Monday, April 28, 2014

How to grow a student writer, in ten easy steps

How to grow a writer: A simple, but crucial step-by-step approach:

1. Start early.

Surround your sapling-writer with books--and read often.  Tell them stories about themselves.
The goals:
They delight in the sound of words.
They observe the world around them.
They want to tell stories.

 2. Once settled into school, encourage dabbling in all genres. Provide a sampling of writing assignments, encouraging her to find her writing voice.  Does she do humor?  Memoir?  Poetry? Historical fiction?  Newspaper articles or book reviews?  Whenever you can, allow her to choose topics for writing--perhaps within a theme.

Have you tried 2nd person?  Read Lorrie Moore's satirical essay,  How to become a Writer

3. Be an enthusiastic reader.  Criticize lightly.  Read her work in a comfortable chair, with a cup of something yummy next to you (rather than with a red pen and a tired frown).
Respond as a reader might: I loved this because I could imagine being in this spot you describe or, This is funny! or,  Huh--I was confused here. What's missing? Or, if you're really at a loss, I sense that your heart wasn't in this--  want to start again?

Don't edit for spelling until you have to.

4. Cultivate people to share her writing pieces with, but only when she's comfortable doing so, and maybe even let her choose her partner.  Provide the peer-reader with specific things to respond to (for instance, what is the main point the writer seems to want to make?)

5. If you have the right conditions, two writers can write something together  (Examples:  a scene of dialogue, perhaps a whole play--perhaps an abridged re-make of Macbeth, that is then performed).

6. Provide models!  How can he know how to write without seeing how others do it?  Read lots and ask him to "point" to specifically what he likes (or doesn't like).
Sample recommendation:  short memoir piece, My Name, by Sandra Cisneros.

Please note: Novels by John Green have been know to cultivate massive reading habits, and this can't hurt the writing habit.  

7. Demystify the writer's process: Share your own possibly painful, evolved writing process; invite writers into the classroom, and have them share their process. Invite peers to talk about how they write. (great essay, A. Lamott's Shitty First Drafts)

8. Seek authentic readers for your growing writer (and keep those diverse assignments coming):

Hold a poetry/fiction reading with low stakes and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Instead of forcing shy ones to read out loud, place stories at tables with comfy chairs for others to read and respond to.
Have her start a blog.
Have him send his essay to your parents or to your smart, kind friends for feedback.
Tell her to send a funny letter to your friend, telling her (creative) lies about what you do in the classroom.
Put on a performance of their ten-minute plays at an evening event.  Send invitations to parents, local writers and alumni.

9. Be patient with your writer.  She will grow!

10. Water regularly . . . with specific feedback and encouragement (and the rule for semicolons).

                       Celebrate--you've put another writer in the world!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Let's Play a Game: Questions about Competition

For the most part, I enjoyed elementary school, but one of my least favorite memories of those school days is playing duck-duck-goose in gym class. I recall my stomach lurching as one of my peers came around the circle, uttering: "duck, duck, duck. . . ".  Goose?! Augh . . . would she tag me?  I dreaded the moment that I'd have to jump up and run as fast as I could around the circle, while everyone watched. Would I run fast enough?  Would I make it around without tripping? I wasn't clumsy, and I was capable of running fast, so it wasn't a matter of incapability. It was fear of looking like a fool.  Fear of failing in front of others.  Despite my love for teaching, I'm inherently shy, and according to Susan Cain's new book, Quiet, I'm all-introvert.  And one of the things introverts hate is being in the spotlight, especially if others are watching us as we complete a task/answer a question.  So, the act of standing up when tagged and running around a circle of my peers, under pressure to not lose, was pretty much torture for me.

Recently, I played my first game of Bananagrams with some dear old college friends, and I admit to not only being bad at it, but also to not enjoying it (ok, there's a connection there).  I like words, and I like scrabble, but what I felt when I had to race to create words, was not unlike that old duck-duck-goose lurch. It was the competitive element--in tandem with my genuine desire to create words--that I found frustrating and downright unpleasant.  I'm guessing that my brain even worked slower as I was overtaken with the anxiety the game provoked.  The experience soured even more when a couple of my friends fiercely argued over words (are two-letter words only used in the math world valid?). Granted, it was all in fun for them (I think), but I experienced a vague sense of anxiety, not fun.  After several rounds, I ended up playing a slower, non-competitive version of the game with one other friend--something I made up with my son, who also didn't want to play Bananagrams by the usual rules.  My friends went out and bought a dictionary the next day to help mediate future arguments.

School is full of games.  In fact, school, depending on how it's played, can be all about competing: GPA's, SAT's, awards, sports teams, spelling bees, prom king/queen . . . all about competition. For some, school is simply a game: we figure out the rules made by teachers, and we jump the hoops (do the HW, take the tests, etc).   Is this a good thing or a disservice to those not motivated by winning--or for whom games makes us anxious?  I know that being an introvert doesn't necessarily mean one isn't driven by competition (just like being an introvert doesn't mean I don't love being in front of the classroom), but given that I'm sure there are other students like me in our schools, do we depend too much on fast-paced, competitive, public games?  Do we organize schools in a way that most benefits those who are motivated by winning, instead of those who are more inherently motivated?  (According to Cain, schools definitely favor the extroverts, as speaking up in class, being the outspoken leader in groups are rewarded above quietly reflecting in writing or deeply focusing on work by oneself, though she doesn't address any link between introverts and competition).

What is the role of competition in learning?  Does it motivate students?  Does it help or hinder learning?I don't know enough about brain research to understand exactly what happens to the brain when we compete.  I wonder if the part of the brain that is activated during a fast-paced game is helpful to learning.

Do those games we play in the classroom to review content or learn vocabulary provoke fear or excitement in students?  My answer is yes.  Yes, some students are motivated and excited by competitive games, which was clear as I watched my two friends battle it out in bananagrams. And yes, others will be filled with fear when you utter the words, "we're going to play a game."  I suspect that this feeling will not help those students learn.  On a more dramatic level, I wonder if students who always feel like they're losing the "game" of school are also the ones who sit in the back, not saying a word--or who eventually drop out. What would happen if it felt less like a game?

I wonder what percentage of people/students are motivated by competition. Do we live in a culture that assumes this is the way to go?

I wonder if the usual teacher practice is to think of ways to make it a game, making the assumption that game equals fun.

I know that I have used competitive games in my classroom.  I am a believer in variety because in my experience, students learn in different ways and are motivated by a variety of factors.  I need to mix it up in order to reach many students.  However, I think we as teachers also need to ask ourselves what our goal is when we create a climate of competition in our classrooms.  Administrators may ask themselves the same about competition in schools.

Here are a few ways I've used competition in the classroom--and feel (mostly) good about the results:

1) Definition game, Balderdash, works great on a Friday afternoon, when students may need a break from content or after a test. I keep it low stakes (no one is put on the spot, for the group works together and even though we keep score, it's kept light by goofy team names and the focus is on the fun of the definitions).  This game often results in creative, hilarious word definitions--and lots of laughter.  (message me if you want to know my process/rules).

2) Jeopardy-like game for test review.  I have mixed feelings about this one: on one hand, students seem to have fun and the material is covered.  On the other hand, does it also result in a loud, even mean-spirited activity that quieter students feel uncomfortable with?

3) Film-making class (see earlier entry, Want to Challenge  . . .). Although not the main focus of the class, there are competitive elements.  For instance, not all students' screenplays are chosen to produce (out of necessity), so students make their preferences.  And on the final film festival night, there are "judges" who give feedback and decide on winners.  Usually, out of the four films, there's one "best picture" prize, and 3 others for specific elements that were done well (things like, best editing, best use of ensemble cast, etc.). I decided to follow in the footsteps of the tradition of Hollywood film awards in this case, and I don't think it has hindered students' learning (though I have no actual proof).

What do you think?  Do you like games or not, and what is the place of competition in school?

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” 
― David Sarnoff founder of RCA

“Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.”
-Jiddu Krishnamurti

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Commendations and Celebrations

Post-Film Festival commendations are rolled around a treat for each student

My all-time favorite faculty meeting activity: all of us draw the name of one of our colleagues and spend a few minutes writing that person a note.  We either describe what we appreciate about them, or perhaps give them one "wish" (anything from a painless, successful completion of report cards to a weekend in the Caribbean).  I think we do this twice a year, and I still have most of the notes I've received through the years, stuffed into a folder that I take out once in while if I'm feeling low.

I've noticed that it's easy to hold in our minds the negative stories we tell ourselves, or the inklings of criticism that others have shared with us.  Or maybe that's just me.  In my experience, it's harder to hold on to the complements I've received and the successes I've enjoyed.  In the same way, I think students tend to experience school (partially) as a place to receive criticism, and I wonder how this impacts their learning.  I think teachers--in our desire to see improvements in our students--tend to forget to call students out on their achievements.  Yes, schools have annual award ceremonies where the "successful students" are publicly recognized for good grades or sports, but I'm talking about the smaller, equally important moments of success--perhaps when a student stayed after class and helped you clean your white board, or the time a quiet student raised his hand in class.  Or, maybe a student (finally) mastered the use of the semi-colon.

Do you remember getting a paper back from a teacher that highlighted only the positive aspects of your writing?  I wonder how that would have changed your writing practice. I remember reading in graduate school about a study that found that specific positive feedback on student writing was just as effective as marking errors. Seems counterintuitive, I know.  In any case, it's clear to me that students think of teachers as the judges, the critics--not the cheerleaders.  Yes, it's our job to help students improve and to learn from their mistakes, so of course, we need to point out weaknesses and errors.  But what if we spent as much time calling attention to the positive as we did the negative?

I call for more commendations and celebrations.

Here's some specific ideas:

1. After the recent film festival at school, which also marks the end of a challenging 6-week course (see my last post), I wanted to highlight a positive from each student's work in class.  I typed up brief, but specific messages and rolled them around a couple tootsie pops (I know, sugar is bad), placing each one on a program that the students could use for their portfolios. The students were excited to see a little prize after their hard work on their films, and even though they'll get a report card for the class, those messages highlighted something very specific, with no hint of constructive criticism. I also have them write a lengthy reflection, and I feel certain that this initial boost gave some of them a place to start, or helped put them in a mindset to look closely at their performance.

2. If your school has all-school meetings, use part of that time to commend.  Allow students and teachers to commend each other for a minor (or major) academic accomplishment or a moment of generosity. We've been doing commendations at all-school meetings at Compass School for years, and students have become good at appreciating not only each other but their teachers as well.  This could be done in a school newsletter or assembly, but works best in a setting where students feel comfortable enough speaking up.

3. And finally, you could spend a few moments each week e-mailing a couple parents (and cc'ing the  students' themselves) about a positive moment from class.  Maybe their child aced a vocabulary quiz, helped a peer with a math problem, or just exhibited a positive attitude all week. Especially at the high school level, parents often don't hear very much about what's going on at school, so I find that these notes are much appreciated.  I tend to do this when I've had a hard week, and I am in whine mode.  Counter intuitive again, perhaps, but I find that it makes all the difference on a Friday afternoon if I commend rather than criticize.

So, I commend you all for reading this post and for considering who you'd like to celebrate.  Well done.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Want to challenge your students? Ask them to make a film.

Film-Making: A wonderful mix of creativity, collaboration, and organization

This Thursday evening marks the 10th anniversary of the Student Film Festival at the Compass School, where I teach high school humanities. I vividly recall the moment I conceived of the film-making course.  I had been at the school for a couple years, and it was near the end of the year. The school was immersed in a week of independent student-chosen projects, and I watched a group of several 11th and 12th graders work on a short film based on one of the popular TV shows of the time, Survivor.  I was struck by how much fun they were having. They cast their science teacher as the leader, filming themselves as characters challenged to make it out of school alive. The final product was fun, and it got lots of laughs at the end-of-year presentation.

I wanted to harness that excitement, but I also wanted to challenge my students to make something non-derivative.  I also love movies.

The next spring, the science/technology teacher and I launched a six-week elective. Knowing nothing about film-making myself, I had easily convinced my tech-savy colleague that if he taught the technical end, I could teach the writing and film analysis part. I would help students generate ideas for screenplays and analyze films in order to inform their own. With his experience as a photographer and tech-guy, he would teach them how to shoot wisely and efficiently, how to frame good shots, and how to edit (we use Premiere Pro).  So, an interdisciplinary course for 11/12th graders was born at Compass.

Since then, I have watched the popular course challenge students like perhaps nothing else I teach. One of the challenges is that the whole course takes place in six or seven weeks, and they make two short films in that time. I provide a few lessons on what makes a good story (including the theory that there are only two stories in the whole world) and the screenplay format, and then we work on generating ideas for their scripts (see my earlier post, SnowGlobe for some of the prompts). We discuss scenes and short films in class, and they watch and write about films as homework.  

As they're in the midst of the screenplay writing process, they're simultaneously thrown into camera work, including the creation of a short silent film to try out the idea of telling a story visually.  Three weeks into the course, they pitch their original scripts, and then quickly began to cast and seek locations with their four-member production crews. Finally, one of the keys to the success of the course is the public exhibition of the films in a evening event. The public venue, even if it's just at our little school, raises the stakes.  I even invite a few local film-makers to act as judges. The students' pride and gratification at seeing their stories come to fruition on screen, with a rapt audience, is powerful. 

Like any course, different things challenge different students, but in their final reflections, most students point to the hardest thing of all--organization. To produce a film, they need to constantly think ahead, create (and revise) a schedule, communicate with outside community members (for acting and locations), and deal with forces beyond their control (weather, sick actors, etc).  If they don't have someone in their group who naturally keeps track of costumes, props, and details like mic batteries, they learn quickly the need to keep a list and a storage place. They also need to immerse themselves in the messy creative process with peers who they didn't necessarily choose to work with (though we choose groups carefully). I've watched this assignment of creating a film throw some of my brightest, most motivated students.  I've also watched many diverse groups pull together their different skills, and create some powerful, beautifully shot films. 

The beauty of the course is that students are at the center of the work, and they take complete ownership. In the end, I just stand behind them (or sometimes in front of the camera), push a little, and provide some guidance as needed; my role is the coach rather than the teacher.  They are the leaders/artists/teachers.  (see the Coalition of Essential Schools Principles: 

A senior in the course last year, who had been at Compass since 7th grade, spoke eloquently at the film festival Q and A session about how he saw the film-making course as the ideal culminating project for his secondary education, for it involved all the skills he'd been honing for years: communication, creativity, technology, problem solving, collaboration and organization.  (see his group's film below)

So, I encourage teachers to look around and watch what students are excited by. Then harness that energy. Create a course that will require them to take ownership of a challenging, interdisciplinary, creative task. Then step back and watch the learning happen.

Here's a good article about the importance of the arts in schools.  The author posits that companies need people who can problem solve, collaborate, and tell a story:

Finally, here is a 13 minute film created (in about 2.5 weeks) by a group of four 11/12th grade students in 2013    (warning: some car violence)