Monday, December 05, 2005

I Will Teach You To Write, Dammit!

In my English 10 class last week, I had my students write anonymous reflections in which they commented on what they would like more of or less of in the last three weeks of English class. About 90% of them stated that they would like less writing and more group projects, but I am still quite worried about the overal low level of their writing. If I'm going to be a constructivist, can I still dictate what my students' needs are, whether they like it or not? I know that what students say they "want" is not necessarily what they "need," but if they don't care about improving their writing, can I still help them become better writers? I devoted 15 hours of this past weekend to writing feedback on their essays, and it frustrates me to no end that the majority of them will never bother to apply my suggestions. I keep thinking of that quotation about how school is a place where teenagers come to watch adults work, and I know that constructivism has helped me flip this around in my Honors classes. I am still, however, in desperate need of some fast inspiration for my English 10 class. Should I just have them make posters or whatever for the rest of the semester? At least maybe they'd walk away from the course without a hatred for books.


Blogger MollyG said...

Well,ultimately, we do read your suggestions on papers, just not timmediately, it softens the blow =). But I think that writing is an art that can be taught in so many ways, other than writing. Really, discussions during class help me with writing and explaining just as much as sitting down and typing for a few hours. Of course it's vital to do the boring kind of writing teaching, you just have to balance it out with the different methods. The editing and conferencing stuff we did in class was really useful. Just sitting down with one other student and talking about our essays was just as useful as three or four days of lecture could be. It's just finding a balance between dull, useful and engaging.

It's that whole concept of remembering what you've done, not what you've seen. For instance, last year, in honors English class, we spent weeks upon weeks working on packets and worksheets learning how to properly use commas and transitions. I don't think any of us walked away from that class with any more understanding of writing a good essay than we had walked in with. It was siply because we spent all of our time reading other people's writing, other people's sentences and correcting them. I just found it hard to remember that way. Hand on is much more effective.

On another note, I always hated posters, but then, they're just not my style. Plus, most 10th graders you talk to will say they hate reading. There may or may not be a way to change that. My only suggestion would be to let them read their own choice of books. Somewhat impossible from a time perspective, but students generally care more about reading, understanding and analyzing books they know they like.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Cara S. said...

Hi Kristin. I will start by saying, don't give up! My husband and I went to different middle schools. At my school, we had a full class for grammar and a full class for reading and comprehension. I'm not exactly sure what Wes had, but it probably fell more along the lines of "whole language." Ten years later, I feel like a decent writer...not necessarily eloquent, but proficient in grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. On the other hand, Wes is pretty thankful for spellcheck!

So, as frustrating as it may be, keep working with your students on writing. I didn't enjoy the process, but am happy with the outcome.

As far as the project/writing balance, here are some brainstorms (many of which you probably already do):

1) Grade a future assignment only on improvements made regarding your comments on a past assignment. That would force them to evaluate your comments and would get them to look at grading in a different light. They could turn both assignments in so you could remember what it was students were supposed to be improving on. Not sure about all of the logistics, but an idea.

2) Give groups of students different levels of writing samples and ask them to choose the ones they think are the best. You could get some interesting dialogue going about the criteria they used to rank the samples (grammar, content, etc.).

3) Have students choose something from an author they like. Have them assume the role of the teacher and comment on the writing. You could determine the areas you want them to comment on (grammar, flow, something else english-y). You'd have to be specific in order to get more than "good job," or "no spelling errors," but it might be interesting for them to see things from your perspective.

Given the teacher I know you to be, you probably already do all of this. But, this is what my science mind came up with.

Hope this helps, keep up the good work.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Crosby said...

You probably already do this, but sometimes when I return writing, the students' next assignment involves reading through the comments I have written, and writing short responses to those comments.

Although it is difficult when classes are extremely large, as I assume the English 10 classes to be, I allow rewrites on papers. This forces the students to actually read my comments (like: write in past tense throughout the paper), and work on correcting the mistakes. Although this sounds like a lot of work for you to regrade, only a handful of students take advantage of this at any one time.

In the end, we can only do the best that we can do! As I constantly attempt to remind myself, I need a life, too!

12:37 AM  
Blogger Karl Fisch said...

I like Molly, Cara and Amanda's suggestions. The other thing I would ask is - did you ask them why they wanted less writing? I think the answer to that might be critical. If they just want less writing because they are busy and they know it takes a lot of time (and a lot of hard work), then I (you) might respond a certain way. But if they have other reasons - more along the lines of what Molly commented on - then I (you) might respond differently.

I think that if we start asking more often for student opinions - which you know I think we should - we need to be sure that we ask really good questions. And then if their answers don't give you enough information to act, that you ask clarifying questions to make sure you are getting the complete story.

Since you - and presumably the English 10 curriculum - value writing so much, I don't think you can abandon it and just do posters. But maybe there is a way to approach writing differently in the last 3 weeks that let's the students improve on their writing while at the same time addressing whatever concerns they were writing about anonymously.

7:24 PM  
Blogger annes said...

I really don't think there is an easy answer here. But, look at all the new ideas you have received as a result of your ranting and raving. Now that is impressive. I thinlk I am going to steal some of Cara's suggestions; they are really good!

9:05 PM  
Blogger jasonm said...

Explain to them slowly about why the need to work on their writing, while you sneak your hand slowly towards the electrified baton hanging from your belt.
If you want them to walk away without a hatred for books, try teaching books that are interesting and not from a "This could be meaningful of this and this and this", but a book like Stephen King, and too a much lesser extent, Tom Clancy, a book that you read because you enjoy it, not a book you read because you're looking for why red ties into something that you don't care about. I dont I ever hated reading more than I did in 9th grade, when we had to read The House on Mango Street.

4:01 PM  
Blogger DOUGW said...

Jason- to better critique teaching techniques, learn how to spell.
Tom Clancy should not be taught in the classroom.
To get them to write, have the liberals read all about Tancredo, and send him a letter. For the conservatives, research and write to me. Or the Sierra Club. Or, respond to a website like or Focus on the Family. If they are left apathetic, merely push buttons, or else have someone else push buttons to avoid a partisan portrayal. Ask them to write about emos. Ask them to write about cars, girls, parents, coaches. Have them react, in writing, to Jason's blog posts (censored, of course, because the virtues of such a praiseworthy cause. Honestly though, his last one on my blog was pretty good.)

Here's a good one- what would life be like under Kerry. And let them know no bounds, make it a free-for all, and all in words. Let them use their words, and then let them share their writing. Maybe the solution isn't essays; it's definitely not word counts. Maybe let them write to you, like we do. I've not come across a single person in 4th or 6th hour who doesn't gush over the person-to-person letter writing assignments. (Make these take-home, you'll get more) And, if all else fails, have them write about the oak tree, and then gradually tie it into something you're actually supposed to teach.

If they won't write, it's their loss, and you should tell them. Make creative writing worth more, if that won't work. I understand grappling with someone who just isn't interested-eventually it feels like that time in second grade PE that you were up to bat, and no matter how many times you swung at the ball, it slipped your bat. This time around, swing softer, keep your eye on the ball (read: writing progress), and follow through all the way.

8:42 PM  

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