Cursive’s Out, Technological Fluency’s In.

So I was able to get a glimpse into two separate classrooms at “Rydell High”.: one with Miss Lynch, who teaches 10th grade (Honors and Track 2) and 11th grade (Tracks 2), the other with “Frenchy”

who teaches 10th grade (Track 3, and Honors) and 12th grade (Track 2). On Friday, I spent the day in “Frenchy’s” classroom watching how she facilitates sharing and writing exercises. I was able to watch students’ reactions to each other’s writings as they were shared in front of the class.

It’s always a bit daunting no matter how old you are to share your own writings.

I watched as senior, “Henry”, one of the quieter of the class, reluctantly got in the front of the classroom and read aloud a piece handed out by Miss Frenchy. It wasn’t even his own piece, yet he was still so nervous and anxious to get back into his chair. Miss Frenchy, however, knows what she’s doing, just as the authors of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing point out: “building confidence is our first job” (70). By getting the most shy students in the class up in front of their peers, leading discussion, she is trying to promote an open classroom environment, one where everyone’s writings can be shared and go judgement-free.

In her 10th grade classes, she had students volunteer to read aloud their assignment due that day. The assignment was: Imagine yourself in twenty years. Who is around you, what are you doing, what is your life like? Write about it.

There were students who got up and shared that they were going to be a lawyer with a family, one girl wrote that she would be hopeful to have Miss Frenchy in her life in twenty years (Frenchy was of course touched to tears by that); another girl wrote about how she’s never seen herself getting married, yet she had a son, was a single working mom, and she did her best to make ends meet (and her creativity–she began the piece in media res and finished it right where she began–was AMAZING). Some students shared about just how they had no idea what their lives would be in twenty years, but they wrote about what they aspired it to be. These students are amazing.

I was able to run a warm-up writing activity, and this is where the important part of this blog post comes. In Chapter 4 of Inside Out, the authors write about different writing activities to do in the classroom to open up the community, and get everyone comfortable. They, of course, touch on fluency, and how important it is to establish a routine and ritual in the classroom, so that students know “I walk in the room, I grab my portfolio from the shelves, and I open the binder up to a blank piece of paper, ready for the warm-up writing.” This exact routine is how Frenchy has her class structured (it’s still early in the year for them, though, so reminders are needed every now and again). As part of another assignment from another education course, I had to interview students. After telling Frenchy about my interview questions, she asked if I wanted to use one for the warm-up in the next period. Of course I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity! My warm-up question was:

Tell me about your dream school. What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like(!)? What are your peers like? What about the teachers?

After the five minute writing was over, I asked for volunteers to share what they wrote about. After a little coaxing from Frenchy, reminding them of class participation grades, a dozen hands rose. As I pointed to each student, they, unprompted, rose out of their desks to “Stand and deliver“. The piece that stood out to me most of all was delivered by a very adamant student who focused on supplies needed in his school. (Let’s call him Jimmy.)

Jimmy’s ideal school was one where no student had to carry around heavy text books, notebooks, and pens and pencils. Jimmy’s ideal school was one where every student was issued a laptop, or better yet,

an iPad/tablet where all of the required books and readings were already downloaded; where instead of having to write by hand which is exhausting and tedious they could type everything out and classes could be a lot shorter. No one would have to worry about their device getting stolen because everyone would have one. And on top of that, everyone would have to check out their device every day so the school could keep track of it.

Though Jimmy’s idea would be quite convenient, to say the least, it’s so sad to me that students no longer wish the write out the things they’re thinking, but need to type them. With the increased rate with which technology is advancing, the internet is expanding, and the digital world is becoming more and more normal, it could be easy to think that writers’ fluency has increased right along with it. I have overheard students whine and moan about taking out a piece of paper to brain-dump for five minutes because they “can’t write as quickly as they think and they lose their thoughts more quickly.” This is a common sentiment with many writers!

Even the authors of our text books acknowledge that apparent “quasi-writing”s that are done daily by teens are actually writings, and therefore they help to increase fluency.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, then, because I really enjoy writing down on a piece of paper. And what happens if your iPad or laptop breaks one day? You need to know how to write, not matter what you’re writing, with a pen and paper. Either method increases students’ fluency, allows them to share out their thoughts and feelings in a comfortable space, and really allows for creative expression. I know as I was going through middle and high school, the iPhone wasn’t even a thing yet, there was no such thing as unlimited texting, and we passed notes in class

instead of sending a text message under the desk. The best part about writing notes to each other: you got to play with your own handwriting.

I think that’s so much more fun than using WordArt and fonts made up by the software companies. But maybe, again, that’s just me.


Also, by the way…the SATs, ACTs, and other standardized tests taken in an academic life requires the test-taker to copy verbatim a paragraph written in script.


Grammar and Writing-based Instruction

So my previous post unintentionally prefaced this one.

The textbook we’re using for the class I have been blogging for is called Inside Out, and talks about the importance of writing in the classroom, and helps to break down just what those important reasons and skills are that students will learn. In Chapter 1, the authors talk about the importance of grammar in students’ writings. Grammar, though important, is most definitely not the most fun to teach, and especially not to learn. The authors mention how easy it would be to just be able to teach writing as one “whole”, meaning everything would just come at once. But if we teach everything all at once, emphasis is lost on important elements of writing: fluency, grammar, structure, vocabulary, etc. By breaking it down one bit at a time, the students can then master one element at a time. Obviously this has been the practice since the beginning of written-language curricula, so I’m not saying anything new. As someone, though, who really respects and appreciates correct grammar (which in my definition includes spelling, too) I still see severe mistakes in students’ writing–not just grade school students, either, but university students who are in my age group–and it makes me worry a bit about what will happen to those students who don’t quite grasp the importance of the precise placement of a semi-colon or a comma; a capital letter or a dash. What about the differences between a dash and a hyphen?? (The latter question is one that I can tell is definitely going amiss in the classroom. I don’t think that it’s being taught, really, at all!)

Having this question in mind over the last couple weeks while sitting in my field placement at a local high school (we’ll call it…Rydell High…y’know, like from Grease),

which is an English classroom of 10th honors and regular American Literature and 11th grade World Literature, I started to pay more attention to their writing. My teacher

(let’s call her…Miss Lynch . Yup, another Grease reference.)

gives her students lots of writing assignments–the school just, in fact, switched to a writing-based instruction–and I was able to look at their writings. Keep in mind, these are Honors students, so their grammar was pretty phenomenal, but of course not perfect (few of ours is, though). However, last week I was able to read through some free writing they did and turned in for an administrator’s research about teacher qualities and I noticed a lot more students struggling with their grammar when the assignment wasn’t laid out for them in steps like their last assignment I had read.

The first assignment I read of theirs was a short piece about what it means to be American. This was a finely tuned, typed-up piece and from it, they were to choose their favorite line to include in a class-collaborative poem about what “American” means. The activity/project was phenomenal and eye-opening to both the students and to myself. I think ‘Miss Lynch’ knew generally what to expect from it. However, in the process of choosing these first lines, I was asked to help students narrow down their decisions. It was at this point I was able to read some of their work, and I noticed some over-excessive comma-usage and a few tense disagreements, but other than some small errors in mechanics, what stood out to me more was misspellings. By 10th grade, there are certain things that students, I would think, are almost masters at. Spelling pluralities of singular words definitely should be expected. (For example: tragedy –> tragedies)

So I saw a few of those from a few students…not a huge deal, but something that as a grammar enthusiast and an English teacher, I catch quickly and hang on to it until it’s fixed. However, when I pointed it out to Miss Lynch, especially after this student attempted to correct his classmate’s use of the wrong form of “there, their, or they’re” (and even though his correction was, in fact, correct), she simply shrugged and told me

“Yeah…that happens…”

This kind of threw me off-guard until the following Tuesday in another of my Education classes when my professor, Jodi, said something that tied it all together for me. She talked about her 9 year-old daughter coming home with misspellings in her work from school. She explained to us (specifically the English majors in the room who cringed at hearing that she spelled words like “grandma” like “Grnma” for a while because she just wasn’t hearing the “a” there) that this was a method of using phonics.  I’ve had a Reading Specialist class before, and knew what learning phonics does for students (in fact, I learned phonics in elementary school), but I still didn’t understand until she said “for some teachers it’s more important for the student to hear the sounds of the word and learn the spelling, than memorize and never know why they sound like that.”

I guess the same goes for grammar. If a student over-uses a comma…well…at least we know he/she knows that there is a short pause where the unnecessary comma is placed. If there are tense disagreements…well…at least the correct word is there, and that gives us, as the teachers, something to point out to them. It took me a LONG time to rid my writing of tense differences. It took a teacher pointing it out to me and working with me to understand what I was doing wrong. That’s where we come in.

As long as the students have the basics down, all we can do is tweak and constructively critique until they understand on their own.

This critiquing and individual attention not only helps students’ understand grammar, mechanics, and spelling, but it improves their fluency a little at a time, and it’s the fluency of writing that I think seems most important.