Expressions of the Written Kind

Time to Say Goodbye Blog

 What an interesting ride it has been. Jumping from subject to subject for this blog has shown me that I can be very in decisive… but not at the same time. My initial idea for this blog was to discover some creative ways to teach writing instead of the basic 5 paragraph essay. As time went on my topic turned more into a discovering interesting ways to reach middle school students and the issues which the middle school age group are facing. Complex yes, but then again most things in my life are. Although exciting new methods for middle school writing were challenging to find, I discovered some interesting things this semester…..

* Middle School, one of the most important transition stages in our educaitonal lives, does not recieve the attention it should. This is the time period when students are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe in. As a future middle school teacher, i plan to help students through this tricky time and hopefully teach them some remarkable English and French lessons

*Because of this lack of attention to the middle school age groups, many problems have surfaced in regards to proficiency in subjects. Yes it is a difficult age group to teach, but we should be up for the challenge! Creative lesson plans and interesting class discussions can always spark some new interesting class room ideas.

* There ARE ways to be creative in the classroom, it just takes some imagination on the part of the teacher! I have wrote about many of these ideas; such as acting in the classroom, using literacy leaders and introducing new and outragous projects.

Most of all, this semester has shown me what I wanted to know all along…. That I truly do have a desire to teach. After reading lesson plans, articles, and the writing books in class I realized that I am excited to apply these ideas in my future classroom. I am suddenly sharing lesson plan ideas with room mates and applying every day events to my future classroom. There has been frequent talk about issues with teacher certification and if teachers are truly qualified to be teaching the subject. After class discussion and talking with my writing group, I see future teachers with a passion for their subject and a desire to pass this knowledge on to future students.


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Bird by Bird

” Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. (It) was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

– Anne Lamott writing in bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This is what I have been telling myself through out the semester to make it through. Just step by step. Take everything step by step. Going through hard times? Have more homework then you ever thought possible? Work driving you crazy? take it step by step, that is the only way to get through. It is interesting to apply this mantra to writing. Taking the writing process step by step. Writing is a difficult process and can truly become overwhelming at times. This is why Juli Kendal mentions in her reading/writing blog about how we should sort through the writing process with our students.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. The third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even healthy. “

I like this idea of the up and down draft. administratorsand standardized testing scores are prompting teachers to specifically focus on writing skills. This is obviously very important but so is explaining the writing process. Letting students know that their first draft is most likely not going to be a masterpiece right away can put them at easy in regards to their personal writing process. The teacher then can inform the students that they have the opportunity to make their writing better by going over it through the rewriting process by themselves, with other students or the teacher.

Kendal also brings up another important part of the writing process, sampling. I always loved when teachers read samples of their own personal writing. It lets the student know that the doesn’t spend their life simply grading papers but actually using the skills which they teach! If the teacher is brave enough, they might even allow the students to critique their writing. Students would love the chance to turn the tables around and be on the critical side of an assignment.

so step by step and bird by bird we make our way through the writing process. The up and down drafts could help students and teachers to take each step with confidence instead of the worried view points which both seem to assume when it comes to writing a paper.

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Ok so I kind of got stuck on this subject of different ways of responding to students work. I think that responding to the students assignments in the proper manner is just as important to teaching it the right way. If a student doesn’t do so hot on a paper, the teacher should be able to sit down with the student and show them the areas in-which they could improve. In the same respect a student who turns in a truly inspiring piece of writing should be praised for their writing. So where does what does this all lead to? Conferencing of course!

The only conference type setting I remember in highschool were the parent teacher conference my mom would go to. She would come back with a smile on her face after hearing nice comments about my work from my teachers. Although this is a great confidence boost from my mom, it would be great if the teachers would also share their joy over my work with me! This is why I think that student teacher conferences are necessary on a regular basis, especially in a writing class. Juli Kendal, a writing teacher feature on middleweb. com, expresses some positive on the impact of conferencing with her students.

 “Having conversations with them about their writing while I listen to their thinking, I always learn so much about what they know and are able to do in their writing. But it needs to be about the writer and not just the writing.”

It is this last part that really hit me. The conferencing should reflect not only the students work but the ability of the student. If students know that you believe in them and there work, I really think they shall strive to know better. We see this mostly in small children; they strive to do their best so the adults around them will reward them with positive feedback. I think it is the same with middle schoolers,they are just more difficult to reach. Give them a chance and some motivation to shine and they will.

The artcile speaks mostly about videotaping teachers so they are able to see their postive and negaitve stances during the conferencing process. I am not sure exactly how I feel on this issue. I think it would be a bit bizzare to sit down with a fellow teachers and administrators while they point out things I am doing wrong while speaking with students. However I do think that conferencing is a wonderful idea to be used in the classroom setting.

The article quotes Lucy Calkins, author of  “the art of teaching writing”. Her ideas on conferencing should be kept in mind by all future teachers. We need to use conferencing to assure that writers are learning as they work through their pieces.

If we can keep only one thing in mind—and I fail at this half the time—it is that we are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by “what might help this writer” rather than “what might help this writing.” If the piece of writing gets better but the writer has learned nothing that will help him or her another day on another piece, then the conference was a waste of everyone’s time. It may even have done more harm than good, for such conferences teach students not to trust their own reactions. (p. 228)

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Take a test? No thanks I’ll pass

Finals are less then a week away. this is a very scary thought, especially for those who have found themselves drowning in homework from a crazy semester. (example A: Me!) The idea of testing what a student knows by way of exams has been included in our education since elementary school. At first we started off with spelling tests and drawing shapes. Middle school then introduced us to multiple choice questions and the lovely MEAP. High-school teachers instilled fear into each student by threatening to fail students if they messed up on their tests. Using this information, it is not surprising that students do not jump for joy when discovering that another test is on its way. Of course this is not the only way of testing a students knowledge. Term papers, presentations and pop quizzes are always a popular alternative. The thought I am trying crack into is there must be another way for students to show what they have learned besides taking an exam. Of course the wafting sense of fear among the classroom on the day of the exam would be gone, but really that is not something I am striving for in my future classroom.

 Dr. Sabiha Daudi, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University has developed a list of alternative assignmento use in the classroom.  The list below is from the article Alternative Assessment:

  • Manipulative tasks: Developing hypotheses, planning and carrying out experiments, measuring, writing up results.
  • Oral examinations/Interviews: Face-to-face verbal exchanges that allow educators to ask questions and respond to students’ answers.
  • Exhibitions: Include, for example, demonstrations, projects, and presentations.
  • Portfolios: A purposeful collection of evidence of a student’s achievements, competencies, or skills gathered over time.
  • Concept mapping: A visual tool depicting the relationships among a set of concepts.
  • Performance assessment: Requires students to complete a task, create a product, or construct a response that demonstrates their knowledge of a skill, process, or concept. May or may not be authentic.
  • After looking at the list, and writing mental note to myself to use these ideas in my future classroom, I realized that ,any of these ideas are already used in our college classrooms. All those who took Writing 150 remember the end of the semester portfolio which was your complete grade in the classroom. The one on one interview idea is also used frequently in foreign language classes. My French conversation class does not have a final, but instead we must complete a half an hour french interview with the professor. Although this can be very intimidating it is a practical way to show what we have learned in the class room without having to pass out a formal exam. I personally prefer this to a scantron or essay exam.

    Many of these ideas can be applied to middle school classrooms as well. Now obviously as  future writing teachers we would want to make sure our students can write a paper properly. I am not saying we should get rid of this idea but try to expand our horizons a bit more. Portfolios can be used to accumulate students work, and also shows the students how they have progressed through out year. Other ideas such as demonstrations and creating products can open the door to many new writing ideas as well. For example students could demonstrate writing skills by creating a product label or something along those lines.  Not only would this be fun for the students, but it would take care of the problem of test taking anxiety. No more worries about blanking out on the day of the exam. Now if I can only get my professors to get rid of my final exams…..

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    Teachers= Actors?

     A highschool teacher once explained to me that teaching is just like performing. You stand up in-front of a group of people and do your best to relay a message to them in an entertaining way. The Lincoln Center Institute in New York is taking this theory one step further by helping teachers to enhance their acting skills to further benefit their classroom. During a 5 day national conference, educators learn how to use gestures and voice to enhance their classroom setting. Relating this to my own experience, I can definitely remember the eccentric teachers much more clearly then those who were on the calmer side.

    Although it seems like a good idea to liven up the classroom by getting into characters from novels and such, I wondered how you could apply this to other areas of study as well. One of the science teachers who attended the last conference commented on how his new found acting skills improved his classroom.

    ” ‘Working with Shakespeare, I learned about using language to build excitement,’ says Kevin Williams, a science teacher at Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy II. ‘My teaching persona is a lot more excited now.’ The workshop, he adds,’made me more of a risk taker in the classroom.’ The butterflies he felt before performing also made Williams more empathetic to students who perform in front of a class.

    Relating this to the area of writing, many teachers found that their students improved in their writing skills and were able to think more abstractly when referring to material. Now I know this may be difficult to incorporate into each area of study, but it would certainly living up the classroom. Going along with my theme of making classes exciting and different, I can see students paying more attention to a teacher acting out Shakespeare then one who is simply having the students read the chapter to themselves. A teacher could take this idea and expand it further by having the students themselves act out certain elements of a lesson. During my time in middle school I can recall having to write a song about parts of speech for one class and one about the revolutionary war for another class. Yes the assigments were a bit bizzare, but the information is still clear in my mind. Who knows, soon the college of ed could require an acting class to get into the school of ed. Interesting thought..

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    Middle School Projects

    As teachers we are constantly searching for new ways to make lesson plans interesting and exciting for our students. As I have explained in my previous blogs, I firmly believe that students will show an interest in the subject if it is presented in an interesting and exciting manner. The students at Helen King Middle School In Maine clearly show that this is a true fact. The school utilizes a project based learning style called the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound model.

    “At least twice a year, students, who stay with the same group of teachers for two years — a practice called “looping” — undertake 4- to 12-week interdisciplinary projects. Besides incorporating such subjects as art, science, and language arts, the projects include well-considered use of computer technology, which has been enhanced by the decision of the state to provide all Maine seventh and eighth graders with iBook laptop computers.”

     Instead of simply writing papers and giving presentations these students participate in projects such as making computer projects and composing music. Some of the activities they have participated in include:

    “an aquarium design judged by local architects; a CD narrative of Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” by students learning English; Voices of U.S.[a book of immigrant stories], a guide to shore life of Casco Bay; original music composition and production; documentaries on learning with laptops; a claymation video explaining Newton’s Laws; and a Web site on pollution.”

    What an amazing idea! Instead of simply writing papers and giving presentations these students are making CD’s  and making composing music on the subjects they are learning about… while still including their state benchmarks. It seems like it would be a challenging to find a student who would not enjoy participating in a project like this. With a huge undertaking such as designing an aquarium or making a website, there must be dozens of tasks for students to complete, meaning there must be something that each student would take an interest in. Using this idea in middle school classrooms is a wonderful idea to satisfy the easily distracted middle school age group. Their hands on experience not only provides an opportunity to participate in the project, but also to apply the information they are learning.  David Grant, the technology specialist at Helen King Middle school explains further on how hands on education benefits the student.

     “When you start to make something, you look at it, you reflect upon it, and you begin to be informed by your own representation. And then in that way, you either go out into the world to get more data to support your ideas or you begin to think about something new in your mind and you start to re-represent. And that’s how the learning gets deep.”

    This would be a huge undertaking for a school to participate in, but wouldn’t it be amazing to observe students working on a project they are truly motivated in? I mean creating a CD program in 7th grade is a pretty remarkable event and one that would surely be remembered by the student. This is the type of education which we should be promoting in our future school systems and classrooms

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    Rough Times in Middle School… for the Teachers

    Time to take a bit of a different look on the ever changing world of middle school. The posts before this spoke about some of the issues facing middle school students and the changing curriculum which they are constantly thrown into. Now I shall look at middle school from a  slightly different perspective (for this blog entry). Not that of the antsy, confused middle schooler, but instead of the brave, strong and diminishing breed of the middle-school teacher.

    A recent article from the New York Times explained the difficulties of teaching at the middle school age level and the lack of teachers who wish to pursue this profession. The difficult environment causes many teachers to sprint for the door instead of entering into a middle-school classroom. The changing hormones and new found attitudes of the middle school age students can definitely make it difficult to teach to the certain age group.  

    “Part of the challenge of middle school is the breathtaking range of student ability, more pronounced than in elementary schools, where one can only fall so far behind, or high schools, which generally offer tracked classes.The most difficult high school students often drop out or skip class, while middle school teachers tend to face a full house.”

    While it is true that difficult students can disrupt a classroom and cause further challenges for the teacher, I am a bit disgusted by what that quote implies. Basically that middle school teachers are stuck teaching the troublesome students who are just going to drop out once they reach high-school. Shouldn’t we be looking for ways to motivate these students to become interested in the subjects so they will NOT drop out? The article redeemed itsself  of this blow to the students by discussing  another point…… a disheartening point for this future middle school teacher. Because of the lack of interest in teaching middle school classes, school officials are therefor forced into hiring teachers who are not specialized in middle school teaching. They lack the training in teaching the subjects and understanding the mind of this specific age group.

    “The Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, has asserted that a “scandalously high” number of middle school classes are taught by teachers lacking even a college minor in their assigned subjects.

    Around the country, middle school teachers are often trained as elementary school generalists or as high school subject specialists, with little understanding of young adolescent psychology. We’re really in a malpractice kind of environment, where we’re preparing teachers for elementary classrooms and high school classrooms but not middle-grades classrooms,” said Peggy Gaskill, research chairwoman of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, an alliance of educators, researchers and others seeking to improve middle school education.”

    This is sad to think about. It make me wonder if the courses I am taking truly prepare me to enter into my future middle-school classroom with the confidence and understanding to teach the students. The article also mentioned that some states are developing specific programs for middle school teaching. After searching on-line, I was unable to confirm if Michigan had a program such as this. I did look into the courses required to obtain this degree at St. Edwards University In Texas, and it looks like Grand Valleys education program requires a lot of the same required material such as courses in child development. This makes me feel better!

    Despite the negative connotations towards middle school teachers, I am excited to get into my future classroom and stir things up. I think the key is making the lessons interesting so the students will respond positively to them. The requirements and boundaries placed on the curriculum do not have to restrict the teacher to how they teach. I mean if we are going to be teaching we need to have fun with it! And as for a final thought regarding middle school teachers, I leave you with a quote from Mrs. Abeu, a middle school teacher at Seth Low in New York;

    “Middle school is like Scotch,” she reflected in the teachers’ lounge one afternoon. “At first you try to get it down. Then you get used to it. Then it’s all you order.”

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    Literacy Leaders

    It is always comforting to hear that educators are discovering new ways for students to gain the most out of their experience in school. There are always new ways to look at a subject or to get a certain point across to students, and the following article shows that teachers are doing just that. Karri Weather, a kindergarden teacher and blogger on introduces the idea of a “Literacy Leader” which was started in her school district. The Literacy Leader is a teacher who is hired to further develop the language arts lesson plans and provide new lesson plan ideas for teachers. Weather explains a bit about the Literacy Leader in her community :

    “My school has a wonderful literacy leader. She helps the classroom teachers enrich their language arts lessons, and she offers support when needed. She analyzes test scores and identifies areas of need. After identifying struggling students, the literacy leader aides in teaching and tutoring. She divides the students so that they may be worked with in a small group setting.

    In addition to supplementing teaching, the literacy leader provides resources. Our literacy leader has a room full of well organized reading materials. The materials range from student novels to teacher resource books. If teachers are in need of supplements or information on a particular concept, she will gather materials for them to use.”

    How amazing would this be? Perhaps you (as a teacher) are in a rut and want to think of an interesting way to teach a lesson on conjunctions. The Literacy Leader would be able to help with the lesson plan. After analyzing test scores and such, the literacy leader would be able to help you focus on the issues which students seem to be struggling with the most. If we want our students to retain the most information as possible and in walks someone who knows how to do that, we would be able to feel assured that we are incorporating our talents as teacher along with the creative streak of the literacy leader.

    “Literacy leaders can offer great support to beginning teachers and bring new ideas to veteran teachers. It is nice to have a person in the building that has been in a classroom setting and understands the trials that we face. I can also see improvements in my students’ academics from receiving the extra help that is provided.”

    Now in some cases I can see how it would be kind of annoying to have another teacher come in and tell you how to do your job. However, our education system is evolving at a rapid rate. Technology is finding a new place in the education world,  new information is arising pertaining to subjects which have been taught for years (who ever thought that Pluto wouldn’t be a planet?) and most importantly, all student learn in a different way. In this ever changing world, who doesn’t want a little bit of help every now and then? Some one who has been there before and can guide you the right way. I mean that is why we stop and ask for directions when we are lost on the highway right? In hope that someone who has been there before can tell us the right way to go. Who would ever turn down good directions?

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    Rise of Grades, But Not of Knowledge

    During our last class period, we talked about tracking and if it is beneficial or detrimental in schools. During our discussion I began to think about my time in highschool and about the different classes which I took. My senior year I decided to take Senior English, instead of the AP English class. I did have some friends who decided to take the AP English class that year, so we were able to talk about the things we were studying in both classes. In the midst of my studying, reading and paper writing for my senior English class, I would often find myself explaining the concepts of the stories to my friends who were in the AP English class. As it turns out my teacher provided an in-depth look into the stories we were studying, which of course means a whole lot of homework and other assignments; however the AP English classroom was coasting by with the bare minimum of work.  Multiple students from the AP class informed me that my English class was much more difficult then theirs, and they were in the “harder” class!

    ok, I am not ranting about AP classes, this is not what the blog is about. However I did find an interesting article in the education section of the new york times which talks about how grades of high-school students have rose over the past couple of years, yet the basic reading and math skills have significantly dropped. Although more and more high-school students make the choice to take AP and/or honor classes instead of basic classes, they are lacking the basic abilities needed to get the most out of the subjects they are studying.

    “The National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam commonly known as the nation’s report card, found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992, when a comparable test was first given, and essentially flat since students previously took the exam in 2002. The test results also showed that the overwhelming majority of high school seniors have not fully mastered high-school-level math.”

    So how exactly are students taking Advanced Calc if they can’t do basic algebra? In some cases it could be the basic “remember it for the test and then forget it” type of deal. Students study the information, do fine on the exam but the second they turn in the exam that information is out the window. Now this is not true for all students. Most of the students in AP classes deserve to be there because they have worked hard to do so. But what about the other students in the school who just take the required courses? Some highschools only require 2 years of math classes. Will a student who has took pre algebra and geometry at the beginning of highschool really remember the information by the time they graduate? The article again takes information from  the National Assesment of Educaitonal Progress:

    “It showed that the share of 12th-grade students lacking even basic high school reading skills — meaning they could not, for example, extract data about train fares at different times of day from a brochure — rose to 27 percent from 20 percent in 1992. The share of students proficient in reading dropped to 35 percent from 40 percent in 1992. At the same time, the gap between boys and girls grew, with girls’ reading skills more than a year ahead those of boys.In math, only 23 percent of all 12th graders were proficient, but the exam has been revamped, so the results could not be compared with those from earlier years, officials said. The new test has fewer questions requiring arithmetic and more using algebra and geometry. Some 39 percent of 12th graders lacked even basic high school math skills. “

    This can all relate back to the fact that the education criteria of day forces teachers to spend more time focusing on teaching the material which will be on the MEAP and ACT then to make sure that students know the basics skills pertaining to the subjects. The crunch for time makes it difficult to make sure students know the basics of subject before plowing on to get to the in-depth studying. If there were only a bit more space in the curriculum to go over the needed information, i believe that great progress could be made in this area. Although I am sure that more and more national test will show the same results; that students today need to know the basic information no matter which direction they choose to follow after highschool.

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