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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

whither core skill?

I was daydreaming over coffee today asked myself this question: what core skill—above all else—do I want my writing students to learn? My answer (which I'm sure will change a year from now) is DEVELOPMENT—that is, students must learn how to effectively develop an idea in writing. Why?
  • Development, at least in the idealized sense, rests on the belief that people can come together and listen to ideas based not just on claims, but on how they are also supported. And, truth be told, is anything taught less in our schools than the importance of support for an opinion? We are so busy teaching our students how to make a focused and singular claim that we often fail to teach the larger lesson, which is this: Argument is not just the thesis statement, but also the collective evidence one is using to support it.
  • Effective development involves a chain of reasoning that acknowledges other perspectives exist, that wrestles and responds to such perspectives in good faith.
  • "School Writing" is often characterized by a certain flatness. The point is stated early and often and then it's over. The end. Some of my colleagues call this "circling the drain of generality" or "pained" writing. To break students of this style, a fellow teacher explains development thus: "An idea gets handed down the page, sentence by sentence—like the baton in a relay race." Totally.
  • We can't talk about development without talking about order. When a writer is effectively developing an idea, his or her discourse demands a sort of "logical sequence." Change the sequence, and the entire thing falls apart. Simply put, if the arrangement of your sentences is not bound by a certain causal connection, then you've put forward nothing more than a pile of bricks. For more on this, consider how a baseball manager puts together the lineup. The same is true for how writers put together ideas.
  • When a writer has effectively developed an idea, the logic is visible—that is, we (as readers) can take note of how the ideas are sequenced according to an intention. Rereading the text, we even able to name the precise relationship between how each sentence connects to the preceding one. What's more, we're able to summarize what larger point all the sentences add up to.
In sum, all ideas (if they're worth writing about at any length) contain layers of complexity. When we develop our ideas, what we're doing is taking our ideas apart to better see what they contain, what they're built upon, how they interface with other ideas, and so on. When we do this, we are doing more than just writing; we are engaged in rhetoric. Speaker, topic, audience, context: all the moving parts. But forget all that. All you need is this: raise questions. Raise questions while you write. It takes time, it doesn't happen overnight, but it gets easier and more natural with consistent practice. And it's the only way to get the bulb switched on.

That said, freewriting (making a mess, embracing chaos, exploring ideas to see where they go) is still the start of it all. We can't develop an idea that we don't have.

Friday, May 25, 2012


This test is designed to help assess certain English skills strengths and weaknesses.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vision Statement

OK, so in my last post I shared my teaching mission statement, which was
To create a quality environment where students experience, discover, and develop key critical-thinking tools for academic engagement.
Now I want to take a crack at writing a vision statement. Here goes:
To create a dynamic team of students who sharpen their analytic reading and writing skills through inquiry-based classroom dialogue.
Simply put, I want to create a virtuous circle where my students write thoughtful responses to challenging texts after (and only after) they've closely read the work and deepened their understanding through Socratic class discussions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Mission Statement

As a teacher, my job is to create the conditions for optimal learning. This is an idea that I keep coming back to time again and again. Why? Because it helps me remember that, among other things, my lesson plan is only as good as the educational outcomes it yields. Anyway, this is all topical because I've decided to draft a mission statement to better clarify who I am, what I do, and who I serve. So far, it looks like this:
To create a quality environment where students experience, discover, and develop key critical-thinking tools for academic engagement.
My emphasis on "experience, discover, develop" comes from my belief that learning happens when we have an experience wherein we discover something that changes (develops) us. I place critical-thinking tools at the center of my mission because analysis, reflection, open-mindedness, etc., are essential for success in the classroom, workplace, and community. Finally, "academic engagement" because active learning is at the very core of education. Without it, problems-solving and dealing with difficulty become cues to quit, rather than opportunities for growth.

Tomorrow, I will hopefully have a vision statement ready to share.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


So it's summer break and time to pull back and reflect—but also reload. Put another way, it's time to think deeply about the experiences I've just had, so I can prepare for my classes in the fall. As a heuristic, an opening salvo, I've decided to pull my old UbD workbook off the shelf and see if it can't help me "backward design." So here is my "first thought, best thought" attempt.

Mr. Zeiger's ENGLISH COMPOSITION 101 class.

Established Goals. Students learn how to write essays based on comprehension and analysis of texts. (See also: DCC's First-Year English Syallbus, WPA Outcome Statement).
Enduring Understanding. Quality writing is—above all else—persuasive.
Essential Questions. What are the main qualities that make writing persuasive? How can we elevate our own persuasive-writing skills?
Knowledge and Skills. Close reading, academic conversing, quality writing. By that I mean,

Students can use the following close reading strategies
  • summary statements 
  • question statements 
  • prediction statements 
  • critical statements 
  • reader response statements
Students can throughtfully discuss writing with their peers using the following core traits: 
  • Elaborate and clarify 
  • Support with ideas and examples 
  • Build on and/or challenge a partner's idea 
  • Paraphrase 
  • Synthesize conversation points 
Students can compose writing that
  • is sonically appealing 
  • exploratory 
  • purposeful 
  • critical 
  • uses clear sentence structure 
  • improves with revision 

OK, so that's a start. Later this week, I want to explain what I mean by persuasive writing—and why I value it so dearly. I also want to delve into the importance of "sonically appealing" prose.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Socratic questioning

I'm really digging this article I just came upon ("The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and Learning" Elder & Paul). It's one of those articles that feels like something you've always wanted to write, if only you had the experience and education and erudition. The article, for me, is like a field guide for how to boost critical thinking skills in the classroom. It reminds me, teaches me, shows me that the best answer is often a question. Why? Because answers aren't end points (at least not to the philosophically minded). Answers require scrutiny. That is, do our answers withstand close inspection? Or do they collapse? Why? How so? Under what conditions? In other words, each answer contains (raises?) its own set of questions. Thus, the critical thinker is just the person who can see what those questions are and how best to pursue them.

Now all of this has huge implications for me as a writing teacher in general and as a leader of classroom discussions in particular. Look, classroom discussions are easy when you have a bunch of bright kids who care about the material. Classroom discussions are also easy (by easy, I mean productive, rich, engaging) when you have a deep rapport with the students (no matter their IQs). But, well, let me be brutally (insert curse word) honest: classroom discussions are soul-crushing when the students don't care and haven't done the reading. And oooooooooh how the two are related!

So how do you get the kids to care and how do you get them to do the reading? And which comes first (see also: Chicken or the Egg)? I don't know. And nobody does. All we can do, as my BFF and fellow teacher Jabiz Raisdana says, is "create a quality environment and hope for the best." So here is my vision of a quality freshman composition environment:
  • students closely read a short but provocative text
  • discuss it with their classmates
  • and write about it both in and out of class
Now, of course, they're going to need guidance along the way. So I model annotation and "close reading" strategies: summarize, question, predict, critique, respond, etc. I also teach them (what I consider the foundation of quality) writing: be clear and direct, coherent and organized, thorough and complete, natural but polished. My weakness, however, is in fostering student engagement in classroom discussions (especially when up against deeply ingrained apathy). Which is why I found the Elder and Paul's article so helpful. To wit:

If we want to engage students in thinking through content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called "artificial cogitation"--the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration.

Elder and Paul's approach to brain-to-brain resuscitation calls for a heavy dosage of Socratic Questioning. But before I go any further, let me say this: Socratic question is NOT calling on students to see if they know the answers. You are not a using the Socratic method (ha! as if I'm the arbiter) if instead of telling your students that a peninsula is piece of land surrounded by three bodies of water, you say, "So . . . who can tell me what a peninsula is?" Or, "So what's the difference between velocity and acceleration?" Or, "What point of view is The Great Gatsby told from?"

Socratic questioning is "a keen interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of things" and, importantly, cultivating such a disposition in a public forum. Happily, the article provides the following guide to help teachers effectively use Socratic questions in the classroom. Make of them what you will.
Teachers engaged in a Socratic dialogue should
respond to all answers with a further question (one that calls on the respondent to develop his or her thinking in a fuller and deeper way)
seek to understand--where possible--the ultimate foundations for what is said or believed and follow the implications of those foundations through further questions;
treat all assertions as connecting points to further thoughts;
treat all thoughts as being in need of development;
recognize that any thought can only exist fully in a network of connected thoughts. Stimulate students-through your questions-to pursue those connections;
and recognize that all questions presuppose prior questions and all thinking presupposes prior thinking. When raising questions, be open to the questions they presuppose (see the section below on prior questions).
Teachers engaged in Socratic dialogue should systematically raise questions based on the following recognitions and assumptions:
Recognize that all thought reflects an agenda. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the agenda behind it. (What are you trying to accomplish in saying this? What is your central aim in this line of thought?)
Recognize that all thoughts presuppose an information base. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information that supports or informs it. (What information are you basing that comment on? What experience convinced you of this? How do we know this information is accurate?)
Recognize that all thought requires the making of inferences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the inferences that have shaped it. (How did you reach that conclusion? Could you explain your reasoning? Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?)
Recognize that all thought involves the application of concepts. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the concepts that define and shape it. (What is the main idea you are putting forth? Could you explain that idea?)
Recognize that all thought rests upon other thoughts (which are taken for granted or assumed). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted. (What exactly are you taking for granted here? Why are you assuming that?)
Recognize that all thought is headed in a direction. It not only rests upon something (assumptions), it is also going somewhere (implications and consequences). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought unless you know the implications and consequences that follow from it. (What are you implying when you say that? Are you implying that . . . ?)
Recognize that all thought takes place within a point of view or frame of reference. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the point of view or frame of reference that places it on an intellectual map. (From what point of view are you looking at this? Is there another point of view we should consider?)
Recognize that all thought is responsive to a question. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it. (I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?)

Friday, May 18, 2012

more notes on PBW

If I'm going to make Problem-Based Writing the centerpiece of my curriculum, I have to remember that many students are neither familiar nor comfortable with this type of learning. Lots of students want a structure that entails a "correct" answer, a linear "one and done" type of response. Thus, my pedagogical goals may be at odds with the norms, experiences, and desires of my students. To be effective, then, I'll need to explain the following: in my class, we are mainly learning how to pose thoughtful questions, how to engage in authentic inquiry around meaningful problems. We do all of this through active reading, text-centered class discussions, and process-based writing.

Now, of course, just explaining the aims of the course will not solve the fact that some students want to move quickly (if perfunctorily) from point A to point B. And yet, making sure my students know what to expect counts for a lot.

Here's the thing: students often come to their college composition class with a chip on their shoulder. They already know how to write, so they feel like the course is an arbitary enforcement of dreary rules and meaningless standards. Teachers, by focusing almost exclusively on "error" (mechanical, conventional, grammatical), often do little but confirm the students' sense of déjà vu, the feeling that they're enrolled in the same pointless class they've been forced to endure since 8th grade

So what I try to do, and what I want to do more of, is create a class focused around thinking—that is, a class where we use writing as a means to critically engage with ideas, issues, questions. The goal isn't to showcase that we've memorized the answer (the product), but rather that we're asking ever better questions on the road to the solution (the process). In short, my class is not a grammar garage; rather, it's a lab for discovery, for problem-posing, for inquiry.

In my next post, I want to explore some concrete ways students can develop these "habits of mind."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

PBW: note one

Why do I find it easier to write on some subjects than others? To some people than others? Using certain platforms than others? I'm not sure, but I know that I write with ease and confidence when I'm authentically responding to an issue. Better yet, to a problem.

Tell me Kobe Bryant (who I loooooooooooooooooove, BTW) is better than Michael Jordan, and I'll write you a ten-page single-spaced essay on why you're out of your frickin' mind. Tell me you don't "get" The Strokes' Room on Fire album, and I can write for six hours straight on why it's an overlooked masterpiece. Simply put, I enjoy writing when I'm addressing some sort of problem. Not the "I lost my car keys" type of problem, but rather an issue (big or small) to which I want to add my voice.

All this is to say, as a writing teacher, I want to create more problem-based assignments in my curriculum. Importantly, I'm not suggesting my class suddenly bludgeon ourselves to death in service of the "Five-Paragraph Argumentative Essay." Instead, I'm just tinkering with the idea that perhaps one way to help my students produce quality prose is to help them thoughtfully engage with ideas that contain problems worth discussing. I mean, not only is that my favorite type of thing to write, but it's also my favorite stuff to read.

Coda: way more on this subject to come . . . just wanted to get some thoughts down on paper.