January 24, 2012

One Teacher's Reflective Journey

This end of course reflection was offered by a fine teacher who contributed greatly to the discussion in our class. I asked her permission to publish this piece. She kindly agreed. ~ Dennis

I became frustrated last year when my school system provided six hours of 6 Traits of Writing Professional Development and expected me to fully implement the traits into writing lessons.  As you might guess, it did not go well as I had hoped.  I started with unbridled enthusiasm and ended with complete listlessness.  Somehow in the back of my mind I new that if I wanted to learn how to “teach” the 6 Traits effectively I had a longer road ahead of me: The road is a story of my experience as both a learner (taking this course and seeking help from other educators) and also a teacher (sharing the knowledge that I gained).  The path that I followed is a path forged by readings, research, discussions, and practice.   I experienced a wide range of emotions throughout the course, and as I think back, I realize that as long as those feelings remain, writing (or any subject for that matter) will be an important part of me as both a learner and a teacher. 
That first week I can honestly say that I experienced fear, frustration, and accomplishment.  Fear...I hadn’t finished my school year, and yet I was tackling an online class when computers definitely were not a strength.  I was unable to log into the class for the first couple of days so when I was able to I felt as though I was behind the eight ball.  I had to learn the system in a crash course given by my daughter who just graduated high school, and I had to read umpteen posts.  Accomplishment... Within 24 hours of beginning this class I had communicated with people all over the world.  It was amazing that we had a common thread... Six Traits.  I enjoyed reading everyone’s post and knew that others had a lot to offer.  I looked forward to the upcoming weeks with excitement and still a bit of unsettledness.
By the second week insights began to surpass the anxiousness (Although I must admit that I began to have some feelings of self doubt and will discuss this a bit further in my reflections).  I began to like the online class format and felt bit less overwhelmed.  Already, I began to compile so many great ideas from all those who participated.  I love the websites which allowed for 6 Traits scoring practice.  I grew from having no skills to becoming somewhat adept at assessing the trait of the week.  It was this week when I recognized the importance of using 6 Trait terminology in the classroom.  I can’t expect my students to use the “lingo” if I don’t use words like “ideas”, “organization”, and “voice” daily.   It was this week when I also began to discover the connections between the traits. One of my biggest insights was the connection between fluency and voice.  When a reader is reading fluently he/she should be using tones and intonations which show the intended voice of the character or author, depending on the piece of writing.
Over the next couple of weeks I learned that the format for the class really was well suited for my learning.  I enjoyed doing the reading on my own and then listening to the same thing in lecture format.  This provided great background knowledge to stem a thought provoking discussion.  Unlike a live classroom, I was able to think and research before I wrote anything.  Sometimes the pace of a classroom is so quick that remarks are made without much thought.  I am thrilled with all the ideas that I will be able to bring into my classroom. 
As I reread my weekly reflections I noted how my feelings had changed on “free writing”.  I had seen other teachers use free writing but never really saw the benefit.  I do hope to implement it into my classroom this year.  Free writing helps to generate ideas and alleviate writers block.  A common thread throughout my reflections of the middle weeks was the importance of read alouds.  So many times this past year I said, “We don’t have time for a story today.”  I had forgotten that Read Alouds are much more than a story.  Read Alouds are an effective teaching tool.  I can use them to model effective writing: superb word choice, great titles, leads and conclusion, sentence fluency, etc.
All of this new knowledge did not come without a bit of self doubt.  I thought a lot about my current writing program and now perceived it as somewhat ineffective.  Of course I was having my students write; however I realized that they wrote with little instruction.  I was only using read alouds sporadically.  My modeling was limited, and my mini lessons were inconsistent and somewhat scattered.  Fortunately I found comfort in the words of a past science professor.  She believed, “Effective teaching does not come from complacency.  The best teachers are life long learners.”  This redirected me to why I chose this class...  I wanted to improve my writing curriculum.  I am a life long learner as well as a teacher and life long learning does not come without hard work.
         I have taken away so many wonderful ideas from this course.  I will implement some slowly over time; however, others will be a mainstay of my classroom from day one this fall.  Here are some crucial points which I learned. 
  • First, modeling and read alouds are imperative for student success in writing.  
  • Second, the Traits should be taught singularly but with the understanding that they are intertwined.  All opportunities to show case the traits must be seized.  
  • Third, peer work is important.  I learned from my peers just as my students can learn from each other.  “Ideas come from ideas.”  
  • Fourth, “conventions” is not the end all be all of writing.  Conventions has its place but is only one piece of the writing puzzle.  
  • Lastly, strong writing will be evident through year long teaching, assessing, and revising using the traits as a guide.  With this, the grades will come. 
            Some of the other ideas which I would like to try at some point during the year involve technology.    I never have been very confident using computers; however, I began to use computers in the classroom last year when my school bought a rolling cart of 30 laptops, and I had a lot of success.  This course allowed me to take the time to explore various new ideas such as voice threads, blogs, and other audio recording sites.  I am excited to introduce them to my colleagues and to try them with my students. 
            After reflecting on my own sense of confusion, frustration, wonder, and excitement as a student, I was reminded of a couple of important prior discoveries about teaching.   Enthusiasm is catchy.  When I am enthusiastic my students and the teachers who surround me will be enthusiastic.  After a day at the beach, the veteran teacher next door to me recently said that she was envious of my excitement to teach writing this year.  She is looking forward to sharing ideas so that she may renew her enthusiasm as well. I hope many of my students will join the bandwagon this fall. Also, it is important to realize that feelings of confusion and frustration are natural and often part of the learning curve, but feelings of satisfaction and success must be there to keep us on the correct path in the journey of learning.  We are all life long learners and so are our students. 

January 2, 2012

Word Choice Classic: Bury Dead Words

A classic classroom word choice exercise is to 'bury dead words'.  I used to do this at Halloween, creating a tombstone bulletin board where we'd nail up all those useless, deflated, overused, words that make writing flat and colorless.

Here's a clever classroom rendition of the idea: RIP Overused Words

An Amazing Trickeration?: Banished Words For 2012. This short audio and written piece from NPR highlights an old tradition at Lake Superior University, an annual list of useless words (useless phrases would be more exact).  Lake Superior State University 2012 List of Banished Words.

Burying useless phrases feels like a great fit for any writing class room. Which words or phrases would you consign to the grave?