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So . . . I clearly haven't been blogging much over the last few months. Well, really over the last year. Here's the thing: I've been writing a lot, just not here.

Blogging was important to me for a number of years. It was a way for me to develop a positive relationship to writing after really not being a confident writer for a number of years. It was a first step towards a surprising progression to where I am now. First of all, I have embraced an identity as a writer. I really enjoy writing, not all the time, not every day, but when I feel like it. . . . and I feel like it more and more . . . I've come to realize that I write for me--and if it gets published, that's just a bonus. A bonus I love, but a bonus nonetheless.

So this summer, I've been researching a project that I'm deeply interested in. I traveled to Baltimore and New York to RESEARCH, of all things. Yeah, I loved seeing friends and two cities I love, but it was a trip devoted to deeply satisfying work. I discovered things that I don't think many people today know. It was exhilarating and exciting, and I wish I could go to Annapolis tomorrow and Boston too (though I'll be there in November).

Last week, I went to Lake Tahoe to meet a friend for a Writing Retreat. She was really dedicated--wrote for most of the day compared to my few hours a day. But, wow, I loved what I was doing. I'm working on a more personal essay, not what I really do generally, but it's been a good challenge to try to articulate why something is really important to me. I hope it gets published (and I think it will), but if it doesn't, I've so enjoyed the process.

Today, I was talking to a friend on the phone. He told me that he envisions me as a writer, that he feels like that's my next step. Interesting since that totally fits how I've been feeling for the last few months.

I'm grateful for writing, for friends who encourage me to write, for progress, for not giving up, for having enough time to write, for so many things. As I move towards the school year, I hope I can continue to carve out writing time.

(Just an aside. My deep thanks go to Janet Stevens who drove me all over Baltimore. I owe you.)

18 days into the year and i haven't blogged yet. lots of reasons why which i won't get into here. but here's my record of 2011 in words:

  • book review on a text I'm using this semester in my methods class
  • online encyclopedia essay about wendy rose
  • essay about wendy rose that i am oh so far from being finished with
  • profile of a cow and its caretaker which will be part of a book called cows of america
  • emails, grant proposals, syllabi, all kinds of work related documents, tweets, and lists

this record is brief, but (except for the last item) it illustrates a new commitment to writing.

i have other plans for 2012, plans associated with writing. i just finished a blog post which will eventually be published here. i have a writing retreat coming up (san franciscans take notice). and i am in the process of writing reports and application essays (rest assured, fresno friends, these applications are not for other jobs). if you want to know more, though, you'll have to follow me here. i'll let you know when/if i have writing-related news.

lesson learned this year #1: what i have to say sounds smarter when it's single spaced.

Today is the National Day on Writing as designated by NCTE, NWP, U.S. Congress, and even the Fresno City Council. NWP has been instrumental in encouraging an internet meme, #whyIwrite. In that vein, I wanted to share a youtube video I love and one of my Facebook updates for today.

First, the video.

And one of my facebook updates: I write to make sense of the world, to discover what I think, to share what I'm passionate about.

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Summer has not always been kind to me. I've sometimes worked too hard or experienced the depths of grief because of a loss. I've wasted the summer away sleeping or not doing much that was very meaningful. Long stretches of unstructured time make me nervous. I know that I'm not good at self-discipline and I feel guilt about not being productive. I have issues with summer.

However, something surprising happened this year: I was able to reconnect in a really deep way with my writing self. I was able to write through the insecurities I developed as I wrote my dissertation and I think . . . I hope . . . I've developed a new relationship with writing. I have two new projects that I want to work on--and much of that desire comes from completing a writing commitment successfully. I remembered something that I hadn't felt for awhile, that writing makes me feel alive and conscious of my cognitive and analytical abilities in ways that bring me deep satisfaction.

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Today, one of the participants in the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project's Summer Institute picked out an amazing quote to discuss from the NWP's publication, Because Writing Matters. When I read the book, my eyes must have glossed over this passage, so I'm very glad that Lesli pointed it out:

"If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with details, wrestle with facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write."

I love how this quote focuses on how messy learning can be and why writing is such a crucial part of learning. I suppose conversation could take the place of writing here, and that certainly is another important component of learning. But as I think about all the times in my life that I've written about a topic . . . even in email when I'm trying to communicate something important . . . I see how writing helped me, eventually, find clarity and a deeper understanding.

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On Thursday, Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford were in Fresno by invitation of my department's graduate student organization Students of English Studies Association. I think it was a first to have two such prominent Composition scholars present at California State University, Fresno. I had breakfast with them and a group of our really wonderful graduate students that morning. Both Andrea and Karen were really gracious and went out of their way to praise the work our graduate students were doing (Andrea had heard them present last year at the CCCC). At breakfast, I was interested to hear about Karen's work--but I also was fascinated to learn about the creative work that Michelle Brittan and Mario Rosado (two of our MFA students) are doing. Both are interested in anthropology, a discipline that continues to intrigue me.

Later that day, Andrea and Karen told us about a research project they're doing. Thirty years ago, Andrea coded and analyzed a collection of essays produced by college freshmen in writing classes. She's also familiar with a similar collection from the 1880's. Now, Andrea and Karen have solicited essays from universities all over the U.S. They are engaged in a herculean effort to understand the contemporary strengths and weaknesses of college writers. They also led us through the task of looking at teacher comments and trying to come up with a coding system for them. This was an authentic task--they wanted our advice on what to look for in these essays.

I want to back up, though. Probably the most interesting thing I learned from them was their assessment of how today's college freshmen compare with students 30 years ago. Here are some of the important points:

  • Thirty years ago, students had a lot of spelling errors. Today, most essays have very few spelling problems thanks to spell check.
  • Other than that, the problems of college writers are pretty much the same in both eras. This is an important point since the idea of a literacy crisis has predominated for decades.
  • The most striking differences between the two sets of students are that 1) Today's students write more arguments/persuasive pieces instead of the narratives that predominated 30 years ago. 2) Today's students are assigned much longer pieces to write.

Basically, then, when teachers complain that student writing is getting worse, that's not an accurate perception. As writing teachers, we need to understand that we are involved in a decades-long endeavor to teach writing rather than an epic battle to assure that high standards are met.

We are writing teachers; we want our students to be effective communicators. It's challenging but rewarding work. Let's not be distracted by the rhetoric of crisis.

Yesterday in my Methods class, we focused on teaching revision strategies. I went to the old classic, Barry Lane's After the End which has great ideas about how to teach revision. After skimming the book, I decided to model a specific strategy for my students, one that Lane calls "Growing Leads." I told my students the following "story":

I have a really interesting story to tell you. It's a story about betrayal and loss. This is it. It happened when I was little and it was a really sad day. My brother had a shovel. And then my other brother was punished by my parents. Any questions?

My students reacted almost immediately, asking a variety of questions which I wrote down on the white board. You can probably imagine some of the questions they asked, everything from "What were your brothers' names?" to "Why was your brother punished?" After we had covered the white board with questions, I went through each, giving an answer using complete sentences. Soon, my students had a good idea of the real story . . .

One day my parents were having a yard sale. They had to run some errands and they left my teenaged brother Ted in charge. My younger brother Jim decided to go with them, but before he left, he looked at my brother Ted and said "Don't sell my little red shovel." A while later, someone was poking around the yard, somehow saw Jim's shovel, and wanted to buy it--and Ted, being the good capitalist that he is, happily made the sale. You can imagine Jim's despair when he returned and his shovel was gone.

After I had answered my students questions, I talked with them about how each complete sentence could be a lead to my story--I asked them to choose which ones they thought would be particularly effective. Then, I asked the students to divide into pairs and try this strategy with their own writing (I had asked them to do a freewrite at the beginning of class about how they spent their Halloween). As the students shared their freewrites and asked each other questions, the noise level was higher than it had ever been in my class.

After they had gone through the process themselves, we talked about how this activity would encourage students to be willing to revise their work--they would see how many different possibilities there were, at least for the lead.

My students loved this activity.

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When we want our students to write an essay, we need to communicate clearly. In the U.S., we talk about giving our students written "prompts" with the essay assignment. I like the word "prompt" because it reminds us that the written instructions can "prompt" student thinking and remind them of what they're supposed to address in their writing. If we're only giving instructions orally, it's easy to forget details or expectations, so the written prompt is an important tool to use in teaching.

Sometimes prompts can be quite brief; for example, when we ask students to prewrite, we may just have a prompt that contains just one or two sentences. It may be that we project the prompt on an overhead or use some other more temporary method. However, sometimes prompts need to provide a lot of detail . . . especially when the writing assignment is a complex project that may take many class periods to produce.

Here is a list of things that the prompt could include:

* The audience (who should the students address in their writing?)
* The form of discourse (a letter? a persuasive piece? a short story?)
* The topic (what is the writing supposed to be about?)
* The purpose (what should students accomplish with their writing? why should they care about the piece of writing in the first place?)

Written prompts can also include prewriting activities that students might engage in to brainstorm ideas, limitations on how long/short the resulting text should be, details on how the writing will be graded, due dates, etc.

I find that I need to create a nice balance between providing enough detail and giving too much information. Students can become confused by our instructions if we aren't careful.

Still, I like to create prompts that help my students understand the context of the assignment--how does it fit into our curriculum? Why do I think this is a worthwhile writing assignment? What should the students' work demonstrate about their learning? If we can't answer these questions, we shouldn't be asking our students to write. And if they CAN answer these questions, our students are more likely to understand our curricular goals and why they're being asked to write.

A good writing prompt can help our students succeed in their writing.

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When I first started teaching "English Teaching Methods" courses, I used Rhoda Maxwell and Mary Meiser's textbook: Teaching English in Middle and Secondary Schools. They described an approach to grading that made sense to me--and that has been reassuring to the many students and teachers I've talked with over the years. Basically, they divide grading into three levels, labeled simply "Level One," "Level Two," and "Level Three." Here's my memory of what they say.

Level One: This includes writing assignments like brainstorming, freewriting, journal writing, etc. Since this type of writing is intended to help students explore ideas, the feedback from teachers can be minimal. In fact, usually it's enough for teachers to just check to see if it's done without giving any feedback at all.

Level Two: Writing that is a little more formal: drafts, homework, essay writing in exams. With this type of writing, teachers can read relatively quickly in order to check content. Feedback could address more global issues rather than the specifics. This type of writing isn't about correctness so grammar and punctuation shouldn't receive our attention (unless it's in the form of identifying class patterns of errors/problems that could be addressed in instruction rather than in writing).

Level Three: Formal writing assignments such as final drafts of essays. It's really only this type of writing that teachers need to respond to in more depth. Students have had the chance to explore ideas, perfect organization, and revise/edit. This is where we give more thorough response.

There are exceptions to this outline--but the point is that teachers shouldn't give exactly the same kind of attention to every piece of writing. If we did, we'd soon stop asking students to write because the paper load would be so heavy. We need to consider what the purpose of the writing assignment is, whether students need the freedom to explore without worrying what their teachers think or how grammatically correct their writing is, and whether students have had time and support in creating their best piece of writing.

This past week, I talked with several groups of teachers about writing. These discussions seemed to reinvigorate a number of the teachers who talked about how they wanted to share what they learned with other teachers at their site. I really love talking about writing and am always so excited by the ways that teachers welcome the opportunity to be reflective about their writing pedagogy.

One of the things I've been considering in connection with these presentations is the role of writing in learning another language. I hope that my friend Denine, who teaches English as a Second Language, will address this in either a comment or a post of her own--but here's what I've been thinking.

When I was studying French, Portuguese, and Spanish, writing seemed to be a way that the teacher could check my grammar and spelling. I remember taking many a French test in college which was returned to me with an abundance of red corrections. I learned to keep my sentences as simple as possible, to limit what I said to what I had the vocabulary to say. Instead of experimenting with sentence structures, trying out new patterns, and asking questions about how to communicate more fully, I stayed with the basics in order to get a good grade in class.

But I also remember one situation in which I was assigned to do an oral presentation on Pablo Neruda, a writer I cared about. There were specific ideas that I wanted to communicate because I'd already done a lot of research on Neruda and had thought deeply about his poetry.

Of course, there was a great deal that I didn't yet have the vocabulary to express, so I decided to write out what I wanted to say. My Colombian friend Paola looked at my transcript and helped me create more grammatical sentences. I read that transcript over and over until I'd internalized the ideas and the sentences enough to make my oral presentation.

So . . . what does this have to do with writing? Too often, we use writing only as a way to assess grammar and spelling. But in order to become fluent in a language, we actually have to learn to think in it. When a teacher's evaluation addresses only the grammatical quality of sentences, students will write the simplest sentence possible and limit their thinking as a result.

Writing is a tool we can use to help students learn to think in another language if we occasionally resist the urge to mark with red pen.