Student/Classroom Spotlight: Becoming a “Recursive” writer

I’ve been spending my time at the Upper Dublin high school in an AP Language and Composition classroom. The students in this class are motivated to do well, and to do whatever it takes to get an A. The biggest challenge facing this class isn’t motivating them to write. It’s not getting them to behave. It’s not many things, but it might be to challenge them with writing, to take what they know about writing and make them better at it. 

I had no idea what to expect as I walked in to class the morning I wanted to interview one of the students. The student I interviewed, let’s call her Emily Dickinson, was an honor student. Emily is an EMT, a former firefighter jr going into nursing and she loves to write. She always has. She’s a poet and a fiction writer. She loves it because is allows her an escape, a place to vent, a level of freedom that she can’t get many other places. Even though school has generally been helpful to her writing, there have been times of clashing. Five paragraph essays. Remember those? Well, just as they were the bane of my existence, so too they really negatively affected Emily. She still remembers the acronym RACE. Restate Quote, Analyze, Cite Quote, Explain. These traditional methods of composition made it difficult for the student to adjust to her tenth grade English teacher who told her to “write what you want,” giving her the freedom to be creative and to generate ideas. Her high school writing experience varied from one teacher to the next, some were more focused on writing while others were not, some giving more leeway than others. Currently, she says, “so far this year I have questioned my assumptions about writing because now I have learned that the first draft isn’t the final draft.”

The first draft isn’t the final draft. Kirby and Crovitz, in their book Inside Out, say this about writing, “Not all writing goes well…Any first draft may be halting, awkward, or a bit chaotic. The novice writer needs to know that this feeling of hesitancy and chaos is natural, that even the best writers experience it.” (22) Emily is learning what I’m learning at the graduate level because she’s in a classroom focused on writing. The strategies that this class have been working with are being proven effective. “Walking the walk” in terms of not only saying editing is important but also going though draft after draft has made students comfortable with this idea of writing as recursive and as process.

I asked Emily what she thought about being in a class that writes as a method of learning and what were some things that she thought were unique about it. These are what she mentioned:

  • Warm-ups are great because they prepare her for class, but she doesn’t experience them often in other classes.
  • Going without a syllabus has kept her on her toes, which make her more able to be creative and spontaneous.
  • Much of her best writing actually comes from the warm-ups, which she then uses to create a larger piece.

Fun Facts about Emily:

  • Emily likes writing with metaphors because “they make the reader have to re-read her writing and because it also leaves a little more to the imagination.”
  • Emily’s non-fiction work is primarily biographical in nature. 

If you’re a writer that’s what you are, there’s no other avenue to take.  -Emily 

Just for fun

Check out National Novel Writing Month and begin your 50,000 word novel TODAY! 

 

Teacher/Practice Spotlight: Mr. Hillman

 

We need to inspire our students, as Ms. Walden is quoted as saying on Ms. Abraham’s blog.  English education has traditionally not inspired, but rather “demoralized” through inflexibility and a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. (Kirby & Crovitz, 3) This is especially true when it comes to grammar, as we’ve all experienced the meaningless activities throughout our writing careers, having been given worksheets to complete over and over again in school. The truth is that according to research grammar taught in isolation does not necessarily improve a students’ writing and may not even have a positive impact. (4) It still needs to be taught, however, but the question arises: how can we teach grammar in classrooms that emphasize writing as a process, classrooms that “[acknowledge] the value of students’ personal experiences and stories, and [promote] students’ choices in determining topics for writing,” (3)   It’s kind of a strange question to ask because writing and grammar go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Well, yes and not necessarily. A five year old can write all he wants, but won’t learn basic writing without some help. In fact, the question of grammar was the first challenge mentioned in Inside Out. Their suggestion? Kirby and Crovitz propose “that we embed small units of mini-instruction as occasions present themselves with student work.” (4) Grammar in context. Sounds great, right? It was with this concept in mind that I approached Mr. Hillman and his AP composition class.

 

Talk about walking into a textbook. The moment that I walked into Mr. Hillman’s classroom, it was like walking into the book Inside Out, and seeing for the first time the practices that we have been learning about with Dr. Baker-Doyle in ED605. Writing is the main part of everyday life for his students. I’ve visited Mr. Hillman a total of three times over the past ten days. Each day, in each class, he begins with a writing warm-up, an exercise designed to activate the writing minds of the students. The rest of class consists of peer-editing, reading, creating, and ultimately making a class of writers. Its fun, but also challenging and each day brings something new. In a class where getting students to write authentic, personal pieces is of the utmost importance, my question for him was this: can embedding mini grammar lessons within a writing-as-process classroom be effective grammar training? His short answer was “yes, especially with 12th graders.” Students in the upper levels of education won’t do “off the shelf” grammar lessons. It just won’t work. What needs to happen, according to Mr. Hillman, is that writing teachers (and students) need to search for patterns in writing that indicate the areas in need of improvement. The full interview can be listened to here.

Grammar tips for pre-service (and current) teachers:

  • Focus on writing fluency before focusing on control & precision.
  • In upper levels of education, full grammar lessons probably will be difficult and may not work at all.
  •  Think about teaching grammar in the context of student writing. 

Author Study, The Creative Process

        Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, says in her TED presentation that creativity is not limited to a certain intellectual level, or a characteristic in a person, or a god-given creative mind. Rather, creativity is a “genius” that floats on the wind, visiting normal people, giving inspiration to make something really creative. According to her, it’s an outward force. The maddening that is sometimes associated with creative thinkers is simply the product of putting the emphasis on a singular person as the source of creativity rather than as a sort of conduit for creativity.

            While not a complete answer, I think that Gilbert is on to something, and she’s not alone. History is filled with muses, and inspiration from an external source. But, she’s not totally right, Jonah Lehrer, (2012) a sort of literary scientist, in Imagine says this about the mystery, “The sheer secrecy of creativity—the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us—means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force.” (Introduction, 16) Lehrer goes on to say that he doesn’t agree with this premise but counters it with limited scientific research on the subject which says that creativity is the process of thought. In a similar vein, Dean Keith Simonton (2000) says that “evidence increasingly shows that to a certain extent, creativity demands a comparable level of systematic training.”

            I think that creativity is some combination of both the genius and the process. Some people are gifted naturally with the ability and drive to inhale all of life and it’s details. They absorb the world around them, whether that comes from nurture or nature, I don’t know.

            One of my favorite books is East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Born in the beautiful Salinas valley in California, Steinbeck “formed a deep appreciation of his environment.” (Shillinglaw) He also spent a lot of time working with migrant workers, developing a sensitivity and empathy towards the poor, the displaced, the people who were lower on the social scale of life. His experience, coupled with his early desire to write, made him the writer that he was, and informed the topics that he was going to write about.

            Creativity is for anyone, I believe. Anyone can write a meaningful piece of literature, but the problem is that no one can do it without  a lot of hard work, without training, even it’s self-training, and a deep observation of life. The main point is that there is no impenetrable boundary which prevents even the most doubtful person from being a writer. Creativity comes from work, and every once in a while, that muse that floats by, flows through you and onto paper.    

Works Consulted:

“Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth spreading. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Sept. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/elizabeth

Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: how creativity works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Shillinglaw, S. (n.d.). The Steinbeck Institute -About John Steinbeck. The Steinbeck Institute. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from http://www.steinbeckinstitute.org/american.ht

Simonton, D. K. (2000). Creativity: Cognitive, personal, developmental, and social aspects. American psychologist55(1), 151.

Writing Introduction

“Grammar [is] an indication of class and cultural background in the United States…there is a bias against people who do not use language ‘correctly’” – Linda Christensen, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word

When I read this, I thought ‘yes,’ then ‘no, now I’m confused.’ As I discovered, after reading further, writing for the person who hasn’t been raised in the “language of power,” can be difficult because they stop and think about grammar. Their thoughts get stopped by the “grammar cop,” and their writing slows down, and becomes a laborious, dreadful thing. Always thinking about grammar and syntax and how to put words together as if it was a science project depletes and deflates the spirit and creativity of writing, or at least it can.

I grew up in a home that spoke the “language of power,” so my writing always was “acceptable” and academic. But, I hated writing, and struggled to get words on the page. Over the years my writing has improved, and I’ve gotten more confident in it, but even now I still doubt the veracity, or importance of my words. What has helped the most over the years hasn’t been grammar study (though it has helped), but rather the continuation of writing. Being in graduate school has forced me to write, then write some more. What used to be laborious isn’t as hard anymore, and based on the feedback from my professors, my writing has improved significantly.

As I finish up my studies at Arcadia, I understand more and more that writing is a tool for power and sharing your voice. For students of poverty, or students who are not of the dominant language group, writing can empower them, not only through raising awareness through their voice, but writing improves their overall literacy development. This development can’t be through learning how to write “correctly” first then write, but rather writing to improve writing. This is how it has been for me, and writing has become a tool for my voice, rather than a task to dread.

Why study English education? I think it’s because science is too boring (to me), and business is too meaningless (for me), history is too much (for me), but English is just right for me. Language means something, writing means something, and the importance of literacy has grown on me over the last couple of years.