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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Valentine Thoughts

Just got a note from the person who sends out a community newsletter for the school - asking for articles. seems like the perfect time to have pictures and sentiments from our all-school write included. I took the Valentines down today and typed up some of the more original sentiments and am including them in this post:

Meeting you was fate,
Becoming your friend was a choice,
Falling in love with you was
Way beyond my control!
            -M. Yang

Let love embrace you…
            -Annie Carey

To love and be loved is everything!

Love is when you give your heart and soul to someone in hopes that they’ll return it.

If you have any tears to cry,
I will be there by your side.
When you’re sad and feeling blue,
I will be there to care for you.
If you’re scared and all alone,
I will kiss away your fears.
When you need someone to love you,
I will be here.
            -Karen Lee

Trust is the way of creating love.

Love is the closest thing we’ve got to magic. When we see the details, we start to see what really matters. There’s regrets and forgets, hearts and desires. You can’t WANT something to be yours. You have to KNOW it truly is. Missing someone is painful; losing someone hurts. Knowing you can’t do anything to change it is a living nightmare.
            -Sydney Yang

Everyone says that LOVE hurts, but that’s not true.
Everyone confuses these conditions with love, but in reality, LOVE is the only thing in the world that covers up all of the pain and makes us feel wonderful again.
            -Sheng Vang

Love is an uncontrollable passion that weakens even the strongest walk.

Love hurts!
Dislike it!

Love has a 1/1,369 chance on

Love is a strong word that you want to use carefully.

Love sucks and makes people do stupid things.

Love is a crime that makes everyone blind.

Love is good while it lasts, but you have to burn it at the end.

Love is unconditionally, blind and dangerous.

Love has a 14% chance on ABC’s The Bachelor.

Love sucks:
It kills,
It hurts,
It burns,
It is the worst thing ever
It will always pain you…

Never leave the one you love for the one you like
Because the one you like
Might leave you for the one they love.


True friendship is no fistfights or hurting,
Not here one day, gone the next.
In friendship,
Everything is better for those
With the ability to love and hate,
Make war, then peace;
To dream and hope and always
Be by their friend’s side,
Never leaving.
            -L. Cody Jackson

Friendship is helping one another through thick and thin.
It’s something you need to survive reality
when you’re at your worst.

Friends are like stars.
You don’t always see them,
But you know they are there.

Best friends are people who know your whole life story and your flaws yet, they still love you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day

I was apprehensive coming to school today since I was out-of-town all last week and did not know how the plans for an all-school write had worked out.

I guess I should back up a bit...I thought that Valentine's Day would be a perfect time to celebrate "the love of writing" with another all-school write. Two weeks ago, I purchased a variety of doily hearts from the $ store and peeled about 1000 of small, medium, and large red, white and pink ones into piles for each homeroom. My intent was to have the students write about either love or friendship on the hearts, the week before Valentine's Day. Then, on Valentine's Day, I would post all of the hearts on the wall in the lunchroom and set up a table in front of them and hand out suckers and chocolate hearts (more $ store purchases) to those who stopped by...

Because I was gone last week, I arranged for the newspaper staff to introduce the hearts and the topic to students in activity classes at the end of the day. Although I was worried that all students wouldn't get the opportunity or that teachers might not collect them and turn them in to me, the newspaper staff did a beautiful job. When I got to school today, I picked the hearts up from the mailroom and posted them. Next, I set up my table in the lunchroom. I had many paper hearts left over so I spread those out on the table with markers. My plan for handing out suckers and chocolate roses was not quite as table was mobbed! Almost everything was gone by the end of first lunch...if I had it to do over, I would have portioned my supplies and treats out. Even without the treats, many students stopped by just to write out a valentine for someone special.

I did get in a number of conversations on writing and writers. One girl even got a pass to come back with an essay she was writing so that I could sit and conference with her. A very fun day!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Student Connections

Today I met with Tara, a 9th grade student writing a novel about shape-shifting humans, werewolves and vampires. Two days ago, she handed me her notebook for feedback as I looked through 9th grade papers in her classroom. I wasn't prepared for the amount of writing that she had done on her "novel" or for the tiny, single-spaced, light pencil that it was written in. I struggled to read it, but was amazed by the intricate plot structure she had devised and the complicated code that involved what the characters could do and how their names were created and what each name signified. How do you give feedback on such a big piece that is still a rough draft? I wondered where she was going with the piece - which authors she read on a regular basis - and what kind of feedback she wanted from me. I left her a note to come to The Write Place to talk about her piece, and today she showed up.

She was nervous, swinging her foot rapidly as we began to talk. I asked her to tell me about herself as a writer and she apologetically recounted how she started out by "plagiarizing" other authors. That led to a discussion of the difference between plagiarizing and emulating. I told her about using books as mentor texts and inspiration which is very different from stealing an author's plotline. That seemed to calm her down. She told me that when she reads, she gets inspiration for new plots and characters. Once she started talking about her story, she seemed quite at ease.

The feedback that she wanted was an evaluation, really, of whether what she wrote was any good. I gave her lots of praise about the intricasies of her plot and the character relationships. I pulled out Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, Orson Card's Ender's Game and J.K Rowling's Chamber of Secrets and talked about how she might use her own mentor texts to create description and detail that would help the reader follow the story. (Her piece was filled with dialogue.) She said that she adds description when she types up her drafts. I don't know if I gave her enough, but I wanted her to think of this as a positive experience, so I'll just have to wait and see where this goes...

I encouraged her to come back with new sections or any other writing that she wanted to have feedback on - I also encouraged her to send her friends to The Write Place to talk about their writing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's My Focus?

I guess January is made for reflection. The last two weeks I've been thinking about The Write Place and trying to really center my work as well as look ahead to possibilities. I'm in an awkward position since I'm funded by ARRA money and unless I can find a way to fund this Center next year, it will cease to exist in June. This is compounded by the fact that I need to establish the presence of the writing center in order to attract the attention of people who would see this as a viable funding opportunity. I've been in this position before, acting "as if" great things are already happening or building my bridge as I walk across it.

So, I drafted some possible options for 2nd semester and some thoughts about next year...I met with the principal and we narrowed my ideas down to another all-school write; work with the 9th grade teacher on preparing for the state writing test in April; and work with students preparing to enter the History Day competition this year. I also plan on hosting at least a couple of "Writing Excursions" for interested students.

Then, I met with others in a Writing Center Symposium format and started re-thinking my role once again...Is this writing center for the students or for the teachers? I want it to be for the students, but I am unsure how much summative writing is actually assigned, and I wonder if it is being assigned, do teachers understand the process approach to writing and how a writing center could be used by students to develop their final drafts? I'm only thinking this because in the 3 instances in which I have worked with teachers, I have not seen final products. In each case, I was asked to help develop and deliver the assignments but my work with students and their writing was minimal. Should I be visiting Professional Learning Communities here and give them a menu of possible writing topics I could explore with them? Or is that really branching away from my focus?

More later...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Digital Poetry

It seems like awhile since I last posted but only because I haven't had the time...A 10th grade English teacher requested support for a concluding project for a recent poetry unit.  The district curriculum called for a "chap-book" (ex. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse) format for the concluding piece in the unit, but because of a variety of circumstances, students had not written more than one or two poems which were in very rough draft form and this teacher needed to conclude the unit. It seemed to make sense to both of us to have students bring one of their drafts to a polished form and digitizing that piece seemed perfect. Although B. didn't feel he could carry that out on his own, I felt confident (over-confident?) that I could provide what was needed to help his students create some intriguing products.

Needless to say, with technology, it's one step forward, two steps back. While I smoothly went through the process using imovie and a student poem, my version of imovie was not the same as that at the school which created problems for me that I hadn't anticipated. While I had worked with both versions, I was not an expert at either. I was fortunate in having a tech friend support me through all the stages of our process and step in to help students when I was at a loss for what to do.

I will attach my powerpoint and samples but basically, students came to the lab on their first day with  rather hastily created poems. It did concern me that we were creating final projects out of very rough or nonexistent 1st drafts, and I had to remind myself that my role was to help students digitize their writing as a second draft. What surprised me was how much that step contributed to the revision process. It forced students to look at their poetry in a new way - to look for images to fit with their thoughts and in the process, change their words to fit the images. As it turned out, students created many more drafts than they would have in a traditional assignment.

Our final step was supposed to be the addition of voice - students reading their poetry into the computer. Not having done this before, I was sure that the process was easy - I tried it myself, at home. What I didn't count on was the background noise in the lab and the softness of the students' voices. They needed to record with a microphone and in a quiet room. The majority did not want to have their voices attached to their poems. The pictures and words by themselves needed some kind of background sound so we gave students the option of  downloading appropriate music without lyrics. Now the project seemed finished.

Frustrations about final editing were similar to working with traditional writing: spelling - getting students to edit their work; capitalization - following the rules or at least being consistent in not following them. I ended up telling students that if they were consciously breaking conventions that they needed to attach an author's statement explaining why they made the choices they did - otherwise, they would be graded according to traditional grammar and spelling rules. As you will see in the videos attached, it worked to a degree. If the class was my own, I would have required stricter editing. Oh, and I would have censored the "love" theme which comprised 90% of the finished work.

After working intensely with the 3 classes, I was  motivated to experiment and create a family video combining music, words and photos which I gave to my family for Christmas. I am now anxious to go in another direction with digital writing and build on what I've learned.