Sunday, June 2, 2013

Busy busy busy

Hello internet! I just wanted to post a quick update. It has been a busy several months, and I haven't had as much time as I had hoped to keep this blog updated. I'm working on it though, and I am still updating my Pinterest page regularly, so follow me there if you are interested in teaching ideas/materials, books to read, and lately, lots of classroom organization ideas. More posts coming soon! :)

*All links redirect to my Pinterest boards.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Teaching Composition: A Position Statement

A great resource from NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English):

Teaching Composition: A Position Statement 

An excerpt: 
"In the classroom where writing is especially valued, students should be guided through the writing process; encouraged to write for themselves and for other students, as well as for the teacher; and urged to make use of writing as a mode of learning, as well as a means of reporting on what has been learned. The classroom where writing is especially valued should be a place where students will develop the full range of their composing powers. This classroom can also be the scene for learning in many academic areas, not only English. 

Because frequent writing assignments and frequent individual attention from the teacher are essential to the writing classroom, writing classes should not be larger than twenty students.*

Teachers in all academic areas who have not been trained to teach writing may need help in transforming their classrooms into scenes for writing. The writing teacher should provide leadership in explaining the importance of this transformation and in supplying resources to help bring it about." 

*If only! -sigh-

On Last Days...

I hate the last day of school.

I'm sure this is unusual among members of my profession, and that's understandable. I too feel the rush of relief when the last paper is handed in, when the last student walks out the door, when the glaring expectations of dozens of eyes is no longer upon me. I feel glad knowing that my students are off to bigger and better adventures, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep in touch (as a few always do). I look forward to seeing bits and pieces of their writing in the future, or to editing their resumes when they send them in sweetly inquiring e-mails a year or so from now, or to writing recommendation letters for scholarships or second degrees. I know what it's like to wish for an end to all the grading, all the questions, all the e-mails. And I am, in some ways, ecstatic to put the constant vigilance about grades, progress, subject mastery, critical thinking skills, and Bloom's Taxonomy behind me for a while. I'm happy to be able to just rest for even the briefest of moments.

But I still hate the last day of school.

Every group of students is my favorite group, and I'm always a little lost on the last day when they rush out the door, glad to be rid of one (of many) responsibilities. This summer, I only had my students for ten weeks, but I also had the smallest class of my career (only six students). That means that despite the brief time we had in class together, I got to know them all fairly well. I was attuned to their difficulties with writing, and I had the opportunity to watch them improve in all kinds of wonderful ways. I had conferences with them, read their drafts, offered additional tutoring sessions in my office, and listened to them share bits and pieces of their lives in class every Monday-Thursday. I miss it already, and I'm never quite prepared for how sad last days are every semester. 

Goodbye trusty desk! I will miss your peeling veneer, your misaligned drawers, and your cramped workspace. Really, I will. 
I have to clear out of my office (where I have practically lived for over two years) by this weekend. I still have a stack of essays to grade, paperwork to file, and a hulking mass of electronic files to weed through (ten weeks of lesson plans, articles, samples, and calendars), but all that will have to wait for tomorrow. For now, I'm just going to clean up a bit, toss out last year's stack of student essays, and think about how much I'm going to miss teaching college.

My student teaching at the local high school begins on Monday, and soon I'll start the process of preparing to meet my shiny new group of students. I never think I'll like the most recent gaggle of wide-eyed, fragile pupils as much as their predecessors, but here's hoping...

Monday, July 2, 2012

5 Great Ways to Use Peer Review

I just finished a peer review session with my composition students this morning, and it seemed like a good opportunity to write a quick run-down of the various ways I use peer review in my composition classes (and some general strategies for successful peer review).

I use several types of peer review depending on the number of students I have, the type of writing, our goals, and so forth. I have listed my five most effective approaches to peer review below with a brief explanation of each one. If you have any questions about these ideas or their implementation, as always, feel free to ask in the comments!

1. Pairs

Students pair up. The writer provides the responder with a hard copy of their paper (with completed peer review sheet). The responder reads the paper quietly to themselves, makes notes directly on the paper, and returns it to the writer. A brief conference should follow to clarify any notes or suggestions the writer does not understand.

2. Small-groups

Three students sit in a group and rotate their papers so that each paper is responded to by two people. After everyone’s paper has been reviewed by the other two members of the group, there should be a brief conference to collaborate on solutions to noted writing issues and to clarify all feedback.

3. Blind/Random review

Each student brings two copies of their paper to class. They should not include their name on the paper, but they should have a recognizable title so that they can find their paper again at the end of class. The teacher collects the papers, shuffles them, and passes them back (ensuring that each student receives another random student's paper). Students read their peer's paper, making comments and annotating errors. When they finish with one paper, they should place it in a stack at the front of the room, retrieving a new paper from the existing stack and repeating the process until the peer-review period is over.

4. Read aloud

Students are placed in pairs. They take turns reading their own paper aloud to their partner (who should also have a copy of the paper to follow along with). As the writer reads their work, it is their responsibility to pause at the end of each page to check for understanding from their listener. They may stop reading at any time if they read something that sounds awkward or unclear, and they should ask for assistance in correcting the problem. The listener may also stop the reader at any time to note awkward or confusing moments in the paper.

5. Editing/Polishing review

The writer indicates on their peer review sheet that they need help with final polishing/ minor issues. The writer points out to the reviewer specific areas that they are most concerned with and why. The reviewer and the writer will work together to check those areas using a grammar reference (such as Strunk and White) and their grammar notes from class. If an idea is unclear, the reviewer and the writer work together to brainstorm a solution, including re-writing the sentence or sentences or diagramming/outlining the entire paragraph.

Strategies for Peer Review

1. Use peer review sheets
This is the peer review sheet that I use for academic writing at the college level. If you're interested, I have several other variations for different types of essays.

2. Use peer review prompts
Especially when students are new to peer-review or when they are required to review a wide variety of types of writing (like in my composition courses), I often create a series of prompts to guide students as they review. For example, if students are writing persuasive essays, I might give them prompts like these:
  • Identify and underline the thesis statement of the paper. How might this thesis statement be improved? If there is no thesis statement, note the absence here, and brainstorm a potential thesis statement with your partner. 
  • Does the introduction provide enough background information for you to understand the issue? If not, list some ideas for what other information the writer can include.
  • Did the writer correctly cite all of their quotes and researched information? If not, circle citation errors in the paper and note the location of any important omissions here. 
  • etc.
I've found that, no matter what prompts I provide, I must instruct students to answer each prompt in full and to provide page numbers for examples of what they are referring to in each response.

3. Online peer review
My school uses Blackboard software to provide discussion boards and collaborative spaces for students. I use those discussion boards to have students post their work (usually shorter pieces) and to respond to other students' work. It's easy to see who posted what and to keep track of the tone and quality of the responses. When I don't have access to Blackboard, I have used Google Documents successfully as well. Students can compose their papers in a Google document and give permission for specified peer-review partners to comment and make changes. All changes are tracked automatically by the system and are color-coded to correspond with the person who made the changes. These features make it a great tool for collaborative papers and projects as well (and it's free!).

4. Community Building
Sometimes students struggle with peer review due to tension between themselves and their classmates. It's important to let them know that everyone has a hard time exposing their work to critique, but that feedback is important and significantly different than judgement. Community building is always important in our classrooms, but it is even more vital when it comes to effective peer review. One simple strategy that I have integrated into my peer review process is simply adding a prompt at the top of each peer review sheet which asks students to "list at least two things that you and your partner or group-members have in common." Focusing on commonalities in this small way can help orient students toward collaboration instead of competition for a little while. If I have time, I also try to play a fun community building game before every peer-review session.

5. Clearly explain and model revision and peer-review strategies
I devote the bulk of my commenting on student papers to the first paper. It takes forever, but I take the time to mark issues, note patterns of errors (which I record on students' editing check-sheets), ask questions, and provide corrected examples. When I return these first papers to my students, I give them time to read the comments and ask questions as I circulate. Then, we debrief some of the comments I made, what they mean, and some strategies for revision. For example, if I write "unclear" next to a sentence, it means that I can't decipher what idea the student is trying to communicate. When this happens, I advise students to re-think what they are trying to say in the sentence (or sentences) and to explain their point aloud as concisely as possible (to the class or a partner). Generally, they explain it more clearly verbally than in writing, so I instruct them to write down word-for-word what they just said. Once the idea is clear, it's easy to go back and clean up any informal language.

6. Identify the goals and purposes of peer review
Students need to understand that peer review is a way for them to help each-other and themselves. Peer reviewing a classmate's paper can give them ideas, exposure to similar grammatical issues, and a new collaborator to help them solve issues in their own writing. They also need to know that peer review isn't easy, and they (or their partners) may struggle with making effective comments the first few times we try it in class. Aside from these immediate concerns, I also provide my students with examples of peer review from real life, since I believe that effective peer review is one of the most useful and applicable Language Arts skills that students can learn in my class.

7. Spread out
If you are able, allow students to spread out and get comfortable as they conduct peer review. If they are using the read aloud method, especially, the classroom can become noisy and distracting, so I try to let a few pairs go out into the hallway, or I take the whole class outside (if they have hard copies).

Thanks for reading, and happy teaching!

Monday Motivator

A cute kitten to help you through the Monday doldrums:

funny pictures
via Lolcats and funny pictures

How to Make Persuasive Writing More "Authentic"

As English teachers, it is part of our job to get students to write. We also do our best to help them improve their writing skills, but sometimes just convincing them to put forth any level of effort in a writing assignment is challenging enough on its own. As a composition instructor in particular, my curriculum demands that students produce between five and seven complete written works in a given semester (most requiring a research element). As I noted in my last post: "5 Ways to Help Students Choose Better Persuasive Essay Topics", persuasive essays are particularly common in the English curriculum, and prompts for persuasive essays exist on almost every English standardized test. So, once you have helped your students choose essay topics that they are interested in, that are research-able, and that they are (ideally) excited about, how do you make this kind of writing assignment more "authentic"?

This isn't a particularly easy question to answer, but it is certainly important that we try to make our assignments & assessments relevant to our students. If they are only writing to fulfill a requirement, to impress us or their peers, or even to develop specific writing skills, then they are engaging in a type of writing that exists in a vacuum. This is sometimes important and valuable, but it certainly shouldn't be the only type of writing students have access to. In this model, students can't engage with a real audience, because they don't have one. They can't value the difficulties of communicating information to the uninformed because everyone who will read their work has access to the same information. They can't evaluate the actual effectiveness of their persuasion if the teacher is the only one being persuaded. This, then, is the challenge we face: We must find a way for students to approach persuasive essays in a way that is consistent with the real-life persuasive writing that exists all around them. That doesn't mean that they have to write editorials or speeches (though using forms like this can help). I have a couple of strategies that I use (aside from these form-based approaches) described below. As always, feel free to include your own in the comments!

1909- Tyee- "Debate and Oratory"

I believe that authenticity and relevance are closely tied to audience awareness, so establishing a real audience for students is my first strategy for making their writing experience more authentic.

To help students understand the importance of audience, I lead several discussions about the types of audiences for persuasive writing (with examples). Then, the students have to create a research plan for their topic that demands that they state their topic, what they already know about it, what they need to find out about it, where they think they can find the information, and so on. An important section of this plan requires each student to identify an audience for their topic and to establish the relevance of their topic for that audience. For example, if my persuasive essay topic is on the positive role of gaming for engaging students in learning, my audience might include teachers, gamers, students, parents, and school administrators. I would justify the relevance of this topic for teachers in particular by stating that my research focuses on how teachers can implement gaming effectively in the classroom. If I want students to think even more deeply about their chosen audience, I ask them to narrow down those audiences even further. To continue with my example, I might narrow my audience to secondary teachers in this case (not elementary).

Once students have established who their audience will be, I introduce the idea of actually reaching that audience. Students often have only their classmates and their teachers as an audience for their writing, but I think seeking out larger audiences can motivate students to do their best work. After all, if a large number of people can see their final product, they want it to be as criticism-proof as possible. At the end of this summer session, my students will have produced an extended persuasive essay, and they are required to seek publication. We have discussed several venues for this, but primarily they will either submit their work to the school newspaper or they will post their final essays on a blog (mine or theirs). This provides some added pressure for them to revise their work carefully and to convey their ideas clearly to a specific kind of reader.

While focusing on audience and seeking venues for publication are both useful strategies for increasing the authenticity of an assignment like this, they don't work for every paper or for every student. The important thing is that we challenge ourselves to minimize the mentality many students have that writing assignments are written "for the teacher" and not for themselves or for a real audience.

*What strategies do you use to make your writing assignments authentic for students? Are there any major writing assignments you use that are not particularly authentic/relevant to students' lives, but that you still find valuable in some other way? What are they?

Weekly Wrap-Up

Hello! Another slightly late weekly wrap-up:

What I've been doing...
  • Last week, I was teaching my students about academic research, annotated bibliographies, and literature reviews. We are heading toward a persuasive essay, so we also reviewed the rhetorical appeals. They learned and practiced some interviewing skills as well. They are required to conduct at least one interview for their research project.
  • I spent an unreasonable amount of time in the bookshelf section of If you've never visited the site, I highly recommend it for great book reviews and helpful lists based on your reading interest.
  • I started a new blog as a place to discuss my upcoming student teaching experience. The blog is called Sixty-Two Eyes. Stay tuned in a couple of months for more consistent updates there!
  • I added way too many new pins to my boards on Pinterest. The "Let's do Science" board and the Teaching boards in particular gained a bevy of new pins.
 What I've been reading...
  • I'm re-reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien at the moment, and I'm enjoying it even more now than I did as a kid (the link goes to a free online version, but I just borrowed a copy from the library).
  • I am also making my way through an education text called "Teach Like a Champion" by Doug Lemov. A review is forthcoming. 
Happy reading!