Wednesday, April 22, 2009
This need for planning is equally true for the writing students undertake when participating in the test writing genre section of such high stakes tests such as NAPLAN (National Assessment Project for Literacy and Numeracy). Under such test situations crucial time elapses while the writer considers what shape the writing will take. This of course assumes that they actually devote time to planning their response.
As concerned educators, we invest teaching time alerting students to the value of planning a writing piece. We naturally assume (and hope) that they will execute that plan.
A closer examination of what actually happens to the writer under pressure is that often a disconnect takes place between that planning and what actually emerges on the page. Under the pressure of time constraints and driven by a strong inner desire to get to the finish, many students lose sight of the planning they have undertaken. This planning becomes largely irrelevant to the outcome. It somehow gets lost in the pressure of producing ‘something.’
This is a phenomenon we need to examine more closely. I suggest the attention of the student writer needs to be drawn to this common problem. Encouraging students to look for the connection between their planning and the actual writing outcome seems to be a logical focus for reflective learning. Questions such as ‘How did your planning assist your writing? provide a starting point for closer examination of this common obstacle to producing an effective writing piece.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Corporal punishment was viewed by adults as character building. It was in reality a barbaric control measure invoked for seemingly trivial acts of misconduct. Effective teachers never needed to resort to such measures. It was usually the less competent or sadistic who used it to offset their inability to build trusting, interdependent relationships with students. Some teachers claimed they were forced into the act by the student’s behaviour, as if this somehow justified their action. You tried to show no emotion. You did not want the thrasher to gain any extra pleasure from your pain. Your hand throbbed and feeling often took several minutes to return.-the welt of the strap visible across your palm.
I recall being snared by corporal punishment was when I was in Grade five. I was an ink well monitor for the week. -A task now long consigned to history –thank goodness!. Ink was such a messy and frustrating medium with which to work. You were constantly stressed by ink’s potential to create unwanted smudges and blots on the page of your workbook. Such unwarranted sloppiness often drew the teacher’s ire. Being left handed meant you were in constant peril of dragging your hand across the still moist letters on your page. The invention of the ball point pen by Hungarian, Lazlo Biro and the further development of this by Marcel Bich represented a form of emancipation for the ink challenged.
As monitors, our job was to fill the ink wells and then distribute them to the class. There were three of us charged with this task and we apparently took too long in fulfilling our allotted jobs. Our teacher made an immediate and fateful decision and sent us to the Grade six teacher with the instruction that we were to given the strap three times each for being ‘tardy’ –whatever that meant!
We were taken into the Grade six classroom and ordered to stand in front of the class. From his desk the teacher slowly took out a long leather strap he called ‘the Accelerator” because he believed that when he revealed it, students worked faster. In a magnanimous gesture the teacher holding the strap informed us “You may choose which hand you want strapped”
‘Left hand,’ I replied figuring it would mean I would not be able to write when I got back to class.
And so it happened. We stood before the grade six students and received three of the best. We were each strapped across the palm of the hand. None of us flinched as the strap crashed down on our hand. Some members of the viewing audience smirked, some grimaced, others looked away, or covered their faces. Once the punishment was meted out, we were sent back to class. Nothing more was said. It was only when we stepped outside the room that we began to acknowledge the pain that was throbbing through our battered hands and stinging fingers. I wanted to cry out but knew I couldn’t. All three of us re-entered our own classroom and silently sat down at our respective desks. Our throbbing, glowing hands sticking out like catcher’s mitts. It was some time before my hand could perform any useful function. Our mean lipped teacher said nothing, although we were immediately relieved of our ink well duties.
It is significant that I can recall this mean, miserable event so clearly after all these years. My hand recovered, but the cuts clearly went deeper.
So much has changed since those far off days of my early schooling. Different issues have arisen to replace the spectre of corporal punishment. However, there remain, those classrooms where ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’ is the prevailing mechanism for control. That continues to concern me greatly.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
These wonderful literary elements are everywhere! We owe it to our students to alert them to the power of these features to enhance their writing. It needs to be noted though that while they can add real power to writing if used effectively, - they can also read as 'tres ordinaire' if allowed to descend into cliché!
Some writers actually collect metaphors and similes using the examples as a way of refining and expanding their relationship with words.
New Zealand writer, Terence Hodgson in his book, Eyes Like Butterflies presents a treasury of similes and metaphors taken from modern English literature. The images collected in his book are arranged by theme and subject. It provides a source of reference and inspiration for writers to add to their word knowledge. Here are a couple of examples:
“A smile like a torch with a weak battery” - Hugo Charteris, The Indian Summer of Gabriel Murray
His hair was that special mad yellow, like an omelette” – Martin Amis, Money.
The following exercises come from Brigid Lowry’s book, Juicy Writing and are well worth pursuing with your students:
Take notice of metaphors and similes when you read. Keep a list in your writer’s notebook.
Take similes and turn them into metaphors.
Her hair was like a waterfall. -Her waterfall hair streamed down her back.
The day was smooth like silk. -A silk smooth day unfolded.
Make a list of twenty strong nouns such as moon, highway, sneaker, star. Then make a list of adjectives: tired, joyful lost magical. When you have your two lists combine a word from each list to create similes and metaphors
A fat basketball moon shone down from above.
His life was blue chaos
His tongue was a wet highway.
It is also important to keep these literary elements in check not let them run amok through our writing. If students become too reliant on similes their writing suffers Teaching students a range of craft strategies in writing descriptively by comparing items provides choice and variety.
Elizabeth Hale in her book ‘Crafting Writers K-6 ‘ provides an example of comparing, using a strategy she calls ‘one upping’ a simile. Her aim is to add variety to the writing produced.
Oliva’s hands were like sticky glue becomes Olivia’s hands were stickier than glue.
Or –Olivia’s hands were so sticky that her hand almost stuck to the doorknob.
Another way to add variety to description and comparison is to teach personification to animate an object and compare its action to something we associate with living things. .
The shadows crept closer and closer.
The wind slapped me in the face.
The breeze caressed the daffodils
Actively teaching young writers about these literary elements adds to the range of writing strategies they can call on to produce writing that sparkles with voice and energy.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
To accompany me on piano was a church elder named George. George was a tall, gentle octogenarian with a mop of snow white hair. His voice was soothing in the same way that aloe-vera is soothing to sunburn. Before he spoke a smile would invade his face. Any public appearance meant that you would see him wearing the same, tired, blue suit. It was his church uniform, his strolling down the street uniform, his shopping at the supermarket uniform. It had been pressed and ironed so many times that it shone when the light caught it in certain directions. But the pleats in his pants were straight and beautifully formed. For a man who had witnessed so many summers he walked with a sureness that belied his age.
George also had the responsibility for playing the church organ for the last forty years. It was a role he took very seriously. You could say religiously. That organ was his without any argument. He made those pipes pop!
On the night of the breakup, I was announced and moved towards the stage. George was seated at the piano on the side of the stage; music sheet in place and ready to accompany me. As I began to sing I realized to my absolute horror that the piano was being played with such ferocity that it was effectively drowning out my voice. I felt defenseless as I had no microphone to help me overcome the din. George was thumping those keys like there was no tomorrow. Years of organ playing had equipped him to literally attack the keys. His large hands and strong fingers crashed down on that piano without restraint. It was Jerry Lee Lewis minus the theatrics. There was to be no tickling the ivories that night. I also suspect that George was a little deaf. He never looked up to see my pain
I just wanted the whole thing to end. The end of the song couldn’t come quickly enough. Getting off that stage became the goal. I couldn’t blame dear old George. He was doing what he had been trained to do. He did it well and he did it with gusto. Unfortunately, it drowned out the kid who was singing.
A valuable lesson was learnt that evening. The value of rehearsal. Things are less likely to go awry if you rehearse and this had not happened. My embarrassment was short lived though. Supper was served and all the assembled kids charged the food and conveniently forgot about the about the barely audible kid singer and George the thumping pianist.
I must have been more resilient than I imagined, as I kept on singing after that tragic episode. The experience of folk music, rock band, wedding songs were all to follow in time. All were brief, but they were memorable. Music remains a strong theme in my life to this day. George, bless him, played an unforgettable part of my musical history.
Friday, April 3, 2009
It is a waste of much needed energy blaming the state of things. This amounts to kid blaming. Negativity breeds more of the same. We can’t complain about reluctant readers and writers if we are not leading the way with our actions. Continually lamenting the shortcomings of students is tiresome and certainly a waste of energy, if we are not shining a light ourselves. Every day, in every classroom there are moments worthy of celebration and delight. We just need to be looking for them.
Teaching is a performance art as much as anything else and performing with a sense of wonder and amazement becomes part of the deal. Each time we celebrate our wonder and curiosity; the small yet amazing things we notice, the greater the likelihood that our students will begin to feed off this energy.
When we write with our students we share the challenges and rewards that writing brings. When we share aspects of our reading life we expand their horizons; when we tell our unique stories, we expand their view of the world and arouse curiosity. We have all our unique stories. To this point in time, I have never met another human being who accidentally set an emu on fire!
Observation is vital to all writers. They go about their day with senses tuned. For this reason, bringing to the classroom the marvellous everyday things we experience is vital. It provides a foundation for the rich conversation that may transpire in such an inter-dependent classroom environment.
I once witnessed a man, dressed in a business suit enter the New York subway system and immediately do a hand stand against the station wall, before rearranging his garb and quickly disappearing into the bowels of the subway. Thirty seconds of wonder! My curiosity was suitably tickled. I spent the next few minutes of my journey considering his actions. I share these observations because I want students to be attuned to the weird and wonderful small moments that regularly present themselves. Moments present like ants and elephants, so we need to be ready. The subway was a wonderful place to view such spectacular moments.
On another occasion a man sat on a stool next to the subway steps dressed in a pure white suit. On the ground next to him, he had placed a small paint pot. In his hand he held a cotton bud. He periodically dipped the end of the cotton bud into the paint pot and then daubed a small black dot on his suit. Tell me you see that everyday? So many questions flood the mind when one witnesses such an amazing scene.
Back home in Australia, I now drive to work. However, that does not preclude me from seeing amazing things. I have seen people driving and simultaneously eating their breakfast. I have seen people nose mining when they think no one can see them. I have watched people singing with passion and movement as they sat waiting for the traffic lights to change in their favour. Writers are voyeurs. They like to watch and they record their observations. This is a powerful message to send to our students.
Sharing the excavated treasures of our reading; when we read like ‘writers,’ offers another building block in the development of a literate mind. If we consistently indicate through our actions that we are joyfully literate, and celebrate the wonderful words we encounter, our students are more likely to join us on this wonderful journey.
Recently a boy told me he was going to replace the word ‘fall in his writing with the word ‘plummet.’ A simple exchange that set bells and whistles immediately sounding in my head. This small moment made my heart sing! -As it should. This was cause for celebration and we shared it later with the whole class.