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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Setting up the Conditions for Excellence in Writing Instruction

This is my busiest time of year, as I'm sure it is for all of you, so I'll try to keep it short and sweet.

Here are more thoughts from Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle.

Graves wrote, “I didn’t realize until I wrote the introduction to Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle that good writing doesn’t result from any particular methodology.  Rather, the remarkable work of her students was a result of the conditions for learning she created in her classroom” (58, my underlining).

In a later essay in the book, titled “The Enemy is the Orthodoxy” (1984), Graves identifies nine made-up rules teachers create that hold thinking back.  For example, “Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are unimportant” (204).  He argues that when we set arbitrary maxims about writing in stone, we create “substitutes for thinking” that “clog our ears.” 

I love these two quotes because they remind me that there's no silver bullet to excellent writing instruction: there's no one portfolio method, graphic organizer, rubric, or five-paragraph essay that makes it easy to teach writing.  

Rather, we need to create the conditions: lots of good models, a good sense of humor, an abundance of flexibility, clear criteria for excellence, and have students write and write and write until they find their voices and effectively communicate.

Now, back to writing syllabi and preparing for summer reading assessment . . . 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Last “Summer Reading” Book

This book is a collection of Graves’ essays and research (from 1978 to 2001; he passed away in 2010) and includes a DVD.  I heard about the book at the “Write Now!” conference Penny Kittle throws in New Hampshire in March.  Though the book really explores writing in the elementary grades, I connected with my first exposure to Graves.

Over the next few weeks, I will share five quotes from the book.  If you want to borrow the book and/or DVD, let me know!

In the introduction to chapter 3, Tom Newkirk references one of the greats (no pun intended):

“In his essay, ‘The Crack Up,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the test of a ‘first-rate intelligence’ as ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (39).

I love this quote, and, in our partisan politics, it’s an idea that isn’t shared enough!  Have you ever had an idea you thought was rock solid that was changed by evidence and time?  I love it when I assume my own beliefs and then read a book or an article or watch a documentary that completely changes my mind.  Holding two opposed ideas is so scary for us because we rush to commit immediately to avoid looking ambivalent. 

Since the Common Core emphasizes argument, argument, argument, I find that people are drafting a lot of pro/con assignments.  For example, “Longer school day?  Yes?  No?  Go.”  I find that kids pick the side they assume they should believe (or, more commonly, the side that’s easier/faster/shorter to prove) and have at it with the shallowest thinking.  They are never forced to hold two ideas for more than two minutes.  Synthesis prompts give students a buffet of ideas and let them learn as they read, and the new standards that push us to analyze alternate, opposing, or counter claims help the cause of considering other ideas.

I am hoping that having students argue actually moves them toward more critical thinking, not quick answers.  May we all demonstrate “first-rate intelligence” in our writing!