Episode 005 Transcript

Writer's Digest with Peter Horn (9/30/17)

JOHN DeFLAMINIS: Hi, this is John DeFlaminis, and I'm a director of the Penn Center for Educational Leadership and I run the distributed leadership project. You're listening to episode 005 of the Point of Learning podcast. Let's check it out!

PETER HORN: On today’s show, a quick trip through some ideas about writing that I want to live forever—a companion to last month’s crowdsourced theme “The Idea about Writing You Most Want to Die” that I discussed with that brilliant panel of educators studying at the Middlebury BLSE. Afterwards, several people asked if I would be willing to highlight some ideas I have found most useful as a teacher of writing for two decades who continues to work with teachers of writing as part of my consulting work in schools. Because I’m a glutton for feedback, here goes! 

Point of Learning, as you know, is a show about what and how and why we learn, so I’m excited to spend a few minutes with you today sharing some ideas about writing that I would like to live forever! 

Before we get started, a note on today’s condensed format: there's a full-length episode in the works that I think you’re gonna love, but a couple listeners have suggested that a 10-minute edition every so often wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially for folks who haven’t yet figured out how to fit a longer podcast into their daily routine.

1. Start with #stuvoice. Students have expertise in how they learn, but schools too rarely seek it out. The first quarter of the year especially is a good time for teachers to learn what students like to do. What was their favorite assignment ever? What goals do they have for their own writing? Obviously teachers also need to feel free to suggest some appropriate goals because we also have some expertise in learning—let’s just remember we’re in this together. 

  • When I was a high school English teacher, the best regular feedback I got—on many aspects of my teaching--was from my students. I regularly solicited my kids’ opinions on what we studied, how it was presented, and what could be improved. Every marking period or so, a 3x5 index card went out to each  student, soliciting anonymous responses to three questions: 1. What works (about this class)? 2. What doesn’t work? 3.Comments/ suggestions? Depending on the class and the point in the year, I might only have had time to read and reflect on the feedback myself. But when students’ comments were particularly detailed or diverse, I compiled and distributed responses for full-class discussion. Exercises like this not only provide specific, actionable, useful data for you as a responsive instructor, but also-- and I would argue equally importantly—such exercises reinforce the teacher-student relationship that is essential for many students to feel confident enough to really push themselves. 

2. Develop some assignments based on the kinds of writing that you yourself learned the most from. Don’t forget the kinds of writing you enjoyed the most. Obviously you want to modify and tailor assignments so they present a healthy but attainable challenge for your kids.

  • For instance, as a student of literature in high school, and college, and grad school, I always loved pastiche compositions, where you imitate the style of a given author or a specific work but give things your own twist. It’s kind of like you get to play dress-up as a writer—it’s still you underneath, but you’re disguised as Virginia Woolf. And who’s afraid of her, people? When I was teaching the short stories of Franz Kafka—especially the short short stories--I loved reading what kids wrote to demonstrate their understanding of elements of his nightmarish and bizarre storytelling. (05:00) Often a small creative constraint yields big surprises in what writers produce.

3. The Artist and the Editor. I either straight-up stole this idea from Anne Lamott, whose wonderful instruction book on writing and life is called Bird by Bird, or I conceptualized it after reading her. The idea is that one of the reasons writing poses such challenges is that it comprises two sets of skills that overlap a little, but really have different personalities. The Artist is the part of you that is all about the generation of ideas, and possibilities, and imagination, the stuff of what you want to go in there. The Editor manages issues like structure and sequence, and details like punctuation, usage, and spelling. This is an oversimplification, but I think the two roles can help kids to focus on one part at a time. In general, unleash the Artist first: Give kids 20 minutes to free-write on the subject at hand (when they get good at this, and depending on the students’ confidence, this part can happen at home, but I liked to practice together with students and see what we came up with. Set a timer for 20 minutes, then permit no interruptions. Here’s a place where phones and email will not just interrupt the process, but actually cost valuable minutes to mentally reset—so don’t permit them. The key during this time is to not judge yourself (that’s the Editor coming in with some concerns about what’s logical or how long it is—these may be important, but not yet). This freewrite Artist part is about saying Yes, and always write it down. If you write it down or type it out and later your Editor doesn’t like it, it’s easy to get rid of. But if you’re busy judging an idea as no good at the same time that you’re trying to generate other ones, you’re thinking in two directions at once, effectively wasting creative energy while that “bad idea” creates static in your head. (My father used to say that writer’s block comes from too many ideas--not too few.) Then, at the end of your 20 minutes or whatever, when  you’ve got some thoughts together, let the Editor in to help you consider what makes the most sense, what you should cut, what you should start with, what comes next, how to spell it, like that. Describing these different writing functions differently can help young writers keep them straight, and think increasingly precisely about where they may be getting hung up. 

4. Alternatives to the 5-Paragraph Essay—by popular request. The 5-paragraph essay got slammed pretty hard in last month’s show, and more than a few listeners noticed. Just to reiterate our theme: it’s not that the 5-paragraph essay shouldn’t be a tool in your kids’ toolbox; it’s just that it shouldn’t be the only tool.

  • So, especially for juniors and seniors, if you want them to understand what great essays can do, make sure you’re asking them to read examples of great essays. Give them some Mark Twain or Adrienne Rich or Michael Pollan or Suzan-Lori Parks or Jack Hitt but then, ask for a really concise response: Ask for a 300-word response to a single aspect of the model essay for which the point is to Make Every Word Count. This short reaction paper should focus on one single idea that they found most compelling—because they loved it or hated it or didn’t understand it, or it prompted some new idea or question of theirs. Especially in September as you’re still getting to know your students, this can be a great way to learn quickly. You can get into longer papers later, but this is a very fast way to assess where kids' strengths and challenges lie. (And until you can do a short paper well, I don’t want to see a longer one!) 
  • Another strong option for any grade level is a contract poem based on a model. Read some sonnets, discuss the form, and then everybody try to write one. The “contract” part is that you agree to write one too, and everyone can share. Or select any poem you like by Marie Howe or Mark Doty or Lucille Clifton or Mary Oliver or whoever you just encountered in that magazine you were checking out last week. Read it aloud a couple of times (you first), and then identify some salient aspects of that poem together with your students, and then you all agree to write something according to the rules you agree on together. (For more good poem ideas, check out episode 003 with Paula Roy). (07:15) 

5. Here are some goal-based questions I found helpful to ask myself for designing good writing challenges for my students. (Of course, many times I would not know the answers until I had read their work!)

  • Have I challenged kids to think critically AND creatively?
  • Will they produce something that I (as the teacher) will learn something from?—obviously this includes learning about how they reason about the world, about who they see themselves to be, in addition to knowledge about a given subject of their writing?
  • Is this something that I will enjoy reading entire class sets of? True story: Oedipus tragedy—argument about most important scene?
  • Is what I’m asking them to write virtually impossible (or at least too much of a hassle) to plagiarize?

6. Some thoughts on grading. 

  • It is possible to grade on individual progress, rather than fixed notions that apply equally to confident writers and those struggling with language. For some detailed ideas, check out Linda Cristensen’s fabulous tome Teaching for Joy and Justice. 
  • Don’t look for everything—no 5-page rubrics—stuff like that makes you crazy and kids hate you! pick a few areas of focus, e.g. the middle of a story, not beginning or ending, or page 317 of your life’s story
  • Ask for a writer’s reflection. Here’s what I was trying to do, here’s where I struggled, please read for this. Especially if a kid is sharing their own extracurricular writing with you, make sure to ask what kind of feedback they’re looking for. 
  • Finally: High-Stakes Test Anxiety. I don’t have the space or adequate blood pressure medication to rail with sufficient detail or fervor against the testing-industrial complex that continues to regard teachers as curriculum-delivery technicians to students who, in one district I worked in recently, literally spend more time being tested than learning. For a taste of my ideas on this subject, refer to the post called High-Stakes Tests will Always Backfire on the show page. In one sentence, my advice to teachers is that if we figure out how to teach students the value of strong writing, and design assignments interesting enough for them to enjoy practicing writing, they will be able to write well anywhere—even an absurd standardized assessment. 

That’s it for today’s Writer’s Digest edition of Point of Learning. Thanks so much for checking it out! If you like what you hear, subscribe through iTunes and the Point of Learning YouTube channel. Please spread the word about this show to anyone interested in what and how and why we learn. Back next month with Maureen Mazzarese talking about counseling, parenting, and the social-emotional development of teens. You’re not gonna wanna miss it! 

Peter Horn