Monday, December 06, 2004

step into my office please

Two weeks more. It's sad that it's almost over.
Last week, as I made note of here in this blog, I read some currently published essays of syndicated essayists who are being published in the newspapers even as we speak, aloud to my students and we talked about how these essayists are addressing the human condition. Then I asked them to essay the following idea: What ought to be written about? What's being overlooked? What do you wish you would see addressed on the op-ed page? It was, accidentally, a very good assignment. (Today I realized that that big assignment before Thanksgiving where I asked the children to make a connection between the old American writers and our American lives today was not a good assignment. They spent more energy on regurgitating information than on developing a thesis. As I was reading the essays, though, I realized the assignment would have been a great final exam because it was obvious who understood the texts and who just repeated lines from notes.) But the off the top of my head assignment about what issues are being overlooked, that turned out to be a much better, a good assignment, and I'm saying it exonerated me. This should remind me that I'm much better as a teacher when I just let myself feel out the moment and give assignments that seem right then and there than when I labor in my kitchen laboratory (I never noticed the connection between those two words) over fancy assignments. ANYWAY, the first drafts were so good that I couldn't not let them revise them, so a little bit Friday and the rest of it today, I spoke with each student about their drafts and gave them suggestions about revision. I think I already wrote that in a blog. I'm not good with linearality. They revised in class today. Conferencing with each student individually seems to me to be the best way to help their writing. It took me a long time to figure out how to do it quickly enough so that I could get them rolling without taking up a lot of time. Actually, I figured it out last year at Mandeville during a regular one hour class when I got to the point where I was able to talk with 30 children in one hour. Here's what I do. I call the child into my "office" (they think that's funny) and I begin to read the draft aloud and respond aloud like a reader. If the first sentence is boring, I say it's boring. (obviously have to have developed a trusting relationship by now). So I or she writes "boring" in the margin. And then I read until I get, or don't get, the drift of what's happening in the essay. And I say so. I don't get what's going on here, I say. Or, I see what you what to have happen, but then you throw this in and don't connect it to what you're trying to do, and so I'm lost. Or, I get what you're trying to do and it's working. Well done. In most cases I read about the first third of the first draft. I sit with each student about 5 minutes. How to revise is not my job to teach them, as I see it. My job is to be a smart reader at this point and say aloud what this reader recognizes. And it looks to me like when they see that an intelligent reader gets lost, for example, at a certain point, then they know what their job is, which is to make it right. I don't want to tell them how to make it right. I don't think I have to. I think it's presumptious of me to believe I know how to make THEIR writing right. They do seem to get it. I think that's because I'm treating them like writers and not like children. So far, this procedure has not not worked. I will bring some first and second drafts home and think about how I can present some examples of this procedure here on the blog.
On another note, something traumatic happened. A shooting, but not a death, came into my life today. I'm hesitant to write about it; the danger is too close for the student. The reality of it hasn't hit me yet. I'm not trying to be evasive, I just don't believe I should talk about it. But on the other hand, I have to be true in the blog. So that's as true as I can be right now.

I miss disposing of things. I guess that means it's about to happen again. But not tonight. I haven't eaten my supper yet. Good night.



Blogger Nancy McKeand said...

I wish I could convince someone to let me teach a writing class that is nothing but conferences. The assignments and such could be done through email. Or maybe we meet once a week, but other than that, it would be conferences. That's the only place I see students really making a connection between the grammar I try to teach them and their writing, between the insights I try to give them into writing process and their actual writing. The rest of it sometimes seems like a waste of time. Of course, that's MY fault, not theirs. But this is something I seriously want to pursue.

I liked your comment about shooting from the hip as opposed to planned out assignments. It's really true. The more I plan, the more artificial it is.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked stepping into your office when I was a student in your class. It made me feel important and valued. You also made me do all the hard work, while you were the responding audience of my writing. I liked it and I am glad your current students are responding to it too :)
- Cassandra

7:57 PM  
Blogger Clay said...

"This should remind me that I'm much better as a teacher when I just let myself feel out the moment and give assignments that seem right then and there than when I labor in my kitchen laboratory "

Make sense, if you think about it. Any part of your brain that is concerned about anything ELSE other than THE MOMENT distracts you from the MOMENT.

In Zen, they call this mindfullness, I think.

Your "office" "reading aloud" approach sounds GREAT. Having THEM take the notes saves you time but also encourages (nay, forces) them to take ownership of the rewrite.

Have you thought about the possible causes (or where the breakdown is) ?

You can view the process as steps that must occur. Failure occurs at one or more of these steps. You can use the process of elimination to figure out what the first failed step is and focus on fixing THAT.
a. Do they understand YOUR COMMENTS?
b. Do they take adequate notes so that they can understand it later?
c. Are they capable of rewriting it more clearly, interesting, etc.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Clay said...

Oh... and...

Did it occur to you that by having them write about what CURRENTLY needs writing-about (vs. comparing the past writers to the present) YOU are focusing THEM on the MOMENT.

So, your "in the moment" "from the hip" epiphany was to get THEM to do the same thing.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Clay said...


Have you read PUNISHED BY REWARDS yet?

It's a great book about the harms of extrinsic rewards ("I'll give you $5 if you get an "A" "), etc.

I think that you'll find that it explains your own insights. That explanation is both validating AND ammunition if you need to defend the approach of NOT BRIBING your students.

One common theme in the book:

An extrinsic reward or punishment DISTRACTS the person from the task at hand. E.g., if you're FEARFUL of stagefright (punishment), you won't be a good public speaker. If you're focused on a year end bonus, you wont' be a good salesman b/c you're focused on the BONUS, distracting you from HEARING YOUR CUSTOMER.

I discovered this on my own in sales. (As Melanie knows, I own a software company. I was pretty novel, so we sell our own software). Anyway....

When our company started 9 years ago, I was very concerned about "are we meeting our customer's needs" "is the speech therapy software effective", "does it work right (few bugs)"

What I was NOT focused on were extrinsic rewareds like HOW MUCH MONEY ARE WE MAKING.

If found that I was GREAT at sales b/c I was focused on the CUSTOMER, not on my needs.

Ties in with the whole idea of being egoless.

(BTW, worrying about the future and "not shooting from the hip" usually comes from some ego-centered thoughts "I need to look smart in front of the class" "I have to plan for the next test/module in the class".)

Geezzz... I need a 'Blog of my own I guess.

12:13 PM  

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