Sunday, December 15, 2013

What I Learned from Carl Anderson in 2010

Several years ago I had the chance to study with Carl Anderson for a week at a TCRWP Summer Institute on the topic: Enduring Goals that Last Across the Year: Link Units of Study into Learning Pathways to Support Revision, Independence and Vigor.  

After writing yesterday about the dangers of missing the writers in the writing curriculum, I revisited notes that I had written while listening to Carl. You know that something powerful is being said when it is timeless and true . . . even several years later.

He spoke to how we were in the best and worst of times in the teaching of writing. It is the best in that there is so much curriculum material out there, but it is also the worst because it is easy to forget that these materials were not written with OUR kids in mind.  This begs the question: How can we draw on the best of both worlds . . . How can we make use of the materials that we have at our fingertips, while at the same time, design units of study that will meet the needs of our students?

Through our work that week, Carl helped us to realize that our goal should be to teach students central ideas and understandings about writing not just about the genres we teach.

Carl spoke to the importance of goal setting with kids in our class.  He shared how important it is to have conversations with students about curriculum, and discuss with them how our writing units can support their goals.

His beautiful description of units as chapters in an ongoing narrative that helps students grow as writers across the year reminded us that we needed to look past a single conference, a single workshop and think about a student's learning pathway.

He spoke to how the key to curriculum design is to decide (based on assessment) what are the lines of growth for writers in your classroom, and then choose to work on just a couple of these goals inside of a unit.  As we think about each writer, it is important to work with them on a particular goal across several units to help them "develop" as writers.  The decision belongs to us - the teacher - What are the most important things to teach the writer(s) in front of me? Carl spoke about Tom Newkirk's work and how Tom shared that the two biggest problems writers struggle with (no matter what their age) are focus and elaboration.  

However, the idea that he kept coming back to, similar to the familiar mantra: teach the writer not the writing or we teach children not curriculum was that we teach writers not units.   What are some of the biggest issues that the writers in front of you are facing at the moment? How are your teaching plans responding to those needs?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Secret Lives of Boy Writers

I am afraid . . . Afraid that I am squashing the love of writing out of some of the third graders that walk through the doors of my classroom.  Common Core State Standards, Standardized Testing, Bottom Lines and other pressures are being exerted on me, and I don't know that I am handling it well.  When these kinds of pressures are exerted on me, I find that I endeavor to CONTROL the environment around me more, in the hope that if I can control the outcome more. So I am afraid of taking risks, afraid of deviating from the path (curriculum), and afraid to listen to students because I know that the students will see straight through me. They will see that I am absent from my teaching because I know some of what I am doing is not in my students best interests.

When did I realize that I had not recruited students to author a writing curriculum for our writer's workshop with me and left them out of the conversation . . . it was when I discovered the secret life of a boy writer, who I struggled to get to write in the classroom. I am new at a grade level this year, and when you are "new" to anything, there is a learning curve, and I feel like external forces are robbing me of this learning curve. Here are some pages that a writer in my classroom has been secretly writing outside of whole class units: 

How do you strike a balance between helping students to write well, and exposing them (and teaching them) to write in different forms and genres while at the same time honoring student choice (and not just choice about topic, but choice about projects)? I have been teaching inside of a writing workshop for the past 12 years, and I long for the days when teachers were able to author a curriculum WITH their students, and FOR their students.  

In Assessing Writers, Carl Anderson suggests that the following questions should guide our thinking and planning work for writing workshop: What are our students' needs? What are our students' interests? What have our students studied in previous grades? What units doe we know well enough to teach? What curriculum mandates are we required to meet? I feel like we often take into account that last question, and perhaps even the second question when authoring curriculum and looking at units of study in writing workshop.

In our drive to ensure consistent practices and scaffolded curriculum, have we left our students behind? In looking at our curriculum calendars, where do we see the interests of our students? Where do we see units we have authored based on student needs?  I feel that I am progressing in a lockstep fashion with colleagues on the grade level, and don't know if the writers in my classroom are with me. How many of them live secret writing lives outside of the writing workshop?  In these last two weeks before the December Break, I have decided to rebel a bit, while colleagues are working on holiday crafts and activities, I am going to attempt a miniature unit on independence before we start our next unit in January, entitled Changing the World: Writing Persuasive Speeches, Editorials and Petitions, which I am really excited about teaching next month.

In The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins asserts that "each of us needs to do the soul searching and the research necessary to define our role as advocates for our profession" (2001).  I feel like the powers that be are trying to rob us of this time to study, reflect, and be critical of the work that we are doing because we are being told to do it. What is the difference between consistency, and conformity? How can we make sure that we don't cross the line?

Reflecting on the Principal Gala at the Botanical Gardens (2015)

It is important for leaders to retreat to the mountains. This event stands at a cross-section. We need it to determine the road ahead. ...