The Re-Write Blog

Relationship-Based Writing

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In one of my first posts of this blog I talked about a subject that I think doesn’t get nearly enough attention: writing is really hard.

We all know that it is hard, but I’m not sure that during our day-in and day-out dealings with student writing we appreciate enough how incredibly hard it is or how hard it can be on us. I mean take me for example. I teach writing, I write a lot, I have a deep understanding of how writing works, and I’ve got a generally good track record with writing. And I still struggle to find the right words, agonize over choppy constructions, lose my train of thought and grow overwhelmed trying to find it again, and face waves of exhaustion and worry almost every time I sit down and put my hands to the keyboard. Continue reading “Relationship-Based Writing”

Creating a Narrative of Progress

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Since the new year I have spent a lot of time doing two things: responding to a massive stack of student essays and slowly working through Thomas Newkirk’s Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. While some might pity me for spending much of my week off reading and responding, I am not one of them. First, the week before I chopped three (!) novels off my to-read list and didn’t so much as think about school. And second, Newkirk’s book–which explores how our emotions (teachers and students) often slow, obscure, or outright obstruct learning–is a remarkable text. I can’t think of a more important educational book that I’ve read this decade. And reading it while simultaneously responding to student writing felt like an extended revelation of sorts. So much of what Newkirk described was so clearly threaded throughout my students’ words, and thanks to him I had more tools than ever to help the students whose embarrassment, fear, lack of motivation, and low self confidence were clearly standing in the way of their writing.

In fact, I was so struck by the book that over the next few weeks, I want to share three distinct tools I got from Newkirk in the hopes that these tools will help you to better manage the teacher and student emotions that impact your classroom. Today, I want to start with a phrase that I have already committed to the core of my teaching practice: create a narrative of progress Continue reading “Creating a Narrative of Progress”

How to Teach Creativity

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Have you ever graded a stack of papers that felt like a record stuck on the same verse? The kind of stack where each paper looks strikingly similar to the one before and after it and nearly all of them parrot the major themes discussed in class?

Early in my career, this sort of thing was so common that I assumed that student essays as a general rule were mostly plain and uninteresting regurgitations of themes discussed in class. One particularly extreme example that still stands out in my mind came from the first year that I taught The Cather in the Rye. At the end of the unit, I had the students write an essay called “Why Holden?” where they came up with an argument to explain Holden’s extreme behavior. Here are four of the theses from this assignment, written by four of the strongest students in one section:

  • “Holden is secretly terrified of growing up because it means things will change.”
  • “Throughout the whole book Holden is terrified to grow up and be an adult because he doesn’t want things to change.”
  • “Holden is terrified of change and is in denial of the true nature of both those around him and himself.”
  • “After the death of his younger brother Allie, Holden is secretly terrified of growing up because it means things will continue to change.”

I bet you can guess the focus of the lesson on the day I handed out the essay.

If deja vu theses, like the ones above, are an issue in your classroom the way that they most definitely were in mine, my recommendation is to start thinking about actively cultivating and teaching the skill of creativity in your classroom. Continue reading “How to Teach Creativity”

Building Metacognitive Writers

In many ways our brains are nearly limitless in their capacity. No hard cap exists on memories that can be created or skills that can be gained. But there is one function of our brains that is incredibly limited–our attention.

In fact, our attention is not just limited, it is severely limited in two distinctly different ways. First we cannot truly pay attention to more than one thing at a time. What looks like multitasking is actually rapid switching of attention, which leads to far more errors and loss of efficiency in all tasks being done. Anyone who has seen someone walking down the sidewalk while texting knows exactly what this looks like (see below).

Second, we can only consciously hold onto a small handful of information concerning  whatever our attention is on.  A fierce debate rages in brain research circles over the exact number of pieces of information we can hold onto in a given moment (this is often called working memory). Some researchers say it is four, others seven, and others simply state it’s “complicated.” Whatever number it is, most can agree that it is strikingly small. Continue reading “Building Metacognitive Writers”

Chasing a Unicorn Part I: How to cut down grading time without sacrificing quality

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If I was a member of the American Dialect Society, my vote for Word of the Year would be the word unicorn. The word, long monopolized by the six and under, My Little Pony set, has undergone a renaissance and suddenly appeared in the vernacular of almost everyone (student and adult alike) I know with a new meaning: someone or something who/that is the unattainable perfect ideal who/that only exists in the land of make-believe.

When I first heard this word, my first thought went to what has long been the unicorn for me and nearly every English teacher I know: a way to grade a more reasonable amount without sacrificing quality of instruction. What makes this a unicorn is that the logistics of the problem are seemingly insurmountable. I have five sections with an average of 32 students (less than last year!). That makes 160. If I am able to read and assess an essay in ten minutes, which a blistering pace by most standards, it will take me nearly 27 hours to do 160. And that is for just one essay that I assign. When that context is accounted for, the idea of knocking grading down to a reasonable amount starts to look almost as unlikely as bumping into an actual unicorn. Continue reading “Chasing a Unicorn Part I: How to cut down grading time without sacrificing quality”

The Forgotten ‘R’: Using Reflection to Speed Student Learning

“Most classrooms are oriented more to the present and the future than to the past. Such an orientation means that students (and teachers) find it easier to discard what has happened and to move on without taking stock of the seemingly isolated experiences of the past.”

Learning Through Reflection by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

As I sat at a session by The Paper Graders at NCTE17 called Stop Grading, Start Reflecting,  I was struck by what an odd job teaching is. In most professions the sign that a lot of work is getting done is to see the worker actively working. We know mechanics are working when we see them under cars and we know writers are working when we see their fingers dance across keyboards. This is not the case in teaching. In teaching, student growth is the work, and often that growth is at its highest in the moments where the worker (the teacher) is not actively standing and delivering in front of students.

Of course, this is not to say that teachers aren’t central to student learning. They are. But their role is different. In that way teachers are more like farmers than anything else. Like farmers, their job is to properly prepare the ground, plant ideas at the right time and with the right spacing from each other, and then nurture, troubleshoot, and supplement as the tiny tendrils of understanding slowly turn into solid stalks rich with the fruit of knowledge. Continue reading “The Forgotten ‘R’: Using Reflection to Speed Student Learning”

How to Get Students Interested in Grammar

If you want to understand why so many students hate grammar, find a student and ask them the following questions:

  • What is grammar?
  • Who made it?
  • Why did they make it?

I start my discussion of grammar every year with these three questions, and the responses I get tend to go like this:

  • “Grammar is writing rules.”
  • “I don’t really know who made it. Maybe English teachers or professors.”
  • “Why was it made?? [confused shrug]

Responses like these tell us all we need to know about why so many students loathe grammar. While humans tend to have a nearly bottomless well of curiosity for things that they see as connecting to their lives, they generally have a profound indifference towards things that don’t apply to them. The problem with grammar is that if students don’t know what grammar is, who made it, and why it exists, then the chances of them feeling like it truly applies to them are low. Sure, English teachers can and do make the argument that a firm grasp of certain grammar rules will help students get better scores on things like standardized tests, but that argument rarely persuades students to learn more than the bare minimum needed to get the scores they want. Continue reading “How to Get Students Interested in Grammar”