Thursday, May 6, 2010

Newkirk Chapter 4 & 5

The most compelling argument for a new valuation of popular culture in children's writing comes in the profoundly important line of research carried out by Ann Haas Dyson (1997, 2003) in urban, and often low-income, schools. The core ethical theme running through Dyson's work concerns access: If these cultural resources are dismissed for whatever reason (too exploitative, too commercial, too tied to television, to "low class"), if the middle/professional-class type of book culture is perceived as the only useful literacy experience, the result is profoundly alienating and inequitable. (p. 96)

There are consequences to this censorship.

The facts of literacy development are plain for all to see: boys fall dramatically behind girls in reading, and particularly writing, by the third grade. Those boys who have the experience of being behind, of not being good at literacy - and they number in the millions - soon turn a difficulty into an identity.

They begin to believe that they are just not good at words, at least printed ones. Such an identity provides security because there is no longer a need to really try, for any attempt just exposes a deficiency. And because we all have a stake in the identities we assume (even when they work against us), they are much more impervious to instruction.

These students are the ones who claim that "reading is stupid", the ones who perfect avoidance strategies, who are always breaking their pencils, who manage to write only a few primer-level sentences in writing period, and who later manage to pass English with the help of Sparknotes.

Thus we have a negative cycle: Boys experience difficulty and, early on, come to avoid reading and writing- and because they avoid it, they experience even greater difficulty, to the point where faking it is the only reasonable solution. I would suggest that the consequences of opting out of reading and writing - in an "information age" where work involves working with texts more than raw materials- are severe indeed. (p. 105-106)

Newkirk argues for a wider view of literacy and literate practices in school. In your own experience and/or opinion how can we find ways to bridge the literacies from boys (and girls who don't identify with "school literacy") lives with the literacies we would like them to practice, valuing both equally?


  1. This chapter forced me to once again ponder the timeless question about the learning differences in boys and girls. This question always leads me to a series of questions that include, “Am I just not good at teaching boys?” “How are these 8 year old girls seemly so much more intrinsically motivated in school than these 8 year old boys?” “Why is it that I have to redirect girls for not being on task during lessons because they are hiding a book in their desk and secretly reading, but I have to redirect boys for not being on task because they are building guns out of unifix cubes, rolling on the floor, farting on someone else’s chair, kicking each other in the shins, or gluing paper mustaches to their faces?” and eventually, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH LITTLE BOYS!?”

    I contemplate these questions quite often, especially given the group of students that I teach. (Quick breakdown of my classroom: 18 students; 9 boys, 9 girls; 100% Somali, 100% Muslim.) I recently had a conversation with the director of our school about how amazing and impressive some of my students are this year, and he pointed out that most of the students I was referring to were female. As a man who grew up in Somalia and who raised over a dozen children both in Somalia and here in America, he commented, “In my country, it is the boys who succeed in education, but here, it is the girls.” We both had many ideas as to why this is, primarily the fact of equity, but I continuously ponder the ways in which I can address and fix these concerns in my own classroom.

    Therefore, these chapters were very relevant to my teaching and writing instruction. In my experiences, I’ve found that allowing my students to write about whatever interests them improves their willingness to try new things, write longer and more fluently, and stick with a piece of writing, which are three of my biggest obstacles as a 2nd grade teacher of writing. Being that most of my students are not yet fluent in speaking and reading English, writing in English tends to be their most challenging obstacle. My students also have a wide range of writing abilities, from students who demonstrate and apply advanced writing skills to those who struggle with writing every letter of every word. In my opinion, one way to bridge the literacies of struggling students is to allow them to write about their interests and to teach them to apply the strategies they use when writing freely to “school literacies” and required writing.

    For example, one of my male students who struggles greatly with the process of writing has found that one of his greatest successes in writing is combining some of his favorite characters in adventurous stories. He has written tales about Spiderman and Avatar fighting the aliens from Ben 10, Spongebob and Patrick joining forces to fight Dheghdeer (the infamous Somali folktale about an old women with a big ear that eats people, especially fat children), and Miss E. (yours truly) fighting Batman because he was disrupting our class. One of his greatest successes is using this ability and his knowledge of characters to generate new endings to plots and understand the impact of the alternatives (which happens to be a 2nd grade reading standard). His response to the writing prompt on our unit test on tall tales was a narrative about an encounter between Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. As a teacher, I couldn’t have been more thrilled about his transfer of knowledge and his continuously improving writing skills.
    As teachers, if we are able to identify each student’s strengths as a writer (based on their interests), we can help them develop those strengths and apply them to “school literacies”. That is, if we are able to appropriately embrace popular media and engage students in a time of technology-saturated and continuously diminishing attention spans.

  2. How well Jamie depicts the scenario in the classroom, and how wonderful to hear that she is getting her students to write more and care about their work by allowing them choice! This has definitely been my experience as well.

    As for the reading, these chapters were especially helpful to me because they endorsed two practices that I favor, but have never felt completely at ease using in the public school classroom: (1) expansive freewriting and (2) allowing the darker side of life (including violence)into student writing.

    Newkirk’s support for periods of non-stop, expressive “free-writing,” was like getting permission for acts that somehow feel subversive when I build them into the daily schedule. I wonder why, “willingness to trust the generative possibilities . . ." feels heretical in the school setting, but is highly valued and promoted within the adult writing community. Many highly esteemed authors speak of not knowing where their words and characters will lead them as they write— yet this is rarely acknowledged by classroom teachers.

    Also, the statement that “we overvalue feedback and undervalue practice“ lifted the guilt I sometimes feel when I don’t grade student writing. I appreciate the idea that selective response is a worthwhile approach.

    Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion of disallowing any form of violence or grim subjects in student writing. The examples of all the classic characters who would be banned from a school assembly, was a great way to argue the point. This is something I have been exploring more in my classroom, especially to reach the boys and girls who are drawn to these subjects.

  3. These two chapters were comforting to me both as writer myself and as a teacher of writing. The other day I was expressing to my twin sister, (who is definitely the writer in my family) that I was a little nervous about participating in SDAWP this summer because I have trouble “seeing” myself as a writer and I never know what to write about. She advised me to “just write until you have something to say.” At first I didn’t know what she meant by this, but after reading what Newkirk said about “not worrying about what you mean or what you intend ahead of time, but to just let things wander and digress”, it all makes sense. I think, like any activity you want to excel in, good writing takes practice.

    In my classroom, I have my students do a lot of “Power Writing” on the topics we are learning about. This gives my first graders a chance to interpret facts, express their ideas, and take risks as writers in a non-judgmental environment. My students know that the focus in their power writing journals is not on punctuation and grammar, but on the message that their writing carries. I agree with Newkirk, we tend to “overvalue feedback, and undervalue practice.”

    I like the idea Newkirk presents of having students write about a short episode of their lives in detail. Writing about personal experiences will encourage students to share their feelings and to develop their own voice. Also, because the have first-hand knowledge of the experience, they will be able to explain what happened in great detail. Allowing students to write about things they know about, whether it be a real event or a character from their favorite tv show, will motivate them to produce better quality writing.

    When considering the needs of boys in our classrooms, I agree with Judy and Jamie that freedom and choice are especially important. Recently my first grade boys have been writing elaborate stories where they combine characters such as Jack and Annie from the Magic Tree house books, Iron Man, and wrestler Ray Mysterio. When students are given the opportunity to let their interests intertwine, their motivation is sky high and there is no limit to what they can create.

  4. I have been sitting here for about ten minutes trying to figure out how to respond to this prompt, and I figured I would just go with the Peter Elbow school of thought and just write and stop self editing.

    I did not connect at all with Chapter 5 or this prompt, and instead of stressing out about it, I'm going to be honest about it. I really have no issue with having students write about things that interest them. In all my classes, ESOL to Basic Skills (Pre-College), to Transfer-level classes, my students have opportunities (via journals) to write whatever they want. Also, I have the freedom to pick topics for all my classes, and I try to find current events that are relevant for 18-21 year olds to write about. The past few semesters, we have written about Facebook and privacy, cell phone usage laws, men and emotions, women and salary, water rights/pollution, the American Dream, etc. While not every subject connects to every student, I do not consistently run into the issue of a gigantic disconnect between my students' literacies in and out of school. I'm not saying this never happens...because it does...but I would say this is a major exception in my particular teaching situation.

    This chapter DID make me think about how challenging it would be to teach writing to boys (and/or girls although this chapter made it seem like young boys are the issue) who had zero connection to academic writing...but I would say not even in my Basic Skills classes am I finding the level of disconnect described in this chapter that persists for any real length of time. Newkirk mentions it a few times...but being open to what people write is a powerful teaching tool. Students are told they are "wrong" so often that of course they practice error avoidance. Trying to build a relationship of trust is key...and helps move most students in the right direction.

    I am interested to see what other people write about this topic because I feel like I didn't have much to add.

  5. I'm not certain how many of you are familiar with the pop culture phenoms Chelsea Handler and Tucker Max, but recently I used portions of their texts in my courses with college juniors and seniors as models that students could follow in producing narrative-oriented essays that are based on the "This I Believe" genre popularized in the 1950s by Edward R. Murrow and picked up again during the mid-2000s on National Public Radio.

    Now, I'm fairly certain that Handler's memoirs, mostly which focus on her relationships with various family members, boyfriends, and alcohol, and Max's ribald, irreverant, and profane (that's probably a conservative description of his work) accounts that illustrate his "F you" attitude to pretty much the entire world may not be appropriate for younger student populations, but perhaps similar texts produced by different authors could be used to the same effect.

    As part of their preparation for completing the assignment, I asked students to read portions of memoirs/autobiographies by several different writers in addition to Max and Handler (e.g., David Sedaris and Malcolm X) and then basically step into that writer's shoes, mind, and worldview; in other words, students were expected to develop a keen understanding of these writers' and use of rhetorical modes, tone, diction, etc. to the point that they could somewhat become one of these writers.

    Once they had decided whose shoes to adopt, they were asked to produce a "This I Believe" essay, which is basically a 400 - 600 piece of writing, usually narrative and description oriented, in which the writer articulates and illustrates a belief that is fundamental to her/his approach to living or philosophy about life. And then once students complete this task, a short rhetorical analysis of what they produced follows.

    I don't know if it is coincidence or serendipity that I developed this assignment a few weeks before reading chapters 4 & 5, but frequently I think about designing or tweaking assignments to allow students to be "expressive writers" and that continue to develop their interaction with literacy, for many of my college juniors and seniors commence the semester with the mindset that they already possess fully developed literacy skills.

    But, getting back to the original prompt, I think an assignment like the one I have briefly described above allows students to become expressive writers by de-emphasizing the controls generally necessitated by academic discourse and writing. Furthermore, I believe the assignment addresses the apparent disconnect male students' literacies and those we would like them to practice by between the assignment allowing male students to write about topics that are relevant (and of interest) to their own lives.

    Perhaps to further complicate Newkirk's discussion of what "literacies from boys" actually means, three male students composed "This I Believe" essays as Chelsea Handler. And yes, they were hilarious and irreverant.

  6. Hmmm-the comment I just posted spat back an error. The earthquake maybe? So I'll post tis to see if it's working. If so I'll try to reconstruct my thought...

  7. "Writing is not following a plan. It is a dialogue between self and text in which language can redirect consciousness." Thomas Newkirk encourages us to freely explore with our writing and let our minds wander. Even as I write this paragraph, I find myself wanting a clear, convenient plan to tackle the assignment of commenting and relating to Chapters 4 and 5, without the word police and the literary critics in my mind overanalyzing each word and wanting to change everything. Is writing moving into your comfort zone or moving out of it?

    I am a huge advocate of allowing students to write what interests them. Like Laura, I find that Power Writing frees students from worrying about spelling and grammar errors so that they can focus on letting their minds wander and taking risks with their writing. Informal writing allows students to practice writing. I was also comforted to hear Newkirk encourage teachers to promote writing practice and limit constant feedback. Student writing journals have greatly helped my students have a special place to write and explore ideas. From there, students can choose a piece of writing to take through the writing process.

    The example that Newkirk provided of the student who could barely write a few sentences in class, but spoke confidently and loquaciously to his peers reminded me of a few of my third grade students. At the beginning of the year, several students struggled to put two sentences together during Writer's Workshop, but when it came to Recess they were talking non-stop with details about their football games and weekend activities. Yes, most of these were boys! This coupled with the statement in our book that stated boys fall dramatically behind girls in reading and particularly writing in the third grade and the gap continues to grow is a call to action. If teachers can keep students, particularly boys, engaged in writing in elementary school, students can continue to develop their writing and express themselves during the more difficult times in middle and high schools.

    I also agree that allowing students free choice in writing and allowing then to explore writing with pop culture and their interest will help the development and quality of writing. Last week my students chose a piece of their writing to share at our Student Author's Night. One boy in my class wrote a create narrative about a Secret Leprachaun Organization. In the story, the protagonist stabbed the antagonist. Should I allow my third grade student to write and share this violent act in his story? How would I explain this to the parents listening at Author's Night? It is much easier to say that teachers should allow violence in young children's stories than to allow it and let students share it with each other, their teacher,and their parents.

    This brings us to the question and concern about censorship of writing. In elementary school, should we let students be free to express everything and anything at school? What if it is inappropriate, violent, hateful? What if what one student writes negatively affects another student? Should there be any limits to writing in school at certain ages? Can writing step over the line of what we teachers deem acceptable? Obviously, what is "acceptable" in high school is very different than what is "acceptable" in elementary school. On the other hand, if we limit what students write, won't that affect their freedom and desire to write? Newkirk states that "the surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interests are not respected."

  8. Ok. It's 'this,' not 'tis.'

    Re: Boys (in particular) and authentic writing and reading...
    I had a two hour conference with a dad yesterday who unintentionally signed up for a series of mini-lessons on mentor text and copy change, at the sentence, paragraph and whole text level, non-fiction text structures, creative v. expressive v. analytical writing,and the multi-genre research report, which his son is struggling with. Dad, who grew up on a farm in Texas, and became an engineer, really appreciates core academics. He said he tries to read editorials and science pieces to and with his son, but his boys just wants to play outside and with their friends. With a bit of prying, he told me that Yughio (sp?) cards are a passion, and his son loves to play with them with the Japanese boys in our class. Well DUH! Hello! is this an inquiry for multigenre or what???? There's the history, the art, the collecting, the games and rules, the value, the websites, the social practices, the secrecy, the expertise, it's all there, but it took me a while to persuade Dad that really, REALLY, it was a valid inquiry.
    So I'm pulling back a little and wondering just where and in how many ways kids, perhaps boys in particular, get messages about what's appropriate and what's not, what's "school" and what isn't, and cease to expect school to have anything to do with them or their lives and how come, always, by this time of the year, when I should be overflowing with pride and gratitude for all the transformational learning that's transpired, there is a handful of kids who never could believe, who couldn't even meet me half-way, who never wanted or chose to make writing relevant even when they the tedium and the fear of error so profound they just stop? When did they turn off? When and how does that identity begin (Newkirk, p.105)? What's our part in it and what can we do?
    Why can't we help some students start to scratch the surfaces of their lives and see the saturation of meaning? Critical thinking and writing can be applied to anything; how could flatness and passivity be a choice?
    Sadly, the dad told me about the workers he supervises at CALTRANS, and how some need daily or weekly timelines of tasks and productivity, how if he's seen any patterns over the years it's the lack of initiative and goal-setting with his workers, and how their interns from Hi Tech High are more motivated than their employees. He's seeing the same passivity in his son and it's breaking his heart.
    Teaching writing has always been a spiritual practice for me, helping kids find and write from their eyes and hearts and lives, finding and articulating the experiences and truths and stories of their lives, making and finding meaning in so many places, but so many seem to choose not to even be curious, or not to trust me or us, our whole endeavor,or want to do the crab-pot thing and pull each other down.
    What has school done to silence and kill their voices?
    What is the weird ethos of "school" and what counts and what doesn't, and how did it come to be?
    (on a rant now!)How can a whole department believe that Cornell notes are a product, and never even begin to ask what history is, or at it means to think or write like a historian? How can a series of earthquakes and the Gulf oil spill not even be acknowledged by a science department?
    Dad will go talk to son, and we'll see what's changed by monday. Kids in 7th grade will come back from Yosemite, and I'll see if their thinking about their physical relationship with earth has evolved. I'll get all wrapped up with what 80 or 90 % are in turbo-drive about as writers, hair on fire, but hold in my heart the ones who really don't think school has anything to do with them, anything to offer them, anything to help them become proud or confident about who they are.

  9. As I read through Jamie's comment I kept thinking, "Oh me too! Me too!"

    When I first started teaching, I was fortunate enough to have some very powerful writing teachers on my staff. These colleagues of mine were seasoned, well-respected and had a lot of "pull" with my principal. They were the force behind our elementary school's focus on writing. It was in my first few years as a new teacher that I discovered the Writer's Workshop. After every meeting we had or book we picked apart, I couldn't wait to try out all the ideas with my second graders!

    I must admit my writing workshop never quite worked like the ones in the books we read, but it gave me a starting ground and became the foundation for my writing instruction. Three basic principles I continue to follow religiously are creating a safe environment, student-choice and time to write. These simple concepts have had the greatest impact on my student writers.

    Newkirk’s suggestion that censorship of student-choice of writing topics only adds to the fall of literacy development reminded me of a situation I encountered earlier this year. When we returned to school after winter break, one of my ELL students began writing furiously the moment he sat at his desk. (I was stunned because this particular kiddo barely eked out 3 sentences on a good day). When it was time to share, I nearly fainted when this child raised his hand. For the first time ever, he read his journal to the class. He had written about his trip to Mexico and going to watch chicken fights. He read, “Their hair goes up when they get really mad” and included all the blood and gore along with it. We were silent. (The class—trying to understand the concept of chickens battling to the death; me—worrying about the parent calls I’d likely have to field later). I realized then that if he hadn’t felt safe to write about a personal experience, he never would have bothered to share, let alone write it in the first place.

    Like other comments above, I agree that if we give students a safe place to explore ideas, play with words and perfect their individual crafts, we can mold our young students to be confident, proficient writers as they get older.

  10. Before reading Newkirk’s discussion of popular culture as a literacy tool, I had already begun to develop units that utilized current culture and media as a way to help students make connections to “older” ideas. Reading his advocacy of this through his statement, “As I see it, all education, particularly literacy education, is a trade. These are skills and texts that, as teachers, we endorse and are committed to teaching. But these must connect in some way with the attitudes and tastes students bring into class” felt like I’d given a long-winded justification of my feelings and he gave me a straight-forward, articulate way to say it.

    In writing, I have several types of students: Those who write confidently on every assignment because they are eager writers, those who write begrudgingly because they want the grade but they don’t find any meaning in what they write, and those who don’t write because they don’t connect with the texts I’m charged with teaching. Generally, more boys than girls fall into that third category. It might simply be because some girls are still raised to please others more than boys or a slew of many other things not directly related to literacy, but I suspect that might be a gender-rolls discussion for another time. The last assignment I gave that asked students to use pop culture was an examination of existential ideals in a movie, a book, poem, song, or any writing in which they enjoyed. Students were encouraged to find connections of an older movement and see how it related to the things they are currently interested in. Of course, my students still fell into those three previously-mentioned categories. What is important to note, though, was that very few students fell into that last category. It is hard to argue that you don’t connect with anything, anywhere when you are given permission to explore things you already enjoy. Those papers were some of the most enjoyable writing samples I’ve read all year. I was given opportunity to see interests of my students and I was amazed at the places students found existential influences in their pop-culture.

    I’m such an advocate for student choice and I utilize it my own classroom as much as possible. Today’s learners want a say in their learning; in my classroom I believe my students trust me to guide them in the right direction, but they want some input on where the classroom goes. I think this is their right as students. I’ll end with a brief example that advocates my belief that student choice breeds student engagement. I adopted a colleague’s updated version of independent reading (once known as silent, substantiated reading) where students are allowed to pick ANY book they want to read for outside reading. All that is asked of them in return is that they have a conversation (“book talk”) in which they can articulate the book’s big idea, message, summary, etc. Students are not asked to write anything on this text, but instead are encouraged to read, just to read. If they decide they don’t like the book at any time, they can move onto another selection. All of my students are reading something they like. One of my favorite memories this year is of seeing an eleventh grade boy who was reluctant to read any class novel turn to a young girl he didn’t know well and say, “Are you reading that book? I just finished the second one and thought it was cool. Do you want me to let you borrow it?”

    I want every student to have this feeling at some point during my class.

  11. I was a bit schizophrenic reading these two chapters, my thoughts swinging from "Of course!" to "No, that's not going to work." And there were many thoughts of, "Yeah, that's a better idea than what I do."

    I was most conflicted about expressive writing. I've done writer's notebooks for the first time this school year and have generally found they worked well at giving my 5th graders more opportunities to write, plus instilling the idea that the way to write is just to sit there and write. There is no "I'm finished" during writer's notebook time in my classroom - the rule is to keep your pencil in your hand and wait until another idea comes and then write that. I appreciated Newkirk's comment that some prompts don't work (page 85), but with enough at bats, he and his students will find success.

    I am by training (a newspaper reporter having to meet deadline) a self-editing writer, so the chapter pushed me to remember what is natural for me may not be what is best for my writing students. However, I'm concerned about the habit of too many students to write and write and write, and not edit formal writing assignments. Too many times a student's "final" draft is nothing more than a rough draft re-copied. Somehow we need to show students how to write in a safe, non-judgmental environment, but also self-correct when appropriate.

    Writing a narrative story is just one of six types of genres we're required to teach in the 5th grade, and I never returned to that genre again this year. Writing stories is not "practical" for high school and college (or most jobs) where analysis is called for. I see that I missed a chance to develop the overall writing skills of my students by not giving them a chance to express themselves through stories.

    I was also conflicted about Newkirk's idea on page 82 - that we overvalue feedback, and undervalue practice. The feedback I put on students' papers is probably ineffective, but I was going to shift my focus to doing more individual conferences with my students. Newkirk doesn't address that specifically, but I wonder if conferences are equally ineffective.

    One of my "Of course!" thoughts was while reading Newkirk's arguments about allowing or preventing students from writing about violence. This is only my second year teaching 5th grade so I was surprised when my students asked if they could write about shooting guns when the assignment was to write about the Revolutionary War novel we finished reading. Of course - it's about a war! It's an opportunity to teach them about the appropriate time to write about violence.

  12. We have to start with what kids have in their tool chest. I'm in the middle of teaching persuasive writing to my 6th graders and decided to use advertisements as my way of connecting them to this genre. I chose this avenue because I felt it is something the kids can relate to.

    The problem, that I think Newkirk correctly points out, is that much of the writing we ask kids to do is artificial and removed from the realities of life. I had a conversation with my uncle last week, who trains teachers in writing, and his organization once compiled a list of over 100 kinds of writing that you would commonly see throughout the day. I think using these common forms of writing that students are familiar with can act as a bridge to the uncommon forms.

    So, my intention with my students was to try doing this by having them create a cereal and cereal box and then a commercial to try "selling" the cereal. The writing piece would be, one, the script for the commercial where they would have to use persuasive strategies that we studied from other commercials and two, we would write to the cereal companies and try persuading them why they should market the cereal ideas that we created.

    I guess the big idea I got from Newkirk, then, is that we need to branch out from the narrow spectrum we call "academic literacy" and find the value in the non academic literacies that kids more readily relate to. And in turn use them to get kids hooked and in turn become to understand how words play a bigger role in their lives than they realize.

  13. Chapter 5 Popular Culture as a Literacy Tool was really interesting to read. It made me think about my boys and how I can use popular culture to inspire their writing. Which in my case is getting ideas on paper. And like Newkirk says, "volume, to be sure, does not equate with quality, but young writers can't get to quality without volume.

    Ultimately my goal in writing is help my student convey a message. If that means using comics as a format or superheros as a topic, then so be it. Chapter 5 really gave me some great ideas about what I can try in order to engage my boys (and girls)in writing.
    Immediately I know who these kinds of activities will appeal to. I am anxious to see what our final product will be (absolutey amazing ;)

    I think the thing to remember is that we need to be supportive and less critical at time of our students writing. Pointing out our students short coming in writing can be defeating. I myself have been guilty of this. Lets turn it around and come form a place of you did this, this, and that great. Also, why not create authentic writing opportunities that would be of high interest. I mean comic strips, superhero stories what boys or student wouldn't like an opportunity to create one of these pieces of work. If it's relevant to them why not give it a whirl. Engage, engage, engage!

  14. This year I noticed, more so than usual, that my male students were hesitating to write honestly and creatively. There are several reasons I have come to understand, and respect as valid, for their hesitations; the first being fear. My high school students are often afraid to write because most of what they know to be true in life is what they are told is not valid in the classroom (They are told that violence, abuse, heartache and actual pain have no place in school.). And honestly, who would want to pick up a pencil and write when they are told everything they know to be true is deemed tainted or unworthy for a classroom? Especially when considering that the incidents of drugs, gangs, abuse and death that my students have experienced are the same violent situations experienced by the “other” in works of fiction taught in high school classrooms …what better way is there to isolate students than to clearly identify them and ‘their issues’ as belonging primarily to the ‘other’ and not a part of mainstream life. I think that showing students mentor texts that validate their real life experiences as well as highlighting fictional graphic texts gives students the green light they need to venture into the very powerful constructs graphic violence can have in literature (I believe that you should allow students to write with as much violence as you allow them to read.). However, I don’t believe that the only way to get male students to write is through allowing them to graphically write about violence.

    The primary mentor texts in our class are the novels we study. As a way to encourage my male students I tried to include texts that used violence to represent issues of society, like Fight Club (violence represents consumerism in society and the deterioration of the male self in both male and female psyches) and No Country for Old Men (violence represents the decline in morals with each generation)…..and it worked. However, when we read The Kite Runner and Hamlet I noticed a more intimate shift in their writing. Both the novels and their writing still incorporated elements of violence, but the voices of the characters (be them fiction or not) that were inflicting and suffering from the violence were more vulnerable. After many discussions with male students I came to realize that the male characters in Kite Runner and Hamlet showed more weakness and vulnerability than violence, and the violence was often a result of the former. My male students didn’t just need the option of writing without censorship, they needed the encouragement to write their real emotions, they needed a safe space to be vulnerable, to be week without repercussions and judgments, and they needed to be real.

    If we ask this of the students, then we must respect it as readers and writers. On the wall of our classroom, a pink thumbtack displays a Jack in the Box napkin littered with comments passed between a student and a teacher, but there is one line (underlined twice) that was the impetus for saving the napkin from its fated decent into the trash: If I write with my heart, do you promise that you will read with yours? This is the essential policy of our classroom. I ask students to write with their hearts, so when I respond they receive two sets of post-it notes: one is from myself reacting as a writer who loves to read (what I loved, what made me laugh cry, and everything in between), the other set is from myself reacting as a writer who loves to praise and improve (what techniques I enjoyed, recommendations, suggestions, etc.). When I return their writing they initially receive the comments from the writer who loves to read, the next day they receive the comments from the writer who loves to praise and improve. With my male students in particular, I have found that praise of vulnerability, and patience when they need to keep that vulnerability private, is essential in encouraging them to write.

  15. In chapter 4 Expressive Writing, Newkirk advocates for increased time on expressive writing. He argues that students are often denied the ability to tell stories that link different characters and events from their past because teachers do not praise student work that lacks a focus and rarely zoom in on one moment in time. The author gives an excerpt from a conversation between a child and a teacher about her vacation. The child begins to deviate in her story to linked topics but the teacher redirects her. Although it is important to give the children the space to share their ideas freely, teachers can conference with students to understand what the main focus of their story is and then hone in on their point. As writers, we are sending a message with our writing and it is important that we know what that message is. Focused writing helps orient both the reader and the writer. I agree that more time should be given to expressive writing. Newkirk states that good writers are like good athletes in which they experiment with new moves and writing techniques that are often above their current ability level. This willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone increases one’s ability. In writing, teachers can guide students to practice new techniques that fit in specific genres of writing. Expressive writing is the build up to genre writing. Donald Graves equated writing to manual labor. It was necessary to put pen to paper as often as possible to create, and thus have something to alter and improve upon.
    Chapter 5 focuses on the importance of bridging concepts teachers want to teach with their students’ interests. This year, a large section of my class is very interested in pro wrestling. I cannot understand the appeal of pro wrestling, yet every Thursday in class, the boys talk about the show as if they were real people. Allowing them to write about these topics would normally drive me crazy, but I see the importance of allowing them to build on their prior knowledge. My background will not always mesh with that of my students. It is interesting that we use other texts as a template for writing, yet copying the plots to t.v. shows is generally frowned upon. I must admit that I find writing about Spongebob Squarepants to be boring and unimaginative and I think that it is has little place in the classroom. But I recognize the importance of meshing the students’ world with the classroom world to create student buy in. Just as the author had students bring in lyrics to their favorite song, I might allow them to write a new episode to their favorite t.v. show or book. This bridge between home and school fosters self confidence and validates that writing can be is interesting to all students.

  16. I can relate to Mark’s comments about finding it relatively easy to incorporate current topics into the curriculum. I teach 12th grade English and the class is called Contemporary Voices. The foundation of the class is contemporary literature, so that makes it really easy to find resources that engage my students. This week we read essays about tattoos and piercings, cultural ideas about beauty and the growing problem of steroid use among young people. Along with reading the texts, we watched video clips about these topics, including extreme tattoos and clips from Jessica Simpson’s series “The Price of Beauty” which explores concepts of beauty from around the world. I could not ask for a better format for incorporating current issues and topics into the curriculum, and of course these kinds of issues help foster student engagement. They get to practice synthesizing information from many different sources and learn how to formulate and articulate their own opinions about these issues-this is what is important-the topics are just the vehicle. I like this because it helps my students not only with academics but in finding connections with mainstream culture- it will help them craft an argument for an essay as well as enable them to actively participate in a conversation about current events.

    I was a little frustrated with the chapter about expressive writing. I certainly appreciated the reminders about making writing less stressful and critical, but I am not sure how to do that and get them where they need to be with academic writing. I love the idea of a cozy, comfy writer’s workshop: I actually bought a bunch of stained glass candles my first year at San Diego High for our writing time because I had visions of creating this lovely, soothing writing space. Of course, reality invited itself in and our writing sessions were anything but lovely and soothing- more like jack-hammering the sidewalk. So my question is this: how can we create less stressful writing space and ensure that our students make significant progress with their writing? Does this meandering idea of writing work for seniors in high school who need to be prepared for college and career level writing?

    The most helpful idea that I came across was actually in the blog posts and not the book. Callie’s idea about using post-it notes to respond to student writing as a reader first was super helpful. I love that idea and I am definitely going to try it. I just graded a bunch of essays and I needed to give them a lot of fix-it feedback. I did not give them enough positive feedback and I knew it- next time I will because I am going to use this idea.

    And a final note in response to Anne’s comment about student conferences: one of my students told me last week that having a writing conference was the only thing that helped him improve his writing. He said that when I wrote comments on his paper he could make those corrections for that paper, but when I met with him and talked about his writing he understood it on a conceptual level and then he could incorporate those ideas into all of his writing. I am planning to spend more time on conferences and less time on just marking up papers.

  17. Wow! That's my first reaction. Not even to the reading itself, but to everyone's comments. I LOVED reading everything!

    I'll start with freewriting, since it is bascially what I am doing. I love the idea of letting things wonder, but I can say that right now, as an adult, I find it very difficult. Maybe it's because I have had the idea of having to have a focus, a central idea, beat into my head, but I keep pausing to to make sure I am on track and not going down another path. However, after reading that section and reading some of the journal entries Newkirk included (loved the one about mascot names!) I went out, bought a new journal and began writing. It was beautiful. I had just lost someone incredibly close to me and was having a hard time dealing with it. I found that by just writing, putting whatever thought that wandered through my mind on paper, I was able to release emotions, deep ones. I let my heart guide my writing and not my head and what I got was incredible. It's not easy to do, just letting yourself go and I can see why Newkirk made comments about undervaluing practice, but if it was this freeing for me, imagine what it could do for a student. Maybe even that one student who never really seems to have a lot to add or say during classroom conversations. Imagine the doors it could open. Just a thought...and thank you Newkirk.

    It was interesting to have someone make the comment that we overvalue feedback and undervalue practice. I agree and disagree. I believe that students need to be given as many opportunities to write as possible. How else are they to practice using language in various ways and learn what effects language can have on a person or what emotions it can create. However, in order to do learn that, there needs to be feedback. I would argue that we don't want to stop feedback, but that we want to modify how we are giving our feedback. Is it meaningful to the students? Ann and Lonnecker's comments about providing conferences mirrors my own classroom practice. I use it as a conversation time. It's where I am able to discuss with them what idea they are trying to express with their writing and give them feedback and ideas about how they might be able to do that. Or sometimes as simple as looking at a sentence, reading it out loud, and seeing if it was read the way they intended or if they should look at fixing punctuation. Callie...I LOVED your post-it idea and am going to share it with the other teachers I work with right away. And the comment "If I write with my heart...", really got my attention. Thanks.

    I loved Newkirk's comparison about characters that would be banned from a school assembly. How true! I do believe students should write about espisodes from their life and I have received some of my best writing this year because of it. However, I worry about not censuring the violence. As a teacher of 4th graders, I can tell you that they have been exposed to enough to be very graphic but too young to realize when it is appropriate or when it has gone to far. I worry about the superintendents and principals, all of whom frequent my room, reading the violent papers and wondering why I'm allowing it when we are suppose to be promoting PeaceBuilders. I think I am more afraid "getting in trouble" with my bosses than I am actually against having violence in my students stories. After all, one of my favorite types of books to read...murder mysteries!