Amplifying Minds

Learning and Growing Together

Archive for the category “writing”

On Pundits, Professors and Philosophers

“Pundits fret… once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. 

Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy.”  August, 2009

This article tells the story of a Stanford University professor, Andrea Lunsford, who did a study of writing in Stanford students.  While she found that students today are doing MORE writing than they used to, much of it (38%) is what she calls “life writing,” the writing that takes place out of the classroom.

Here’s part of the article:

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

In the past 6 years I have been using wikis and blogs, I’ve known my students were doing some quite thoughtful–and thought-provoking–writing. I’ve often been impressed with their idealism, their insight and their willingness to ask questions and challenge the status quo. I’ve tried hard to give them leeway to stretch themselves and their thinking while also not going past boundaries that would get either of us (them or me) in trouble with our community (parents, teachers, admins) in any way. We’ve walked a line between oral conversations and me asking them to write online–both to each other, and to others whom I convinced to interact with them on wikis and blogs. Some of my student writers have been amazing storytellers, most of them have waxed philosophical at some point or another, and I have enjoyed reading and responding to their thinking as we learn together in our conversations, both written and verbal.

Now, there aren’t many people I don’t think, that would say Aristotle or Socrates or Plato weren’t smart  or didn’t have intelligent discourse with their students and people of their time. In their day, conversations were oral.  The time to think, reflect, ask questions, and participate in deep discourse was crucial to becoming an informed and intelligent person.

Thomas Jefferson, in designing his “academical village” at the University of Virginia, designed gardens outside of the professors’ on-grounds homes where the professor and students could meet after class to continue the discussions begun in class, or probe the thoughts shared that day. The Pavillions were created to increase the opportunities to talk…much as our online opportunities to engage each other allow us to do today–only TJ’s professors met their students face to face in the gardens behind each pavilion and our connecting with others to learn and grow, especially in recent years, has been done through various forms of writing (Twitter, chatting, Google+, and on and on).

However, when pundits (to use the authors’ word) say the writing that students are doing online isn’t helpful to them or their future, here’s another statement in the article I thought was important.

The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

So our students are learning as the “masters” taught years ago–perhaps without the questions and probing form minds like Aristotle or Socrates, but in that manner.

Kids are learning how to talk to one another, hold intellectual discussions and arguments, ask questions, research, be concise (with 140 characters , one MUST be concise), be descriptive, and most of all, assess the audience and write to persuade, engage and debate.

And the conclusion? What are students learning in all of this online writing?

 What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.

That’s what I want to help my elementary kids “get”–that if you want people to listen and hear what you have to say, the message needs to be written (or spoken) in a way so as to attract and engage the audience in thoughtful reflection and/or action.  I want my kids to go back to those thinking, curious days of being 4 and 5, where every other word was “Why?” or “How does..?” or “I wonder…”

After all, if I had to listen to or read a pundit, which is defined by wikipedia as someone who “offers to mass media his or her opinion or commentary on a particular subject area … on which they are knowledgeable (or can at least appear to be knowledgeable), or a professor or a philosopher, the pundit wouldn’t be my first choice.  And, furthermore, if children had to listen to, or try to be a pundit, professor or philosopher,   I’d definitely prefer the latter, wouldn’t you?

I Write To Make Meaning

A while back, I wrote a post called “I Write For Myself.” I’ve been thinking about whether that was completely true or not, and I’ve come to realize that writing is incredibly important to me.  I started a blog years ago because I was beginning to connect online and it seemed like the thing to do.  As people read and responded to me, though, I realized the connections were important , but my figuring out what I had to say was even more so. I do write for myself, and I write to make meaning. But without an audience, an authentic audience of people who choose to read my writing, I wouldn’t grow nearly as much as I have since I began that blog.

Ruth Ayres, in Celebrating Writers, said, “We write to communicate clearly, to come to new understandings and to connect to others.” I think that pretty much sums it up for me as well. Writers–real writers who understand the craft of writing–know that it is, as Ms. Ayres also says, not about writing for publication but writing for meaning. I write to understand my own thoughts, and when others respond to them, it helps me learn, ponder, think and grow.

Tomorrow I begin a six week writing club after school. I’ll have 6 hours to support these kids who chose to spend some time after school writing. I’ll have 6 hours to (potentially have to) undo the idea of what writing is that they have learned in school.  For many kids, there is school writing–the 5 paragraph essay, the writing on command, the writing for the teacher, the writing just to be writing– and then there is

w*r*i*t*i*n*g*

W*r*i*t*i*n*g* tugs at our hearts, it is hard work, it connects us to other people. 

W*r*i*t*i*n*g* exhilarates us, it makes us cry, it makes us laugh, it makes us feel human–big and powerful. It also makes us feel small and alone.

W*r*i*t*i*n*g* touches us in ways other things can’t–but only if it is good…and we have to help kids find that thread within themselves that allows them to share those thoughts and feelings–through words– with the world.

We can’t set kids up to think writing happens for the teacher–or for the grade.  or worse yet, for the test. Writing comes from within, from a need to get it out–and yes, from a need to be heard. 

Tomorrow I begin a six week writing club after school. I’ll have 6 hours to support these kids who chose to spend some time after school writing.

I won’t be using a red pen–we’ll confer to talk about how to change their writing.

I won’t be having them write for me–they’ll have a real audience, and I hope you might be part of it.

I won’t be asking them to write to prompts of my choosing, but I will help them find ideas– theirs, not mine.

I won’t even mention the 5 paragraph essay (except to maybe say ignore that structure as they write), but we will be talking about beginnings and middle and endings.

I will be working to touch their hearts and tug at their empathy strings and  help them feel their emotions and learn their thoughts through what they write.

I will be asking them to get to know themselves better and make meaning of themselves and their world.

I will be asking them to respond to each other, to reflect on what they are doing, and to rejoice in what they are learning.

I wil be asking them to write for meaning.

Priorities–we all have to make them.

So, in late August, I committed to some folks over Twitter (through Shawn White,  @swpax) to writing a blog post every day–or trying to–for the month of September. I had ups and downs, but I did it, and a few days I even wrote two posts.

BUT, it wasn’t the most fun I ever had writing.  I thought about what was I going to write about when I wasn’t ready to write.  I worried about it, even.

When I knew I had a post due and I had no inspiration, I found myself thinking, “What can I do to get’r done?”

I hated those days.

BUT I found out some things, both about blogging and myself:

  1. I can do it–write a blog post every day. The question is, do I want to?
  2. Some days are more inspirational than others.
  3. I have had some incredible administrators in my tenure as a teacher in my county. They rock in so many ways and often gave me encouragement in September. (My former principal is an amazing friend.  She needs to tell her stories!)
  4. My colleagues in Albemarle County Public Schools are incredibly supportive and kind. (I knew that already, but I was reinforced in that belief this past month.)
  5. Many of  the people on my staff were reading my blog!  One even commented here, many over email or to my face. Thanks to all of you–your encouragement means a lot.
  6. I found myself looking at the stats and the retweets, and I found myself looking for patterns in the posts I wrote.
  7. While I started this blog to share what I was doing in my classroom and describe that (how I was working to amplify my students’ minds), those seemed to be the least read posts, looking at the stats.  They were definitely the least retweeted and commented on.
  8. While people didn’t often comment on here, the things I was saying were starting conversations face to face and other places.
  9. I received several DMs, or had conversations that people felt uncomfortable posting to the web. While I wanted conversation, I understand sometimes a reaction just isn’t appropriate to post online.
  10. I hate feeling forced to write on someone else’s schedule.  And, while I KNOW I was the one who decided to do this, there were times I wanted to blame someone else for feeling irritated I had a blog “due”–even if it was just due to myself.
  11. The days I felt like “Get ‘r done.” weren’t worth it to me. I love writing and want to continue to love writing.  I don’t want to feel like writing is a chore.
  12. The commitment kept me going and writing, even when it was hard… and that’s got me thinking about making a commitment-any commitment.

So, as I think about doing this every day of the year, for 365 days, I’m just not sure  I want to do that. I tried the photo 365 one year, where you take a picture every day for one year.  I lasted until April or May before I quit, I think… and while the project was amazing for getting me to look at the world around me differently, I began to see it as a chore. Writing a blog post a day for one month seemed really doable to me back in August.  Looking at 365 days seemed unsurmountable. I’m now pondering long term and short term goals (365 days versus 30 days, in my case.).

I guess I really want to think about what we do to kids when we set their goals for them.  That’s what the state standards do, don’t they?  The standards define their minimum learning for the entire year…and we all know kids who could–and should–go WAY beyond those bare minimum requirements. So when we begin a unit in Social studies, or science, or even math or literacy, do we tell the kids from the get-go all we’re planning to teach them?  Do we ask them what they want to learn? Do we gather their thoughts and consider them in our planning?

Part of why I’m asking these kinds of questions is because Stenhouse just publicized a book called, “Celebrating Writers” which has a preview of the entire book you can read online.  I began it last night, and read through part of the first chapter–a story about a kid named Mason. You see, Mason looked like he was doing nothing during writing workshop–but the teacher gave him space, and was able to then use his behaviors to motivate others and help them learn…

The whole book seems really worth reading, says she who has begun the first chapter.  Go check it out.

Well, I took some space this past week, after September 30,  because I was out of town, at two different summits and incredibly busy.  I had no time to write, I had no inclination to write, and I had no brainpower to write after having been in some pretty heavy conversations each day, all day.

Having taken that space, and doing the reflecting I’m doing today, I’m not even going to think about doing 365 posts. I like writing and don’t want to look at it as a chore.  I want to model good habits of writers for my students and I don’t think this is one. Writing on a regular basis, yes. Writing even daily, probably.  But writing just to post a post each day?  No.

And, here’s a funny–I was going to point you readers to the list of people who had joined the 365 blog-a-day group.  I knew Shawn had created a Twitter list, so I went to his twitter feed to find it, I went to his blog  to find it, and I found this instead.
Priorities–we all have to make them.

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