Sunday, November 14, 2010

Demystifying the Mystery

What is it about good writing that makes it so hard to define? I'm so sorry, Spot...I've had to pull in Calvin and Hobbs today...I know. Yick, right?! A cat in your SPOT. Today, I'm sending you off with a bone. You, my friend, are dismissed.

I'm talking now to all my teacher friends, to kids and their parents, to anyone, really, who is eager and willing to listen.

My school system, much to the chagrin (and understandably so) of the parents, has decided to take a half day to inservice its teachers in good teaching practices focused on good writing. The bottom line, of course, is the test scores, and everyone knows this is so. But to the outside communty at large, this is a huge sacrifice, and therefore there has been quite a bit of strife.
Our teachers are not remedial, they say. Why do they need all this extra time?

I'd like to set the record straight, to give an inside peek at what is really happening inside the walls while the kids are outside on the street.

Teaching is not innate, and just as with students, teaching practices repeated over time can become habitual. There is no 'eye-in-the-sky' even under the best administrative practices that can equally insure quality control. No teachers are created equal, nor should they be. No one would want that robotic teaching, the 'cookie-cutter' approach to learning. For that, we all know is deadly. But teachers have to come together to find common ground, common issues and understandings that we can all support through instruction.

So here we were, on a sunny day in October, eleven or so of us, all in classrooms, gathered together over our 'Tuning Protocols'. I had the good fortune to be sharing one of my 'cuspy-kid's' writing. I say that not to be demeaning, nor to create a stereotype about a student, it is simply a designation made about the level of writing that this student is able to achieve, which is marginal...but really just below marginal at best. This student has just missed goal on the CMTs, and left to his/her own device, it will always be that way.

Our task: 'How can we elevate this student's ability to improve in the area of writing in this piece?' I gave the group some background...nothing personal, gender neutral, about this students' overall performance. Where he/she started on the writing continuum, and the goals and objectives that I am working on right now in class. Then the team set to work dissecting the piece and looking at that which we hoped to see improve.

The commentary was wide and diverse. Questions arose immediately related to the score I'd give this student for his/her writing if this were an assignment in class. I resisted. The facilitator returned to the question at hand and encouraged teachers to take notes and mark up the piece as we moved along. The same teacher who had raised the question about score, pressed again to inquire about grade, "What grade would you give this piece," he asked. His background is math, so the question did not surprise me. He deferred to his own education and how he, himself, would've been scored on the piece. His issue was missing capitals and periods. Another teacher asked about paragraphing.

When asked what the expectation was for a sixth grader, grammatically speaking, my colleagues and I were able to defer to the standards...yes, paragraphing and periods should be in place. Sentences, at least those in the simple variety, should be well-defined with a capital and period. But this student was stretching his/her simple sentence border, and expanding ideas within. We could then say that commas are the order of the day in sixth grade. Kids are learning how to combine sentences effectively, stretching into compound, complex sentences. This is their whole year's challenge at this grade. The piece was written in September, the very beginning of school.

And then we launched into another discussion about what we hoped to see in a piece of writing.
This was the best part of all. Around the table sat the physical education, art, band, math, science, social studies and language art teachers. We all looked at the ideas this student had tried to put forth in this piece. He'd stretched to identify the person that most inspired him, but his reach was not really developed at all. We talked about what we would've liked to have seen, as he put his dad up there on the page. Many of the students identify their parents as inspirational, but they don't have the meat...the specifics to put a fluent piece together at all.
At the end of our two hour session, we all came to the same conclusion. This student's need was really in the area of idea generation. We could see how a mutual effort to talk to this student, to engage him in discussion as a regular practice prior to getting him to the page, we might be able to help him to practice the steps to good writing: verbal rehearsal leads to pay dirt, we concluded. this short session, we hit pay dirt too. We could see the many students who are not unlike this one, who just need that steady boost to get a few clear ideas on the page.

And as far as the bottom line goes? The truth is, the bottom line is not the test or the score that matter at all. Students need to express their ideas clearly with great fluency, but Rome wasn't built in a day. The math teacher was coaxed into the simple understanding that you can't look under the hood until you've assessed the collateral effect of the piece as a hole. The band teacher left there with a plan to implement writing within his own discipline. The language arts teacher left with an opportunity to collaborate with the band teacher on that piece of writing. And the art teacher had a plan too. Last to leave were the two math teachers who also happen to teach reading as well. They were discussing writing and rubrics in reading and how that could translate to math. Teachers focused on writing is sure to bring baleful results.

What stands true in education today is that it is fluid, not static as it has been for so many years. Many teachers leave their college training programs with a bit of philosophy, a few methods courses and a student teaching experience. The great teachers evolve and evolve some more; they continue evolving and learning until the day they walk out the door. This two hour block that cost the district nothing was a bit of pay dirt for us all. Now, as I roll up my sleeves with my student, I have that deep knowledge that I am not the only one cheering him/her on!
So even though I know this is a sacrifice for the parent community, it is a breath of fresh air that informs instruction and opens the learning to a wider, grander stage. It takes a village to educate a child well in today's world, and educators must be fluid in their methods and their understandings of it all!

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