Monday, June 12, 2006

Already Thinking Ahead

The principal announced this morning that our school has successfully escaped the shackles of the city regulations! We can do our own thing and be more creative in raising student achievement.

I knew this was coming, but of course it's a relief to know that it's actually going to happen. Plus, we got the official go-ahead to begin planning for and with our own curriculum ideas.

Last week I actually began planning for September anyway, after we discussed a pacing calendar for next year in common planning.

Here are my thoughts and theories:

I want to start with and emphasize the basics. These students do NOT have any foundations in spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, not to mention the reading deficiencies. So I want to get that going right away.

We'll use an art-like project to introduce the writing process, and we'll use a book like Fantastic Mr Fox--funny, simple clear plot, very short chapters--to introduce the elements of a story.

Then, every weekend's homework assignment can be to write an essay or creative fiction. Inundate them with writing, and allow them to explore different topics and discover their own writing voice. Then, to make it even better, use the rest of the week to work in the writing process: on Wednesday night do some brainstorming, Thursday do the planning/graphic organizer of choice, over the weekend write the essay/story, Monday night revise and edit, and Tuesday night publish. How awesome is that?

I'm of two minds about this idea: One, that the structure and repetition will be great tools to help the kids grow as writers. I hope to get them to think about a lot of topics and genres of writing. Switching between essays and stories will, I hope, keep them from getting bored and slacky. Working on the process and publishing every night will result in a lot of products, and open the kids' eyes to what writing really entails. Two: that I will get off track and want to have homework that is more relevant to the classwork. But perhaps, since this is the beginning of the year, the work will be these kinds of things? I'm not sure. Also, again with the boredom.

I will give them my fun mnemonic (remember those snooty aardvarks?) and begin work on the parts of speech. I have been SO impressed and proud of my students in the past month or two. I've really been pushing them to know AND apply (see the Bloom's taxonomy??) these basics. By God, it's working! When they master that next year, we can easily move into parts of a sentence (subject-verb agreement, fragments, clauses, all that fun stuff, as well as punctuation quirks). Just imagine how EASY the editing test portion will be! To state it in more educational terms: mastering the knowledge and application will make the evaluation a walk in the park.

(Er, I have a sidebar about that. Keep that in mind.)

We will certainly have lots of word study. Perhaps we'll begin with prefixes and suffixes; they should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of that anyway. Then we can move into Greek and Latin roots. I'm thinking about "Root Families of the Week" to get them to see how these words are already in their lexicon and all around them. As much as I want to get them to learn sophisticated language, I recognize that they first must master the basics and grade level language.

I was conferring with a colleague after the session this afternoon; we were talking about vocabulary and other unit ideas for next year. She brought up the fact that fiction passages are really easy on a test, but the nonfiction passages require more thought and careful attention. So it would be a good idea to do some nonfiction work in the fall--reading test passages for practice, reading real magazine excerpts, and writing some reports. Perhaps build into this with those weekly essays? We can write about people or places or things. We can incorporate other disciplines, like science and social studies.

Once we get good at writing for a purpose, we can really explore stories more. My colleague suggested creating children's picture books, and then linking with a nearby elementary school. They could be matched with classes there and share their own published writing. Since younger kids look up to the older kids, my students would be more intrinsically motivated to push themselves to create a better product to better impress the little ones. Obviously this kind of thing would require a lot of logistical planning and organizing and blah blah blah, but it's pretty damn cool and I suppose I should keep it in my agenda regardless.

Okay, back to my sidebar. I was talking about giving my students a better foundation in the basics, and how that will not only transfer to their everyday writing skills--good lord, we hope--but it will be perfect preparation for their next-year's big test involving proofreading/editing.

Here's the catch--their next-year teacher!

First, I need to admit to a bias--if you're an adult, I expect you to have a firm grasp of the written English language, and that includes not only an appropriately highish-level lexicon but an understanding of mechanics. I don't stand for grown people not knowing the difference between their/there, or lose/loose (holy cow, I see that mistake all the time from adults), or not knowing how to use commas and semicolons.

You can be a good teacher all you want. But in the field of reading and writing, if you teach it, you need to be fluent and talented in it. You need to have your own knowledge that's higher-level and more sophisticated than your students'. I expect you to know how to really read and write, and that includes grammar and sentence structure and literary devices and poetry and punctuation and all that.

Sadly, all English teachers are not created equal. There are people in my department that I don't really 'trust' to impart true content knowledge to the students. They are nice people, probably decent teachers, but I know they won't get the real job done, so to speak. There are only two teachers in the next grade that I do trust--and it's likely both of them will not be on that grade next year. I am really concerned about the welfare of my kids! Their educational welfare, that is. Sure, they'll get by okay. But I'm so worried and annoyed that all my work this year bringing them up to speed (not even grade level here) will go to waste. If I pass my students along to another teacher who would continue where I left off and get deeper into it, and that the year after that, yet another teacher would keep on going with these things, we could achieve true mastery of material. Good writers should be the rule, not the exception.

In this era of test madness, we are raising, and only pretending to educate, an entire generation of people who cannot write or think deeply for themselves. To understate it, I am very concerned. I'm going to do everything I can to counter it; how about you?


Nancy said...

1. Making their own children's books and sharing them with kids at a local elementary school is a core component of the Ramp-Up program that I teach and the kids love it. It might take some time to establish a line of communication with a school but once you do, it's worth it!

2. I also have the same trepidations about the teachers my kids get passed on to. But I can't do anything about it. I can only hope that what they've learned in my classroom, at the very least, will not get lost and they know where to find me if they need help next year.

andy said...

It's not just below-grade-level kids who don't know how to write. I went to an Ivy caliber school and was amazed at how poorly some of my peers wrote. Writing immersion of the sort you describe is the only way to solve this problem. Kids should be practicing writing all the time in all their classes. But as you point out, that approach requires a coordinated effort across every grade level, which is difficult to assemble (to say the least).

I wish the powers that be would pay more attention to this crisis. Too many people in this country finish high school without learning how to write. And aside from basic literacy, writing is the most important - and most marketable - skill you can learn. Being smart and talented isn't enough; you have to be able to express your thoughts on paper clearly and professionally.

Wow, this almost makes me want to go back to teaching. Almost.

Anonymous said...


Goodbye from Tier I said...

If your "The principal announced this morning that our school has successfully escaped the shackles of the city regulations!" means that you're now an Empowerment School ... boy, is your principal gullible.

Next year, you will have MORE testing than ever before. Every kid takes a "progress" test every six weeks. Test prep will be 24/7.

Congratulations on drinking the Joel Klein Kool-Aid