Category Archives: Student Achievement

Who has Time to Teach Writing?

Sadly, I confess that those six words have run through my head and have even crossed my lips a few times.

 Writing

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher with an infatuation with math and science, teaching writing was not my priority.  My students needed to pass the state reading, math and science assessments, but since writing was only tested in 4th, 8th, & 10th grade, I didn’t have to worry about it.  Lucky me!  I could focus on the subjects that really matter.  With all the math and science concepts I had to cover, I did not have class time to devote to writing stories and 5 paragraph essays explaining what the students’ favorite subject are and why.

In the rare event that I did assign an essay, the amount of time it took to grade them was immense. And because I wasn’t that good at writing myself,  giving corrective feedback was a real challenge.

Five years ago, I would have never considered that I would be any good at writing, let alone enjoy it.  (Hence my avoidance of teaching it). But as I began to dabble in the realm of writing, I discovered the powerful relationship between writing and thinking.

Where it all began….

My respect for writing began to take root when I started working towards my National Board Certification.  At that time, I didn’t teach writing and didn’t like writing.  But since the National Board process is nothing but a bunch of writing, I had to do it. (But I could still avoid teaching it, by golly!)

Luckily, I had lots of ideas rolling around in my head and I was passionate about teaching, so I sat down at the computer and began to write all the seemingly wonderful thoughts that came to mind about the topic I thought I was supposed to be writing about.  Then I handed it to a colleague proudly to get some feedback.

This is the feedback I received:

  • Did you read the question?  Because you didn’t answer all of it.
  • Why are you writing this entry?  I don’t think the evaluator wants to read an account of what your college professor thinks about education.
  • Where’s the evidence to back up your claims?  You can’t just tell me that you are the best teacher since Socrates and expect me to take your word for it.

So I sat back down at the computer feeling sorry for myself and cried.

But when my pity party was over, I reflected on this feedback and learned a very important writing lesson that I somehow failed to learn when I was in school- When writing, you have to consider your purpose and audience and address all parts of the question with cogent support.

So I sat down a tried again…..and again……and again.  Until I had something that I was actually quite proud of.

While this process didn’t make me fall in love with writing, it did help me develop my craft.

So it wasn’t love at first “write”…..

But I began to love writing out of necessity.   For most of my teaching career, I have worked with fabulous teachers who were patient enough to listen to me ramble on about my thoughts and ideas about education.  But when I changed schools and was suddenly the new kid on the block trying to maintain a appearance of normalcy, I realized that I could not just start spouting off ideas all the time and expect them to still want to eat lunch with me.

I tried to contain these thoughts inside my head , but the pressure kept building and eventually I needed relief.  So I started to write them down.

And when I did, I made the most amazing discovery!

Not only did writing help me get these ideas out of my head and relieve some pressure, it helped me to clarify and solidify these ideas.  I was able to see these ideas, rather than just think them.

When I looked at my thoughts on paper, I could:

  • organize them
  • make connections among them
  • identify weaknesses in my thinking
  • evaluate them more objectively

I was astonished….and I was hooked!

The Moral of the Story…

I am completely embarrassed that as a teacher,  I  did not fully understand the power of the writing-thinking relationship.   When I thought about writing, I thought 5- paragraph essay.  I failed to see that writing was so much more.  I am ashamed that for some time, I failed my students in this area.  By neglecting to teach writing, I denied them the most powerful tool for thinking.

The primary job of every teacher, no matter what subject, is to teach students to think.  I am fully convinced that this can’t be done without teaching them to write.

Now, I teach writing in every class.  If the students can think it, they should write it.  When students put their ideas on paper, they free up space in their working memory to think more deeply- to manipulate, examine, and study the ideas from all angles.

Another benefit is that it allows me to see their understanding in black and white, enabling me to make better instructional decisions.

  • Want to know if your students fully understand the area of a circle? 

  Have them write to explain what would happen to the area of the circle if the circumference were doubled.

  •  Want to know if your students understood the main idea in the article they just read? 

Have them write to explain what the author was trying to say in 25 words or less.

 When I know what my students can do, I know exactly what to teach them.  There is no other way to peek into every student’s mind every single day.  And the more effort that is put into teaching students to write clearly, the better their ability to think.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Prepare your students for a lifetime of success.  Empower your students with the ability to write.

What are some ways that you engage your students in writing and thinking?

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X marks the spot: Where to Find Hidden Treasure

If you knew where a valuable treasure was buried, what would you do?

  • Start digging frantically, trying to uncover it.
  • Ignore it. Digging is a lot of work.
  • Bury it even deeper.

I believe most people would start digging frantically.  I know I would.  If you are independently wealthy and have no need for money, I could possibly see the logic in ignoring it, but who in their right mind would put forth the effort to bury it even deeper?

I am sure most would agree that heaping loads of additional dirt on buried treasure does absolutely no one any good. Digging is hard work, so I can see someone being willing to put in this hard work to get the reward of the treasure, but nobody in their right mind would put in this sweat equity for nothing.  And what about eventually accessing the treasure?  The deeper it is buried, the less likely it is that it will ever be uncovered.  And what good is a valuable treasure if it cannot be accessed and used?

The mind of every individual is filled with valuable treasure.  Every person has a unique set of strengths and talents.  Everyone has something to contribute to this world.

Young children are eager to discover and act on these innate talents.  At age two, my nephew started to sort his toy cars by color.  Nobody told him to do this, he naturally saw the patterns and wanted to create order.  My daughter has always enjoyed creating elaborate art projects.  While most four-year-old children are content to simply color a picture with crayons, my daughter would make 3-D pictures by making grass from crinkled strips of green construction paper and trimming white fur from her stuffed poodle to make puffy clouds.  I certainly have no knack for arts and crafts, so I know that this talent comes from within. Young children know that they enjoy something, realize that they are pretty good at it, so they act on it and it makes them happy.

Then these innocent eager learners enter school. And too often, instead of looking at each child as a mine of valuable resources, we focus on the content that we are supposed to put into each child’s mind.   Rather than helping each child brush away the extra dirt to reveal their inherent value for the world to see, with every shovelful of “knowledge” we dump into a child’s head, we bury that treasure deeper and deeper, making it harder and harder to find.

I sometimes wonder if we are really “educating” children or simply covering them with information so they can function “appropriately” in society.

I believe that deep down, teachers and parents want what’s best for their children.  They truly desire to see their children attain greatness.  But while our culture and way of life is changing so rapidly, our system of preparing students to function in this ever-changing environment has adapted very little.  We are entering an exciting innovative age, which requires a new way of approaching education.

Let’s change this view of “education” from shoveling knowledge to revealing and polishing the hidden treasure within each individual.  Only then will we see students reach their fullest potential.  Only then will we reap the benefits of this valuable treasure: the minds of our students.

So in the same spirit of William Butler Yeats as he stated, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire,” I boldly state that education is not filling a hole, but revealing a hidden treasure.

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School: Friend or Foe?

Yesterday, I received an email from my principal sharing this inspirational story:  http://thelgroup.com/p_TheLetter/242.asp?v=play#video

The story of Anthony Robles, the one-legged wrestling champ, brought me to tears.  Like so many other inspirational stories, Anthony overcame a serious setback- being born with one leg- and ultimately achieved greatness.

In the video, a quote by Anthony’s mother is emphasized:

“Don’t let what you CAN’T do get in the way of what you CAN do.” 

Just about every teacher I know would nod their head in agreement, and proudly agree that this is their dream for all students.  But is it possible in schools today?

Society today has a tendency to focus on fixing what is broken, rather than celebrating what is good.  This same attitude is embedded within our schools.  I don’t believe it is intentional, but it is an unfortunate side-effect of using high stakes testing to evaluate the worth of teachers and students.

In our schools, much less time is spent developing and honing skills that students are naturally good at- the skills that are most likely to bring them enjoyment, satisfaction, and align with their future goals- while the majority of our time in school is spent trying to “fix” what is “wrong” with students- leading to frustration, resentment, and feelings of worthlessness.  I don’t know about you, but if this isn’t the ultimate example of letting what you can’t do get in the way of what you can do, I don’t know what is.

If Anthony’s mom would have focused on trying to get him to function as a two-legged individual, he would not have had the opportunity to develop into the wrestling champ that he has become.  If he focused on trying to repair the weakness in his lower body, instead of developing his naturally strong upper body, where would he be today?  Probably living life as an average individual who can generally function in society.  Or possibly worse- living life as a frustrated and hopeless individual who feels he has nothing to contribute to society.

I shudder to think of the wealth of resources that lay dormant inside the heads of frustrated, disenchanted, depressed students who have not had an opportunity to develop strengths because of the time required to “work on” weaknesses.  How much has our society been held back by our continuous focus on fixing what’s “wrong”?  What amazing contributions have we missed out on?

Alone, I don’t have the power to change the focus of our schools from weaknesses to strengths. And to be honest, I haven’t yet fully developed a tangible solution to accurately measure the success of students with such a wide variety of strengths, but I think about this often. I strive to be an example by building upon the strengths of the students I impact.  And I sincerely believe that I have made a difference with the few students I have been able to reach.  It is my dream that within my lifetime, our schools become places where we foster the strengths of each individual and capitalize on the value of our greatest resource- our students.

Do you think this is realistic?  What do you think is needed to shift the emphasis from weaknesses to strengths?

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