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...