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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

notes on teaching

the best lesson is the one we need to learn. these past few months, i've had to learn that assessment comes first. until i truly know what my assessment tool will be, i have not thought all the way through my lesson. of course, depending on how the unit went, i may change or tweak my "test," but i count such adaptation as a positive. simply stated, "learning for learning's sake" vs. "learning for a grade" are not automatically exclusive. the hook can sometimes be the stakes, while the hold can be the content.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the job i have to do

90 percent of teaching, at least for me, is clarifying what my job (or "role") is at any given time in the classroom. I want to encourage growth and expansion in my students, but it's not always clear how I can best serve such a mission. And yet I am making progress. One thing, however, I can do more of is check in with the students and ask them what they think my job is, what they'd prefer it to be, and what they hope it won't become. Also, I could ask them what their job is in our class. When we are all doing our jobs, true learning emerges.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

see carefully, write accurately

Teaching the "descriptive essay" can be wonderful. It can also be maddening. Without careful guidance, the students often produce details for details' sake, bloated adjectives, and trying-too-hard similes. All of which misses the point. Why? Because descriptive writing seeks to balance accuracy with emphasis. The two must work in harmony; otherwise, you can end up with writing that's "verifiable" but lacks a "purpose" or vice versa.

So how do we craft effective descriptions? I start by asking students to appreciate how even the most rich and sensory details begin from awareness—the author's. And, thus, as developing writers, we should make sure that before we start to describe, we have observed. When syntax truly sings (in any genre), the writing is, at root, well observed.

OK, fine, but how exactly (as writers) do we effectively observe? Borrow the journalist's approach: Who, What, When, Where, and Why (and, sometimes, How). Such a concern for basic "facts" and "objective givens" might seem so obvious as to be moot. But let me be clear: I'm not suggesting opening your actual essay (or article or whatever) with the 5Ws; rather, I'm suggesting that the 5Ws is an invaluable tool in the prewriting stage, the stage in which you must thoughtfully observe. Put another way, use the 5Ws to brainstorm, to help you discover what you're truly looking at. Once you've generated lots and lots of observational notes, then you can make description choices—what to specify, how to present, etc.

A final note: below is something I've copied-and-pasted from Dartmouth's "Material for Faculty." I think the "Elements" outline is priceless for observational writing (even though the particular material in question is labeled under "Teaching Argument"). The document says:

     In order to help students successfully and critically interrogate their ideas, professors may want to  
     employ critical thinking pedagogy in their classrooms. Critical thinking pedagogy breaks down a
     student's existing critical thinking into discrete activities, and then shows students how to reflect
     carefully on each of these activities in order to sharpen their thinking skills.

  1. Observations. From a series of observations, we can come to establish:
  2. Facts. From a series of facts, or from an absence of fact, we make:
  3. Inferences. Testing the validity of our inferences, we can make:
  4. Assumptions. From our assumptions, we form our:
  5. Opinions. Taking our opinions, we use evidence and the principles of logic to develop:
  6. Arguments. And when we want to test our arguments and to challenge the arguments of others, we employ:
  7. Critical Analysis (through which we challenge the observations, facts, inferences, assumptions, and opinions in the arguments that we are analyzing).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

take me with you

A reader is a traveler who depends upon the thoughtful directions inscribed by the author. The writer's job, then, is to map the course as clearly and vividly as possible. He or she must guide the traveler from from idea "X" to idea "Y." In short, if the path is unclear, the traveler will lose the way. So use bright words that shine, let your ideas set aglow the direction in which you're headed. It's no fun to get somewhere alone.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


we train students to memorize, to avoid errors and mistakes. but the goal of learning is to understand. i practice my backhand in tennis over and over and over again so that i may understand how to cleanly strike the ball. i underline key phrases or entire pages in a novel because i want to understand why those words move me. and so perhaps one reason why high-stakes testing doesn't work is that nothing blunts understanding more thoroughly than prescribed memorization. if we want to encourage deep and authentic learning (what i'm calling understanding), we must begin with this question in mind: what does understanding look like for X assignment? bloom's taxonomy is helpful here. so is UbD. so is Gardner. and so are things like rubrics and benchmarks and outcomes. it can all be helpful. the teacherly task, then, is to find the most helpful way to support students—that is, to help them showcase their best level of understanding.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

i didn't take no shortcuts

poetry is impossible to define. which makes trying so much fun.

poetry is the complete concern for each and every detail you're working with. a poem considers everything to be off until every last piece is on. a poem is not satisfied with hierarchy, with either/or, with substance over style, and form vs. function. simply put: the beach remains closed until each speck of sand seems ready. the thing we call poetry is less a genre of language than it is an all-or-nothing attitude toward the complete integration of moving parts—the diction, the syntax, the sound, the syllables, the cadences, the pitch, the images, the implicated, the inscribed, the heat, the trust, the chaos.

for anything to work, it all must sing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

write, learning to

i don't know how to teach people to write who are uninterested in learning how.  i can spend the rest of my life banging my head against the wall—and running from this book of research to that online journal—or i can focus on what i'm already able to achieve: teaching people how to write who are actually interested in learning how.

it begins by understanding the following:

     how do experienced writers begin?
     how do they revise?
     what does their published product look like?
     why is it important to write often and consistently?