Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Occasional Paper

While reading the latest version of NCTE's English Journal, I came across a reference to a teaching idea that first graced EJ's pages back in 2003. It was an assignment called the Occasional Paper by Bill Martin.

The premise is simple. Once or twice each quarter, students write a brief essay on a topic of their choice and read it out loud to their classmates. The idea for these papers is that they are miniature reflections and meditations on life. Martin asks his students to be observant of the moment, and to "explore occurrences that would usually be dismissed as unimportant." The assignment isn't graded, and the teacher refrains from making negative comments. Martin explains:

If a paper is bad, I don’t penalize. By not
penalizing for lack of effort, I make it shameful not
to put some effort into it. By not counting off for
laziness, I make laziness a lazy choice. Carelessness
is prevented by caring more.

Once students have something worth saying, they will
struggle willingly to say it right. Eventually, students
will start to see what it is that makes a paper have impact.
The student who tries to get a grade without any effort does
not come across as a clever trickster who “got something
for nothing”; instead the student is seen as
someone who gets something and gives back nothing.

The motivation to do good work is like the motivation
operating on the playing field or on the
dance floor. It is motivation from inside and from
pride in doing good work. Ironically, by not assessing
content I put more pressure on students to come
up with something substantial.

The benefits of providing students an opportunity to write an "occasional paper" certainly seem to outweigh the drawbacks. In fact, it's hard for me to find the drawbacks, as the OP encourages students to be reflective and develop meaningful, personal compositions that show a measure of thought, creativity, and insight. It gets them up in front of the class reading to an authentic audience, and it guarantees them immediate response from their peers. And, because the only instructor feedback students receive is positive (as if the piece bombs the teacher refrains from comment), students will be more willing to go beyond the safe and predictable to the bold realm of imagination, creativity, and risk-taking - the realm where good writing lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

50 Years of Research on Writing: What Have We Learned?

Three of the greatest minds in the history of writing instruction come together to discuss the craft. If you're willing to be a patient viewer, they unearth a lot of valuable gems about writing pedagogy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Faux swine flu survival

I'm finally back to 100 percent after a bout with what turned out to be walking pneumonia. I had initially self-diagnosed my ailment as H1N1, succumbing to the swine flu hype. It took a visit to the doctor's office to confirm what I really had. When I first began feeling congested and fatigued, I assumed I had been bitten by the bad pig, and that a doctor's visit would prove futile, as media reports continued to say that doctors were turning away those showing flu symptoms because there was nothing they could really do to help.

After taking a couple of sick days where I did nothing but rest and drink fluids - and after showing no signs of improvement - I finally decided to call my physician. I was able to get an appointment that day. I went in, talked with my doctor, breathed through a machine, received a diagnosis, went to CVS, popped an anti-bacterial drug, and was on my way to feeling better.

Walking pneumonia really knocked me out. Since I started teaching high school students in 2004, I'd taken ZERO sick days until this faux-swine reprieve. While there have been times in the past six years when I've been sick, I always went to school and toughed it out. This isn't to say teaching when under the weather is something to boast about - it's not - but I suppose I wanted to keep my streak going as long as I could. Walking pneu was powerful enough to put it to an end.

It was a bit alarming how little I was able to do when I was sick. Simple tasks like taking out the garbage or doing laundry seemed impossibly arduous. Bringing in firewood or raking leaves were both completely out of the question. Now that I'm back to full health, I'm thankful for all of the things I can do, and I have a fresh awareness of the physical, emotional, and cognitive demands associated with teaching. Effective teachers need to bring it ALL to the classroom as they inspire, lead, explain, prompt, urge, and encourage their students.