Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Omens and Portents?

I am not sure that I believe in omens, but if I did today might not have been the best beginning for the school year for me.

I went back a little early to start setting up my room. I am scheduled to report back to work on Monday, but will be on--Jury Duty! Isn’t that fun? It was postponed from the end of school last year, for some reason. As it is now occurring during the week of meetings, I am not too heartbroken. But it does necessitate a little early work.

I got to my classroom during a nice steady downpour. It took a while to find a place to park where I could unload the supplies I bought for the classroom. Yup. That’s right. I spend my own money on classroom supplies. This year it was “found money.” I got an extra check for travel expenses that I had not expected.

Anyway, I got to my room and decided to set up the lights and computers. I don’t use the fluorescents during the year. I use incandescent lighting. I like it better and it doesn’t seem to set off ADHD behaviors as much as those harsh, white fluorescents do. But, to see what I was doing, I needed the overhead lights to get it set up. I was literally halfway through that when the lights started blinking on and off randomly and repeatedly.

As I poked around the building a bit I discovered that some classes had no power, some had full power, and some had intermittent power. I tried to get the rest of the class set up; apparently the sockets in the walls were working in my room. At least somewhat. I got the incandescent lights on and set up the rest of the room with those.

As I could not use the elevator, I had to go out and move my car to a back entrance on the bottom floor to unload my supplies. And, returning to the room from that, I found that some of the bulbs had blown out. Or at least stopped working.

At that point I gave in for the day. I put up the stuff I bought and headed for home and lunch.

If the chaos of the first day is an indicator of things to come, I really don’t wanna know about it. I’ll try to finish tomorrow.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Poems from Homeroom--Review

I am always on the lookout for books that I can use in the classroom. Sometimes novels or nonfiction. Sometimes poetry. Poetry written specifically for teenagers, poetry they would pay attention to, takes special skill. It requires that the poet connect or reconnect with a lot of adolescent emotions that most grown-ups would love to forget.

With Poems from Homeroom: A Writer’s Place to Start, Kathi Appelt has done a laudable job of delving into those feelings. She writes in the introduction that, with the exception of the opening poem, each is based on an individual person from her life, someone special she had in mind to make the poem work for her on an emotional level. In itself, not bad advice to an aspiring poet. Appelt mixes free verse with more structured forms, such as acrostics, haiku, and a sestina.

The acrostics in particular are good models. This form of poetry is often used as an ice-breaker in classrooms--a quick this-is-who-I-am assignment. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of these poems lack any depth or originality. They skim the surface of the student/poet or just consist of the quickest, easiest words that came to mind (or could be found in a dictionary). In her book Appelt writes seven acrostics, each about a dead rock legend. In each she tried to incorporate something of that legend's voice. These are powerful examples to share. Deep and insightful. Thoughtful.

The haiku is another of the most assigned and least understood forms of poetry. Too many teachers get in the 5-7-5 mindset and look for nothing more than syllable count. This misses the true power and beauty of traditional haiku, which juxtapose some small, intimate descriptive image with a larger idea. In Japanese each haiku uses a kigo, or season word, to let the reader know which of the four seasons that haiku represents.

Unfortunately, Appelt also seems to fall into this trap. Although she uses haiku in a clever way, interlocking several to create one completed idea, she missed a couple of nuances. Namely, she wrote senryu--not haiku. Senryu has the same 5-7-5 count but is not locked into nature. It is more often used to look at humans and our foibles. Also, tradionally, each haiku/senryu should stand by itself, a complete idea, although a haiku sequence such as she has here is not unheard of.

The sestina is one of the harder forms to write. The need to repeat key words in a different sequence in each of the stanzas is exacting and effortful. Making it seem effortless is even harder. Appelt’s “Research Paper Sestina” was fun to read and a fresh example to share with your students: one on a topic (research papers) that they can easily relate to.

And all this is only the first half of the book.

After the last poem comes the second section, where she writes about the inspiration for each poem and has several questions to get young poets (or even older ones like me) thinking. These are excellent jumping off points into writing original poems.

This was an accidental find in the public library. I am glad I decided to peruse the poetry shelves as this book is going to be valuable to me in the future. After I get my own copy, of course.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Because Writing Matters--Review and Discussion Questions

To be honest, I got roped into reading this one. There was a kerfluffle having to do with two different workshops my writing project site was hosting this summer. One was an online book discussion group and one was based on the NWP publication Because Writing Matters. In the turn of events the book discussion group wound up reading this also.

I started the book with a great deal of reluctance. I expected it to be dry and dense. It was neither. The NWP and Carl Nagin did an excellent job of making the case for why there should be writing at all grade levels and in across the curriculum. He used case studies of real teachers and schools that used writing to improve their students academic achievement. Often these improvements were was about as subtle as news coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral.

To help make the case to administrators and central office personnel, he focused some chapters on what they, by virtue of their jobs and the current political climate, must focus on: test scores. He also made sure that all the facts in the book were products of and backed up by research--not just the anecdotal evidence of a few classrooms. This is also mandatory today, as it should be. If teachers don’t use research to inform their instruction, they are doomed to Santayana’s vicious circle.

In reading the book I was reminded of practices that I need to promote more in my classroom and was constantly stopping the reading to either make notes about changes to my classroom site (or just going ahead and making the changes I wanted to see in my online world).

While the information here is nothing that an NWP member would not expect, it is still an excellent summation of the current research as well as a powerful argument for the need to make the teaching of writing all-pervasive in our schools, at all levels.

It would make excellent reading for staff development, especially via the format of professional reading groups. And, with that in mind, I would like to offer some of the pre-reading, reading, and post-reading questions that we developed in my book study group.


1. Describe your view of the teacher's role in the teaching of writing.

2. Describe your view of the student's role in the teaching of writing.

3. Describe your view of the administrator’s role in the teaching of writing.

4. How would you rate the importance of writing in education in general, and your subject in particular?

(These would also make excellent post-reading questions. The participants could compare their original answers with those they hold after reading the book.)


1. Should there be a required course for all teachers on writing pedagogy?

2. How could it be "sold" to the students as being important in their particular discipline?

3. Should there be a stronger composition requirement for Language Arts majors? It seems that the stereotype of an English teacher has been someone who loves the literature so much they want to re-experience it and share it with others. Would a stronger writing component, maybe requiring courses in writing from the English department as well as literature, help?

4. What book on writing pedagogy has most influenced your instruction of writing in the classroom? I would be interested in more than the title and author, but also in the hows and whys of this book's importance to you. For the purposes of the question limit yourself to one (or at most two) books.


1. If writing is a subject that can never truly be completely mastered, what should our goals as writing instructors be?

2. How do you deal with the ambiguity in writing instruction--the idea that there is no guaranteed formula for success every paper? How do you get students to deal with it without becoming so frustrated they quit writing?

3. How can we teach, maybe just can we teach, students to write “powerful, memorable, provocative, [and/] or moving” papers?

4. How would your faculty respond to a mandatory inservice (or series of inservices) on writing pedagogy? Can you think of any ways to promote more of a “buy in” by faculty members who are not specifically responsible for writing scores?

5. What are your assumptions about writing?


1. Were you taught writing as a process or as a product? How did this influence your development as a writer?

2. How do you see the reading-writing connection as it relates to what you reach? How can you use this connection to improve your teaching?

3. Can technology improve the teaching of writing in your classroom? If so, how--if not, why not?

4. How can we help students who lack knowledge of “Standard English” to become better at that without making them so frustrated with writing that they rebel?


1. Think of a writing assignment that you gave that maybe didn't go as well as you had hoped. Using the information in this chapter, what could you do to improve that lesson before you teach it again?

2. If you don’t have any lessons that include a writing component, pick a lesson that you could use writing with. How would you include writing in teaching that lesson?


1. How do we get our fellow teachers to buy into ongoing professional development on writing? What objections could you foresee to such a professional development plan? How can these objections be overcome?

2. How can school districts make it easier for teachers to do this kind of professional development? I know they could just order us to, but that produces attendance--not results. What can administrators and central office personnel do to help create acceptance of professional development for writing?


1. What is the impact of mandatory writing assessments in your classroom? In your school? In your district?

2. Beyond essay questions and research papers, how can you use writing in your classroom to assess student progress in your subject area?

3. How useful are rubrics? Should they be absolute or more flexible?

4. Should holistic assessments be more focused on content or correctness?


1. What do you think about the concept of assigning writing vs teaching writing? Do you find the criteria valid? Using these criteria, which would you say you do in your classroom?

2. What lessons do you draw from the two case studies? Do you think they could (or should) be adapted for your school?

3. How can we get administrators and central office personnel to understand the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum at all grade levels?


These questions were posed on pages three and four of the book. They are good questions to keep in mind as you read and make excellent post reading discussion questions.

Why does writing matter?
What does research say about the teaching of writing?
What do we mean by “writing processes"?
What are some features of an effective writing classroom?
How can writing be used to develop critical thinking?
How does writing fit into learning across the disciplines?
What kind of professional development prepares teachers to teach and use writing?
What does a school wide writing program look like?
What are fair ways to assess writing?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Writer's Book of Wisdom--Review

Every summer I go on a reading orgy. I read lots of books that are what I call brain candy. They are quick, fun, and not in any way taxing on my brain. I tend to read of lot of  urban fantasy--fantasy novels set in the contemporary world.  

But, eventually, I start to think that, for some reason, I really ought to read some professional books. I love to read books about writing. I can read books on pedagogy and theory, but I am frankly not as patient with them. I like to get to the nuts and the bolts. So, after reading ten or twelve fantasies (and some graphic novels, too--almost forgot those), I pulled out a book I purchased in May with a birthday book card I received and began to read it.

And a few days ago I finished reading The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft by Steven Taylor Goldsberry. It is set up as a list of rules. The author himself acknowledges at the end that some of the “rules” contradict each other. That is okay. Different people need different guidance. There is something in here for just about everyone. With each rule lasting only a page or two long, the book reads quickly. That is, if all you do is read it.

It is intended to be more than a quick read. It is intended to be inspirational--get the reader energized to trade reading for writing. As I usually find in these books it tends to slant heavily to narrative fiction. That is somewhat useful to me professionally, as I need to teach narrative writing. It is not as useful to me as a writer. I tend to write poetry and nonfiction. There were some ideas that I found useful for those genres as well.

Some of the rules are gems that I am going to use with my writing classes next year. They will be easy to build mini-lessons around. For instance, in discussion of dialogue, Goldsberry breaks that topic into three of his rules. It reminded me that, as a teacher I need to break down the processes more for my students. It also, by its very structure, exhibits and promotes the idea of strategic writing. Have a plan going in. Know what you want to accomplish. Think of your audience to help figure out the best way to accomplish the goal you set yourself.

I am working on getting a list of nonfiction writing titles together for inclusion in a classroom library. While I would not put this book in the same league as Writing Down the Bones or Writing Toward Home, it is in some ways more accessible to beginning writers, I think. It is informative, interesting, casual in tone, and well worth the time.

©2009-Art Belliveau