A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning out some of the dark corners of my classroom and found some old boxes of essays. Every year I used to keep the last research paper that the kids write. I always kept them because I have a pretty unorthodox classroom, no tests or quizzes is the tip of the iceberg, and I always felt like I needed to keep some evidence of what the kids could do in case someone wanted to fire me over the summer. The papers were awesome. I found myself sitting and rereading them. I also found that I remembered the research of so many of them. I did less teaching of writing back then, and more simple motivation and lots of coaching and conversation to get then to own their writing. By the end of the year, what they handed in was not for a grade, but was for themselves, they were proud to hand it in.
I don’t keep the last paper from kids anymore. When we became a data driven school I had excel sheets of data from through the year. I had conferences where I had to show my data and examples of student writing. Kids had to be improving every essay and show substantial growth by the end of the year. The way we wrote changed. Enter the rubric, enter the organizers, enter the models, and leading them by the hand to what “good writing” should look like. It always felt ugly and dirty…and every year kids entered and left my class not writing better than the previous year’s kids. I stopped saving their final papers because they were fake, they were produced to show that their writing has improved for a data sheet. The kids stopped owning their writing. It belonged to the school. If you took away the organizers and rubrics, they would stumble their way through an idea to completion in order to get the grade in the almighty powerschool.
My kids used to do an interview show where they interviewed professionals from across the world, many who were writers. Every one said that the way we are teaching writing is wrong and is hurting the quality of writing that is being published today. Funny how we are suppose to get hem college ready, which gets you career ready, but the people who have writing careers are saying we are getting it wrong. It makes sense…how many teachers who have any involvement in teaching kids to write actually write themselves?
This year I have tried to take a step back from all of the rubrics and organizers to try and once again get kids to take ownership of their writing. It has been a painstakingly slow process. These kids have been taught institutionalized methods of writing for so many years that there simply is no other reason for the to write other than a grade. There is no ownership of what they write….the school system owns it for it has led them to this point where writing is done by following the teachers outline and it’s purpose is for a grade. Ug…
This year is an in between year for us and testing and teacher evaluations and I went back to my old ways, and alas a glimmer of hope…we just finished essays on Lewis and Clark. The glimmer was seen in their conclusions. The intros were pretty basic, the body paragraphs were pretty good. But by the time they got to the conclusions many of the kids were starting to own their essays. It is a huge step. I found in the past that is where it would always start–at the end. I am going to share a couple, obviously you will judge these against what your kids produce. Don’t. In my old school these would have been considered gold, in some schools they might be struggling writers, for my kids they are pretty darn good. It is hard to make a judgement on the examples without obviously knowing what came before them. You can check out two conclusions here and here.
I was reading a article in the Atlantic magazine (yep, a paper magazine actually gets delivered to my house) and there was a great article called the “Great Forgetting.” It was about how were are forgetting how to do things because our world has become so automated so that when we need to do something, we can’t. It made me think about my kids writing. Their writing has been automated to the point that unless they have the rubric, the organizer, the directions, the teacher telling them what to do, they simply can’t…and don’t want to write anything meaningful. I think we have far to go, but a corner has been turned. We will continue to work towards owning our writing and at the end of the year I will apply that wonderful system rubric to their writing and I guarantee they will have met their data goals. If you compare two essays with basically the same directions, one from the beginning of the year, and one from yesterday, they are slowly owning their writing. (I just realized that “owning” their writing is not official writing jargon, but a word we use in class. Basically it represents the transition from doing it for me so that I can give them a grade, to doing something they are proud of regardless of what the grade is.)
Here is the excerpt from the Atlantic that spurred my thinking:
One of van Nimwegen’s groups worked on the puzzle using software that provided step-by-step guidance, highlighting which moves were permissible and which weren’t. The other group used a rudimentary program that offered no assistance.
As you might expect, the people using the helpful software made quicker progress at the outset. They could simply follow the prompts rather than having to pause before each move to remember the rules and figure out how they applied to the new situation. But as the test proceeded, those using the rudimentary software gained the upper hand. They developed a clearer conceptual understanding of the task, plotted better strategies, and made fewer mistakes. Eight months later, van Nimwegen had the same people work through the puzzle again. Those who had earlier used the rudimentary software finished the game almost twice as quickly as their counterparts. Enjoying the benefits of the generation effect, they displayed better “imprinting of knowledge.”
What van Nimwegen observed in his laboratory—that when we automate an activity, we hamper our ability to translate information into knowledge—is also being documented in the real world…