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. 

The Benefits of Annotation: Students Interacting with Texts

One of the hardest things I struggle with as a teacher is preparing students for standardized tests — it is both a pedagogical and a moral struggle. On one hand, I disagree with standardization; how can humans be standardized? On the other, I understand a form of accountability is needed in schools. There is an entire blog entry I could write on standardized tests, but this one is about how to help students improve their reading skills, which, in turn, will help them receive higher scores on said tests.

Based on the data I have collected from my own classes, the hardest standard for students to master involves textual analysis:

ELACC11-12RL1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

I believe this standard is so difficult because it requires abstract thought. Not only do students have to read and understand a text, they must also be able to critique it, make justifications based on its content and analyze underlying meanings. It is not enough to merely read texts and answer questions, students need to read actively and interact with texts as they read.

In order to encourage interactive reading, my collaborators and I facilitate textual annotation. Even as I read for my graduate courses, I understand the text better if I keep running notes on its content — including writing on the pages themselves. If it helps me, surely it will help my students. Of course, just telling students to annotate does nothing. When I first started doing this, I merely received texts back covered in highlighter marks. Instead, I like to begin with prompts for annotations inserted into the texts we provide.

For instance, we read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream speech. This was one of the first texts we annotated this year, so I tried to guide their annotations by providing them within the text (click to get a MS Word attachment): MLKDreamSpeech+Annotation. As you can see, the questions call students to think critically about the text as they read, as well as respond to it as they read. It is my opinion that this action allows them to understand the text on a more critical level, as well as recall significant events from the text more readily than had they read it only.

As far as what we did with the text, we used it (as well as The Declaration of Independence) as the groundwork for our social justice unit (more lessons from that unit to come). Instead of reading the text as a class, we watched it:

I found the process of listening, watching, and annotating this text helped students create a strong foundation for the unit, allowing them to grasp the difficult standard more easily on their own, once annotations were no longer provided.

…food for thought!


What is in a name?

There is so much in a name. That’s why, when the prompt for my site tag and URL came up, I froze. I knew I wanted a site where I could document what I was teaching and where I could share my classroom reflections. I wanted a site that would store the lessons I found to be successful and analyses of possible reasons why others failed. But, I also wanted this site to encourage others to teach with their students in mind.

So much of teaching now is political. If money did not rule education before, it surely does now. After No Child Left Behind, it seems like, through standardizing education, we have left everyone behind. The people who run educational institutions are policy makers, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill — not necessarily teachers, administrators and each school’s community. I’m not saying that schools were perfect before NCLB, but I don’t think the current state of our educational system is working.

Therefore, I have chosen to fight for my kids. I’m not going to break laws. I’m not going to ignore policies or standards. However, I believe there is a way to make the standards apply to my classes (not the other way around). My kids come first and if I teach with them in mind, I am doing right by them. To me, this is every teacher’s duty — it’s a duty of social justice. Not only do most teachers perform acts of social justice every day, I believe they should be teaching it in their classes.

So. That’s where the site name came from. Teaching Social Justice is meant to inspire me, my students, and (hopefully) others to step up to the activism calling us. Sometimes it just involves a class, sometimes it is an action within one’s self, and sometimes social justice creeps into every aspect of our lives. That’s where I’m at right now. Education has become so political, I guess it’s my turn.



Why Some Hate School, but Love Education

One of my professors, Stephanie Jones, showed this video to our Powerful Readers course this summer. In my opinion, it speaks to the heart of education. Students, I hear things like “I hate school,” “I’m sooooo bored,” or “UGGGHHHHH” come out of your mouths on a daily basis — and I believe the video explains why. We have lost sight of education and its purpose.

It is my hope that, by sharing this video, more people can respond to it. It is NOT my hope to encourage more students to hate school. In fact, I have the opposite goal in mind. Individualized education can inspire. So, tell me: how do you hate school, but love education, and what can we (teachers) do about 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!