Category Archives: Writing

Writing Without Teachers, College Essay Edition.

I took a page from my earlier reading of Writing Without Teachers for this one. I mean that literally — I dug out the photocopies I made in the fall, when we were doing messy personal narrative essays responding to “The Things They Carried,” — only this time it was in preparation for college application essays.

I’ve got some great slideshows and prompts for getting their brains started on writing a good college essay, but I wanted to shift gears a little bit with the final product. I will read mediocre essays, but I certainly don’t want admissions committees reading the stuff that students turn into me when they haven’t done their best work. This needed to be an all-or-nothing deal, one where students got down and dirty with the writing process until something really great came forth.

In the spirit of that process, my instructions to them are messier but also simpler than usual:

On Monday, 5/6 you need to bring a complete draft of your college essay to class.

That draft may be messy, and disorganized, and too long — but it needs to feel complete. An incomplete paper will make class on Monday very difficult for you.

Once you have conferenced in class, I will then set you up with an appointment with an outside expert editor. This might be in person or via e-mail.

Once you send your draft to your editor, you are on their schedule — so the final deadline for this assignment is several weeks away, and you will have to maintain communication with them and then revise on your own.

Here’s the checklist for what you will be turning in as your final product:

  • Complete draft on Monday 5/6
  • Copy of the draft edited by your expert editor (don’t delete the comments!)
  • Revised essay which reflect editor’s comments to the fullest
  • Separate written reflection describing how your writing changed — what were you trying to say at the beginning, and how has the message changed? How has your writing changed?

This assignment will also be graded differently from typical high school writing assignments — there is no such thing as “not good enough” or “just-so-so-because-I-slacked” for your college application essay. There’s either excellent, or not ready to be turned in yet.

This assignment is worth 25 points total — and will be marked either “credit” or “missing” in the grade book.

When you have accomplished all of the items on the list (to a level that satisfies Ms. Pahomov when she looks it over) then it will be marked credit.

If you do not achieve all the items on the list by Monday, 5/20, it will be marked “missing” (0/25) until you successfully turn it all in, at which point it will be marked “credit.”

I feel like this is a classic “try to make the grade book as though it’s not there” move. I hope it works.

Oh, and those outside expert editors? All people from my PWN — professional writerly network.

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How to Enrich Publich Education.

I’m happy to be the co-signer of an opinion piece that ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s a key section — as the representative for Teacher Action Group, I can say that we were particularly keen on expressing this sentiment:

When it comes to learning readiness, it’s important to acknowledge the violence of poverty and its impact on children. Children from families that are proximate to poverty have diminished learning readiness. The solution is to provide safe neighborhoods, sustainable employment, and access to health care. Poverty, however, is outside the direct purview of teachers. It is a societal responsibility. The challenges we face in school are a result of an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic economy that maintains the violence of poverty and vilifies teachers in the process.

I fear that too many people assume that teachers don’t deserve to be a part of the larger discussion about quality education — or that we’re too busy making lesson plans to even think about these matters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Thanks to Gamal Sherif and Teachers Lead Philly for inviting TAG to co-sign the letter.

How can we best teach context for quotes?

Beautiful, or beastly?

Beautiful, or beastly? Click on the image to go see the flow chart so far.

One aspect of composition that consistently troubles my students (and vexes me) is introducing outside sources in a paper.

For a literary essay, the rules are relatively simple: make sure you include the text title and author somewhere, give us a little plot background so we can understand what’s going on, etc. But for non-fiction analytical writing, the variety of sources available makes identifying proper and adequate context for a quote much more difficult. How exactly should one quote a comment on a YouTube video? Do I need to include the author’s name here? Should this detail be quoted directly or just summarized?

Here are a few common issues I see with my students when they write 2Fer Essays:

  • They present human sources (who are not household names) without any context as to why that person is a credible source (“According to Joe Sixpack…”)
  • After the first reference, they refer to this person by their first name only.
  • On the other extreme, they will over-narrate their own quotation. (“According to an article published in The Examiner Online, it is quoted as saying that…”)
  • They include context for the information after it is presented, not before.

At first, it seemed like an advanced algorithm that you learned over time — eventually your intuition would tell you that you needed to write “New York Times Columnist David Brooks” and not just “David.” But “just wait ’til your older” is hardly an instructional method.

The best idea I have right now? A flow chart. Me and a few of my SAT’s are currently hashing out as many iterations of citing sources we can think of, and then we will try to create an easy-to-follow chart as best we can.

Is this going to work? I really don’t know. It could turn out to be an awesome tool, or it could be messy and incomprehensible.

But go ahead and check out our draft so far. Leave comments here if you have any ideas or edits.

(And if there’s something else out there like this, please let me know!)

Building a Collective Understanding of Prisons.

Last summer, I devoted much of my month abroad to writing an article about an SLA unit on prisons and imprisonment, originally developed by Humanities Teacher Josh Block. I’m happy to announce its publication in English Journal this month.

Here’s a little preview:

As a teacher who values critical thinking and getting students to see the bigger picture, I look forward to pushing their thinking on this topic. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got a big box of figurative dynamite hidden beneath my desk—if students have a hard-and-fast notion about the way the world works, I am there to blow it up. (It can be as simple as one question, like, “Why don’t men wear skirts?”)
Getting students to a new understanding, though, can be tricky. I want students to be more aware of the systems and structures around them, but I don’t want to push them toward a particular worldview or, worse yet, make them feel like they are under attack and have them shut down. This feels especially true for this unit. Prisons may be under-discussed in schools, but that doesn’t mean that students don’t have preconceived, and sometimes deeply personal, ideas about what’s going on with our justice and penal systems

Check out the whole article here. Many thanks to Heather Hurst for researching my classroom, taking transcripts, and then encouraging me to write this piece when she saw the call for submissions.

Fitting together the puzzle of thesis and support.

passingI just finished reading a batch of Self-Reflective 2Fer Essays from my 11th graders, and a common weak spot they talked about was when your support in your body paragraphs doesn’t (quite) match your thesis.

I have been tinkering with this trouble in my mind for a few weeks. As teachers of writing, we often encourage students to pick a topic and “zoom in” early, and workshop their thesis statement too — but sometimes the statement is the cart that comes before the horse. They’ve fine-tuned it before they’ve really exhausted their line of inquiry. Then the thesis becomes a jigsaw piece too carefully cut for the puzzle that is their essay.

When we wrapped up reading “Passing” in the 10th grade, I decided to try the opposite approach, and asked a simple question:

“What are you still wondering?”

From that question, we made a list on the board. The questions often looked something like this (spoiler alert!)

  • Were Brian and Clare really involved?
  • Did Irene push Clare?
  • Would Jack have accepted his daughter now that he knew the truth?

Of course, we can’t see into the fictional future and find out what happened. (“Can’t we ask Nella Larsen?” “Nope, she’s dead.”) But we can re-write these questions so that the point towards the text, instead of past the ending:

  • What evidence does the book present that Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • What motivations did Irene have to push Clare? What was her attitude towards Clare?
  • Which impulse was stronger: Jack’s love for his family, or his racism?

Students then received a sticky note to write down their question. They could grab one off the board, or brainstorm their own. That sticky note then became a bookmark as they hunted down a page that helped answer their question. Once they found some worthy evidence, they were handed a chart with the following questions:

  • Context – what’s going on in this scene? Give the basics in a sentence or two.
  • Patterns – what words or phrases stand out to you on this page? Write them down here.
  • Analysis  — what conclusions do you draw looking CLOSELY at those words and phrases? How does this page give some clues to your deep question?

The final prompt in the chart:

  • Answering your question – So, based on all of your close reading, how can you answer your original question? Your answer will probably take a couple of sentences.

It was not until the next day that I revealed: That closing prompt? It’s the core of your thesis, and your intro paragraph. A few students rolled their eyes: they’d been tricked! But a few of them smiled with surprise. That was a complete outline they had just done! And though the write-up was rough, with plenty of first person and opinionated statements, the inquiry was real. In most cases, the puzzle fit together.

Independent Reading: The Rubric.

There was a lot of interest at EduCon about our grading rubrics at SLA, so I’m putting out the one I wrote for the Personal Reading History.

The Friday before the project was due, students completed a peer editing routine similar to the one that they do for 2Fer Essays. (This was also EduCon Friday, so if you visited on that day, chances are good this is what you saw.) The peer editing sheet had the following questions, with room for written comments as well. I often use this blend of on-screen and on-paper notes, especially when there is no natural way to leave comments in Prezi.

PEER EDIT CHECKLIST          Peer Editor: ___________  Creator: _____________

Does the Prezi include the student’s name in the title or first slide?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Reading History do they have?  _____________ Are they numbered?  Y   /  N

Does the Reading History do more than just share details? Does it share why these scenes are important for understanding the student’s approach towards reading?

Do they have a basic description / intro for their book?   Y  /   N

Does the Prezi include the book’s title AND author?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Annotations do they have? _______________   Are they numbered?   Y  /   N

Is there a good variety of annotations? Does it share why these annotations are KEY to understanding the book, and the larger themes and ideas behind it?

Do they have two clear items of reflection at the end?   Y   /   N

Does this reflection explain both what they gained from doing the annotations AND examining their personal reading history? Does it connect the two in some way?

Presentation – is the project free of spelling, punctuation, sentence structure issues? Note SPECIFIC problems here, because you can’t mark Prezi with a red pen:

Design- Does the Prezi have a unified theme? Does it flow nicely? Does the path make sense? Note specific moments (by number) that have problems, and explain:


The rubric was published on the back of this peer editing sheet — and we discussed it once the rounds of peer editing and finished, and before revision work began.

The final product was then presented in class on Monday — students did a gallery-style presentation, where they loaded their Prezis on their own computers, and then rotated around the room in 10-minute cycles. They left comments for each other in the rubric section, which was on the back of their peer editing sheet. I left my comments after the student comments, and sometimes in dialogue with what was already written: I agree! Or, I disagree! Each category is out of twenty points, which I scribble as small as possible in the corner of each section.

Design – The flow of the Prezi is both logical and engaging, and incorporates both text and visuals. There is a unified feel to the project. Student comments:

 

Pahomov:
Knowledge

The project reflects a deep understanding of the student’s personal reading history as well as the many ways a book can be annotated and analyzed. The content of the project does much more than just scratch the surface of these topics.

 

Student comments:

 

 

 

 

 

Pahomov:
Application

Different forms of annotation are applied to the book, and the annotations include commentary about why these details are significant. Closing reflection ties the commentary about the book together.

Student comments:

 

 

 

Pahomov
Presentation

Project is well-edited and is free of errors in spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Images or other media included are of high quality.

Student comments:

 

 

 

Pahomov:
Process

All points of the project were completed on time and beyond the basic requirements.

Pahomov only:

Reading History:       / 5          Annotations:         / 5

Final Product:        / 10

 

Link to Reading History Peer Editing form and Rubric 

 

 

 

Looking at both sides of language and power.

I wrote about reading James Baldwin and unpacking language and power with my 10th Graders earlier this month, and now I’d like to share a few of their final projects in that unit.

Here’s a snippet of the instructions:

Your language autobiography will investigate some of the themes from our language unit and relate them to your life. The expectation for this paper is a polished piece of writing that combines personal experience with larger analysis and reflection.

This is NOT a traditional “thesis paper” — you will share a deep understanding about yourself, but you want to lead your reader to that instead of sharing it in your intro paragraph.

Your paper must contain at least one descriptive scene from your own life — and this will probably include dialogue — along with deeper analysis. You must also incorporate a quote or idea from the language essays we are reading together.

If you’re familiar with the diverse makeup of our student body, you can imagine many of the relevant subjects that many of our students explore. Code switching, slang, foreign languages at home, neighborhood accents, are all topics that students often gravitate towards.

Every year, though, there are also students who hesitate when the assignment is given. They don’t see anything noteworthy or unusual about their language; they have never experienced it as a place of conflict. They might be white, or middle class, or sound like news broadcasters, or something else entirely — it all depends.

This unsureness can turn into a situation where the majority or dominant culture feels under-celebrated, like they have no unique experience. (This is, I think, where the motivation for things like “White Studies” comes from.) The privilege and power might be something to be defended, or ashamed of, instead of examined.

I am blown away every year when kids actively resist this path, and take the time to explore their individual stories. Whether they’re coming from a place of struggle or a place of comfort, each can be examined in the larger context of society. Students do a great job getting past cliche and to real meaning.

And with that, I give you two Digital Story versions of this project. Both take on this project through the lens of school — and present the opposite, but equally relevant sides of the same coin.

“You Have Nothing To Hide From”

“Listen to Our Words”

Thanks to Josh Block for handing me both the original assignment and the Digital Story remix.