A Recent Conversation on Blogging for The Vermont State Colleges


Ah, I’ve been away from the blog too long.

I have several posts waiting for me, posts stirred by comments from the likes of Terry Freedman and Lanny Arvan, on topics ranging from a clearer articulation of what I mean by teaching in a syllabus-less classroom to a clearer articulation of how, exactly, I see images in my classes. I am afraid that the frantic pace at which I am moving these days between teaching, talking and family have made my posts a little thin, a little less carefully developed than I would like them to be. Oh well–at least I’ve been able to show my last few posts and the resulting comments to my students as models of useful blogging conversation and feedback.

So, no, today I am not going to blog back to Terry or Lanny; I’m not going to talk about Chris Sessum’s wonderful new post on “relationships of knowledge, teacher learning, and practice”, or the interesting Skype show I participated in two nights ago about assessment of student blogging over at languagelabunleashed, or even the fascinating group of students I am lucky to be teaching this semester or the new group of world bloggers embarking on their study abroad ventures. Soon, I hope, I’ll get to those posts. For today, I’ll share the slides and text version of the talk that kicked off an afternoon-long conversation a couple of days ago with a spirited group of teachers and administrators from the Vermont State College System on the other side of the splendidly autumnal Green Mountains. And if I can get the audio sounding okay, I’ll post that, too.

I’m not covering new ground here–it is a talk introducing my classroom work with blogs and urging the group gathered to think first of the goals they and their students have for their learning, and how the new literacies affect how and what we teach.
The text served as a guideline, but in the actual talk, I departed from it frequently, pulling in additional examples both from theory and practice.


Continue reading


A Draft of the Short Chapter I’m Writing about Stories-without-Words for Terry Freedman’s Second Edition of Coming of Age

Terry has worked tirelessly at assembling a group of Web 2.0 educators to contribute chapters to the revised version of the book, and he’s moved us along nicely to today’s due date– now, until I start revising, I can work on other things, such as a response to Terry about his post responding to my last one.

Stories Without Words: A Simple Strategy to Teach Big Lessons with the Web

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
Oscar Wilde

“We must accept the fact that learning to communicate with graphics,
with music, with cinema, is just as important as communicating with words.”
George Lucas

“The Western memory museum is now largely visual. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events…”
“Regarding the Torture of Others” Susan Sontag

drivingalong.jpg earlymorning.jpg birds.jpg birdlooking.jpg glasswave.jpg grosbeak.jpg milkweed.jpg drivingalong.jpg

Telling stories in pictures but not words, by accessing, manipulating and storing the images through Web 2.0 tools, and then embedding the stories on blogs or wikis, gives students the opportunity to learn important visual and cultural literacy lessons while developing their writing and creative-thinking skills.

We live in an era that privileges image over word, a time when photographs are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated” (Susan Sontag), yet in school, we continue to train our students almost exclusively in the use of written and spoken language as though images don’t factor into how we make sense of the world. When we do employ photos and films in our classrooms, we rarely teach our students how to read the grammar of images; outside the art room, we rarely show them how to use images as an important means of expression; and many of us miss opportunities to have students use images to explore cultural and traditional language literacies. Somehow, manipulating images in a school day already stretched for time feels too much like play, like a waste of precious minutes better spent preparing for the next onslaught of examinations. But in a world where images engulf us, flashing incessantly across newspapers, televisions and computer screens–often taken not by professionals but by amateurs snapping, posting and sending their shots–it is critical for teachers to bring images right into the center of the classroom where we can examine how and why it is they work, and what they have to tell us about written and spoken language, and about our world.

Furthermore, we must respond to what Sir Ken Robinson observes in his 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative “Graduates can’t communicate well, they can’t work in teams, and they can’t think creatively” (p.4). Indeed, over the years I have found that as students are increasingly groomed to perform on standardized tests, they correspondingly lose their delight in playing with words, or messing around with ideas and group projects; they look for the right answers, those that will please the teacher and examiner, those that will get them the best grades. Or they lose interest altogether. As they wrestle with textbooks filled with jargon and convoluted stylistic devices, they quite rightfully come to equate schoolroom language with something stiff, fossilized, irrelevant. In a world that Daniel Pink reminds us in his book, A Whole New Mind, is demanding creative, flexible thinkers, we hold tight to what Paolo Freire has called “the banking concept of education” (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Chapter Two, reprinted here. To prepare our students for a work world that demands collaboration, often across distances, we insist our students not look at one another’s thinking, and we miss opportunities to connect them virtually through their projects. In a world that requires excellent communication skills, we focus on academic writing for academic audiences. And so, quite naturally, our students’ words grow tired, their phrases plucked from the jargon-cliché handbook; their sentences strings of boxcars clanking along down the page or out into the air. Even when students are excited by their ideas and genuinely wish to express them to others, they often lack an intense relationship with language, a lively engagement with style and a real audience.

This is where we teachers can turn to the poets or very young children for help, for they both make language fresh by keeping it strange, marveling at the sounds, the textures, and looks of words, thinking about the odd things words do to one another when pushed together. If we are to help our students communicate well, collaborate effectively, and think creatively, we must help them to use language precisely and inventively and persuasively in all kinds of contexts. We must help them to use the language of sound and image as well as word.

Taking Away Words, Handing Students Images
And so in my undergraduate writing and literature classes, I take written and spoken language away from students. I open courses with exercises involving music and image as a way to disorient these would-be writers by turning up with the unexpected. They expect to work with words; I give them images. They want to tell stories or write essays, which we do, but with no words at all before moving into language. By having to write without language, they have to examine both the ways in which images can and can’t express meaning, and how and when words work.

Gifted teachers, such as Josh Schachter in Arizona , hand cameras to kids and say, take twenty photos of a lamp, each one expressing a different emotion. Or take twenty pictures expressing time. The students compare their results, talk about complex abstractions, talk about the elements of a photograph. At MIT, first-year students explore their new home, the campus, through the visual, with “photography as a method of seeing and a tool for better understanding new surroundings.” I do a similar exercise with my first-semester students, asking them to gather and share images that represent something about their reactions to Vermont, as shown here.

Adding the Web to the Equation

Enter the Web 2.0.

Suddenly and luckily, with the explosion of online options for accessing, gathering, generating, manipulating and sharing images, we have a rich array of easy-to-use, free tools to use in the classroom, and these new literacies and skills need not seem so challenging to introduce to our students. Even in classrooms without access to cameras, using images from any number of imaging-sharing sites, such as Flickror Bubbleshare or Zoomr can provide students experience in image selection and ordering, and thus in understanding how images gain their power. Students can use Frappr to attach images to points on a map, say, choosing a single image to represent their nation’s capitol, or their own street corner; on a Mac they can use Image Tricksto alter photos so as to be unrecognizable or to bring out certain features; with Typgenerator they can even turn text into random, abstract images. They can navigate image-only projects on the Web, and comment through image responses—an image for an image. They can consult Pomona College’s Online Visual Literacy Project with its excellent set of definitions and examples of the elements of visual communications or Amateur Illustrator for tips on creating effective illustrations. Almost every week more options arrive on our Web-step.

In math class, kids can tell explain mathematical facts by taking pictures of natural and human-made phenomena illustrating the concept. Put kids into teams and give each a camera and have them work together to create collaborative image stories to interpret literature, or explain chemistry processes, or explore the causes of a historical event. Have them create photo timelines of historical events or their own lives with tools like Dandelife . Mandarin Design offers lots of tips on ways to use images inventively on a blog.

They can share their results on a blog or wiki with the rest of the class as a way to prepare for a presentation, or to get their peers to think deeply about their topic. Words can be re-introduced—slowly–through titles or tags before introducing full-blown written or spoken explanations. Indeed, students can become more critical consumers of visual media by becoming inventive users and creators of visual content. They can become teachers, explorers, artists, deep learners with these tools. What a break from manipulating the same old numbers repeatedly in the same ways and writing five-paragraph essays!

Because of the Web and its emerging toolset, my students have interacted with an art gallery owner halfway across the country, often communicating with images. Via our course blog (now, unfortunately, defunct), he sent images to the students, one a day, without a word. The students at first didn’t know what to make of these missives, what they should do, how they should respond. Then the gallery owner left them a post asking them to create their own gallery show with any four paintings they found on the Web—what four artworks would they put together in a show and why. They shared their “shows” with him, and he sent them more images, and in turn he shared, virtually, the shows being held at his Chicago gallery.

I want students to play around with using photos to respond to texts and to think about their world, and to think about the role of the written image in comparison. In a creative writing class, students visited via the Web an international virtual artist collaborative, Dispatx, that makes their process transparent online as projects are being developed, visual artists posting images or fragments, or conceptual ideas to blogs; my students then visited their blogs, toured around, “read” the image stories as well as the language-based ones, and left the artists comments. We have created John-Berger like essays ( see Ways of Seeing: ), using images from popular media and then from our own cameras. We sometimes write with photographs about a theme in a short story, for example, here, as well as story-without-words versions of literary analysis.

As students become more comfortable thinking visually, and thinking critically about the visual, they begin to see how stepping away from language for a moment to think about their ideas in image can help the preciseness of their diction, the development of their points, and the depth of their ideas. Occasionally I will hold class in the computer lab and have the group find an image from a repository I have set up, an image they think connects somehow to whatever book or poem we are studying. I’ll have them write for ten minutes about those connections as a way to have them return to written language while considering visual metaphors.

Stories Without Words
A particularly effective and rewarding exercise easily adaptable to any grade level is to have students post stories-without-words on their blogs. We are, after all, naturally drawn to stories from the moment we understand language. Creating compelling narratives with clear beginnings, middles and endings solely with images teaches visual literacy skills while revealing the arc of a narrative, transitions, the structure of an argument, and the importance of the carefully chosen word. Learners explore the act of reading text versus navigating images, the relationships between writer and reader, of form to meaning. Sharing their image-stories via blogs also offers lessons about audience-writer relationships, allows peer-to-peer learning, and enhances learning-community bonding, by promoting an unfolding discussion and feedback loop about the process and outcomes of the exercise. They want to share, analyze and enjoy these stories.

Sites such as Tabblo invite us to make collages and poster-type stories; with Mac’s iMovie or the PC’s Moviemaker we can choose seamless transitions between the frames; or we can take the same images and spread them out on the blog page, or link them in a diagram using Gliffy. Students can create and read other Flickr 5-frame stories. They can moblog picture stories from field trips for science labs. Every discipline, every classroom can potentially enhance the learning experience by incorporating powerful lessons in image creation and use.

Once students return to words by telling the same story, now in words only, they find that their use of language is reinvigorated, every word made fresh and strange, challenging their notions of what makes a powerful statement, an effective metaphor, a moving flow of words within sentences and paragraphs. For college students, the lessons can be quite profound, as I wrote in a 2005 blog post about Julina: “Indeed, publishing this story on the blog has a significant impact on the work and on the writer. As she receives feedback from her peers–some show interest in her story, some in her use of images, others in what she might do next–she can read their telling of the story; they in turn become part of the story and the writing of it. One reader suggests a possible next exercise based on work she has done in a dance class (yes–finally–we see here the integration of the student’s full education, bringing lessons from one class into another, the apprentice becomes the expert becomes the apprentice).”

Even twenty-year-old students, if given half a chance will reconnect with their childlike, playful side, as one student did in his image-story, “The Shave,” that opens his travel blog. They experiment with the effect of weaving images into their posts as Piya does, quite poetically here and here; some even try their hand at photojournalism, as Zoey does on her blog from Berlin.

As one student, blogging with his camera and ipod from Southeast Asia, remarked upon his return to the college classroom, “Cameras and computers have become the tools that have allowed me to blend my life, academics, and adventures together…They have granted me access to an innovative education that is all my own…I am using cameras and computers to relate my own experiences to the books I read and the lectures I listen to…Furthermore, I am able to share these experiences…”

If these tools and approaches can help twenty-year-olds find their way back to their creative, thoughtful, collaborative selves, then imagine what they would be capable of, if as K-12 learners, they had had opportunities to become skilled readers and producers of visual media.

Pulling Up A New Course Blog and Other Semester Openers

ENDOFSUMMERGARDEN.jpg woodpecker.jpg

This is the sixth fall semester I’ll have my students blog, write hypertext essays, write with images, create digital stories–the original blogging crew entered my classroom for the first time on September 11, 2001. Imagine. And how the world has changed since then… not to mention my classroom and my syllabus and my professional interests and even expertise. What a five years it has been…

And so as I pull up a new motherblog, I’m also pulled over to my own blog here to post about the new way I’m intending to open my class thanks to Jane Love from Furman University, my wonderful new online collaborating colleague whom I met at the digital storytelling gathering in California three weeks ago; and to the new Blogging the World elgg platform that my online collaborating colleague,Todd Bryant from Dickinson College has set up (not ready for reading yet, but it promises to be a real improvement over the old one); and to the many projects brewing with my frequent collaborator and co-presenter, Barbara Sawhill from Oberlin including the blogging pilot project I’m doing with Vermont and NH teacher ed programs as a way to provide support and connection for new teachers who can feel isolated and alone; and to the workshops/talks/presentations from Dallas to Illinois to Vermont punctuating my semester; and to the digital storytelling initiatives and collaborations I am immersed in with online collaborating colleagues from The Center for Digital Storytelling and Creative Narrations among others. To think that the only thing on my mind when I first introduced blogs into that Irish lit and film seminar was how to bring my students to Ireland and Ireland to my students. Wow.

I am also looking ahead to my spring semester leave when I will go offline and out of the country (at least that’s the plan) for three months (April-June) to read, to think, to write, to take stock of this work. Instead of going on leave to write a novel set in Ireland (my last leave), I’ll be working on Web and digital storytelling projects internationally and writing about my teaching and learning journey on the Web. And six years ago I didn’t even LIKE computers.

Now because of the Web and what it has brought me, I sit on the brink of the semester (on my baggage as it were) in awe of where I’ve been, of where I am right now, of where my students are, and where we’re going. I have a new set of exercises to try out with my students as a way to think about who we are as we move into this learning experience together and what we want to get out of it. This makes me think about Gardner Campbell’s recent post, “The One, the Many, and the Other” about the dangers of thinking about community rather than the people in it. His quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one to mull over as I start this semester: “He who loves community, destroys community. He who loves the brethren, builds community.” One of the ways to focus on the people within the learning community is to help them develop skills of conversation, the give and take of listening and expressing within a group. Dave Pollard (who always has something thought-provoking to read on his blog) has a terrific post, “Ten Steps to Great Conversations” which could be entitled, “Ten Steps to Setting Up A Great Classroom.” Both of these posts I want to share with a young teacher, one of my former students, who has just started teaching at a local secondary school. A couple of days ago she was expressing some confusion about the school community as a whole–its culture– but as soon as we started talking about her students, her passion and enthusiasm took over. Our talk quickly got productive and interesting: swapping ideas about exercises and approaches that would help her students fill the room with themselves, and listen to one another, and value each other’s contributions to the learning journey, while challenging themselves to grow as thinkers and writers.

I suppose I am writing this post in part to reassure myself that walking into a writing workshop with only the broadest strokes of a syllabus and only the backbone of a motherblog on Tuesday makes sense pedagogically rather than being a sign of me getting lazy after all these years. It’s quite harrowing when I really think about what I am about to do –construct the syllabus with the students as we go and remove grades as much as possible –because it runs counter to what everyone around me does. I am about to pitch the teacher’s safety net–a tight syllabus–out the window. I am about to pitch fifteen students into freefall, into discovering with me what it is they need to learn and not what I, without having met them, think they need to know about writing for the college classroom. That involves my asking them challenging questions, and helping them to be deep readers of all kinds of texts. I’ve been moving towards this class for five years now, and it will take all my skill as listener and facilitator, as teacher, to pull it off. And that’s as is should be. If I’m not growing and challenging myself every semester to be a better teacher, then how can I ask my students to challenge themselves?

Fortunately, I am getting a little help from my friends… across the country … in this case, Jane Love, who also invites her students into the course design process (in a very different course) and has shared with me a deep-learning exercise she learned from Rita Pougiales at Evergreen State in Washington. Jane has kindly agreed to let me share the exercise, and I’d be interested in hearing whether anyone else does something similar or plans to try it out. I’m adapting it to suit the first day of my writing class; then Jane and I will share with one another our experiences with our classes as they move out from that exercise over the semester. We’ll have access to one another’s discoveries, both the successes and failures, as we go, and learn from one another. My new safety net, then, is not my syllabus, but the sharing of ideas and feedback with colleagues spread across the planet. And that’s very exciting indeed.

“Let the wild rumpus begin”!

An Old Russian Custom…Or…Stopping for a Moment Before the Journey Begins: Responding to Student Writing


At the end of the recent faculty writing retreat, when asked to share a choice that we had made over the past two days about our fall courses, several people spoke about awe in the classroom, a concept introduced the first day by one of our colleagues in response to a prompt about the role of reading and writing in our own lives. One faculty member, in wanting to establish an environment in which his first-year students could make note of and reflect on their awe at being in such a community engaged in learning, said that to open his course, he would tell a traditional story about Russian emigrants: Just before they set off on the long journey across continents and oceans to whatever new life awaited them, they would gather as a group and sit down upon their bags, look around them in silent awe and reflection. How important this is to stop and make note of the moment, at what has come before, at what it means to be in this moment—it is a lovely story that I, too, plan to tell my students on Tuesday the 12th when I meet them, and we’ll do our own version of sitting on our bags taking in the wonderment of this moment when we are about to begin our journey together.

Then we’ll write.

And we’ll thus have walked though the door of the semester, committed ourselves to this community of learners, of reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy), a moment indeed fraught with awe, a feeling that mixes wonder and fear. When we study together and write together, we open ourselves up to one another; putting our writing out there can leave us feeling exposed and vulnerable (particularly an eighteen-year-old entering college and quite sure that he or she was somehow mistakenly admitted in the first place and will be so woefully behind everyone else in the room) –ah, the delicate moment when there is the potential for response or evaluation from those around us.

After we write for ten minutes or so about this feeling of awe, we will talk about the gremlin sitting on our shoulders laughing derisively at us as we write for an audience, sneering at the very thought of us presuming to be a writer, at having something to say and being able to say it elegantly. We talk about ways to shut that gremlin down, how we can develop ways to write hot and read cold—to balance within ourselves the artist and the critic. We’ll talk about the evaluation process in the course, how they will see no grades until the end of the semester but they will receive a good deal of feedback from themselves, from one another, from me and perhaps even from people beyond our classroom.

Responding to Student Writing
We use three and sometimes four concentric circles of responses to our writing—the writer reading her own work, the writer’s peers reading her work, the teacher reading her work (and as much as I would like to place myself squarely within the circle of learners in all senses of that notion, whether I like it or not, I will always wield power in the classroom due to my position of experience, of expertise, of responsibility for grades and mentoring and crafting the parameters of the course—it is how I invite the students to use that power to their own learning advantage that makes the difference), and the outside world reading her work. We talk about these audiences as we work through a writing project, reflecting as we go on, deciding when we need eyes other than our own to reflect back to us what seems to be written on our pages.

Feedback Circle One: Responding to One’s Own Writing
First off, I think it is crucial to keep the reins firmly in the hands of the writer. We each need to take responsibility for own learning, our own writing. And so we develop an ongoing reflective practice as we write—sometimes we write letters to ourselves and/or to our writing about our own sense of how our ideas are moving from fuzzy shapes to clear articulations; sometimes we write in another genre about what we are working out; for example, I often talk about writing a poem version of an essay, or about writing a poem to our essay. Sometimes we tell someone else in a conference about our piece of writing, the other person asking questions and acting as scribe without offering opinions. Sometimes we record ourselves reflecting aloud on the process, the content, the writing—I am very much a believer in using many ways of expressing and thinking—using our entire creative & critical selves. Sometimes we dance our writing (yes, we do) or color it by using a range of tones—from cool tones where the writing and the ideas are quiet to hot ones where the argument might get heated, the imagery intense, the passion of the writer clear. These are all ways for the writer to respond to her own work and thus to deepen her own understanding of the tender shoots of ideas that need sun and water and tending, sometimes pruning or training, if they are to flower.

Even when we are adding other circles of response to this first one, we are still engaged in our own ongoing review of the work—(we are careful not to judge ourselves as writers in the process—keeping that gremlin at bay). I share my own horrendous early drafting of stories and papers. I show them blog posts that I keep in draft mode because they aren’t ready for the light of day—the ideas aren’t developing, the writing lies flat and uninspired, something just doesn’t feel quite right about it.

Feedback Circle Two: Peers Responding
If from the first day of a course, the community itself has been valued and nurtured through a series of exercises and downright open consideration of what an effective learning community looks like and feels like to us (I’ve written a bit about this topic before, but will perhaps return to it this week as it is foremost on my own mind as I get ready to step back into the classroom), then moving our writing out into the group, no matter how early on in the process, can be of real benefit. We can hear back what our writing means to readers who have only our words as they read and not all of what we meant to write down or that remains snagged on some corner in our mind.

In large classes, we set up feedback loops, groups of five students (I like to rotate these groups every three weeks or so to keep the feedback unexpectedly fresh) per group, who through the blog (RSS feeds and/or blog clusters moving off the Motherblog) have access to everything their peers choose to post. We post anything we want a response to, keeping off-blog that which is either private or not yet ready for the eyes of the world. Then the writer indicates what kind of feedback she is ready for and hopes to receive; she ends her post with her own sense of where she is in the process and what kind of feedback she seeks. Her readers first off read back to her what they think the piece is about. They let her know what they have learned through reading the piece and when it moved them, when it confused them, when it left them wanting more. Students write to one another via blog comments and/or email. They get together one-one-one and all five together during quasi-weekly feedback workshops to talk as a group—face to face discussion is essential during the process because body language and ideas generated through the give-and-take of conversation can provide feedback not picked up in written comments. Responders ask lots of questions, summarize; sometimes they color the piece with markers—red for when it really grabbed them by the jugular or showed the potential to do so. We talk about taking the work seriously but not ourselves—we are responding for the good of the writing and the writer, not because we want to sound smart or glib or talented. We talk a whole lot about honesty and respect. We don’t ever say, “You should do this…”

From time to time, when I see blogged responses that either really seem to do very little for the writer: “Hey, good job—I liked it a lot. Keep everything just as you have it” kinds of responses, I will show this kind of response in class, and we’ll talk about ways to work towards better responding. We talk about how responding well to other people’s writing will serve our own writing, how reading well and writing well are inextricably intertwined skills. We learn how to read as writers and to write as readers. We talk a lot about intended audience and the expectations of different kinds of audiences and how that can affect our choices in terms of content and expression. We look at a range of publications; we pretend near the end of the process to be editors at an appropriate periodical trying to help a writer prepare a manuscript for publication. We talk about what’s essential; we talk about voice. We talk a lot.

Feedback Circle Three: The Teacher Responding
We talk about my role in the feedback circle. I avoid full, teacherly responses for as long as possible, because no matter what we say, as soon as we move in to put in our two cents, the writer forgets to listen to herself or her peers. We become the only audience that matters; we hold the grading pen; we are the experts, the authorities; that’s what we’re paid for. Early in my courses, students crave this kind of feedback from me; they want to hand things in the way they always have and get from me what they need to do to make it an “A” level paper if it isn’t already. I of course resist that role because it jeopardizes what we are really after here—growing learners who see themselves as the experts on their own writing, and as reciprocal apprentices within the learning community. And yet I DO have things to say because I have spent many years reading student writing, my writing, published writing, It is what I do. And of course I am opinionated, too!

I do not write responses to student writing until the project is very near completion—then I choose just a couple of what I see to be the issues most ripe for tackling and write about those. I also write about what works for me—where in the piece I find myself thinking, engaged, enlightened. I write questions.

I meet with my students one-on-one in short (15-minute) conferences during which they are invited to bring something they feel is ready for my feedback. They must prepare for said conference by being ready to talk about their own response to the writing and about that of their peers. Often I find that they already know what works and doesn’t—they may need encouragement and a little help in the HOW—how to pare away the boxcars of overused phrases; how to integrate a particular quotation into their argument; how to find the ending. I never bleed a pen through their essays, copyediting, trying to cover every mistake, every clumsy use of language. Instead I’ll teach a little impromptu lesson in dangling modifiers, say, if the writing is hampered by them and have the writer search for more of them in her draft.

I do not need to read everything they write. I do not need to comment on everything I read. That is not a good use of my teaching time—pointed, timely feedback is crucial for them and reasonable for me.

The Fourth Circle: Readers from the World
I often try to enlist outside readers to take a peek into my classrooms and leave feedback for my students. I also encourage my students to get outside readers—the kind of reader they are thinking of when they write the piece.


I do not grade individual essays, poems or stories.

I find that grading individual pieces detracts from the development of the writers—their early-in-the-semester pieces SHOULD be disasters, yes? If they are ambitious enough and stretching, challenging themselves to the core of their being, they will encounter numerous glorious failures along the way. And that’s as it should be. We talk about the writer’s rule that for every ten pages you keep, you throw away a hundred. That’s what good and messy creative thinking is all about. Often we have to write for a long time to get to our real subject. School is, of course, an unnatural environment. The writing assignments are not often useful in the world—they are exercises. Students write notes to themselves after each writing project about what they learned—the successes and the failures, and what they know they want to work on in the next paper in order to continue their development.

I write the students a short letter at the end of each unit (they collect their work in mini-portfolios—this way they take long hard looks at their learning journey periodically during the semester rather than just at the end) in response to the letter they write to themselves and to me about the work contained in that unit and in response to the goals they set for themselves in the upcoming writing assignments. My letter is based on notes I have taken during our conferences, what I notice about the evolution of their writing, helping them take a step back and see how their writing is working and how it is not.

At the end of the semester, they hand in one last portfolio which pulls in all the work (we do not have time in our semester for another series of revisions—I would rather have them treat each new writing assignment as essentially a revision of the one before and so we rarely do three drafts per essay even though we talk about how when we write outside of classrooms, we write many many drafts) and one last hyperlinked reflection on the entire semester. Even these are read by themselves and their peers –even these have the potential to move and teach those in reciprocal apprenticeship with them. For example, Zamir’s final reflection helped Leah to write hers; Katie’s moved several members of the class by its inventiveness and beauty as well as its spot-on self-understanding.

And grading? I do it at the last possible moment. At the end. Holistically. This way grades reflect where they get to, not where they were when they had no experience at the beginning of the semester.

A couple of helpful sites on responding to and evaluating writing–

U Washington’s “Responding to Student Writing”
An article from University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center –with a helpful bibliography

Michael Kischner “Should Teachers Comment on Drafts of Student Essays?” also with a helpful bibliography

Indiana’s “Articles on Evaluating Student Writing”

WAC Clearinghouse Bibliography