Sunday, March 13, 2005

conferencing with students about their essays

I really love how this essay writing business in our classroom is going. These last two essays we've done have taken a week each. On the surface it seems like way too much time to spend on one little 400-500 word essay. It seems it could easily be done in two or three class periods. And that's how I usually forced it to be. But I really like the leisurliness of the whole week on one piece of writing. It gives the students time to get underneath their everyday surface concerns, maybe time to recognize that their experiences fit into a big picture. It gives them a chance to let ideas form in the sub-conscious (or wherever that occurs), sometimes while they're doing other things, like reading the paper or flipping through a magazine or, and I saw a lot of this, a few people sitting in a group flipping through the magazines talking about stuff they see. And it gives me time to help them. Later I can cut it down to three days, say, then two, and then try to do it in one, but for now, in my position as a teacher and writer, I don't think any of this is a waste of time. In my opinion, when I present an essay idea on Monday and they have space and time for a week to get it the way they want it, they're acting like real student writers and I'm like their private tutor/mentor. Sometimes the good questions they might have don't come up until the Thursday of the week. But it's so cool that the questions come up! Also, all of this time gives me a chance to confer with students as many times as we like. I'd say that in the case of most of the students, by the time Friday comes we've conferred about three times and they've written as many drafts as it takes to get their essays right, even though I'd only required two.
Eventually, they will not need me so much.
The conferencing itself: in the case of these particular students, all that time and conferencing gives me a chance to help them with standard English (which they really are not fighting, contrary to what I thought would happen). Upon first looking at some of their essays, I am sometimes shocked and feel that their cases are hopeless. The writing, literally, seems like complete nonsense. But I've learned that their writing is not nonsense and that they're not hopeless. There's just a disconnect or a vagueness between the words in their heads and how to make something visual out of them. When I confer with a student I read her work aloud and when I hit a word that is crazy wrong (like writing open for ocean) I stop, point at it, and ask her what the heck that means. At first she may not understand because in her mind she's thinking ocean and it takes her a moment to realize what she'd written. Sometimes I ask the student to look at my mouth while I speak the word and usually she'll get closer to the spelling. And then I spell it for her and write it on the draft. After one or two of these sessions with students they seem to become more careful. It also gives me a chance to point out a lot of little things, like incorrect spellings of their/there/they're (which usually includes a little lesson on the difference). It also gives me a chance to point out subtleties, like word choices, and to teach the smaller things, like that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks and when to underline titles and when to use "who" and when to use "that." It's like every time I sit with a student I am tutoring her privately on the particular problems she has rather than "teach" it to the whole class. Yes, there is some time that appears wasted. However, I'm thinking that it's better for a student to sit and chat with someone in the class for 10 minutes while waiting to talk with me about the paper, and then getting private tutoring, than it is to be "on task" for a run-on/fragment lesson that some of them don't even need. I think in the end, a lot more takes place toward bettering their writing and their literacy when we spend the time. I guess you'd call that quality time. And I know that if they sit with me and hear over and over again that "are" and "or" have different meanings, that they'll eventually remember without my help.
And here's the gravy: they like what we're doing. And I may be wrong, but I don't think that they'd say anymore that they hate writing.
This week I'll bring the folder with all their drafts and pick a few good examples of what happened in the process. I also have some questions.
That's about it. Last Friday we lost two teachers. Tomorrow (Monday) we begin LEAP. Oh, and I had a revelation about that, too. I think the test is a perfectly sound test. It's not hard, for sure, (objectively speaking), and, best of all, it asks them to think. But here's what I found out. I've been, for the last two weeks, giving private LEAP tutoring to all of my students who still need to take the English part (they come to class on time rather than circle the halls, and so I tutor them then). I gave them a sample of the research section. They all missed this one question which gave a particular source sheet (an index page from a travel advice book) and asked which chapter you'd go to if you were looking for an inexpensive way to travel. The answer was a chapter that included bargain fares and cheap accommodations. There was no other answer that was close. The thing is, the students didn't know what "inexpensive" means, though they could figure it out when I pushed them, and they didn't connect it to "cheap" or "bargain." What this tells me (for the thousandth time) is that teaching the test is stupid. If we spent our time teaching prefixes and suffixes, and forcing them (how does one do that?) to read, and if we encouraged them to think, they'd have no trouble with such a question. Or the test.
Anyhoo.
The weather is spectacular.

Melanie

13 Comments:

Blogger Nancy McKeand said...

And there you are, encouraging them to read and forcing them to think! Being a writing teacher really is the best job in the world, I think!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for inspiring me. I'm a new teacher, and I aspire to teach the way you do. It's in me, I know it: I just have to let it come, with practice and increasing confidence in myself. And meanwhile, I'll visit your blog to remind myself that It Can Be Done.

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