Students should know that history is flexible enough for play, and for letting in  “air and light”;
  4. Analysis essays can take writers in the wrong direction;
  5. To be writers, students must read;
  6. Writing is knowing.

Whether teachers heed the advice of Doctorow from these interviews may not matter, as it is acknowledged that each writer differs in approach and style. Without question, however, the writing process for Doctorow flies in the face of any prescribed writing instruction. As he explained to Inskeep:

I seem to appreciate quiet. And when I’m writing I like to seal everything off and face the wall and not to look outside the window so that the only way out is through the sentences.

In the bell-to-bell day of today’s classroom, with a constant stream of interruptions during timed essay writing or writing on demand, we are doing it wrong.
It is unlikely that a student writer will find the quiet that Doctorow appreciated.
There is no blank wall.

Students will have to find their own way out of the narrative through sentences, but teachers should try to give them the time and space to let that happen.

This summer, I plan to spend time organizing question stems to spark critical thinking and post them on a number of slides to share with teachers.
OR
I could shorten the process and use just one slide. I could ask one question that is guaranteed to drive critical thinking. I could ask:

So what?”

To be honest, the first time I was asked this question in an academic setting, I was appalled. I felt I was being taunted. I was sure the professor was just being rude.

I was uncomfortable…I could not give an effective response.

“So what?”

I hated the question. I hated that the professor was goading me. I hated Dr. Steven D. Neuwirth. 

I was taking a graduate course (560) Literature of the American South, what I thought would be a “fun” course as I completed my Master’s Degree in English.

I remember distinctly the moment that was not fun…the evening of the second class.

“So what?” Dr. Neuwirth wrote on the chalkboard; he snapped a piece of chalk as he underlined the question for emphasis.

So what? he repeated in class after I offered what I thought was a brilliant observation on the evidence of dignity as a character trait in a discussion on William Falkner’s As I Lay Dying.

I was irritated. I had worked very hard on my responses.

So what? he scrawled in big letters on the paper I handed in three weeks later.

I was angry. I had worked even harder on that response.

My frustrations continued. Nothing in my training had prepared me for his persistence with the So what? question.

I had done what had worked in every other class. I had developed a thesis. I had used evidence. I had proved my thesis.

Regardless, my answers did not satisfy his challenge. So what? He found my reasoning lacking, and because he was not satisfied, neither was I.

I needed to think how to explain better.
I had to think differently.
I had to think critically.

It was then I realized that Dr. Neuwirth’s So what?” question was making me think critically.

Dr. Neuwirth’s irritating challenge brought me to recognize that it was not enough for me to develop and prove a thesis in a paper. I had to prove why my argument mattered.

For example, it was not enough to prove that Faulkner’s characters displayed dignity despite their social status, I had to question so what is the reader to take from his writing?

I had to ask the question So what?” not with attitude but with curiosity. Curiosity led to inquiry:

  • So what was my point? 
  • So what was missing from my response?
  • So what should I want the reader to know or do?
  • So what happens next?
  • So what do I do to cause or prevent something from happening ? 
  • So what makes this work or not work?
  • So what will this information lead me to study next?

Such inquiries led to me to make conclusions. I had always found conclusions difficult to write. I had always followed the predictable formula of restating the thesis, but I found that when I used the critical question So what? I could offer a broader conclusion.

For example, when I developed a thesis on the dignity of Faulkner’s characters and provided evidence from the text, I was really posing the question “Why should anyone read novels by Faulkner?” When I asked myself so what? I could conclude that Faulkner’s characters spark empathy in the reader.

It turned out that I did not hate theSo what? question.

I did not hate Dr. Neuwirth …although, admittedly, liking him took a little longer. While I did understand the importance of being challenged, I still found him a brilliant but abrasive teacher.

Four years after that class, I  became a teacher, and I taught literature. My students wrote predictable and boring conclusions that restated the thesis. They were not thinking critically. I had to do something.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University's Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

Dr. Steven Neuwirth, Western Connecticut State University-created the University’s Honors Program and served as its first director; he passed away February, 2004.

I asked my students So what?

And I scrawled So what? on their papers.

And I wrote So what? on the Smartboard -without chalk.

My students also hated theSo what? question.

They complained to me, but their conclusions improved.

So here is one question, one irritating question, for critical thinking for sharing on one slide:

So what?

 

 

All hail.extol.…laud the mighty Roget’s Thesaurus!

Any one struggling with trying to find the right word can attest to the support that he or she may have found in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, a reference book that celebrates its birthday every April 29th. Writers pour through its pages in the hunt to find an alternate to “said” (articulated, phonated, viva voce) or establish the kind of “sleep” (catnap, doze, trance) or select the state of being “happy” (elated, joyous, upbeat).

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Like its cousin the dictionary, the synonyms and antonyms of Roget’s Thesaurus are arranged alphabetically. That decision was made by its originator, Peter Mark Roget who published the first thesaurus in 1852, some 100 years after Samuel Johnson published the successful Dictionary of the English Language.

Roget’s objective with the thesaurus was to help the writer or speaker “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”

In the forward to the first edition, Roget wrote:

“It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published.”

The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek θησαυρός (thēsauros), “treasure, treasury, storehouse”, and the thesaurus is indeed a treasure of language. A word of caution, however, to those who use this treasure trove improperly; fancy words do not guarantee academic writing.

For example, there is a danger of overuse, as demonstrated in this dialogue from a episode of Friends when the character Joey wanted to appear “smart”. He had replaced every ordinary word in an application letter with its synonym from the thesaurus:

Joey: I wrote, “They’re warm nice people with big hearts.”

Chandler: “And that became, ‘They’re humid pre-processing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’?”

Students often make these same kinds of novice errors. In their attempts to sound “smart”, they include words they do not understand, adding “verdant” to  “green” grasses. They create contradictory combinations such as “nimbly lethargic” or “exigent tolerance.” Then, there is the tale of the student whose creative writing assignment featured a woman eating a delicious chignon, a bun one puts in one’s hair.

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or "daisies"

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or “daisies”

Now, with software available on multiple platforms, students can choose to hunt through pages of a text or try one of several online thesaurus tools that help them find the perfect word.

There is the subscription based VisualThesaurus which is an “interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words.” Clicking on any word allows students to see an abundance of alternatives. A free version of this form of interactive thesaurus is found at Visuwords.

Merriam-Webster also offers a student friendly thesaurus at WordCentral which offers many other interactive features such as word-of-the-day or student-created disctionaries.

Interactive activities for students

Interactive activities for students

Simpler versions can be found at  BigHugeLabs or at Thesaurusland offer stripped down versions  that require only that a student enters a word in the search box to get synonyms or antonyms.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.40.53

Simple version of an online thesaurus

 

 Students can jubilate or rejoice or revel or solemnize in marking the 163rd anniversary of the thesaurus.  They can acknowledge or appreciate or enjoy or welcome how the thesaurus has helped their writing.
However, as intently or as meticulously or as scrupulously as they search in texts or search online, students will not be able to answer the question, what’s another word for thesaurus?

When Erik Larson was interviewed by the NY Times for his latest book Dead Wake about the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, he Screenshot 2015-03-11 23.14.19expressed his purpose for choosing to write in the narrative non-fiction genre:

“It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.”

There is nothing of analysis in his stated purpose for writing, but there is a desire to have a reader engulfed by a narrative that ends in the reader “feeling.”

In contrast, in the first three anchor standards for reading (grades k-12), the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts spell out the expanse between their objectives and Larson’s expression to use narrative non-fiction to connect viscerally with the readers:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

The anchor and grade level standards were written purposely to be devoid of any reference to reader’s feeling or connection. These standards were carefully articulated not to be confused with the popular  Reader Response Theory supported by Louise Rosenblatt that focused “on the reader rather than the author or the content and form of the work.”

“Reading closely” in the CCSS has been spun as “close reading”, defined by the The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (2011, p. 7)

Analyzing the definition of close reading (above) through analysis in a WORD SIFT highlights the CCSS emphasis on ideas and meaning for the student:Screenshot 2015-03-11 22.02.36

Missing from this definition? The word “author.”

This word sift analysis illustrates how the “close reading” advocated by the CCSS requires students to read for meaning, with no consideration to the intent of an author.

The NYTimes interview with Larson provided him the opportunity to state that he does not write to a standard; he says nothing about “meaning” and “ideas”. Instead, Larson poetically defined his goal for writing. He writes for the reader to have an experience, and that experience is ” his “dream” or “ideal.”

While the language of the Common Core contrives to eliminate the author’s role in creating texts, those same texts students will be expected to “close read”, Erik Larson reminds us that authors do not write to meet a standard.

Authors write to create feelings in their readers, whether those readers are reading closely or not.

In a well organized essay, explain how the author conveys his meaning. Be sure to consider structure, diction, setting, and point of view.

Popular MechanicsAbove is the prompt I used when I taught Advanced Placement English Literature (APLit) for all kinds of literature. This was before the Common Core’s “close reading” dictums; APLit students read and looked for author style and purpose because that was the focus of the course.

Tonight (2/22) there is a Twitter Chat #aplitchat on Raymond Carver’s short story “Popular Mechanics”; across the nation, APLit teachers will contribute their ideas on how to guide students through this particular dark story. I am trapped here in CT under another 7″ of snow, and while I wait to be dug out, here is an explanation of how my students wrote about this story.

When I passed out the copies,my students were, at first, delighted to see its brevity; the entire story is under 500 words. I would watch my students as they silently read. As they would finish in unison, their heads would snap up in shock.

Some of my students saw the story as deeply disturbing; others saw the story as dark humor. They wanted to talk plot, so I would allow several minutes of “What just happened?” and “They killed the baby??” and “Those people are sick!”
No surprise that Carver’s story generated strong responses by all of my students.

My next step in pre-writing would be to share some supporting information.  One year I gave the students the Biblical story of King Solomon to contrast the behavior of the mothers in each. Every year, I provided the definition of the word issue, the key linking the concluding sentence and the title. Here are some of the possible means of issue with connections to the story.

  •  something that is printed or published and distributed, esp. a given number of a periodical: 
  • a point in question or a matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law; 
  • offspring; progeny:
  • a discharge of blood, pus, or the like;
  •  to go, pass, or flow out; come forth; emerge.

My students would reread the story, take notes, and spend several minutes of peer-to-peer discussions in groups. They would share how Carver’s structure, diction, setting, and point of view contributed to their understanding. After the discussions, I would ask them to draft a response using the standard prompt above.

My contribution to the #APLitchat tonight is a folder with three student exemplars that were created one year as a result. These drafts represent some interesting ideas as seen in some of these excerpts:

Student #1

Finally Carver uses these simple but revealing details about his characters to keep his story interesting and detailed but also very concise. The story starts in a bedroom, a place they probably consecrated their marriage but he is now tearing apart by leaving. We then switch to the doorway of the kitchen, paralleling her change in emotion. The kitchen is typically a place of family and love.

Student #2

Carver uses words and phrases such as “Bring that back” and “I want the baby” (Carver). The use of very simple, short words provides a more aggressive, hard-hitting tone. Carver’s sentence construction is very mechanical and rhythmic, which furthers Carver’s theory that the inner workings of a marriage and a family can be broken down into a mechanized object where basic laws of physics can be applied.

Student #3 

Carver brings in this contrast of light and dark in his first paragraph that states “it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.” There is still light in their life before the argument, but as he packs, it begins to fade. By the time the couple is in a shady corner and the baby is torn apart, the house is darkened. It creates good imagery for the reader to illustrate the family “issues.”

As these excerpts from essay illustrate, Carver’s terse dialogue and minimal details helped my students appreciate the link between an author’s style and his or her purpose. Students enjoyed “Popular Mechanics” and at the end of the school year, they would always mark it a story that made them think about an author’s choices in writing a story.

I was fortunate to have 90 minute block periods to do this lesson in one sitting, but the lesson can be spread over two sessions or truncated to fit into a 45 minute block organized as 15 minutes of reading and discussion and 30 minutes of writing.

Good luck, #APLitchat on your discussion, and may all issues on responses to this story be resolved!

Screenshot 2015-02-21 12.54.55Finally catching a break from the weekend snowstorms that have plagued Connecticut this winter, the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP) at Fairfield University hosted a session of the Assignments Matter National Task Jam on Saturday, February 21. The CWP morning seminar gave 25 educators a chance to collaborate and to design high-quality, engaging writing assignments for the Assignments Matters Google+ Community  Their created tasks will be posted alongside the assignments by already created in January by 475 middle and high school educators throughout the country. This National Writing Project (NWP) initiative is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as “a collaborative, knowledge-building and sharing experience open to any teacher who knows that meaningful tasks create powerful results.” This Gates Education Foundation provided grants that allowed teachers nationwide an opportunity to develop writing tasks that can be shared through NWP collaborative platforms.

As with all NWP workshops, teachers began the workshop by writing. The prompt was meant to focus attention on the importance of clarity in designing writing tasks:

Write about a time where you gave a task to someone and the result was not what you wanted. What happened? What was the purpose of the task and the desired result?

The discussion that followed illustrated how critical good directions are in lesson design. Take for example, my own story when I was teaching grade 6th:

“Take out your notebooks and go to the back”…I said to the class.
I looked down for the markers on the bottom of the overhead cart.
I heard shuffling.
I looked up.
Several students were walking.
“Wait!…”I yelled, “What are you doing?”
Everyone froze.
I saw students mid-way out of their seats stiffen.
They all looked surprised.
“You said go to the back….”, stammered one of the boys.
“Yes, well…I meant….go to the back of the notebook….”
Moment of realization!
6th graders are literal.
I need to be clear and specific when I give directions.

That lesson in clarity has stayed with me in my teaching career, and based on the examples given by other teachers in their responses, there was mutual agreement on the importance of clarity in giving directions-written and spoken-in teaching.

The afternoon session was dedicated to the development of writing prompts that teachers could use in their classrooms. Teachers were encouraged to use templates provided by the Literacy Design Collaborative. The opportunity to revise and to share new prompts with other teacher participants brought immediate satisfaction. The knowledge that these prompts will be shared with teachers across the country throughout the school year was gratifying as well.

These prompts are a clear demonstration that while #taskmatters, the role of the teacher in crafting writing prompts as assessments that address the needs of their student populations is critical. These prompts are not “canned” curriculum prompts. They are proof that in in creating assessments #teachersmatter.

Thank you, Bryan Crandall, for hosting; thank you, Shaun Mitchell, for facilitating!

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

Let Them Make T-Charts!

January 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

Pity the copier.

Stuck in the windowless corner of the teacher’s room, churning out page after page of quizzes, newsletters, and course descriptions. Probed and shoved and slammed, the oft maligned copier needs a break.

What could teachers do to lessen the toll that results in the overheated roller or stapler malfunction?

Stop the madness….there is no reason to copy a graphic organizer!

The graphic organizer is meant to help students prepare for another activity…a discussion, a quiz, or an essay. Graphic organizers can be used at any grade level. Graphic organizers can be used in any subject. But, teachers, please…. most graphic organizers do not need to employ a copier.

t-chart image

Who cannot draw the T-chart?

Take the T-Chart here at left. The T-Chart consists of two lines, a long horizontal line that is bisected by a vertical line. Why does this need to be prepared and run through a copier? Students can draw a T-Chart easily, or fold a paper “hot-dog style” to get the same result. What part of the T-Chart necessitates the use of expensive toner?

Venn

Venn Diagram-Perfect circles can be problematic

Consider next, the popular Venn Diagram used for compare and contrast exercises. Of all the organizers, this is one that may require students to have little practice to get perfect, however, is the symmetry of shape what teachers want students to notice about the Venn Diagram? That there are two perfect circles overlapping with a shared oval in the center? The problem with two perfect circles of equal size and shape is the implication that when an object or topic is compared and contrasted, the information is also equitable. On a prepared Venn Diagram, there is exactly the same amount of space on each side for the purpose of contrast, but there is a smaller, cramped center for comparable attributes. Perhaps a student can practice some freehand circle creation, find out how to use a protractor, or use some object -a water bottle? cup? paper plate?-to trace a circle. What students should not fret about is how to draw two perfect circles, because the Venn Diagram functions as an organizer even with lopsided ellipses.

KWL imageThen, there is the popular K-W-L chart, where students list what they know, what they want to know, and what they learned. This graphic organizer is much like the T-Chart, and even the youngest student can draw vertical two lines on a page. Folding a paper into thirds is also an effective way to achieve a K-W-L organizer without have to wait for the teacher in front of you to finish copying next month’s math worksheets. Having students write the headings for this chart can reinforce the purpose of the organizer as well.

plot mountain

Plot Mountain diagram

Next, the “plot mountain” diagram is a staple in English Language Arts classrooms, but as a universal tool in deconstructing literature, the organizer has its flaws, so much so that the replication could make its use damaging. Some plots have long expositions (Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy comes to mind); some have short expositions (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet‘s opening sonnet). One of arguably several climaxes for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the courtroom scene which is followed by a long falling action (four  chapters)  before Bob Ewell’s climatic attack on Scout. There is no falling action in The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe which ends at the climax. These few examples demonstrate that each story has its own construction, its own mountain; plot is not a one size fits all, as this organizer would seem to claim. For this reason, teachers should allow students to sketch their own version of a story’s plot mountain, featuring all the little crags and mini-climax moments in rising and in falling.  Teachers should save the plot mountain as a flexible concept, one that is not enhanced by standardized reproduction.

foursquare imageFinally, there is the “four-square” organizer, used to provide attributes  on a topic that is printed in the center. The object is to think of details that fit specific categories or boxes in each of the paper’s four quadrants. Think of a big cross in the center of the paper, or a paper folded in half vertically, and then folded again horizontally. This organizer is often used in word study, as in the Frayer model, with a word in the center and each box used for a specific purpose: an illustration, an example, a definition,or an antonyms are all possible categories for this organizer.

Guru_Mindmap

Guru Mind Map on Wikipedia

Using the copier to create these organizers not only is expensive in toner ink and valuable teacher time (spent trying to get that last crinkled bit of paper out of the feed drawer!), but these organizers limit critical thinking for some students.

Students should be given the opportunity to organize their ideas the way that best helps them understand a concept. They should be cognitively and kinesthetically active in creating and completing an organizer of their own design

Mind maps, for example, are original creations that are centered on a concept that is drawn or written on the center of a blank landscape or page. From this central concept or word, an individual can branch out on the page by adding using words or pictures that show other connections. No two mind maps are the same, and their use in improving student understanding is well documented. My favorite mind-mapping website is Daniel Weinstein’s The Creativity Core with variations on mind-mapping activities for his students.

So, teachers, step away from the overheated copying machine, and get out blank paper and markers. Let the students fold their paper to make graphic organizers,  trace shapes, or choose other patterns to list information.  Bring out the rolls of butcher block paper and let students try and map out their ideas. Let them pencil their thoughts in wobbly circles and uneven lines, because the use of the graphic organizer is not about the shape for the information, but the information that is organized in the shape.

And leave that copier for the more important duties….those field trip permission slips!

This four-year-old blog has had a slight makeover in appearance. I removed the header photo
montage of used books on the classroom shelves and in the back of my car:Light background_edited-3

 

Used books istuffed n the back of my car

Used books stuffed into the back of my car

This purpose of this blog, however, will not change. There still will be posts dedicated to how I am putting books in the hands of students. There will be posts about instructional strategies that work in classrooms. There will be posts about issues in education.

In other words, this blog will continue offering the same old messages in a new wrapping.

Of course, educators regularly refurbish old ideas with new wrappings.  Take for example, the literature circle. The literature circle has been in education since 1982 when, according to Wikipedia, fifth grade students in Karen Smith’s class, organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss individual novels.

 Smith was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, they had no outside help or instruction from their teacher (Daniels, 1994). From here literature circles evolved into reading, study and discussion groups based around different groupings of students reading a variety of different novels.

In contrast to the the classroom where a whole class novel is taught by the teacher,literature circles have provided students the chance to participate in self-directed discussions in by taking on different roles and responsibilities.

I am a big fan of literature circles as a way to encourage critical thinking, student choice, and independence in students. I have been promoting the incorporation of literature circles at multiple grade levels. Most recently, several of the 7th and 8th grade classes in my district have been using the literature circles in their new block schedule with some success. The teachers in these classes began by using the traditional roles for students: discussion director, connector, illustrator, vocabulary enricher, text locator, and researcher. The transition was smooth since students were already familiar with these roles from literature circles in elementary school.

Last month, I began offering teachers suggestions on how to offer some “new wrappings” for these old roles. Using a list of writing genres, I suggested that the teachers could offer roles for students in the literature circles and also include authentic writing prompts.circle green

In these new wrappings, each student’s role could center on one of the following writing genres:

  • Write a Personal Letter from one character to another;
  • Prepare a Greeting Card to or from a character;
  • Develop a Things to Do List for a character;
  • Write Classified or Personal Ads that connect to a chapter;
  • Prepare a mix tape for a character and explain the choices;
  • Draft a resume for a character;
  • Compose a TV script from a chapter with notes for stage directions;
  • Script a Talk Show Interview or Panel with characters;
  • Record a recipe that is associated with the book;
  • Organize an Infographic using facts from the story;
  • Create and organize Receipts, Applications, Deeds, Budgets from the story
  • Obituary, Eulogy or Tribute for a character 

These roles could rotate the way the traditional roles rotate in a literature circle, or the roles could be added as special collaborative writing activities.

The incorporation of technology to literature circles expands the opportunity to “wrap” the old roles in new digital covers. In a literature circle of four or five students, the major platforms for social media can be used as a way to have students interact with a text. With (or without) technology, students can rotate roles where they could:circle blue

  1. Tweet a summary
  2. Design a Facebook Page for a character or event;
  3. Suggest “pins” for a character as on Pinterest;
  4. Write e-mail correspondences between characters;
  5. Plan Instagram messages.

I also encouraged  teachers to number the seats in the literature circles, and then assign roles based on the number of the seat a student selected. Another strategy would be to offer a “surprise” role that rotates to a different numbered chair every meeting.

Like so much in education, old strategies can be made new.
Old literature circle roles can be made new with genre writing and/or with social media.

2015 New Year means a new wrapping for this old blog, but there will always be used books for classrooms in the back of my car!

Not sure how November became so loaded with conventions, but Thanksgiving holiday plans have taken a side seat to presentations. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to present at International Conference ICT for Language Learning in Florence, Italy, (11/9-14) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) section (11/23-25) of the National Conference of English Teachers in Washington, D.C.

These opportunities to present nationally and internationally have come as a result of this blog and connections I have made with other educators who use social media to connect and to collaborate. So, it is not surprising that the first session I will be presenting in Florence with world languages teacher Amy Nocton is titled “Blogging to Share, Exchange and Collaborate”. I met Amy through her husband, Jason Courtmanche Director of Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. She is a world language teacher (Spanish and Italian) at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut, and she needed help setting up her classroom blog, Perdidos en sus pensamientos. Her success with this technology in offering students an opportunity to choose topics as part of  is best summed up by the sentiments of one of her students who began posting more than a year ago. Her student Annie Maclachlan noted:

Screenshot 2014-11-12 04.44.15

Presenting on 11/13/14 “Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate”; student quote from the  on the right

“Instead of writing to a rubric, I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted. I wrote about what interested me, because I firmly believed that whoever took the time to go on the blog would love hearing what I had to say. And this was a good feeling. It was a feeling of complete intellectual freedom, a feeling that I believe everyone should experience at least once.”

Like Amy’s student, my students also enjoyed the freedom to explore a topic and publish for a world audience. Sharing how our students can connect with readers from all over the globe at a conference with teachers from all over the globe has an internal reverberation. We have the chance to see how others are guiding students so we can better prepare them to share their ideas and understandings with local and global audiences.

This opportunity has also given me the chance to visit the city of Florence with its amazing architecture and even more wonderful art collections.  To say that my jaw has dropped on more than one occasion is an understatement.

After this cultural saturation, I return home only to head out to the National Conference of English Teachers Conference in D.C. There I will be presenting “It’s Not the Math in the Literacy Standards; It’s the Literacy in the Math Standards” at the Council for English Leadership section of the program. I will be presenting with my former colleague Stephanie Pixley, from Wamogo High School in Litchfield, Connecticut.

I have already written about the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards (English/Language Arts Can Persevere with Math Practice Standard #1and Author’s Craft Revealed Through Mathematical Practice Standard #7 ) on this blog, and this presentation will feature many of the ideas I outlined in these posts.

Screenshot 2014-11-13 01.57.03The NCTE Conference is usually so jammed packed full of sessions that my heads spins. I do not think I will be afforded any museum time there as I want to see many of the sessions. I especially want to see sessions offered by other bloggers who I have met socially and virtually, including one offered by Fran McVeigh, Vicki Vinton, and Mary Lee Hahn“It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.”

Needless to say, I have not thought about turkey, stuffing, or any other side dish, but I am confident after these next two weeks that I will have plenty of photos to share and things to talk about and add to the conversation at the holiday table.