The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lots of change, lots of (initial?) work

Congratulations, Jen! We made it through orientation week as well as our first week of curriculum/writing boot camp. That feels like quite an accomplishment this year. We both put in a LOT of hours the past couple weeks trying to make these changes happen in our curriculum. I just finished our last post exchange describing my own reflections about what I think went well and what things I still think I need to devote more time toward thinking through and finding solutions for. 
Before we move onto new topics and bring in more research, theories, or ideas for implementation I'm curious to hear your own reflections and analysis of our first week of writing boot camp. What went well? What do you feel needs to be revamped? What might you change in this roll-out next year? Are you still motivated to charge on in this direction? Do you see what we're doing as being more beneficial (than previous methods of teaching) to the students, us, or equally both?
:-) jen b.


Ok, clearly I am already falling way behind…

Here are my thoughts about our boot camp, as of week 3:

·         The pace was too fast – for the kids who really care about their writing and are trying to turn in their best work, the pace killed them; the other kids used the fast pace as an excuse to turn in mediocre work.

·         I need to spend more time training students how to give feedback – some kids did a great job of providing valuable feedback, but others couldn’t make it past “I liked it.”

·         Setting up groups is tricky – some groups functioned much better than others, even though I really tried mixing up high ability with lower ability, introverts with extroverts.

·         Even though our goal was just to read one draft, I felt compelled to look at them all, and kids seemed to want verification that I had read all.

·         I liked the idea of Google forms as a way for students to self-assess, but the kids just copied and pasted entire sections into the form and the result was a huge spreadsheet that definitely did not help me and I’m not sure helped them, either.

·         Still think this is the way to start the year (the writing boot camp), and I do think our progression from narration to inform-explain to argument makes sense, but I want to think more about how to better roll this out next year.

·         I need to learn how to make the most of Google Drive.

~Jen P.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Figuring out our writing boot camp

One of the things I love about teaching is that I get two “New Years” every year, and with that, a chance for new resolutions and fresh starts. As we prepare to meet students this week, I have our writing boot camp ideas swirling around in my head and wondering if we can pull it all together in time. I’m glad we have a week of orientation with the kids first – not only to buy us more planning time, but it gives us a chance to get to know them and their writing before official core class instruction begins.

As Jen B mentioned, we read two articles last week that prompted this major shift in how we wanted to start our year: Junking the Old Way of Teaching Writing and A Cure for Bad Teaching of Writing, both by Jay Matthews.

I wanted ideas on how I could give meaningful feedback on student writing, so I re-read chapter seven of Carol Jago’s Papers, Papers, Papers and that confirmed for me one more reason for us to change our practice: the majority of kids don’t read comments on essays, and if they do actually read them, they don’t actually learn from them. So why are we wasting time correcting every error, making suggestions on how to improve, re-writing awkward sentences for them? She mentions that she keeps track of errors that show up across several students and uses those notes as the basis for mini-lessons on usage, style, and organization. She also cites research that shows comments are effective when the teacher refers back to previous papers and commend the student for concrete improvements based on prior problem areas.

One of her ideas for managing the paper load is something I’d like to adapt and try. She has students (or maybe had, as this was written in 2005) give her a blank cassette tape for each rough draft. She then read the essay aloud and inserted her comments as she read. Presumably, students would listen and then revise their drafts. She suggests allotting 10-15 minutes per draft and stopping at the end of that time period, even if you aren’t finished with the paper. I’m wondering if this might be a technique for students to use together – the peer reviewer could read the draft aloud, commenting and questioning as she reads, and the writer could jot down notes to help him remember what to work on. Or, if both partners have access to technology at home, they could work independently and record their reading and comments on voicethread.

Thinking about how we could structure peer review time led us to read up on how other teachers conduct writing workshops with their high school classes. Two resources we’ve been consulting extensively are Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Jen Roberts’ website. I really like the idea of peer writing groups, reading aloud each other’s papers and giving immediate feedback, but I have a hard time with each kid bringing 6 copies of their paper – I guess if we are working on short pieces initially that might work. I also like the idea of me going around the room, conferring quickly with 7-9 writers per period, but I wonder how realistic it is that I’ll be able to offer solid feedback in 5 minutes per student.

Additionally, we’ve been trying to figure out how we’re going to make this work with limited lab access. Here’s what we’ve tentatively decided on for the first two weeks:

Day 1: overview of boot camp – explain importance of writing well in their college classes, and our goals for them as writers and peer reviewers; explain how we want them to label and organize their google docs.

Day 2: provide an example of narrative writing – explain what differentiates this from inform-explain and argument, review CCSS standard, explain the rubric, and do some preliminary writing in their comp books; HW – read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 3: prompt 2 given in class – preliminary writing in comp book; teacher begins conferring with students on prompt 1in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 4: peer conferences – students bring in two copies of papers – peer reviewer reads paper aloud and comments as she is reading while writer listens and jots down feedback on draft; ideally, each student will have one-two students read her paper aloud and give feedback; HW – revise drafts of prompts 1 & 2. We will have to model how we expect the peer conferences to go.

Day 5: prompt 3 given in class– preliminary writing in comp book; teacher continues conferring with students on prompt 1& 2 in google docs; students are writing, or when finished, reading; HW -- read their initial draft aloud, jot notes for revision/improvement, type revised draft in google doc and share with teacher.

Day 6: prompt 4 – same as above.

Day 7: prompt 5 – same as above.

Day 8: peer conferences (same as day 4)

Day 9: revising & conferring – hopefully in lab all period.

Day 10: all 5 prompts have been revised; update independent reading in comp book

Our plan is to require students to meet with us twice, once during class time and once before or after class. We will probably only be able to give students 5 minutes of feedback during class if we want to meet with each student (on day 3, 5, 6, 7, 9), so requiring them to come by outside of class on any of those days, plus the two peer conferences days will give us additional time to provide feedback.

We will set up a discussion thread on our class ning to showcase examples of narrative writing for student reference. I’m thinking we could also use this area to make general comments about what we’re seeing in student drafts.

During the entire boot camp, students will have free choice in what they are reading. Our expectation is that they will read every day, respond to what they are reading in their comp books at least once a week, and give a quick book talk on something they’ve read that they want others to know about.

We’re anticipating that there will be some students who fail to bring hard copies on the peer conference days. If we are able to use the labs on those days, students can simply bring up their google doc, but if we are in the classroom, those students will have to sit out and read instead, and then at home with their parent read the paper aloud, self-assess as they read, and hopefully get some feedback from their parent as well.

We’re still working through how to record all of this in the gradebook. Right now, I’m leaning toward two grades in the gradebook: participation and mastery. The participation grade would be based strictly on the completion of the requirements for the unit – the written responses to the five prompts, participating in the two peer conferences and the two teacher conferences, and keeping the comp book up-to-date with the preliminary writing for each prompt and the reading responses. The mastery grade would be based on the teacher reviewing the drafts with the student, rubric in hand, and deciding together the student’s progress toward mastering the standard. This will then clearly identify goals for the student in the next unit.

We don’t have it all figured out yet, and we’re trying to anticipate problems, but I think we’re nervously excited to try something new and focus on an area that definitely needs more attention from us.

~Jen P


Well, that we're five days deep into our "writing boot camp" it feels like a good time to stop and reflect for a minute.

I was able to stick to the plan above for days 1-5; however, it felt like a pretty ambitious pace and I suspect some revision for next week may be in order. Organizing what went well and what was challenging may help in trying to decide where to revise, goes:

What I liked/what went well:
1. Classes went by FAST
2. Kids were engaged--they like to write (at least they like to write narratives)
3. I felt our directions were clear--they were all successful in sharing/naming folders and documents (almost all on day one, definitely all by end of week)
4. I like the singular focus on one type of genre, really honing-in with mentor texts as well as written emulation/practice
5. Having College & Career Readiness class be a support for the first week was good
6. Having all students' work in the computer organized in folders is GREAT
7. I think the peer review groups are going to be really awesome...I did a model group fishbowl on day 4 and it went pretty well. Students then got into their own groups and practiced with at least one or two students reading their chosen narrative to the rest of their group for feedback.

Challenges/concerns that need to be thought-through some more:
1. Checking in with 7-8 students per class to give feedback was a challenge. I did get to that many students one day, but not the other. Also, not sure I was able in the time I had to give "valuable" feedback, though I think there's some value in simply singling out students to talk to individually when I might otherwise just be on a computer myself. Need to think about this more.
2. Becoming more comfortable with the possibilities within Google docs, and simply becoming more proficient and confident within the system logistics will be ongoing.
3. Scheduling and meeting with students to confer and rubric-assess their writing will be a next big step. I'm thinking for now of having kids sign up on paper in the classroom, then putting all kids' appointment times into my Google calendar to share with them...possibly then setting up email reminders to be sent to them. I am also thinking that before they come to their conference I'd like them to have done some work in advance: assessing their own writing (using my rubric) and citing specific examples of elements of the rubric from their writing. For example, if one element on the narrative rubric is "Uses sensory imagery" I would ask that student (on a Google form) to give themselves a rating and also to specifically pull a quote from their paper showing evidence of sensory imagery. The point being that if they having written it can't find the evidence, why should I be able to?
4. So far we've had access each day to a computer lab, allowing students to begin their work directly within Google docs. When we do not have full access to a lab will the process within the classroom--beginning with the writing process in comp books--work as well?
5. I am torn about what I'm thinking is a challenge but might not really be one. The kids are writing at such a  pace that keeping up with reading their work is a huge challenge, but I think I just need to remind myself that this is part of the point...we can't read everything. And if we could then they probably wouldn't be doing enough writing. I just don't want the kids to lose momentum, thinking that no one is reading their work. But I hope through random comments I can occasionally insert, as well as feedback from their peer groups, that this won't be a problem. We shall see.

This is my initial reflection after getting through week one. I'm encouraged by what went well and I have confidence that we can think through solutions to the challenges. Overall, liking what we've begun...hoping you're feeling the same.

:-) jen b.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Writing Conundrum

"...a good editor can communicate more information and demonstrate more techniques in 10 minutes of conversation than a teacher can by writing in the margins of a paper at home. The personal contact, being rare, is also more memorable for students." 
We left off in the last post with writing, so we may as well pick up there. Especially because it's much of what we've been talking about this week as we attempt to plan our year. One change we've decided to implement this year is to begin with a 3 to 4-week "writing boot camp", which will consist of short readings, brief modeling, and lots of student writing. Also built into our "boot camp" model is lots of individual conferencing with students. Our challenge will be to meet with all students meaningfully. We want to introduce and practice on at least a rudimentary level all three CCSS emphasized writing genres, narrative, inform/explain, and argument so that we may rely on and build upon this knowledge base for the rest of the year.
Part of the inspiration for me came from an article Jen P sent (quoted above), called Junking Old Way of Teaching Writing. What resonated with me about this article is the idea of using class time to conference individually with students about their own writing, eliminating the endless margin comments that take so much time to write. Because in the end, this process does not seem to yield better student writing in direct proportion to the time I spend writing, reading, writing, reading. So, I'm willing to try something new.
Also, I've spent a lot of time on reading but because of the amount of reading I've assigned I realize I've probably not given my students enough practice in writing. Really, our students need writing practice more than they need reading practice. By the nature of our program, our students are already coming to us as pretty good readers. I know that part of my reluctance to assign a lot of writing has stemmed from the idea of taking home all those papers...ugh. The never-ending bag of essays taunts and mocks me relentlessly throughout the year. So, again, let's try something new.
With this plan in mind, I have turned to such resources as Kelly's Gallagher's Write Like This and George Hillock's Teaching Argument Writing. We're currently in progress on planning our boot camp, but I am motivated and hopeful that this is something that will be a worthwhile and fruitful endeavor--more on all this soon!
Jen P, as we're planning and preparing to implement this new emphasis toward in-class writing and feedback, what do you see as our biggest obstacles and how will we overcome them?
:-) jen b.

So in the few hours since you’ve posted this, we’ve already revised our plans to extend our writing boot camp to the entire first quarter! This exemplifies one of the many reasons I love teaching with you – you aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new!

So now we are planning on spending two weeks introducing narrative writing, another two weeks introducing inform-explain writing, and three weeks introducing argument writing.  This is just in our English classes. We’re planning on extending these lessons in our College and Career Readiness class. That sounds like a lot of writing! Which brings me to your question…

I see two huge obstacles: logistics and grading load.

I am interested in going all digital, but I have concerns about my own learning curve, never mind the fact that we are not in a 1:1 classroom. Lots of questions here – can we find lab space to accommodate us all on a daily basis, can I figure out how to use google docs with students before school starts next week, can I really monitor 30+ kids in a lab and create an environment that leads to authentic sharing and reviewing, will this change enable me to be more efficient or will I get frustrated and end up printing everything out and lugging it all home anyway?

I’ve heard many writing teachers say that if you are grading everything students write, they aren’t writing enough. I think Kelly Gallagher (or maybe it was Carol Jago?) recommends grading a quarter of what students write. Even if we don’t grade everything they write as practice for the final essay, that still means we’ll have essays coming in every two weeks for the first quarter of school. Sound intimidating. And though we are planning on conferring with students during these practice prompts, I think we’ll be tempted to write comments and then get bogged down with stacks of papers again.

I have no answers, some ideas, and lots of questions.

~Jen P

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Starting Small

“…going to college is like entering a new culture.” (page 20 College and Career Ready)

Since we’re about to welcome a new group of students into the program in a week, I thought about this quote and wondered how we can best acculturate students to their new environment.

Being on a small community college campus makes part of this easy. Some of the college classes, especially the developmental or prerequisite courses, still feel like high school. The prerequisite courses by definition are pre-college level so the skill level should feel like high school, I suppose. However, there are professors on campus who teach rigorous, transfer-level courses and who have university-level standards, and many students have difficulty transitioning to these new, challenging expectations. After sailing through high school classes where participation at any level was good enough, students receive an essay or exam with C or D at the top instead of the expected A or B. This brings me to what Dr. Conley writes on pages 36-40 (pages I marked up heavily!) – the overarching academic skills required for success, the core academic subjects knowledge and skills needed in college, and the academic behaviors or self-management skills that bring everything together and make academic success possible.

Here are some of my responses to what he writes in the first part of this section:

[Students] will also be expected to reread materials in order to discern deeper meanings and nuances and to deconstruct texts.  They will often be expected to read above and beyond the minimum assigned materials, investigating a topic on their own by independent reading. (p. 36)

We tell students to reread, actively read, reflect on what they read, but most don’t. They don’t have time, they can’t focus, they have too many other assignments to complete, they read too slowly, the texts are boring, etc. Many are surprised when they learn I read the texts in English 4 with them and have done so for many years (how many times have I reread Oedipus??), but I share with them that every time I can learn something new or appreciate a different aspect of the text. Rereading is an important studying strategy when reading a text to learn, such as reading a chapter in a chemistry or psychology text. How can we show students that rereading and that reading beyond what is assigned is expected?

One strategy I will try this year is to better model how I read and reread. I plan on showing students the texts I’ve read this summer – my scribbled notes in the margins, the parts that I’ve highlighted, my longer reflections in a notebook. I’ve done some modeling and scaffolding with students, but after thinking about the quote above, I think I need to do more. With non-fiction pieces such as the ones we use for articles of the week, I’ve asked students to annotate, paying attention to how the writer has structured the piece and what s/he is doing in each section of the article (similar to this or this). With our whole-class novels, I’ve used dialectical journals to show students how I keep track of plot, themes, characters, and how make meaning of the text.  Jen B, as our resident reading specialist, how else can we make our students into the readers described on page 36?

[Writing] is the medium by which student thinking is expressed and assessed most frequently… Students need to know how to prewrite, how to edit, and how to rewrite a piece…College writing requires students to present arguments clearly, substantiate each point, and use the basics of a style manual… (pp.36-37)

Okay, here’s where I really struggle. I love reading what my students have written, but have difficulties providing meaningful comments in a timely manner. Peer review helps, but not significantly, since the quality of feedback ranges so widely. I need to figure out how to conference with them and/or get a faster turnaround on papers, and make peer review more worthwhile. What I really need to figure out is how we can help students learn to revise on their own -- real revision, not just superficial word swaps. How can we set up regular writing assignments that have been taken through the complete writing-revision process and not get buried under papers or get tired of reading the same drafts over and over again?

We know from experience that strong reading and writing skills are critical to college success. Dr. Conley confirms this on page 36. As we get ready for a new year, what do we need to do help students develop these critical skills that are needed across the curriculum so they can thrive in their new academic setting instead of feeling frustrated and lost like a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language?
~Jen P


You're really throwing me a softball here, Jen P!
Your main questions seem to be:

  • How can we instill in our students the drive to go beyond the minimal when it comes to reading?
  • How do we (as mere human beings) give students enough meaningful feedback on their writing to help them toward becoming self-sufficient writers for a variety of purposes?

Well, of course the irony here is that if I had actual answers to your very big, difficult questions then I'd make so much money from my books and workshops that I might never actually teach teenagers again ;-)
My short answer is, I don't know! But we're teachers, so we persevere, right? 

Thus, here are my initial thoughts:
Some kids do what we ask of them on their own--mainly for a few reasons:
--because they care about the grade on their transcript

--because they love the subject matter
--because their instructor has inspired them in new ways

All three of these students have a motivation, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, and students with motivation will take the initiative to learn, ask questions, and aspire to a higher level. But what we're really talking about in your questions are the students who lack motivation--students who have no clue what they'll major in, where they'd like to go to college, why they need another year of math when they hate it, why understanding Invisible Man relates to them in any way at all. How do we ignite these kids?

First, you bring up modeling. Modeling is, I think, really important. Talking about the books we've read for fun, sharing our marked-up pages in books and articles, continually talking about how stories matter in big ways; all of that is good. But I think what comes before modeling is establishing a rapport and a credibility with our students. What teenager is eager to take advice from someone s/he has zero respect for? I think we're able, in part due to the close-knit nature of our program (and also in part to the fact that we're awesome!), to establish this kind of relationship with our students pretty effectively.

So, then what?
I think at least some of the answer is in our College & Career Readiness class. If through that class we can help lead some of our least motivated students toward some concrete ideas of what path might be the right one for them, much of the rest will fall into place. Guest speakers, class discussions, college and career research, exploring the different major options, looking at salaries and job availability in variety of fields, putting together a first resume, understanding the necessary requirements needed to be eligible for colleges and careers...all of this knowledge can lead students to a new-found motivation for school. Students who know what they want are willing to go after it, and willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it. At that point, helping them to bring up their skills in order to allow them to succeed is the best kind of teaching. And it's in this way that we're so lucky to not only be English teachers, but also College & Career Readiness teachers, and counselors, and administrators, and attendance clerks, and parent liaisons, etc, etc.

So, I know I haven't answered your questions--and haven't even broached the writing conundrum. That will have to be an ongoing conversation we have...because it's just really hard to provide enough meaningful feedback for so many students on their writing, which is only testament to how much they need it. I know they should be writing more--but is writing more effective if they're not getting the right kind of feedback to improve? I wrestle constantly with my feedback for students. I'm a Nazi when it comes to having a thesis and providing concrete support, and I'm comfortable with that position. But I also think I get too caught up with the grammatical. I can't seem to help myself. If the egregious errors are preventing me or at the very least distracting me from focusing on the content, how do I get past that as their English teacher? Enough questions on writing for many future posts!

:-) jen b.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Yikes! Our high school students are already in college!

While reading Dr. David Conley's book, College Knowledge: What It Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready (2005), the following quote particularly struck a chord:
Given that close to 90 percent of incoming freshmen state that their goal is to go to college…high school…should align itself better with post-secondary success…Perhaps the key focus in all classes should be life after high school.
Because our Middle College students are already IN college (while also taking three high school classes on the college campus) it seems extra-imperative that we prepare our students for the differences they experience in their college classes (versus previous high school classes). And of course, by the nature of the program itself we have been acting as a bridge for students in making this transition from high school to college for years. 
But now there's such emphasis and (yay!) validation for what we've been doing that we now have this opportunity to grow, contribute, lead, and learn even more. So, let's tackle this year by setting goals for professional development and document our progress in the hopes that it might keep us more focused and so that others may follow along and perhaps even contribute to our learning throughout the year.
So, Jen P., Conley has identified concrete actions schools can do to make 21st Century skills a priority in the curriculum (well, he's identified many, but here's a few). In which area would our efforts best be spent among these ideas?

  • Better align curriculum toward post-secondary coursework/skills
  • Be able to articulate the role of college readiness skills embedded in curricular program
  • Pay particular attention to underrepresented students’ program of study, as they are least likely to have resources and help outside the school environment
:-) jen b.


Thanks for getting us started, Jen B J  I’ve really enjoyed reading both of Dr. Conley’s books, College and Career Ready and College Knowledge, and I’m sure we will keep coming back to these texts throughout the year.  He’s clearly articulated exactly what we’ve been working on and framed the whole discussion in a way that really helps me focus on the skills and behaviors that will help our students into, through, and beyond college.

You’ve picked three great areas for us to focus on.

Better align curriculum toward post-secondary coursework/skills

I’ve been trying to make curriculum more relevant to students, to show them how they may transfer the skills or knowledge from an assignment in my class to real life, but I don’t do this as consistently as I should.  A good goal for me this year is to explicitly show students how they might apply the skills we practice in class to life outside of school.  One way I could do this is vary the kinds of assignments I give and extend those assignments to show how the same format/skills could be used for something other than a response to literature.  I could see us teaching the inform-explain format in English with a piece of literature and then use the same format in our College and Career Readiness class with more of a job-related assignment, such as writing an inform-explain piece to explain a product or operating procedure, or creating a brochure to highlight a university they might be interested in attending.

Be able to articulate the role of college readiness skills embedded in curricular program

This is something we haven’t done well enough at all.  I think back to a conversation we had with our previous superintendent who urged us to “market our value-added.”  Reading the two Conley books really helped me see our “value-added,” particularly the section on contextual skills and awareness and the differences between high school and college courses (pages 40-52 in College and Career Ready). Helping students make the transition to college should be our strength and explicitly teaching students these skills and behaviors instead of hoping they’ll catch on (sink or swim!) is what makes the MC program different from any other college-prep program in the area.  We can highlight how we do this in our monthly newsletters and our PTSA news blurbs, as well as in our informational presentations.  I really liked having graduates at our presentations to talk about how MC helped them once they moved on to “real college.”

Pay particular attention to underrepresented students’ program of study, as they are least likely to have resources and help outside the school environment

Well, one of the goals of the Middle College model is help underrepresented students into college and be successful there so this has to be a focus for us.  I think the ones who make it to us have good support at home – families who are aware of the program and how it can help their students, families who expect their students to continue in college.  Certainly, I think we can always do a better job of supporting students and helping them access resources, but I think our challenge remains getting more underrepresented students into the MC program in the first place.

~Jen P