Smagorinsky on writing: Put your money where your mouth is

Rick Diguette wrote an op-ed titled, “Has freshman year in college become grade 12½?” on Sunday. His piece addresses the lackluster writing habits of college freshmen, and suggests that professors are having to teach writing skills students should have learned in high school. What Peter Smagorinsky said in return, though, is an argument everyone needs to hear:

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write. (Smagorinsky, 2014)

Throughout the op-ed, Smagorinsky attacks the policies in place that do damage to our classrooms, instead of attacking our teachers. It is worth a read, and needs to be shared. More people need to see arguments like this — ones that defend our teachers and the public school system. 

From the field: Creativity

Too many classrooms offer too few opportunities for imagination, innovation, engagement, and stimulation. Even if students and teachers don’t drop out physically, they frequently stay in school only to get the credentials or salary, and not the intellectual enrichment.

The above quote can be found in a beautifully-written article in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution by University of Georgia professors Bob Fecho and Stephanie R. Jones. I wish I had time to write a full response to it, but I wanted to make sure it at least got shared. Enjoy!

Hip Hop-spiration

Before embarking on my “journey for social justice,” I read an article by Tina Love (shown above) called I See Trayvon Martin”: What Teachers Can Learn from the Tragic Death of a Young Black Male. This article acts as the foundation to the lesson plans I have made this year — so much of Love’s (2013) discussion relates directly to my classes. Here are some of my notes/responses to the text itself:

  • Love makes known the stereotypes that are deeply rooted in American society, and therefore, in our schools. One misconception of young Black males is their “attitude.” I, too, was very ignorant when I first began teaching, to the Black culture, as I grew up in a mostly white area (Northeast Georgia). However, college quickly opened my eyes to multiculturalism, and teaching in a very diverse school has changed my attitude toward the misconceptions of Black culture altogether.
  • According to Love, “Hip Hop swag serves as the perfect example. It is more than just a way of body movement and projections of coolness, it is an epistemological aim to engage others with confidence, likability, charm, cleverness, and resolve. Hip Hop swag is standing one’s ground” (p. 3). What a beautiful way to describe many of my students! While some may see Hip Hop swag as being “cocky,” or “apathetic,” this definition really gets to the heart of the matter: it’s a way of life, a way of being.
  • I agree with Love that “Too often, teachers make judgments concerning Black male students having nothing to do with their intellectual ability and everything to do with stereotypes, assumptions, and fear” (p. 3-4). I have fallen victim to this way of thinking in the past, but there are ways to battle normative ideas, and Love discusses a few of these in her article. One of the ways is through education and constantly educating yourself and your students. I am trying to do this through my critical pedagogy project (this website and my lesson plans), and I feel I am learning every bit as much as my students are. I only hope I am battling racial stereotypes and never perpetuating them (J. Whitley, Scholarly Notes, November 12, 2013).

I am currently reading Love’s book, Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Hip Hop Identities and Politics in the New South. While I am not finished with it, yet, I am already inspired by Love’s work with these six middle and high school girls. There is a cool interview about this book on YouTube, and Dr. Love’s discussion begins at 16:00. Here is Dr. Love’s YouTube stream about her work last year at a local elementary school.

As you can see, I have been inspired by Tina Love’s work, and I feel like it would be selfish not to share it.

Lesson Planning: Getting to Know your Students, Narrative Writing & Personal Legends

Before developing unit plans, I like to get to know my students. Because class sizes are so incredibly large (I have classes ranging from a modest 22 to a hulking 36 students), it is impossible to hold individual conferences without chaos ensuing between the other 35 students, so I get to know my students through their work.

There are a few ways to do this — journals, essays, projects, classroom discussions — I like to do a little bit of everything in order to see which mode fits my students best. Now that I am a collaborative teacher, I have to make sure these activities work for both myself and my team teacher.

One of the assignments we came up with was an introductory narrative essay. There have been three prompts over the last two years: “What three songs are your most favorite and why?” “What three songs define your personality best and why?” and “What are the three most important things to you and why?”

These questions purposely set up a five-paragraph essay in order to test students’ initial writing ability, as well as whether they, without prompted, follow a structured five-paragraph style or create their own unique structure. From a teacher’s point-of-view, this assignment works because it gives initial writing data as well as a peek into the lives of students.

From this one essay assignment, I can create a standards-based writing unit that begins where my students are in their writing. I can also create topics that pique my students’ interests, as those topics are pulled from their own essays. And, finally, I can begin to chip away at the wall students initially put up when they walk into my class, and get to know who they are, however complicated they may be.

Why should I get to know my students before I teach them? Well, while I have standards I’m forced to follow, I do not believe my students can be standardized — no one can. However, by getting to know my students, I can better create lessons that teach to their individual needs. To me, that’s teaching social justice and doing justice by my kids.

Another way to learn about my students is through compiling a “Personal Legend Project.” Originally developed by a colleague, Dana Richardson, to accompany The Alchemist, this project allows students to look at themselves and their futures, as well as learn about different ways to use technology to present information. Here is a link to the project assignment and rubric: Personal Legend Project.

About 18 months ago, when my position at Athens Community Career Academy dissolved due to funding (which prompted my change from English teacher to Special Education collaborative teacher), I assigned this project to all my classes. I presented mine first, to give them an idea of what they could do, but I told them to run with it:

Jennifer Whitley’s Personal Legend Example

Many things have changed since then, but my personal legend has not. As you can see from my example, these are meant to be personal, but students could share as much (or as little) information they wanted. Here are some student samples:

Ivey’s Personal Legend

Chris’s Personal Legend

Hilda’s Personal Legend

**For some of my classes, I also had them do a brief culture study and relate it to them as well, as you can see in Chris’s project. Here is Ivey’s culture study (which derives from her own heritage):

Cherokee Culture by Ivey

These are only a few examples of the hundreds I’ve received over the years, but you get the idea — not only does this project allow students to research their own goals and interests, but it also give me, the teacher, an idea of what is going on in their heads and what makes them unique in their own right.

So, when lesson planning, I encourage you to look at your students as individuals — which I’m sure you already do — and teach them that way. In a world haunted by standardization, test scores and scholastic funding, it is easy to forget we are teaching humans, not statistics, but when we attach a face, life details and personal legends to those names, we begin to teach social justice and with a critical lens.

Happy planning!