Sunday, May 23, 2010

wRITING REASONS ~ The First of MANY Posts

Inspired by Kelly Gallagher's Reading Reasons, I have been contemplating why we write. Using a similar format as the esteemed Mr. Gallagher, and withOUT his permission, I will share a few ideas that wake me at night and distract me by day.

If educators were ONLY concerned about test scores, then we would be overwrought about our students' writing results as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP, considered the Nation's report card, indicates that Utah's READING scores are "pretty good," but students' WRITING scores are significantly lower than students nationwide.
Like most teachers, however, I have a difficult time standing before a classroom of students to tell them that the main reason they need to be better writers is because they have GOT to earn better scores on standardized tests. Yes, some would be motivated by this concern, but many - if not most - would not. (Starting in the 2010-11 school year, we do not even have the UBSCT writing assessment to hang over high schoolers' heads.)
On the other hand, NOT many students challenge the necessity of learning to write like they question other kinds of learning: "I'll NEVER write in the real world." Too many, however, fail to realize how much required writing or the expected high level of writing they will encounter after leaving public school - whether it's college or career-related.
The questions about writing, therefore, are similar to those posed about reading:
    • How do we turn around apathetic attitudes about writing?
    • How do we address an unwillingness to draft, revise, revise, revise, and edit?
    • How do light a writing fire under our students?
    • How do shelter fragile adolescent writers and help them grow into confident people for whom writing well matters?
    • How can we meaningfully and consistently reinforce the benefits of writing and writing well?
    • Where do we start?
Just as educators need to explicitly teach READING REASONS to students, teachers must also EXPLICITLY teach WRITING REASONS to their pupils. By the time adolescents are in middle school and/or high school, we assume that most of them understand the importance of writing. As a result, we assign the essay or the reflective written response without explicit instruction that includes the reason.
Furthermore, the strong emphasis upon summative assessments, along with accompanying administrator and teacher angst, supports the less important reason for writing - scoring well on the Direct Writing Assessment or some other summative test. It is important that educators ensure that students know and understand there are much stronger reasons for learning to write effectively.
As with reading, before teachers and students discuss, discover, and develop solid and motivating writing reasons, building blocks must be in place to support young writers.
Building block 1: Students must experience many different kinds of writing, including WRITING TO LEARN and LEARNING TO WRITE a variety of genres. Among the traditional kinds of writing taught in schools, the National Common Core State Standards (NCCSS) requires students to be proficient in writing effective ARGUMENTS. This type of writing is different from creating persuasive pieces of writing but is used more in ALL disciplines.
Building block 2: Students must have ample time to compose, especially extended pieces of writing. They must be able to draft, review with peers, revise, edit, and PUBLISH.Thinking and drafting take TIME; reviewing and revising take more TIME because writers often go through this step again and again.
Building block 3: Teachers must model writing and the VALUE of writing. Composing, sharing, revising and editing with students, and thinking aloud while working through the process makes the writing process more transparent for students.
Demonstrating a positive attitude about writing is crucial! Too many teachers lack confidence in their own writing; consequently, they may AVOID teaching writing or LIMIT the number of writing assignments.  Tracy Gardner, NCTE Inbox editor writes, "YOU are a WRITER when you BELIEVE that you ARE—and once PEOPLE BELIEVE they are WRITERS, they are ON THE PATH to a life-long LOVE of WRITING."
Building block 4: Teachers must STOP GRADING EVERYTHING. The paper-grading horror stories that follow English teachers not only scare away prospective language arts teachers, they also discourage educators from assigning writing. Because students hang from fluorescent lights in Utah's classrooms, grading EVERY essay, response, or narrative is especially daunting. BUT there are many ways to effectively assess student writing and learning WITHOUT grading every paper. Rather than limit writing, teachers need to PICK and CHOOSE what they will and will not grade. This can be accomplished without diminishing the value of all student writing.
Additionally, Utah Write and MY Access online writing programs are available to support student writing by providing feedback. When used correctly, these tools ASSIST teachers; they DO NOT REPLACE teachers!
Building block 5: Teachers must incorporate writing into MOST aspects of learning. WRITING to LEARN includes tools that help students process learning through writing. Some of these tools include graphic organizers, admit/exit slips, R.A.F.T., Silent Discussions, etc. A new report from the Carnegie Institute, Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading, shares recent research that supports the importance of writing to the reading process.
Building block 6: Students must WANT to write, and they MUST see what's in it for them. Too many young people believe that writing is only important in the academic world. The second part of "wRITING REASONS" will share why we write - reasons that go beyond those connected to school.
While I have some ideas, I plan to search out more; and I would LOVE to hear YOUR ideas. Please share your thoughts with Link2Literacy, and then teachers can share them with future students.

Thanks so very much.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sara Zarr and the Writer Within

Sara Zarr - isn't that just the coolest author name? And it's NOT even a pen name! Anyway, Sara, the Utah ZARRina of realistic young adult fiction (and yes, I am fawning) spent over an hour sharing reflections about her writing life with the largest group of secondary educators to attend a JCIRA meeting in YEARS. (Okay, there were only 13, but that's an average improvement of 900% - seriously!) AND, I very much appreciate Sara's comment when I told her NOT to expect huge numbers. She wrote,
Since it sounds like it's likely to be a small group, we can keep it conversational, which is always nice. I just couldn't remember if this was a very formal in-service-y type of presentation or not. Conversational is my favorite.
Rather than summarize all her interesting observations, I'd like to paraphrase several of Sara's thoughts that were meaningful to me. Sound good?

Her genre-of-choice:
  • Sara is drawn to the family drama - "things happening in kitchens and cars."
  • When males write "domestic fiction," it's referred to as "literary fiction." (Go figure.)
Her inspiration:
  • Sara's teen years were influenced by her own family drama - moving around, an alcoholic father, and divorce. She added that children in these kinds of situations often fill their minds with "what if" scenarios - "What if he doesn't come home; what if he DOES and he's drunk, etc." Imagining the "what ifs" can fuel creativity.
  • Her teen reading was enriched by 80's YA authors, including Robert Cromier, M.E. Kerr, and others. She enjoyed reading about characters who were like her. And while her life did not include the fighting and death found in Cromier's The Chocolate War, for example, she did relate to the dysfunction that realistically penetrates every life. 
Her respect for teens:
  • Sara empathizes with the angst that often fills teen lives. Unlike some adults, she sees their challenges as "high stakes" issues that they "don't have practice in dealing with ... ."
  • She observes that sometimes it's "easy to look at teens and say 'you don't know how good you have it,'" but their problems "are as real and rough and new" as those experienced by adults. 
  • Adolescence is "a transitional time," and a teen's job is to break away from parents. When going through that, many see their parents as clueless. Sara shared the example of Ann Frank's issues with her own mother - a woman who possessed none of the attributes Ann honored during that season in her life. Had she been allowed to grow up, however, "she would have worked that out. Instead, the moment is frozen in time."
  • Writers mustn't see teen problems as melodramatic - the "gossip will ruin my life." Authors cannot "dismiss their pain" because if that occurs, they "dismisses what readers are feeling."
Her story goals:
  • Sara sees adults as "ambassadors of adulthood," saying "come on," and so she wants her books to "model the possibilities."  She hopes to demonstrate to her adolescent readers that they can "navigate through" their experiences.
  • Her desired message is that the way "may not be perfect, but it will be okay." 
  • She wants her books to "offer some kind of hope as long as the definition of family is wide ranging."
  • Realistically, she knows that her character won't have the "big triumphs" - win the popularity contest, the game, or the piano competition - but will be able to "look Dad in the eye" or have more patience with a well-meaning mom. 
  • Sara also likes to end her stories with "forward momentum" versus the "big wrap-up." Sometimes teens are disappointed in that. Sara mentioned that her 12 to 15-year-old fans "want a happier ending." They also think that the author is writing about her own life. One group of girls Sara met with in California took one look at the visiting writer and then checked out the cover of Story of a Girl . "This ISN'T you!" they exclaimed in surprise. (Yet another disappointment!)
Her inner voice:
  • Once Sara realized she could be a writer, she knew that she would author young adult books because that is the voice within her. She can see through a teen's eyes. Not as an adult looking back on adolescent experiences but rather as a 15-year-old living in the moment. (I think that is remarkable. I've tried to do it, and the 62-year-old me keeps interrupting the teen me! Darn her!)
  • One of Sara's author-friends listens to her 6-year-old self, and so I think Ms. Zarr's advice to prospective authors is to discover who resides in their hearts and minds. Next listen and then record who is talking and what is being said. (I was listening more than writing notes at this point, and so I hope I've captured her thoughts about this subject.)
My reflection - I love to write, and I've even written a couple of chapters of a NOVEL - but I have to laugh. My main character is from England - a country I have NEVER visited, but I loudly hear her accent. I think, however, it's more Irish than British. So I started this adventure by writing in a dialect. Can you believe that?

Now I've stopped writing because the accent is growing thicker, and I'm afraid it's losing any authenticity it MAY have had. Awhile ago, I decided to rewrite the chapters and drop the dialect - but that accent is still lodged in my brain.

Dear Sara Zarr, what do you advise? HELP ME!!!

I hope that you enjoy catching a glimpse of our evening with the lovely Ms. Sara. And I plan to bring more such experiences to our JCIRA meetings in the future. I hope you readers of this blog will drop in sometime and mingle with us.

Take care,

Sara Zarr - Star of JCIRA's May Meeting!

On Monday, May 10th, Sara Zarr - author extraordinaire - sat down with 13 secondary educators to chat about her writing life. What a pleasant experience that was for all of us - those who dream about authoring works and those who enjoy reading them.

Let me tell you a bit about Sara's accomplished WONDERFULNESS, and then I'll link you to a summary of what she shared with us! Sound good?
  • She has published 3 YA novels: Story of a Girl; Sweethearts; and Once Was Lost
  • Honors and Awards:
    • Story of a Girl
      • 2007 National Book Award Finalist
      • American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults
      • ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
      • International Reading Association Honor Book
      • International Reading Association Choices Book
      • New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
      • Capitol Choices Pick
      • TX Tayshas Pick
      • Utah Book Award Finalist
    • Sweethearts
      • 2008 Cybil Awards Finalist
      • Oprah Book Club Kids Reading List
      • American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults
      • New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
      • Utah Book Award Finalist
      • TX Tayshas Pick
      • 2010 International Reading Association Choices pick
    • Once Was Lost - Just published in October, this book was inspired by events surrounding Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping. It has already been recognized with the following honors:
      • An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
      • A Kirkus Best Book of 2009
      • Fall 2009 Reading the West pick – Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association
  • Sara has also contributed to the following collections:
    • Does This Book Make Me Look Fat - A collection of stories and essays by YA authors that "sound off on body image., self-esteem, diets, eating disorders, boys, fashion magazines, and why trying on jeans is a bad experience for everyone."
    • Geektastic - "Short stories from some of the best selling and most promising geeks in young adult literature; covers all things geeky, from Klingons and Jedi Knights to fan fiction, theater geeks, and cosplayer."
    • Jesus Girls - "Together this collection of essays provides a vivid and diverse portrait of life in the evangelical church, warts and all."
  • Sara is featured on a podcast.
    • Click HERE to learn more about this amazing young author via the podcast.
    • Go HERE to read more on her website.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What NOT to Assign for Summer Reading

It's that time when teachers are thinking about summer reading – their own AND their students. In the not-too-distant past, a parent talked to me about books assigned to her daughter, and most of the choices were drawn from a list of the classics. Now I'm NOT talking about Young Adult classics; I'm thinking about those still-in-print books originally published between the 1700 and 1800s. Tale of Two Cities; Wuthering Heights; Jude the Obscure; Les Miserables, etc. 

(Note: The cute boy in this picture is my grandson, and reading in trees is his favorite pastime!)

Please do not think I am ANTI-classics. I definitely am NOT. I also realize that students registered for AP English need a jump-start on the upcoming school year by reading some Austen and Faulkner over the summer. Additionally, I have been researching and building a case for teaching such works in the general language arts curriculum, but I question whether or not teachers should require or recommend them as summer reading. Here are a few questions at the heart of the BIG question.
  • What is the purpose for assigning these works for summer reading? Introducing young readers to timeless, universal themes or ruining vacations at the beach?
  • Can students comprehend these difficult texts without teacher's scaffolding? Will filling out the work sheets or writing up summaries or reflections really help them understand why Heathcliff is such a grouch? (Heathcliff the tortured soul, NOT Garfield's cartoon contemporary.)
  • Will entering into the task without sufficient support discourage their efforts to the point of giving up? How many will make it beyond "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …"?
  • Will they resort to replacing the novel with Cliff Notes? Or the movie versions; ie A&E's Pride and Prejudice with hunky Collin Firth OR Kiera Knightley's 2005 portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet OR the new BBC 6-part episodes?
  • Will the experience create life-long despisers of classics? Will they ever trust an author over 100 again?
Carol Jago, former middle and high school teacher; president of NCTE; director of the California Reading and Literature Project, and a whole bunch of other impressive titles, writes that "we should be teaching what Lev Vygotsky calls the zone of proximal development. Vygostky explains, 'the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it'"(2009). When we assign difficult or frustration-level texts for summer reading without marching ahead of students' literary development, we may be setting up those readers for failure as well as giving them one more reason to dislike reading.

So what makes up a good summer reading list? Good question. Yesterday I talked with a high school teacher whose sophomore students are reading The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom's remarkable memoir about hiding Dutch Jews during World War II. The book is listed as having a 900L Lexile level, within the range of 10th graders, but its length and complexity can make it a difficult read for many teens. That is why teachers often choose it for classroom study. 

After reading The Hiding Place and studying the Holocaust during the last few weeks of school, students will be assigned to read Night by Elie Wiesel during summer. The content is tough because of the topic, but it is short and poignant. The students have the background knowledge needed to comprehend the text and the reading level is 580L. 

Carol J. also believes that "if students can read a book on their own, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study" (2009). Now there are many things to consider when determining whether or not students can read a book on their own, ranging from having the ability to comprehend the text to possessing the maturity to appreciate the content. But if teachers believe their students can, then that title might be a perfect choice for a summer reading recommendation.

My colleague/friend/supervisor Carolyn discussed this topic as well, and she shared an interesting idea. She thinks books that are short, but unique with richly layered content are great for summer reads. Two examples she mentioned were Yellow Star  by Jennifer Roy or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Both of these books, written in a poetic, free-verse format, are easy reads filled with thought-provoking imagery and circumstance - fodder for riveting reflections and discussions. (Monster by Walter Dean Myers is also a quick read, written in screen-play format. It is both heart-breaking and disturbing, and guys like it!)

I also think summer reading is the time for fun - yes, F.U.N. reading. A time to include graphic novels or Lois Duncan (queen of YA thrillers) or Louis L'Amour novels (I love Hondo, and Louis hooked my sons onto reading, so I love him, too); OR Hunger Games! Even better!

What do YOU think makes a good "SUMMER READ?" Send in your thoughts about the topic OR share your favorite titles. I would LOVE, LOVE LOVE to hear from you! rbs
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Note: Jordan School District's policy for summer reading lists is consistent with classroom reading guidelines: books must be approved by the appropriate literature committees. If teachers want to include UNapproved books, the compiled list must be extensive enough that students have LOTS of choices. Btw, most titles mentioned in this post have been approved, including HUNGER GAMES, a new addition!