Tag Archives: Writing

The one book EVERY kid will read (and it’s not Harry Potter)

24 Jun

BooksWhen I was in sixth grade, there was a book that every kid in the grade read, discussed, dissected, and analyzed with the academic attention of a Shakespeare scholar. There was only one copy of this book available, and by the end of a day, it was ripped to shreds by eager hands fighting over who would get to read it next. It was an all-out sensation.

You might be wondering: was it Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? Ender’s Game?

Nope. Not even close.

It was fellow 6th grader Mike Palmer’s journal. (Which I am now certain Mike left lying about with the specific intention that it be “discovered” and shared among all the twittery, crush-happy girls of the grade. At any rate, he seemed very pleased with the attention.)

The fact is, kids don’t always care that much about what adults think of the world, but they always care about what their friends and peers think. If you are having a hard time getting kids excited about reading, all you have to do is let them read something written by their friends. At Deep, we help kids write books that are both artistically valuable and also exciting for their peers to read, and the results have been exciting. More than half of our students say that being in Deep and reading their peers’ work has inspired them to read more in their free time.

Do you remember reading notes and stories by your friends when you were younger? Do you think it’s a good idea to spend more time letting kids read each other’s work in class? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Why are so many kids failing standardized writing tests?

21 May

I got an editorial published in the Savannah Morning News about local writing scores! http://savannahnow.com/column/2013-05-15/commentary-how-teach-write-stuff#

HOW TO TEACH THE WRITE STUFF BY CATHERINE KILLINGSWORTH

People are asking a lot of questions about Chatham County’s low eighth-grade writing scores. There is much speculation about curricula, test fairness and time spent writing in the classroom.

Yet no one is asking the question that will really make a difference:

Do kids care about becoming skilled writers?

If not, how can we change their minds?

Every parent knows that kids can learn how to do pretty much anything they really care about and get satisfaction from. Kids master impossible video games. They practice free throws for hours to perfect their shot. They text faster than the human eye can follow.

If kids are not learning how to write essays in standard academic English, it is most often because they do not believe it is important.

Either that, or they think it is impossible and thus not worth the effort.

Imagine a kid — a smart, talented kid — who doesn’t speak standard English at home. He uses body language to make a point.

None of the people he admires have gone to college. He, like every kid, wants to grow up to be like the people he loves.

While we educators may believe that teaching him to write a timed essay on a topic he knows nothing about is important (indeed, learning how to do this will give him access to the cultures of commerce and academia, thus providing him with more choices in the future), to this kid it seems pointless and demeaning.

He is forced to translate his thoughts into a language no one has taught him. Perhaps he wants to pass the test so that he can go on to the next grade, but odds are he doesn’t think that writing itself will be useful in his future. He is not going to go home and scribble persuasive essays into his journal for fun.

In my work at Deep, a nonprofit that provides free after-school writing programs at local public schools, we have achieved tremendous results with improving students’ writing skills, and we are successful because we believe that motivating kids is as important as teaching them.

We use the Georgia State Writing Test rubric to score writing samples from our students, and on average our kids improve their scores by 20 percent after just 10 Deep classes. Our students — many of whom come from the schools that are facing criticism, including DeRenne and East Broad — are winning state, regional and national prizes for their writing.

Our kids write well because we give them a compelling, rewarding reason to: we publish their work in a professional anthology and invite them to read it to hundreds of community members at a book release event. We give them an opportunity to share what is important to them with a large audience.

We are not in this game to “fix” our students (a surefire way to destroy anyone’s desire to learn). We are simply here to help students through a difficult but rewarding writing project.

If we want children to succeed, we must approach the project not from the test down but from the kid up. We must ask: how are we making the project of writing meaningful, relevant and rewarding? How are we making it worth their time?

If we can answer that, then our kids will rise to any challenge.

Why Kids Write Boring Essays (it’s not the reason you think)

14 Mar

English: A bored person

Have you ever sat down and said to yourself, “You know what I’d like to do right now? Sit down with a nice, thick stack of five-paragraph essays written by local sixth graders. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon that would be!”

If you’re like most people, then the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Five-paragraph essays, particularly ones by kids, are notoriously dull and poorly written, right? Don’t kids hate writing? Shouldn’t we be proud to squeeze five reasonably organized paragraphs out of them?

Not at all! I love reading my kids’ essays and, in fact, have been known to spend a cozy afternoon or two re-reading them.

The real reason that kids write boring essays is so simple it hurts: kids write boring essays because they think that essays are supposed to be boring. They are shown boring examples and given boring topics. Kids are asked to choose theses, but never to pick a topic that makes them angry, or to write about an opinion that all their friends disagree with. No one tells them that it is okay to make jokes in an essay, or to use interesting extended metaphors.

If my kids are writing something boring, I make them stop and start over again until they have a thesis that gets them excited. I’ve had a lot of success teaching essay-writing via satire; I’ve had kids write essays with titles like “Why Boys Should Wear as Much Makeup as Girls” and “Why You Should Wear a Helmet in the Hood”–and they are a fabulous read. For the lesson plan and example essays, you can order a copy of the Deep curriculum here.

How do you get your kids to write interesting essays? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Top 4 Reasons Kids Get Totally Confused in Class (and handy tricks for avoiding it)

26 Feb

English: Question marks with transparent backg...

 

We’ve all had that moment before: we think we’ve explained something brilliantly. The kids are nodding and smiling. Our examples were charming and relevant. We know that our kids absolutely understand the concept.

 

And then we ask them to get to work and…it turns out they have no idea what they are supposed to do!

 

Here are a few of the most common reasons this happens:

 

1. You aren’t clearly outlining your goals and agenda. I never go to the movies without watching a preview first, I never order a new dish without reading the description on the menu, and I never book a plane ticket without researching the city I want to visit. Why on earth should I expect my kids to dive into a lesson before they have any idea what it’s about, or where it will take them? The easiest, quickest, most effective way to get  kids on board and invested in your lesson is to spend a little time at the beginning explaining what you are going to do that day and why.

 

2. You are using think-y verbs, rather than action verbs. The most confusing thing you can possibly do is tell your kids to “think about” or “imagine” or “explore” or “look into” or “consider” something. It all sounds very inspiring and academic, but kids have no idea what these verbs really mean (and honestly, neither do I). Ask them to do things that you can physically see them achieve: write, act out, discuss, measure, underline.

 

3. You aren’t scaffolding. Often, tasks that seem obvious to us are actually really complicated to people who are new at them. For example: “take notes” seems easy to adults, but what we’re really asking kids to do is “listen to what I am saying while simultaneously sifting through the information for the most salient points (which you need a lot of context and expertise to determine) while also writing down these salient points in an organized and meaningful fashion using standard outline format.” Take every task–even seemingly simple ones–and break it down into a list of its component parts.  If you aren’t sure that your kids know how to do each and every step, take the time to teach it to them!

 

4. You are using words they don’t know. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens; it’s easy to forget that some kids haven’t been exposed to words like “compare” before. Luckily, this kind of confusion can be avoided by simply asking kids to repeat your explanations back to them in their own words. If they can’t do it, then go back to find the culprit word and add it to your word wall.

 

Have you ever accidentally confused your kids? What happened and how did you fix it? I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

Top 3 Ways to Help Kids Love Poetry

11 Feb

1st edition

When you say the word “poetry” these days, it is often greeted with a groan, even from grown adults. “I just don’t get poetry,” people say. This attitude starts young and calcifies as we age.

This is silly. Poetry isn’t just about “getting” or “not getting” it; it’s about experiencing it. You don’t “get” birdsong or drumbeats–you just listen to them and enjoy them. Likewise, poetry isn’t just about analysis (though it can certainly be enriched by it); it’s about listening, enjoying, and–eventually–tattooing a few choice words into your heart. If you understand that, you love poetry. The following three things are tools that help me get my kids to approach poetry in this way:

1. Listen to poems out loud. Several times. One of the best investments I ever made was a $10 pair of portable speakers that I carry to every class. Whenever I read a poem with my kids, I try to play a recording of the author (or an actor, if it’s a long deceased poet) reading the work. We listen to it twice through, first just to listen and second to take notes and ask questions. Taking the poem off the page helps students to remember that it is just words thought up by some person, not an impenetrable and anonymous text.

2. Memorize poems. Memorization has gotten a bad rap as a boring or old-school exercise, but poetry was born to be memorized. Rehearsing the words over and over makes them more familiar and less frightening. It unlocks the meaning. It builds a connection between the reader and the poet. To start a unit on poetry, let your students find poets that they like and memorize a work by that poet.

3. Write poems. This is perhaps the best way to make poetry accessible because once a student has written a poem, they have seen poetry from the other side. They know, now, that it is not so mystical and strange. They are poets, and so they can approach other poets as colleagues, not as confused students.

How do you get your students to relate to poetry? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Top 3 Reasons Kids Hate Writing (And How to Change Their Minds)

28 Nov

Writing

So many teachers tell me that their students hate to write, but I don’t believe that. (More on that here.) When students say they hate writing, what they really mean is this:

1. They don’t think they can write.

2. They are not allowed to write about what interests them.

3. They are not allowed to write in their own voice.

 

Luckily, all three of these have straightforward fixes.

1. Offer your students lots of opportunities to succeed at a writing task, and praise them loudly when they do. This can be as simple as starting every week with a fill-in-the-blank metaphor contest (“Mondays are a….”) or as involved as creating a pen pal program where your students write letters to each other every week. Try to give at least three pieces of praise or encouragement for every piece of criticism.

2. Give your kids as many chances as you can to choose their own topics for writing assignments. While learning to write on assigned topics is important, so is learning to invent topics and brainstorm ideas. Try to give students at least one “free” writing assignment (poetry, journals, letters) for every topic-driven essay assignment.

3. Give your kids opportunities to write in their own voices, with their own spelling and punctuation rules. While learning to write in standard academic English is important, so is learning to find your voice and distinguish “home talk” from “school talk.” Give your kids free writes and creative assignments in which they can write in whatever voice they like, without being criticized for non-standard English. This even includes allowing slang or profanity, if the student feels that this is the best way to express his or her ideas. (I have some advice for dealing with that here.)
How do you get your kids excited about writing? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

The Worst Question You Can Ask a Student

14 Nov
Question mark

Question mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The worst, most annoying, most pointless question that you can possibly ask a student is also, hilariously, probably the most common question in classrooms today:

“Do you understand?”

It seems innocuous enough–it’s important to make sure that your students are keeping up, after all–but let’s look at the effect that this seemingly harmless question actually has on students:

  • If your students do understand, then this question will likely seem patronizing and annoying.
  • If your students do not understand, then this question will make them feel stupid and helpless.
  • If your students misunderstand, then they will remain blissfully ignorant of that misunderstanding and continue to make the same mistake for a long time.

Some other questions that have a similarly detrimental effect are:

  • “Do you have any questions?” (Students, particularly young ones, rarely know how to phrase their confusion in terms of a specific question.)
  • “So we all agree that [fill in the blank here with whatever idea you want them to believe].”
  • “So we’re ready to move on?”
  • “What do you guys not understand?” (Again, if they knew what they didn’t understand, they’d probably have come to understand it by now.)

So what should we do instead? Ask students to demonstrate their knowledge in some specific way. Rather than saying, “Do we all understand what Esperanza is trying to say in this passage?” try saying, “Everybody circle a sentence that shows you what Esperanza thinks of Nenny and then write your own sentence about what you think it means. Share your sentences with your neighbor and see if you both came up with the same answer for what Esperanza thinks of Nenny.”

Then, you can see if yourself if your students are ready to move on. If they aren’t, you’ll have a lot of data to help you figure out what they missed, and how you can help them learn it.

How do you make sure that your students understand what you are teaching? What’s worked well in your classroom? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

How Much Does a Story Matter?

7 Nov

Watch to see how writing and sharing a story affects a kid–and find out what you can do to help more kids share their stories.

How a 30-second exercise can save you 15 minutes or more

31 Oct

English: I am the author and the source of the...

 

Imagine that you have a choice of running in one of two races. In one race, the ref tells you, “It’s a 100-yard dash. See that finish line down there? Run until you pass it.”

 

In the other race, the ref says, “Run until I tell you to stop.”

 

Which race would you rather run in?

 

If you’re like most people, you’d prefer the first race because having a clear finish line makes the race seem exciting and achievable. Having no finish line makes the race seem daunting and annoying. It also makes you hate the referee.

 

Likewise, your students will be excited to work if they see the finish line clearly. If they know exactly what the class is about and precisely what they will learn by the end of the day, then they will be chomping at the bit to get started. If they don’t know what they are going to learn or how they are going to demonstrate that learning, then they are going to feel confused, aimless, and annoyed.

 

Try this 30-second exercise at the beginning of class each day, and I can guarantee you that it will save you up to 15 minutes of lost time in questions, foot-dragging, and misbehavior:

 

Write the day’s “finish line” up on the board before the students enter the room. (Make sure it’s a clear action that you expect the students to complete–“We will define topic sentence and write at least four topic sentences” is much better than “We will learn about topic sentences.”) Have a kid read the goal aloud and run a 30-second discussion on what the goal means.

 

It’s that simple. I guarantee that if you do it every day, kids will start coming into your class automatically excited, purposeful, and curious. And if you ever forget to write the finish line up on the board, your kids will definitely remind you.

 

After all, we all love the rush of crossing a finish line.

 

 

 

How “Straightening Kids Out” Actually Cripples Them

27 Sep

I started a new Deep workshop with 6th grade students at a local middle school the other day. It was supposed to be a simple day—fill out some surveys, introduce ourselves, go over procedures—but it turned out to be one of the most frustrating hours of my life.

Not because of the kids—they are hilarious, and I adore them, and I called their parents to tell them so—but because of how the kids were used to being disciplined.

Ten minutes in, at least four kids had commented at how strange it was that I hadn’t yelled at them yet. I told them I wasn’t going to yell at them—I never yell—and they laughed at me. “You’re too nice,” they said. “Other teachers would have straightened us out by now.” Another said, “We’re underachievers. You gotta keep us in line.”

“No,” I said. “You have to keep you in line. You are going to make our rules, and you are going to stick to them. I’m just here to remind you of them and make sure you practice them.” They shook their heads at me, certain that I was nuts and had no idea what I was doing.

The reason I didn’t “straighten them out”—by which I mean yell at them until they shut up—was because, while yelling at or lecturing kids gets immediate and obvious results that my style of discipline takes much longer to achieve, it also does three other things:

  1.  Teaches students that yelling is what mature adults do to get what they want, though we all know honey catches more flies than vinegar in the real world. Though yelling sometimes works in the short term, it is rarely effective in the long term.
  2. Takes away students’ agency and self-worth—rather than complying because they know that it is the right thing to do, or because they understand the long-term consequences of their actions, they do it because they are scared of getting screamed at. This can be devastating to a kid’s sense of purpose and self-worth; one study shows that being constantly yelled at is a better predictor of future mental illness than sexual or physical abuse.
  3. Cripples students in creative or independent endeavors. Which is pretty much every high-paying job ever. Students who grow up with lecture-and-yell discipline learn to rely on a supervisor to keep them in line, rather than doing it for themselves, and bosses hate employees like that. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone who needed me to look over their shoulder all day.

So what should we do instead?

Procedures, baby. Instead of screaming at kids for doing the wrong thing, be fair to them and show them exactly how to do the right thing. Help them practice it over and over until it is easy. Any time they forget, ask them to do it over again correctly. And praise the heck out of them when they get it right because adjusting to school life is tough, and they deserve some serious kudos for getting the hang of it. I’ve started this process with my new students, and I’ll admit: it’s slow, and it takes a lot of work and repetition. But they are awesome kids, and they are absolutely worth that effort.