For me, writing has always come easily. I have a lot to say, and as poor as it may be in quality, I’ve never had problems getting ideas onto paper. This causes me to have difficulty in relating to and aiding my students who struggle to write. They have good ideas, but don’t always know how to proceed in the process.
I ran into this problem this week when I was teaching comparing and contrasting. I decided that the best way to teach comparing and contrasting something we read was to write something instead. I became reacquainted with a great site called Read Write Think. Produced by the International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and the Verizon Foundation, Read Write Think provides several services that include:
- Student-Based Interactives that walk your students through literacy tasks such as writing an essay, inquiry and analysis, and writing poetry.
- Lesson plans for teachers by teachers
- The ever-popular (at least in my elementary school) calendar activities
- Resources or parents and after-school programs to develop literacy after-hours
- Professional development opportunities for staff
Have a great literacy tool you use? Please share it in a comment!
I used to fancy myself a writer who happened to teach. Then, at some point, I became a teacher who wrote. I owe my adult love of writing to a great teacher named Mr. Beaver, who pulled some strings to allow me to enroll in his high school comp class. Mr. Beaver was a skilled teacher that knew how to pull meanings out of all kinds of text; he introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut and Holden Caulfield and once edited a childish 30-page manuscript that I wrote about robots. The fact that he tolerated such base work was astounding enough. But he was nearly blind from macular degeneration and edited the whole thing through a jeweler’s eyepiece. That was the real unbelievable thing. He was a football coach who called plays by watching them an inch away from a TV screen, played golf religiously, and once scored a documented hole-in-one. These facts only added to my belief that I learned my letters from a very unique man.
I will never forget his advice when it came to writing. I had complained that my writing wasn’t very good. He told me that sometimes it was “quantity, not quality” that developed a writing style. I remembered his words a few years ago when I entered myself into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an online event held to get people writing quantity, not quality. The rules are simple: write 50,000 words between November 1st and November 30th. Sadly, I failed miserably. I only managed to get out about 25,000 in that month of lesson plans, grading, and standardized testing. But I did get to thinking that the project would make a great project for my students, if the word count were not so unbelievably high.
NaNoWriMo: Young writers, take note.
Last week, when November 1st rolled around, I mentioned my failed attempt to meet the 50K mark to my students as they were struggling to write double-nickel stories (stories that contain exactly 55 words). I went to the site to show them what hard looked like. There have been some updates to the site lately, and to my surprise I found that NaNoWriMo had developed a fantastic youth writing project. The youth program has contests for students from elementary to high school and provides a great handbook for young writers on starting, developing, editing, and completing a novel. And, thankfully the program allows students to set their own writing goals, giving them tips in the book on how to stay motivated through the month-long writing process. While it may have been too late for my students this year, I can see it becoming an annual project for my class, and hopefully a few will catch the bug like I did.
Through college, I worked as tech support for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh journalism department. I was an education major, but looking back on it, a lot of that job and that department rubbed off on me. One of my favorite professors in the journalism department would still have his students lay out pages by cutting and pasting articles with a scissors and rubber cement. He often complained that with tools like modern computers and page layout, most of his students never appreciated how much easier their craft had become. I think that’s even truer with my students, many of whom have never seen a TV screen that was not flat, never dialed a rotary phone, and never had to be taught how a tape player worked.
But if I learned one lesson in that job, it was to hold on to those old tools of the trade. You never know when they might come in handy.
I still have two manual typewriters. One is my grandmother’s Underwood typewriter that she used as the accountant for the Richland Dairy Co-op. It’s made of black rubber, enamel, and cast iron; a hundred years old and still working fine. The other is a portable Olympia typewriter that I got for $10 at Goodwill. It’s in mint condition with the original manual and cleaning kit. I keep the Olympia around specifically to punish students who misbehave on the computers, but it doesn’t work.
They like my typewriter too much.
A week ago I was short on computers due to MAPS testing taking over the labs. And being short on netbooks, kids had to use my typewriter for our exercise in writing an outline. They loved it. They loved the click and clack of it, the little bell that rang, the instant-printing that went along with it. For them, it must have seemed like some kind of noisy metal computer with a printer attached to it! It was not long before a team of boys were huddled around the machine, giving pointers to the person doing the typing. For once, my boys were having to think every keystroke through before they punched a key and it became a team effort to avoid mistakes in spelling or format.
They walked away with a sense of wonder about how the machine worked, and more importantly, an appreciation for how wonderful a tool a computer is. How many of the things like underlining, centering, and justification are taken for granted? The other day a student asked me if he could use my “old-fashioned metal computer.” My old professor friend would be proud.
There are four behaviors that I seem to always be dealing with in my classroom. These recurring issues never seem to go away and I seem to deal with them as much on the first day of school as the last.
1. Getting kids to put their names on their work.
2. Walking in a straight line without talking.
3. Getting them to read more.
And, hardest of all:
4. Getting them to write more.
In the case of writing, the problem is usually purely motivational. If I ask for a page, I get a paragraph. If I ask for a paragraph, it’s a sentence. When a sentence is an acceptable answer, I end up getting one-word replies. It frustrates me to no end to hand half of the work back incomplete, only to have the same students repeat the behavior, taking the chance that I won’t catch this one.
What do these kids read? In my class it tends to be magazines about hunting, trucks and ATVs with lots of glossy pictures, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Almost every kid has read the entire series, attracted to its format and its relatable content. And who should be the author behind Weekly Reader’s writing project, Weekly Writer? The ongoing story updated by students collectively adding to it every week is headed by none other than Author Jeff Kinney, the man who managed to get my rabble of cammo-clad charges to sit and read something.
Today I saw every single student in my classroom staring stoically into their computer screens, nothing but the sound of their keys clicking away. Thank you Mr. Kinney, Thank you.