Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How I Feel about Writing

Writing and Me

While I was the University of Georgia, I had one professor who had a whole bookshelf of journals and books that were just his own writings. I remember sitting in his office and being impressed--and probably a little overwhelmed--that he had published so much. I wondered how many thousands of pages that was...how many words? 

As for me...well...you know, sometimes people talk about "books in heaven." This is not a religious posting at all, but if there was somebody keeping track of everything we've done and we get to see it after we die, then I would really like to see how much I've written. You know, like in "stack format." And if I think of writing that way, then truly I have written bookshelves upon bookshelves upon bookshelves of stuff.  Probably miles high.

I spend a lot of time writing comments on my students' papers...that is one form of writing that is quite significant for me. I spend a lot of time writing emails, writing interview protocols, writing summaries of articles I read, and summaries of data I have collected. I write lists everyday. I write agendas and powerpoints.  I sometimes write out exercise routines.  I'm also a big "cards" person; I love sending cards to my family. For a while, I was the "card specialist" for my church due to my love of writing cards.

And yes, as a gal on the tenure-track, I write a lot of articles, articles, articles. My personal strategy, which I just developed over this last year, is to name each document by the day. So, for instance, I might have "Gestures Article 10-29." And then I never save over it...the next day I just title it "Gestures Article 10-30." So that way, if I decide that I liked something that I had deleted, I can just go back to a previous version and find it again. This method of keeping track of my writing has almost changed my professional life. I make it a goal to write for publication (or for a grant submission) for at least two hours per day.

Some people might think academic writing is boring, and I get their point. I like to joke that my content literacy book will be the next "Harry Potter." Yeah, right. But this focus on academic/anlytical/informational writing hasn't always been the case in my life. When I was in the fourth grade, I remember writing pages upon pages upon pages of poems and stories. I remember that, during all of my eighth grade year, I spent time thinking of a story that I was really passionate about...it was a psychological thriller where the author had a split personality but didn't know it. I spent a long time working on it and crafting it, and I submitted it to my ninth grade Honors English teacher, who gave it an A- with no explanation. And then she gave the class a big long lecture about how she had never received such a dark and disturbing batch of short stories throughout her entire 30-year teaching career. 

That experience was actually pretty devastating to me, and took the wind out of my sails for writing fiction. But I still received good grades on my analytical essays and academic writing, and so now I guess I've channeled all of my writing energy into the academic route. 

What are the implications for my own teaching? For one, I think it's important for people to explain grades to people rather than giving them grades with no explanation. Second, I think that teachers have to realize that--right or wrong--their words carry authority for young students who are still forming their identities. So it's important that we use that authority carefully.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oral Langauge in the Classroom

Musings about Oral Language

As a teacher of teachers, I feel like it's my job to model the types of teaching practices that I would like for pre-service teachers to use with their own middle school and high school students. But I don't always know if I am the best model, especially when it comes to my use of oral language in the classroom. 

I think I am good at giving students structured opportunities to talk with each other in partners and small groups, but I am not sure about my use of oral language in whole-class settings. 

To be honest, a lot of times I feel a little guilty if I talk for more than 5 minutes straight, because I think to myself that I am modeling teacher-centered learning--that old adage of being "the sage on the stage" instead of the "guide on the side." For instance, today I began the class by talking about the six traits for about 10 minutes; then students worked in small groups to evaluate writing; and then I talked for another 10 minutes on what research says makes good writing instruction. 

I know there are some professors who lecture the whole time for every class period, which is something I definitely don't do, but then there are teachers like Jim Cangelosi who ask their students to lead every class, which is something I don't do, either. 

I wonder if and when teacher lecture is ever a positive thing. Does the answer have to do with teacher personality? That is, to some extent, should teachers teach in the way that feels best to them and fits their own skin and personalities? For some teachers, that might mean talking a little more, and for others, it might mean talking a little less.

I think that sometimes in education we go to the extremes. There are extreme models of learning on both sides of the teacher-centered and student-centered continuum. In some models of learning, students get to choose everything they study. For instance, I could say I liked horses, and then it would be my teachers' job to design a curriculum around that (e.g., I could learn about ratios through calculating feeds). On the other extreme, there are teachers who do not deviate from their planned calendars for the whole year, and they don't account for students' interests or their pace of learning at all. To me, realistic education and quality education is somewhere in between. 

Perhaps the same is true for oral language. For me, depending on the topic that is covered and depending on the constraints of the class, it is unrealistic to have whole-class discussions where the teacher rarely talks. But it is also boring to have the teacher talk the whole time. So maybe for most of us the answer will be somewhere in between.