Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Assigning vs. Teaching Writing

Like everything in life, DOING is the best way to learn and improve, and this is especially true for writing.  It's always helpful to me to revisit this list to make sure that I am TEACHING writing and not merely assigning writing. Teaching writing is an investment in class time--a very worthy and valuable investment.

In Because Writing Matters, authored by The National Writing Project and Carl Nagin, this quick list is a handy reminder of the differences between assigning and teaching writing.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Writing as a Tool for Thinking

Writing is a tool for thinking. Students need time to think and to capture their thinking in writing. In fact, for many students, writing is SO HARD because they have not thought.

This link will take you to the strategy proposed at our October staff meeting:

Text Complexity: A Somewhat Truncated Primer.

The Common Core State Standards suggest a three-part model for thinking about text complexity. Don't be put off by this being from the Common Core. It's actually a pretty good way to think about the texts we ask our students to read.
3 Domains of Text Complexity from CCSS
for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A, p. 4.

The foundation of the triangle is "reader and task."

As readers we each have preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. We have reading histories which impact our senses of ourselves as readers. We also have motivations, or lack of, which impact us as readers. I love reading poetry. Any text on how to build something mechanical, snooze-fest. Reading a novel for fun is not the same reading experience as reading it for a class requiring an analysis and paper on the novel. This can be summed up as experiences, knowledge, and tasks impacting each of us as readers.

The task part of this is the "purpose, complexity, and questions posed" (CCSS, Appendix A, p. 4). My understanding of this is that what we are asking kids to do with a text, how we are asking them to do it, and the way we are asking students to show what they understand are all components of reading comprehension task. 

The quantitative dimensions of text complexity are measurable: the average number of syllables in words, the average number of words in sentences. The variety of sentence lengths and structure. There are computer programs that can quickly and accurately chug through text to measure and calculate syllables, words, sentences.

"Text cohesion" is also part of this. According to CCSS beloved Appendix A, text cohesion is how "tightly the text holds together" (p. 7). Text cohesion is how much the text works to support the reader by deliberately using concrete language, repetition, definitions, so that the reader is supported and guided through the text. For example, I would humbly make the case that T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land has very low text cohesion. It is extremely difficult to read and to comprehend. The poem is full of allusions, abstract language, sophisticated imagery, references to other languages and customs, and vignettes that feel "dropped" into the text without context or explanation. In a decent edition of the poem, there are frequently more explanatory footnotes on the page than the actual poem. And I say, thank the reading goddesses for the footnotes, or I'd be lost! There are computer programs that can quickly and accurately chug through text to measure and calculate syllables, words, sentences. 

The qualitative dimensions of text complexity are not easily or clearly measurable. The intended meaning or purpose of the text, the degree of difficulty of the language used, and what kind of background knowledge a reader needs are part of qualitative measures of text complexity. Only a human-being is capable of a qualitative assessment of a text.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

My Current Thinking on Literacy

Welcome to Literacy

True Story: I was at a conference at U Arkansas Little Rock sweltering in the heat and humidity of a walk around a campus pond. My walking companion, a literacy specialist, pointed out that literacy only exists as a field of study because of the needs of other content areas. She made the point that if every student could learn to read and write and was always at, or above, grade level, there would be no need for the study of how we learn to read and write. 

This was an "aha!" moment for me. I began to understand that literacy is not a heavy wet blanket to be laid across the top of the already burdensome teaching loads of my high school colleagues, but instead, as the foundation upon which the learning of every content area happens. Literacy is a tool to help teachers, myself included, guide students into becoming more independent readers, thinkers, and writers.