Friday, November 18, 2011

Success in Schools (for teachers) - Part III

In our previous episode... I've been talking about a foundation for my educational philosophy. That philosophy is being built on the ideas of kindness, compassion, and generosity. You get more of that today, but tomorrow, I promise, I'll move on.

Today, in Chicago, the National Writing Project is meeting in a scaled down version of its Annual Meeting. I have attended the Annual Meeting in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 but not this year. The National Writing Project is a teacher support system, it is an organization that honors teachers and helps them to be better at what they do. And it is one of the initiatives that was defunded by the Obama Administration.

The reasons why the program was defunded aren't too hard to discern. Budgets got tight, programs had to be cut, and the administration doesn't value anything that isn't based on tests, numbers, and votes. The National Writing Project helps teachers help students learn to think through writing. It does a lot more, but that one thing is enough to merit funding it. That sort of thing, however, doesn't fit as well into a campaign speech as "Race to the Top" or budget cutting. And so it goes.

I had hoped for better from the office of the man who was the candidate of hope and change. I've learned that hoping for changed is nice, but it doesn't make it happen. We have more of the same in office now even though I thought I was voting the bums out. Let that be a lesson to me. Change in the classroom comes from above, but it is almost always the wrong kind of change, it is almost always change in the wrong direction regardless of who the President might be.

So change has to happen in the tiny space of my classroom and it begins, for me, with kindness, compassion, and generosity. Here's an example.

The fundamental assignment in my classroom is Writing Practice. We do it every day. It is largely ungraded and I don't explicitly use it as a teaching tool. That said, I use it as a learning tool every single time.

Writing Practice is an idea I stole from Natalie Goldberg who wrote Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and others. Writing Practice is basically a timed-writing. We begin with a prompt but students are encouraged to go off that topic into the places their minds take them. I tell them not to worry about spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, or even making sense. Just write. Our only rules are that writers can't stop writing until our timer goes off and that we are writing in school. That second one doesn't limit my kids much. They're willing to say what they want to say. Instead, it helps them think about audience and gives me space to redirect some topics.

Writing Practice is the first thing we do every class. After we write (and you bet your ass I write with them every single time), we share either the whole thing, part of it, a thought about it, or none of it. That part varies. Then, I hand back the pieces they wrote the day before. On those I have written a comment back to each of them. I like to write (as you can see) and so my comments are usually about 75-100 words long. The content of the comments is not the usual English teacher stuff I remember.

I have conversations.

I pick one or two ideas that they have talked about and I write my thoughts about that. I talk to the student's ideas instead of to their writing. I don't ever correct things on their writing because this is practice and it's okay for them to do it as they please. That said, if I see a word regularly misspelled, I work that word into my comments and spell it correctly. If I see that they run on, I write shorter sentences to show them how its done. If they haven't used a paragraph, I make sure that my comments are two paragraphs long.

My first mission is to be kind, to understand what they have written and to value it as their thoughts. I do that by writing back to the ideas. My second job is to be compassionate. I don't have to correct their ideas, tell them the party line. Instead, I think of how this is informing my understanding of who they are. Then, third, I have to be generous and give them back a comment that reveals myself a little, that is lengthy, and that helps them move forward.

I've run up against the end of my entry here which means I don't get to explain things much more. Maybe that's for the best. There isn't a good way to can this, to get it into a sound-byte other than to say this: Writing Practice honors kids, writing, and learning. Oh, and there's the fact that non-writers in my classes have now written on the order of 5000 words this year. It's a start. And, as always, we will write on.