The Re-Write Blog

My Most Important Pedagogical Changes of the Year: Time = Importance

I occasionally teach a film elective, and when I do, I find that the transition from watching movies as a viewer to watching them from a film perspective is a really hard one for a lot of students. In order to help them in their transition, I have found that giving students this one simple rule on the first day makes all the difference:

Time = Importance

The reason for this is that movies are incredibly tightly packed affairs. Like books, they are supposed to build up tension, establish interesting themes, and get us to connect to characters, but they only have a fraction of the space (a screenplay directly converted to regular pages would likely be 30 or 40 pages). This means that if a director has us spend nearly 30 minutes at a family wedding like in opening of the The Godfather (see below), it means something; in this case it is largely about characterizing the family members as humans first before showing them as mobsters, as this is essential in a movie where criminals are the “good guys.”

Continue reading “My Most Important Pedagogical Changes of the Year: Time = Importance”

My Most Important Pedagogical Change of the Year: Encouraging Real Reflection

This is my third year as a gardener. The first was trial and a lot of error. The second was passable. But this year, my garden is pacing nearly a month ahead of last year, despite a colder than average spring. The reason for my increase in yields and growth? Fall preparation.

In my first two years, I stopped when my garden stopped, leaving the dead and dried plant husks to weather the cold and snowy months. But last fall I decided to properly ready my beds for the harsh Michigan winter. With the new school year blossoming, I didn’t exactly have the time to spend in a garden that was no longer producing, but I knew the old gardening adage that fall preparation equaled spring success, and I really wanted a more successful year three. So I found the time to pull plants, install cover crops, and nourish the soil, and this year I couldn’t believe it as my little shoots stormed out of the ground and into the sky.

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The view from my garden Continue reading “My Most Important Pedagogical Change of the Year: Encouraging Real Reflection”

How to Introduce Our Students to Authentic Audiences

A Note from Matt: If you have time, check out my Edutopia post this week on teaching grammar in context. There are few changes I’ve made in my class over the years that have been more impactful than ditching grammar worksheets in favor of embedding grammar instruction into the reading and writing already happening in class. 

I was working with some teachers in Ohio recently, and during our session we looked at what I believe are three of the most interesting meta-studies concerning teaching writing in recent history: NCTE/NWP/WPA’s Framework for Success in Post Secondary Writing, Writing Next by Stephen Graham and Dolores Perin, and the NCTE’s most recent position statement on teaching writing. Each of these studies serves as a thoughtful and informative meditation on how to develop young writers, but what strikes me most about them is that they all come to wildly different conclusions; the Framework focuses almost exclusively on habits of mind and process as the keys to developing young writers, Writing Next argues that direct teaching of specific skills is how we move writers forward, and the NCTE Position Statement takes a more holistic approach, making a case for the importance of a wide array of factors, ranging from technology to assessing writing.

In fact, beyond each giving a nod to the importance of process, there is actually only one common suggestion they share: All three identify writing regularly for a wide range of purposes, in a wide range of genres, and to a wide range of audiences as being essential for strong writing development. Continue reading “How to Introduce Our Students to Authentic Audiences”

How to Cultivate Strong Student Writing Identities

This weekend a friend of mine introduced me to a writer who focuses on habits and decision making named James Clear. He isn’t exactly an education writer, but his posts are in many ways completely about education, as they are about how we learn, evolve, and view the world. There was one post in particular called Identity-Based Habits that sent me running to find my notebook for quotes like the following:

Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).

I think what grabbed me about Clear’s work is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the massive role identity plays in how students perform in our classes, and his wording so clearly encapsulated what I’d been noticing. The post’s introduction to me was also timely, as my interest in identity has further solidified over the last month as I’ve watched my Juniors go through the spring battery of standardized testing (for regular readers, that is where I’ve been over the last three weeks). While helping them prepare for these tests, I stood amazed by just how much their core beliefs about themselves seemed to control every aspect of how they approached these tests. The students who identified themselves as a bad writers and expected to fail avoided studying at all costs. The message was clear: They knew they were bad, so what was the point and why spend time thinking about something they will never be good at? On the other side, students who identified as strong writers came into my classroom at all hours of the day with stacks of practice essays, highlighted practice questions, and dozens of clarifying questions concerning the most minor rhetorical or mechanical details. They knew that they were good writers, and they were going to ensure the number the test spit out would match their skills. Continue reading “How to Cultivate Strong Student Writing Identities”

(Arguably) The Greatest Free Writing Instruction Resource on the Internet

A Quick Note from Matt: Happy spring, everyone! I’ve got a short one for you today, as between a couple of very exciting writing projects (more on those really soon), the end of the quarter push, and a couple plagues descending on our house via my daughters’ day care, March hasn’t made much room for blogging. What today’s post lacks in length it makes up for in practicality, as the resource shared within it regularly saves me a lot of time. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope you enjoy!

I was talking to a regular reader of the blog yesterday and she reminded me about a topic I’ve meant to mention for sometime: Allison Marchetti, Rebekah O’Dell, and the work they have done concerning mentor texts. For those not familiar with the term mentor text, the basic idea behind them is that to grow as writers we need to write a lot and get direct instruction, but we also need to closely read both professional and student work on a regular basis in all of the genres we require students to write. Reading these “mentor” texts is essential because they teach our students lessons about form, audience, genre conventions, voice, style, and organization that can’t really be gotten through direct instruction. Continue reading “(Arguably) The Greatest Free Writing Instruction Resource on the Internet”

Zen and the Art of Paper Grading

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Last Wednesday I woke to a soft quilt of fluffy snow outside my window. It looked like about three inches, which would not be enough to cancel a school in Michigan but would be enough to turn my normally five minute commute into a fifty minute one. The reason for this is one light on one hill that I have to go through. When the road gets coated in snow or ice, cars stopped at that light struggle to move on the incline when the light turns green. They spin their tires, weave side to side, and ultimately a couple are able to get up enough speed before the light turns red and the whole process begins anew.

As I sat in the backup, my thoughts turned to another bottleneck that I live with every day: the fact that as a writing teacher, I need to respond to student writing if I want them to grow as writers, but I have 33 kids in each class. In a 5 section load, that is 165 kids whose papers need my feedback. Even if I were to respond in the relatively fast time of 10 minutes per paper, it would take me 27.5 additional hours beyond my prepping, planning, meetings, and emails to respond to all of them. And that is just for one paper. Continue reading “Zen and the Art of Paper Grading”

Using Writing as a Tool to Figure out a Difficult World

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Last weekend I opened my computer in the hopes of getting some grading done, and then I saw the following headline in The New York Times: “Trump Suggests Giving Bonuses to Trained and Armed Teachers.” At the sight of this, I closed my computer and opened my journal.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was about that specific headline that inspired a sudden need to write. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of headlines involving guns, schools, and politics coming before the well-being of students and teachers, but for some reason the article stirred up something inside me that I needed to sort out before moving on with my day.

Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t bring this up in an effort to make a political point. There is already an incredible array of statements on shootings and schools, ranging from this powerful op-ed in Education Week to Kelly Gallagher’s unit on mass shootings. And while I did write a piece on school shootings, I did it solely for me as an effort to understand and unpack my own feelings.

The reason I bring this up is that I think it is important to remember that we write for a lot of reasons. While many of those reasons involve audiences, many do not. People have been filling mole skins with musings and diaries with their darkest worries since writing began, and most who do this don’t do it in an effort to build an audience, shift someone’s thinking, or get a good grade. Instead I would argue the majority of those who scrawl in journals late at night do it because writing is powerful personal medicine. It can clarify thinking, unlock thoughts, forge connections, and help us to understand a world that is not always nice and hardly ever clear.  Continue reading “Using Writing as a Tool to Figure out a Difficult World”