Friday, May 27, 2011

Essay and Wiki Work

I've been so busy since that last post that I haven't had time to blog. One of the teachers who attended the writing center visit was inspired to enlist me in two writing projects that she had planned for her 7th grade pre-AP English, and for the first time this year, I see a way to keep the concept of the writing center moving into the coming year.

Ms. S's students had just finished reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult and they were beginning to develop essays around one of the characters in the book. It was a basic 5-paragraph essay assignment with students required to have a thesis statement about the character and then at least 3 quotes from the book that supported their thesis. They were to end with a conclusion. What I appreciated was the emphasis on an engaging introduction and a conclusion that not only summarized but perhaps shed new insight on the information in the essay. Students were also expected to explain the quotes they chose and to tie them into the thesis statement.

Ms. S had me come into the classroom to conference with students on their rough drafts. I sat off to the side and while others worked and S circulated around the room, students came to me to talk about their drafts. It was a little awkward at first, and I could tell that students would rather talk to Ms. S than to me, but soon, as Ms. S became busy, the students ventured over to my table. I asked them to describe their thesis to me and asked them if there were areas in their papers that they were struggling with. Most often,  they did not have concerns so I either had them read me their introduction or one of their supporting paragraphs. Usually, they were using a quote in isolation. This led to a discussion of audience and how someone unfamiliar with the book would need help in understanding the context of the quote and how it was being used to support the thesis. This seemed to be helpful, and students were quite receptive to the advice.

Following the essay, Ms. S. was using the book as part of an integrated English-science unit. Throughout My Sister's Keeper are references to organ transplants, bone marrow transplants, blood donation, etc. and students were very interested to learn more about these topics. Besides lessons in their science class, they did research on their own and became part of groups of 2 or 3 that did in-depth study in one area of their choosing: blood, chemotherapy, seizures, brain death, etc. They also developed questions to ask to a medical professional and Ms. S invited a doctor to visit the class. Each group spent about 10-15 minutes alone with the doctor asking questions specific to their area of study.

At this point, Ms. S asked if I could help develop a wiki for the class to use to record their research. I set up the wiki so that each group had their own main page and then separate pages for their research findings. Although almost no one in the class of 31 had used a wiki before, after a brief introduction, everyone was working. Last night, I reviewed the pages and was amazed at the amount of activity it had generated. I'm excited to see where they go with it today!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Vision Accomplished

Our visit to a suburban writing center was a huge success. The director and co-director were well-prepared for our visit and even offered us complimentary box lunches. After a brief introduction of the principal and writing center staff, we viewed a brief powerpoint chronicalling the history of the center, recent events and day-to-day use. Teachers from different content areas stopped in periodically to talk about their use of the center in their curriculum, and we met a few tutors over lunch. At the end of the day, we experienced a research lesson taught by writing center staff to AP Psychology students.

Things I want to remember in particular have to do with marketing. As much as possible when staff is promoting use of the writing center, they use sports or theatre metaphors, alluding to the necessity of consistent practice and coaching in becoming skilled as a basketball player or a performer. They emphasize that becoming a skilled writer is no different. They also talk about building students' "tool kits." When a student's toolbox is full, they will have what they need in order to write well in a variety of situations.

The writing center uses Google docs calendars to schedule teachers and coaches. Students or teachers can view these calendars and then either sign-up for an individual visit or schedule a class visit to the writing center. The center has 24 student coaches and 12 adult volunteer coaches from the community. Depending on a class's needs, writing center staff will make sure they are supported adequately with other coaches as well.

"You need people to believe in this in order for it to work," was a memorable quote. I realize that my working in isolation, without the commitment or understanding of a majority of the staff was a hindrance this year. By introducing our English department to the potential of a center, I have gained considerable ground. We ended up being a group of seven and have already had a preliminary PLC meeting with the principal and administrative staff regarding a more active center here next year. A second meeting will be held this week.

Areas teachers are particularly interested in:
• How to provide whole-class support/use of writing center staff in the classroom
• How to involve the writing center in content areas other than English (integrated curriculum work)
• How to train and use parent/community volunteers
• How to train and use student tutors
• The best ways to offer before-school, lunch, and after-school options for tutoring

More to come...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Writing Center Visit

It's all set. I've arranged for six of us (teachers and me) to visit a fully operational writing center. The suburban writing center we are visiting has been in operation for four years, and is a dynamic part of its high school. Unlike our center, however, it operates completely on outside funding. Outside of that, I think we will learn much by the visit. My goals:

1). Observe a fully operational writing center
2). Talk with staff to learn the benefits of the center to students and teachers
3). Find out the qualities of a successful center
4). Find out how to make the writing center viable for all content areas
5). Brainstorm ideas for next year 
6). Learn about recruitment and training of tutors
7). Learn about the use of outside resources: volunteers, pre-service  teachers, etc.
8). Learn about sharing the resources of the center with articles for and by staff? How frequent?
9). Find out how contests are promoted.
10). Learn about cost of operation as well as other unseen areas to be aware of
11). Find out about all-school student publications (anthologies, etc.) and the writing center’s role in creating and publishing them.

If the teachers I bring with me are impressed with the effectiveness and potential of the center, there is an excellent chance for a writing center here next year. If not, I don't see The Write Place continuing. All I can hope for is that the teachers actually show up for the visit. Much has gone into the planning including numerous phone calls to the other site, arrangements on their end for teachers to visit with us and arrangements on my end to meet everyone's schedules. Already, however, as I brought driving information to teachers this morning, one person was "so stressed out" she doesn't think she will go. Not to mention the department chair - not going because she has been out of the classroom too much lately...but I'm going to hope that I have the right combination going from the school and just move forward from that point.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Electronic Portfolios

The title of this entry may be misleading if you're looking for ideas on how to do electronic portfolios - rather, it's about a 9th grade teacher who would like to do "electronic portfolios" but really is looking for a way to digitize an essay. I am totally in favor of electronic portfolios as a way to assess students as writers and was excited to know that this particular teacher was interested in developing them. I was a little suspect, however, at the thought of beginning them in April. As we talked, I realized that what she wanted was an electronic vehicle for recent essays. By the time we finished our discussion, however, we had looked ahead to future years and the possibility of this being the first piece in an ongoing portfolio that follows the students until graduation. That is exciting, particularly since this is a 7-12 school - soon to be 6-12 and  a student's writing progress could be tracked for 6 years! I would love that...

Anyway, we have decided to use imovie in much the same way the 10th grade did for their poetry projects. This time, however, students will polish and edit their pieces ahead of time and will record themselves reading their pieces. There will be time, as well, for them to bring in personal photos related to the essays instead of using all google images. So, this will then become Piece#1 in their electronic portfolios.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing Contests and Other Thoughts

I'm not feeling as desperate today about getting students to use the writing center. I just finished reading a chapter in The High School Writing Center: Establishing and Maintaining One, edited by Pamela B. Farrell. It's not a new publication (1989) but it is still considered one of the most relevant in terms of establishing writing centers in high schools. Each chapter is written by different writing center directors. Of interest to me at the moment is the one titled, "Filling the Room: Public Relations." I was heartened to learn of how much time one particular school had devoted to establishing credibility and relevance at their site.

They called their advance prep, "consciousness-raising" and began writing formal proposals almost 3 years before ever opening the site. I think of my preparation work last year and yet, that did not even directly involve the school I work with - it was my consciousness-raising about the concept of a high school writing center. This year I am trying to establish a presence in the building and in particular, get people to view me in a role very different from one they have seen me in in the past. So, it seems as though I still need another year to really get this writing center off the ground.

But, back to the book, I have many more ideas on how to involve teachers and students in the center. One thing I need to do now is find out the commitment of the English teachers on staff and then solicit their support in the continuity of the center after this year. I have contacted one teacher in particular who has been through the summer institute of the Minnesota Writing Project. Hopefully, she will know of other staff members who are pro-writing and who will be willing to visit a functioning writing center with me for a day and then give feedback on options for next year. I have the backing of the principal for this excursion.

If I get the English department on board and in support of the center, the principal will agree to continuing it next year. In that case, I see my role as a consultant until it's fully functioning. This chapter also gave me new thoughts on a high school-university partnership so I will explore that route as well.
The main point is that I don't feel nearly as discouraged as I have been about the lack of students in the center. I think with encouragement and motivation, students will use the center.

I also posted my flyers around the building today...

Monday, March 7, 2011

Soliciting Again

Not a satisfying afternoon...the teacher who requested help from me did not show up for our meeting. She seemed very serious about needing help for her 9th grade students before they tackle the MCA writing test. I have a feeling she may be out of the building today -
So, I was forced to focus on advertising for the center for most of my time today. I ran  flyers along with a note to all staff with passes attached that they can use with their students. This is my first attempt at an actual schedule and my first attempt at targeting students directly. So, while I sent a flyer with my hours on it to all staff, I gave English teachers packets of 30 flyers each that they could distribute directly to students. It's not enough for all of their students but they could focus in on one class or make more themselves. The important piece is for them to get the word out. I have been depending on teachers to recommend students to the writing center up to this point, thinking that they must know who needs support. But I haven't set a schedule before or tried to directly address the students with information. I am also posting information on each floor and in the cafeteria. Hopefully, students will respond.
I will recommend direct advertising to students to whoever takes over the center next year. That's something else for me to think about. How can this school staff a writing center without adding to the budget?

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Different Direction

I'm wondering why it has taken me so long to come to this conclusion but I'm just now thinking that I should individualize my invitation to students. Up until now, I have been relying on teachers to suggest to students that they visit The Write Place for writing support. Of course I have no way of knowing whether that message is being spread or not. For some reason, I seem to have forgotten that the strength of writing centers lies in student initiative and motivation to use them. Both of the girls that I have conferenced with in the last two weeks sought out my help because they WANTED to be better writers - not because a teacher told them to come to the writing center.

Anyway, after I have a friend look it over and give me feedback, I will hand out flyers to all students during their English classes on Wednesday. I will also put flyers in all teacher mailboxes emphasizing that students may visit the writing center for writing support in any content area.

Another thing I haven't done is post a definite schedule of when I will be in The Write Place for student support. Now I am posting definite hours for the month of March. Our state tests are early in April so this may be another motivating factor for students.

If this center is to continue into next year, I need to find a way to get students to use it.