Archives For Connecticut Writing Project

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!

Dear Governor Dannel Malloy:

I forgive you for the inflammatory comments about teachers in your State of the State speech delivered last February (2/8/12),   “In today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years.  Do that, and tenure is yours.” After all, I  have said some pretty unflattering things about politicians these past few years. Let us agree that professions should not be demonized.

Instead, I would rather provide you with an example of  great professional development for educators by discussing the value of the Connecticut Summer Institute which is a part of the Connecticut Writing Project. Eleven dedicated teachers from different school districts in the State of Connecticut have spent the past four weeks this summer (July 9-August 3, 2012) at the Connecticut Summer Institute organized and taught by Bryan R Crandall  at Fairfield University. These were elementary, middle school and high school teachers, social studies and English, willing to spend a good portion of their summer vacations (for graduate credit) learning how to improve student literacy through writing from 8:30-3:30 daily. A variety of guest speakers  also visited the Summer Institute and shared their writing experiences; there was a a journalist, an author, a poet, and veterans including  co-director Julie Roneson of past Connecticut Writing Project programs. This program is associated with the National Writing Project, an organization dedicated to improving writing at every grade level. The NWP website states:

Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future.

I am sitting through a professional development session on how to use peer to peer writing conferences. I want to believe there will be a moment in this workshop when the “ah-ha” moment will happen, when I finally unlock the formula for successful in class peer to peer writing conferences at the high school level. The presenter reiterates how important this process is for writers to hear critical feedback to their writing. I hear again that “sticking with it and training students” to peer to peer conference are key ingredients that will improve student writing. Then I think of my students….my 9th, 10th and 11th grade students. This unspoken heresy forms in my mind:

Forgive me, well-intended and passionate presenter, but in my experience, in class peer to peer writing conferences do not work.

There, I admit it. Success in implementing face to face, peer to peer writing conferences, real critical encounters, has eluded me. I have 20 plus years in the English classroom, grades 6-12, and I have always come away from peer to peer writing conference sessions with the uncomfortable opinion that I have been wasting class time.

I now know why.
This summer, I am participating in the Connecticut Writing Project, and I have to write on demand, and then I must share that work. This is a horrible experience for me. I pass my paper wondering, “What will this person think of me?” and “What if there is a grammar error? I’m an English teacher!!” I have to provide feedback on a fellow teacher’s work, and I see the same kind of panic in her eyes.
I quickly reflect. How does my adolescent, pimply, over-stimulated teen-age boy feel as he hands in his rough draft for a critique by the fair skinned, sweet smelling young girl who sits behind him? How does that painfully shy artist who doodles his responses but has yet to complete a paragraph in writing feel about sharing his work with the amazingly popular class jock (boy or girl)?
I mention this to the presenter who says, “Yes, sometimes, there are student combinations that do not work.” That confirms my problem.

Problem #1: My struggle with peer to peer conferencing begins with setting up partnerships. Do I put the uneven writer with the good writer? Does the good writer need another good writer for good editing? Do I put two poor writers together and expect a miracle? Do I let the students choose their partners? How effective is the conference if friendship is in play?

Problem #2: The research shows that students should learn how to peer conference in the elementary and middle school grades to carry that behavior into the high school grades.However, I have found that training in writing conferences in the elementary and middle school grades is  erased in the high school environment. Many high school students claim to hate sharing their work with other members of the class; participation is mixed.

Problem #3: I teach in a regional school where one third of our freshman class comes from out of district schools. Several of these students have not had any training  in peer conferencing. The number of incoming students who are already uncomfortable in moving to a new regional school requires that I need to start at square one and  train everyone how to conference effectively.

Ultimately, I do not want to give up on students providing critical feedback to other student; I just want to take away the awkward immediacy of that face to face encounter. Since I teach in a 1:1 school district with digital literacy embedded in my curriculum, I will continue to use the solutions that have worked in place of those face to face, peer to peer writing conferences. I use digital conferencing.

Solution #1: I use blogs. Each blog is organized for a small group (8-10 students)   to use as a team. Only members of their team see their posts and comments over a period of time, say a semester or a school year. Students post book reviews, and other students comment on that post by asking questions about the book, or by making recommendations to improve the original book review  post. Each student must respond to the posted book reviews. Writing on the blogs allow students the physical distance they need to comfortably respond to each other. Written comments take time to construct, and students are more thoughtful if they know what they write will have a larger audience. Blogs let me  monitor the comments as well and determine which students are the most effective in providing good critical feedback to a student and which students are simply putting down, “great job!” or “I like what you wrote!” I might not have this information if the students were having face to face conferences. During my writing conferences with students I can follow up with the comment stream and target what is necessary to improve a critical response.

Solution #2: I use wikis. Students upload a report or story to a wiki page, and their peers can respond with questions and provide feedback in the comment section at the bottom of the digital page. Here too, the wiki page and the comment section will be seen by a larger audience and students are more thoughtful if they know their work will be read by an entire class. Responses in the comment section of the wiki also allows me to monitor who has provided good critical feedback to the writer.

Solution #3: I use Google docs. Students can upload their work to a Google doc and share that link with one or more students. Each peer reviewer can use the comment feature to provide feedback. This feature also identifies the peer conference partner on each comment he or she makes. All  comments by the peer reviewer are recorded on the document’s margin. An student author can even post questions about his or her writing in a comment box. The document can be also shared with multiple students who could work on the same document at the same time if necessary. All  comments are part of the document’s history, and I can monitor changes made by the student writer before and after a peer review. This method is particularly helpful if I have specific students who are hesitant about facing another student in a peer review.

Of course, all this digital peer to peer conferencing is improved if I provide students with  guiding questions (“Did the opening engage you as a reader?”) they would use in written conferences or if they prepare specific questions for the peer reviewer.

Digital platforms: wikis, blogs, and Google docs, allow me the means to provide peer to peer writing conferences by removing those awkward face to face conferences that I have found so unproductive in my high school classrooms. These digital platforms also let me organize students across class periods, and if I found a teacher in a cooperating school who wanted to peer conference, the digital platforms would allow my students to conference outside the classroom. Students still have plenty of opportunities for face to face encounters during class discussions and presentations, but they are comfortable communicating their feedback about a peer’s writing in a digital environment. And, heresy or not, I am finally comfortable with the productive peer to peer (via the Internet) writing conference.