Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My classroom

Ever since I started this blog, I'd been meaning to post photos of my classroom. Well, here they are:

Above is the door to my room.

Here is the view once you walk inside.

My semblance of organization. Class handouts and important documents can be found on this desk.

The other side of the desk where I conduct my business.

My quad-core Intel i7 PC and sweet 23-inch LCD monitor, gifts to myself at the start of the new school year. Also pictured is a wide format color inkjet printer, an old HP LaserJet that still gets the job done, and, on the left corner of my desk, a netbook our assistant superintendent purchased for me to use with my students.

The back of my classroom, featuring nine fully networked, Internet-ready PCs. The one on the far right was purchased for my classroom by the school. The others I acquired secondhand over the last couple of years.

The Literary Treasure Trove, my classroom library.

The wooden Thai frog that I "play" to get students' attention when we're transitioning to a new activity.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Writing Without Teachers

I recently picked up Peter Elbow's "Writing Without Teachers" because I'm looking to re-ground myself in authentic ideas about the writing process and what actually leads to good writing.

If you stay in K-12 education long enough, there's the chance that your foundational, intrinsic understanding about how meaningful learning occurs will be eroded by bureaucrats who prescribe to have all the right solutions despite lacking the necessary background and/or classroom experience to make such claims.

One of the current popular methods of writing instruction involves showing students models and "exemplars" of writing that meets the highest criteria (usually a set of numbers from a standardized rubric), with the expectation that students - like mimeograph machines - can simply duplicate that product when they're asked to respond to a similar writing prompt.

The problem is that the template for good writing can't be mimicked and reproduced from assignment to assignment,  because no such template exists. When students DO try to copy formulae for "good" writing, their writing ends up sounding vapid. That's because quality, authentic writing is generated, not parroted from nameless "model" papers.

How do we teach students to write? We teach them to think. We teach them to develop content. We help them understand ideas like elaboration and explication. We provide them with opportunities to stretch their minds and flex their intellectual muscles. We give them opportunities to pump out words and ideas without fear of judgement. We teach them how to think critically and make sense of their musings and meanderings. We show them how to tailor and edit and rethink and resee and rearrange. We empower them to be creators.

This type of work is not easy. Years and years of practice are required for most of us to learn how to string words and sentences and paragraphs together in engaging fashion. Before one can write well, one needs to have something to say. Yet sometimes we don't know what we really have to say until we begin writing. When I started this posting, had I already preselected the words and points and contentions I wanted to bring up? No. I knew I wanted to write about how I felt writing instruction in many K-12 schools has become weakened by the advent of formulaic writing and the five paragraph essay. I knew I wanted to get down a few of the techniques that have helped me become a better writer. But I did not use a graphic organizer. I did not make an outline of three main ideas, topic sentences, or supporting details. I simply sat on my couch, kicked my feet up on the coffee table, grabbed my netbook, and attacked the keyboard.

(Once I finished my draft of this post, I went back and read what I wrote, deleted lines, changed words, added phrases, and asked myself, Is this really what I mean to say? I needed to tweak a number of paragraphs before the final product reflected my intentions. Before I could use the chisel, I needed to have the block.)

Among Peter Elbow's many contributions to writing pedagogy is the spreading of the concept of freewriting. In essence, freewriting encourages writers to lay down ideas without stopping, reflecting, or editing. It proposes to help us "get the junk out" so we can later go back and mine the gems worthy of extraction. Freewriting helps us explore ideas and permits us to open the valve connecting thought and expression. When we no longer feel constricted and restrained, we are more likely to explore greater depths and take risks. Rather than saying what we think we're supposed to say in the manner in which we think we're supposed to say it, we can express genuine ideas in the way those ideas are best meant to be expressed.

Does this mean models and exemplars are bad? Of course not. What it means is that they're a limited resource. They show you what the container looks like, but they don't show you how it was filled. Only through the labor of idea exploration can we learn how to fill those containers. And each container - once filled - will be unique, its appearance and contents determined by the reason for its creation.

Elbow describes this organic process:

"The turning point of the whole cycle of growing is the emergence of a focus or a theme. It is also the most mysterious and difficult kind of cognitive event to analyze. It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having a center of gravity. There is shape where a moment ago there was none" (35).

I hope that after finishing Elbow's book (which I am finding to be very affirming and validating about some of my core beliefs about writing), I will have a renewed sense of confidence about how good writing is created, and I will have ideas I can implement in my classroom that will help my students experience what it feels like to create writing that's truly worth reading.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A snow day

At 5:35 this morning, the message I had been waiting for finally scrolled across the screen of my laptop: "Xxxxxxx School District No School." After a late night of grading, the news couldn't have been sweeter or more timely. I hopped back into bed for another three hours and woke up refreshed and ready to enjoy this found day.

Rather than rushing to make a breakfast to eat on the run (usually a bagel w/ cream cheese), I was able to take out the blender and enjoy a mixed berry smoothie along with my coffee. It's a treat usually reserved just for the weekends. While I was preparing the coffee, my wife - who is also a teacher and also did not have school - started a fire in the woodstove. As I sipped my beverages and watched the flames work their way from twigs to larger pieces of wood, I made sure to appreciate the moment.

Inside my living room, I was shielded from the harsh weather outdoors. And it was because of the snow and wind and frigid temperatures that the normal hurriedness of my day ceased to exist. It's the duality of life, the simultaneous existence of extremes. It's why at any given time, every emotion and experience that's possible to have on this Earth occurs. Birth and death, joy and sadness, frustration and relief. Sometimes I wonder, if it were possible to quantify the sum of all human emotion, where on the spectrum would the reading register? Do we, as a collective species, experience more good or bad?

These are the thoughts one has when the mind has a moment to wander. We all need times like today to reflect, pause, and let our thoughts travel where they may.

The image of the wooden wind chime was taken on my back porch after the snow stopped.