Mississippi: The Most Southern Place

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

This blog was written before the recent horrible events at Delta State University. My thoughts are with the community and its many warm and kind people. 

shutterstock_80645992A few years back I recognized that I was getting stale—not bad, just not good—and that I was becoming calcified in my self-assurance. I don’t remember an exact moment when I noticed it. In any case, I didn’t want to become the teacher who boasts 20 years of experience, when he really means two years of experience repeated 10 times. I looked around until I found a seminar given by Columbia University and Theater for a New Audience, on teaching Shakespeare. I applied and was lucky enough to get in.

That first experience took me apart. It changed everything about me and how I teach, and I’ve been addicted to seminars ever since. In the years since then, I’ve been all over the country, attending just about anything that’ll let me in. The results have varied from transformative to “at least I got a free poster.” I like it best when I come away changed, when I feel like the ground has shifted under my feet and I need to rebuild. For me, that’s the marker of effective professional development.

PD’s Broader Purpose

Sometimes, though, a seminar isn’t as much about learning a new approach or finding something to build into my own practice. It’s about the landscape and the people I meet. It’s about changing the way I think about myself, as a teacher, a student, and a human being.

I find that being around really good teachers—smart, inspired, creative, risk-taking teachers—is what changes me. I like being in the “learning chair”: the worst teacher in the room, the least informed person in the seminar. It means I’ll be learning.

IMG_0514This year found me at Delta State University in Mississippi, “the most Southern place on Earth.” There, among outstanding teachers from all over the country, I spent an exhausting week working through everything that the Delta has to offer.

The Delta is a place of conflicted history and rich culture. Teachers and caretakers there are charged with the task of tending a dying region, while parceling out the memory to everyone they meet. And so this seminar fell into the category of ground shaking and attitude changing. It forced us to think about places almost none of us had visited, from an old cemetery for Chinese immigrants, to an aging Jewish synagogue, to Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint, perhaps the last “true” juke joint in the Delta, and a place where people dance with abandon as the night grows late.

Rediscovering Mockingbird, in the Courtroom

One afternoon, my classmates and I were able to participate in a panel discussion on the Emmett Till case. On the panel were the last people, other than his murderers, to see Till alive: his uncle and an FBI agent who reopened that case in 2004. The discussion took place in the actual courtroom where the original miscarriage of justice occurred.

Those of us in the language arts huddled afterward to talk about the connections to To Kill a Mockingbird. Being in the place makes the emotions of the novel more real. The ghosts are real and the voices seem to seep in from the gallery, and I feel closer to the truth of the books I’ve taught for years.

Keeping Traditions Alive in the Classroom

IMG_0649On our last day in the Delta, I made a mojo, a little pouch that contains bits and pieces of the places you visited, people you met, and sites you want to return to someday. You display it somewhere people will see it and ask about it, and every time you talk about it, the magic of the mojo gets stronger.

Like that mojo, Mississippi offered a strange mix for me. I didn’t walk away with a notebook full of new techniques—I did get some, though. But when I see a guest lecturer pick up a diddley bow—a guitar made out of a cigar box, broomstick, and a single string—and pull so much emotion out it while he teaches a class of rapt students about the history of the blues in the Delta, I understand how important passion is to teaching. I see how being able to demonstrate something, and let students try it themselves, makes learning so much richer.

Even though so much of what I saw showed me something that was slipping away, or already gone, I wasn’t sad. It’s another of those weird paradoxes of this place. All of the people I met have a sense of duty, to the past but also to the future. They tell stories to us, teachers from all over the United States, trusting that we will carry them back with us and teach them to our students, so that the sound of the blues, that heartbeat rhythm, won’t disappear.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.


The Tumblr Experiment, Part 3: Blogging as Formative Assessment

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

This is part 3 in a series. Parts 1 and 2 explored the in-class use of Tumblr, a blogging platform, as an exercise in writing for an authentic audience. You can read part 1 and part 2 online.

tumblr-logoAs the Tumblr experiment progresses, I’m faced with a difficult question about evaluation and feedbackWhat is a good measure of a writer’s success?

The answer, I believe, lies in whether a writer has achieved his or her purpose. This approach forces my students to really think about what they’re trying to accomplish. Yes, I get the obvious student response: “Trying to get an A.” But as we move deeper into the experiment, I’m finding that students are beginning to see other possible purposes. Tumblr is a space in which they can deliberately pursue an idea in writing. It’s also a place to take risks, both in what we think and how we want to write. Still, how do I encourage risks in writing without promoting ones that appeal to me?

This isn’t easy territory for evaluation.

I want this to be formative, but I don’t want my students to write for me or for points. At the same time, I do want them to know that I’m watching, steering us toward writing a solid essay. That said, the essay is really just one aspect of this larger project, whose goal is to produce authentic writing and voices, while developing rhetorical dexterity. 

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A Good Exchange

Using their blogs as a lens on the class, we discuss what kind of writing students are noticing–reblogs and responses–and bring that back to the classroom, where we can talk about why certain posts are creating more action than others. We’ve begun to notice that success often comes down to the writer’s awareness of audience. One student, for example, blogged about a piece of music and was rewarded with a lot of attention and discussion. When we talked about it in class, the writer said that he knew that his friends liked music, and he was betting that if he could draw them in, he’d draw others with the same interest as well.

You can picture me clapping my hands, because isn’t this exactly how real writers–really anyone who produces any kind of product–think? 

The students were all good writers. But as we talked through their writing choices, it became clear that some of these writers valued their own choices over those that appealed to their Tumblr audiences. Some prefered not to “cater” to the audience. This led to a discussion of different rhetorical moves that might attract a different audience–or alienate an audience.

For me, the real value lies in the conversation about purposes–whether, as writers, they’re achieving their purposes. That’s the rhetorical triangle in action, with real consequences.

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As a formative task, this works to let me see how we’re doing without being intrusive. Is what I think I’m teaching actually sticking to my students? Did it show up in the writing? If it is, great, but if not, I can see it before the essays come in, make adjustments, and revisit topics. We’ve talked technique and SOAPs and audience, of course, but always as an abstraction, very rarely as a practical “thing” we do as writers, choices we make on purpose. It’s this pivot from abstraction to “real” that’s important with the Tumblr experiment.

By moving students students out of the static model of traditional instruction, and into an environment that has entirely new and changing demands, I’m looking for a way to change them from people who write for me into people who write more authentically. The feedback that they’re getting from their audience–each other and me–is more valuable because it’s authentic, connected to their own goals as writers, and is rewarded by people whose opinions they value–each other, not just me.


RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Listening to Dragons & Peacocks at the OWP Summer Institute

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

I have a hard time finding time to write. I think about it, make notes in journals, and sometimes, sometimes, I finish something, but that something rarely gets in front of an audience. Maybe an audience of one or two gentle readers will take a peek but that’s it. I don’t get much feedback so I don’t really know how I’m doing. Teaching can be the same way. I do what I do, hope it made some kind of impact and move on. It can be frustrating and lonesome and, what’s worse I never know if I’m getting anywhere. No, I’m not looking for “points” or a grade–I am not my students–but I would like some kind of interaction. Writing and teaching can be very solitary which makes teaching writing downright monastic–not the ones who make beer, the ones who go off by themselves in search of enlightenment. The last two weeks in July, I crawled out of my teacher/writer cave and joined with a group of other pilgrims looking for some enlightenment or at least company. For those two weeks we talked about writing and teaching and we wrote, and shared what we wrote. I was teacher and student and writer and audience and I was happy. Here’s why:

OWP logo copyThe Oakland Writing Project Summer Institute was lead by Richard Koch and Marcia Bonds. It focused on culturally responsive teaching but that was a springboard into our teaching practices and our habits as writers. This is a recent conversion for me, teacher as writer, working through all of the challenges alongside my students and it has lead to changes in how I think about my practice. I try to do more listening now, less talking; more growth, less grading. I learned that to be responsive I need to listen more carefully. I need to try and quiet the voices in my head so I can hear, and respond to my students’ voices. This can be hard, especially for a monastic type like myself, because I spend so much time in my own head, or in front of students who want to please me for a grade that they tend not to challenge me when I spout off. Those voices tell me, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s how to teach all these kids.” That’s a culture of one and it is not always helpful.

The Summer Institute taught me that those voices that I think are  the “right” voices are simply the voices I respond to because they sound like me. The voices have had the same experiences I have so they’re familiar and have the ring of Truth, but not all my students hear those same voices, or if they do, they might not say the same things. How could they? My students come from a variety of cultures and experiences and it’s my job to help them give a voice in writing so they can express that unique culture and experience. Richard Koch likes the word “Namaste.” We talked about what it means–quite a few things apparently–and what we settled around was the idea that the light in me honors the light in you. (I know I’ve mixed my metaphors, voice and light, forgive me gentle ELA friends.) Being responsive doesn’t mean I agree with you or even I understand. It simply means that I’m listening, trying to hear your voice, to make a space where we can make sense of it. Writing and teaching at their core are ways to make a connection to another person. By learning to listen better, more carefully, I learn how to be a better teacher. This wasn’t something I could learn by myself. I needed to be a student, to sit in the learning chair. I spend a good deal of time in that chair. It’s humbling and that’s what I need.

23-2eLtnQYFrom my time in the learning chair one of the early prompts that stuck with me was a discussion of “peacocks” and “dragons” in our writing. It’s a metaphor for the beauty in the world that some people don’t have the patience to wait for, a peacock, and the things that frighten us but tend to produce good writing when we grapple with them, dragons. It comes from Flannery O’Connor, a writer not afraid of dragons, and I couldn’t stop returning to it.

Dragons: I wondered if, in becoming more culturally responsive, I should try to rid my classroom of dragons. Should I fill it with peacocks and wait for the joy to follow? I’m not really a peacock guy. I love beautiful writing but what I think I want is to create dragons. That’s how I tend to choose many of the texts that we work with. How many dragons are there? How skilfully has the writer confronted them. I look for craft dragons and theme dragons, and I do get some complaints. At times I’ve heard that a text is too “difficult,” the use of language too challenging, too hard to follow. This is a craft dragon and tends to be hard for students because the struggle is with the decisions the writer is making about how to tell the story; that’s where these dragons lurk. Craft dragons challenge students to work hard as readers and consider how hard they are willing to work. These dragons take sophisticated skills and patience to defeat. Craft dragons challenge students to think about themselves as readers, writers and students. The poor student who never confronts a craft dragon never knows their own character, their own strength as readers of “hard” stuff.

shutterstock_124981199Theme dragons…these beasts are so fierce. They can linger, haunt a reader. Shy away from a craft dragon–I struggle with stream of consciousness–and probably it won’t make a difference in your life, just avoid it. Fear of theme dragons is something different. There’s been a lot of conversation about so called “trigger warnings” for academic content that might disturb students. (This book has been rated TD for “Theme Dragons.”) Those triggers, those are dragons. They are born in culture and experience, things to be listening for and responsive to. They lurk in ideas of gender, politics, sexuality, morality, ethics, religion, and relationships of all kinds. Harder to confront because they are deep seated and engrained, they challenge who we are, or think we are–but isn’t that why we read, to find out who we are–so the battles are bloodier and tend not to have clear outcomes. These fights linger.

I don’t mean to imply that all we read in my class is heavy, soul baring tomes about BIG issues, but don’t we find these dragons everywhere, even in humorous texts? Don’t they lurk in unlikely places? The concerns I hear about these dragons often centers on the “appropriateness” or “maturity” of the themes. I understand these concerns and they do affect how I choose texts and I have shied away from dragons I think my students are just not ready to confront. The odd thing is though, that when I have taken that chance I’ve seen students do some of their best work. If we abandon the dragons, hide from them, we abandon the most rewarding aspect of language arts. Writing, reading, talking, when they are at their best are all about making connections to others who struggle with those same kinds of dragons.

shutterstock_122636782Asking students to confront theme dragons often means asking them to expose their fears, weakness, doubts and prejudices to their peers and then be evaluated on that battle. What could be more terrifying? But that is exactly what we ask students to do when they read and write. When they are successful and make a connection to their audience it’s often because the writer has found a way to portray their voice. They write in ways that conveys a sense of themselves to an audience. I think that’s a function of voice, and it is what I want them to develop.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at and helping students with their college essays. I’ve done it for years and those topics don’t change, “Consider a time…” What the colleges are asking for is that the student pull out a dragon, fight it and hope that it’ll get them into college. That’s a high stakes fight and if it’s the first time a student has been asked to do it, I end up reading a lovely, generic travelogue that sounds nothing like the interesting, engaging complicated people in my classes. I need the dragons in my class. I need to find them, drag them into my students’ paths and help them give voice to the struggle.

This is what I thought and wrote and talked about during the Institute as we all struggled with our dragons. If I want to be an effective teacher of Language Arts I need to try listen to my students’ voices. They are telling me about their peacocks and dragons, and then I can help them develop skills–reading, writing, speaking skills–they can use to show the peacocks and struggle with the dragons. In the Institute, Richard and Marcia created a place where that could happen, where we could try and sometimes (mostly in my case) fail in our attempts to write for an audience, to convince, or narrate or reflect on our dragons and peacocks. That, to me, seems to be a key, creating a place, a community of writers and readers, where all of that can happen. It’s a tall order, I know. I think my first step will be to listen…

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

The Tumblr Experiment, part 2: First Steps in the Digital World

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Read The Tumblr Experiment, part 1: Introduction

Hashtag-620x350 2The blogging universe is huge and can feel overwhelming, so my students’ first challenge was to carve out a bit of it for our own community. Our first assignment was to create blogs and find each other. Enter the hashtag. Students know how to use hashtags to organize their posts or tweets around topics, so I use them with Tumblr as well. Our first one is aplang15hello. Hashtags are a great way to tame the vastness of the blogosphere, but I need something that’s easy to identify and stands out. The first part identifies the class and the second part, after the 15, is the subject. This is our way to “find” each other. We search for the unique hashtag which leads us to each others’ blogs. Then it’s a simple click on the “Follow” button and, hello audience.

This first project, High Art, grew out of my frustration with the kinds of essays I typically assigned. I asked students to evaluate and make a case for a novel that they liked to be placed in our curriculum. As a writing assignment it was ok (zzzz), but the products lacked passion and voice. Students didn’t really care about novels or my opinion of novels, so they didn’t really care about the writing. My problem was that I didn’t know what they were passionate about and didn’t have a good way to find out.

birds-art-wordI also came up against the audience problem. Having their teacher as audience/evaluator/giver of points meant they wrote safe and “schooly”–their word–rather than honestly. I didn’t want safe writing. I wanted them to take chances, fail sometimes, learn and then come back again.

When I started to flirt with the idea of using Tumblr blogs in class, I lurked around in the space watching for and thinking about the kinds of writing I wanted my students to try, and I kept coming back to the idea of voice–authentic, honest and passionate. That voice, it seemed to me, was often found around subjects that the the writers were passionate about–music, movies, television shows, pop culture–sure, but still culture. And tucked in there among the pop culture were a lot of other things too–art things like body art and anime and illustrations. Art? Could I ask them to write about art? Why not?

It’s subjective. No one I was reading seemed able to clearly define it, but most of the writers seemed passionate that what they liked was most definitely Art. We were writing about novels, and it’s not much of a pivot from writing an argument about books to writing an argument about art. So, art it was. We looked at some examples of “high” and “low” art and  culture, talked about criteria and evaluation and then jumped in.  For their first assignment, I ask for students’ definition of art. I know. That’s daunting and very subjective, but for those very reasons it seemed like a logical starting point. It’s a challenging topic, but you can’t really get it “wrong.” And it’s a good way for students to introduce their “honest yet academic” selves. (More on this self idea in an upcoming post on Speaker–Who are you? Who do do want to be?)

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 11.30.09 AMThis image shows some of our initial forays on to the Tumblr microblogging platform. Tumblr microblogs typically offer shorter content than blogs, another aspect that drew me to it. It’s less daunting than the essay-like blog but more demanding that something like Twitter.

Students did pretty well once we got past the challenges. I always have to remind myself that just because my students are digital natives doesn’t mean that they are all good at technology. I had to work through issues of sign ups, access (my district, like many others, tends to be squeamish when it comes to anything that smells even remotely like social networking sites, so firewalls and filters are a constant challenge), how to “find” each other and the blogs we want to follow, commenting, and reblogging. There’s always something. My response is to remain calm and find a workaround. Eventually it all worked out, and we managed to create some content. It was mostly in the form of reblogging–repeating something interesting that you found on someone else’s blog–and then adding to the discussion with some original writing.

The students would mine the blogs they followed for content that they could write about and reblog under a our class hashtag–things they were genuinely interested in. Using the class hashtag meant it would show up in the feeds of their classmates. If they picked the right content and presented it well, they’d get a response for another classmate. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t.

tumblrwordcloudIt’s here where our discussion about audience starts to bear out. What kind of writing attracts and holds our attention? Tumblr is an image rich environment with most users simply scrolling through until something catches their attention. The question for writers becomes: how do we compete for that attention?

The images blur by, but my students agree that it’s often the writing that “sticks.” So how do we get “sticky?” I assign (compel?) my students to, in addition to writing their own content, reblog and comment on a certain number of their classmates’ posts. Making this an assignment is cheating because we’re not really creating any original content–more like offering opinions and observations–but it’s a good way to join the Tumblr discussion. It does require student bloggers to look at each others’ writing, but the challenge to attract attention, create a buzz, get sticky, is still with the writer. How do writers attract attention? What kinds of writing stick to a reader’s attention? Usually I’d approach these questions by assigning an essay and we’d start to close read and analyze it. Now the students’ work is where we start. I look through their work for what I call “good exchanges.”

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A “Good Exchange” showing a couple of students engaged in exchanging views over an idea about art.

The image at the right shows what a good exchange on Tumblr might look like. The original writer reblogged and wrote about something in a way that provoked his audience–his classmates–to “like,” “reblog,” and then respond. I’ll project this on the board and then we’ll talk about how and why the writing works. We give feedback and talk about the choices the writers made and how they worked. For me, this is a goldmine of teachable moments. I can talk directly to the intended audience because they’re sitting in the same room next to the writer who I can ask to talk about the choices she made and what her purpose was. We still close read professional writers, still look to the masters for guidance and models, but now I have another set of models, another set of writers. These writers are us. We’re not simply studying writing; we are writing, and about things we’re passionate about, just like Swift and Orwell and Wolff–all of whomI think would be terrific bloggers.

The Tumblr experiment is underway and most of the tech issues are solved. So where do we go next? It’s engaging and fun. My students like the attention, and I like having all of this material to use in my teaching but, they still ask me what it’s worth.

“Hey, um, Mr. Kreinbring-kreinbring65- or whatever we’re supposed to call you, points, how many are we getting for all this writing? Sure, it’s more engaging and all that but, you know, what’s my grade?”

They still ask that. They still have a hard time seeing past grades and points as the reason to do all of this writing. It’s not a question I like, but it is valid. How am I, their teacher, (and they still see me a that way, not as a fellow blogger) using all of this work to evaluate them? How am I rewarding good work and encouraging others to work harder at this?

I honestly do not know…yet.

I do know that my goal is to get students thinking of themselves as writers, as part of a community that skillfully uses words and images to explore ideas that matter to them, but they’re worried about their grades. Frustrating as it is I understand this, but we are moving in the right direction because they’re primarily looking more at one another as the audience and second at me as  the “evaluator.” I see them engaging with each other but with an awareness of me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to completely move them from thinking of themselves as members of a class  with the goal of getting a good grade to members of a community of writers with the goal of becoming better writers but this experiment; this feels like a first step in right direction.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

The Tumblr Experiment, part 1: Introduction

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

485559165In an earlier post “I Am Not Your Audience,” I talked about moving students away from the idea that I’m the person for whom they write, as well as moving them away from thinking that the purpose of their writing is to “score points.” Neither is easy. Precious few people ever really talked to my students about an audience beyond the teacher, or a purpose for writing beyond getting a good grade.

They seem to function in this mode: “I’m the speaker. You, my teacher, are the audience and, of course, my purpose, the only purpose, is to please you and get a high grade.”

That’s what kids are used to because that’s what they’ve been taught. But this isn’t how writing works in the real world. Being able to write well often means being able to read an audience and tailor a message in ways that make it effective. I don’t think voice develops without an audience. And I don’t think it develops with a static audience.

In order to become successful writers, my students need to get more out of that rhetorical triangle–Audience, Speaker, Purpose.


So I need to find a place where they can experiment with a real audience. Enter Tumblr.com, a microblogging platform where my students and I have been experimenting with ways to bend that rhetorical triangle.

What happened when I found a place where my students could explore their interests and develop their authentic voices?  What happened when I set them free to write “like themselves,” to take risks and find a real audience…

They asked me how many points it’s worth.

In that first post, I promised to share what I learned–good and bad. In this series of posts, I’ll lay out my classes’ process and what I was hoping would happen–not always the same as what did happen–but if I’m going to move with my students into a place where expectations, audience and purpose are fluid, I have to be ready to adjust, and adjust we do. In fact, that ability to adjust, what people sometimes call rhetorical dexterity, is exactly what we’re after. In this series of posts, I’ll put our work out there for you to judge–not the students’ work, but whether or not this experiment is, if not working exactly, at least worth pursuing.

In addition to following these posts, I’m inviting anyone who wants to see the experiment in action to follow me on tumblr.com. Throughout the series, I’ll include the hashtags that we use to identify our posts. Hashtags are a way of identifying and grouping posts by subject. I try to make mine unique to my class so I use a prefix that identifies the class and year — aplang15 for my AP Language and Composition classes in 2015–and a suffix that connects to the assignment–art, workandplay, twain. The hashtag for the assignment on art is #aplang15art. It makes finding what I and my students are looking for on Tumblr easy.

So, have a look at what we’re up to. I’m not promising everything there is rhetorical gold or best practice or even “cutting edge,” just an experiment, a way to find out what me and my students think.

Find me on Tumblr here. To read the entries below, click to enlarge.

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Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 12.29.42 PM Click to read


RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Genius. A Whole New Take on Audience.

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Part of my ongoing attempt to teach my students how to write in this century involves finding different platforms and hopefully audiences for them to write from. I am on the lookout for places  in the digital world they voluntarily write. Where are the cool kids writing from?  I say “from” because I’ve recently learned that when they write, my students don’t think about the audience. They think about the platform–Eli Review, Google docs, Tumblr, Twitter, and now Genius. They assign traits to the platform and then tailor their writing to the demands and pressures (their word) of the platform.

I’ve never thought of web publishing platforms like this.  As a writer and teacher, I try to think about people who might be using those sites and how I can best communicate with them. That’s how I was taught, and so it was how I was teaching my students. But it turns out that they don’t think like that. I ask my students who’s looking at their work and they reply with the name of the site.

genius-logoThis reality came to light during a class where I was talking about how we’re going to be using the site Genius.com to collaborate with a class from another state to annotate and talk about Macbeth. Genius is a social annotation site that covers multiple arenas: rock lyrics, rap lyrics, literature, law, news, film, etc. A colleague from South Dakota, Marissa Kleinhans, heard about the site at the South Dakota Council of Teachers of English conference and proposed that our classes collaborate on a piece of text. I’d never heard of the site, which started out as a place for Rap enthusiasts to annotate songs and squabble over references and word origins, activities not so different from what we do in class with literature. Posting to the site means fundamentally engaging in a close read. Mrs. Kleinhans and I had created collaborative activities using Google documents in the past. The idea behind Genius.com feels very much the same.

I had Genius.com projected on the screen while talking about expectations when I asked my students what they thought about the idea. It was a casual question. I wasn’t delving, and I didn’t expect that it would cause a wave of raised hands and excited chatter, but that’s what happened. It seemed like they all had something to say. I grabbed a notebook, unobtrusively I hoped, as I didn’t want to Heisenberg all over whatever was happening.

122570851What they said was that they liked Genius.com because it was “cool.” Great, what do I do with that? The quest for “cool” has always meant “cool until the adults find out about it” and that’s not what I’m looking for. But as I listened more closely, I heard them say other things. They talked about the design of the site, how the black background and yellow font was code to them that said something about the audience and what was expected. It was “looser” and “more casual,” which again was code that meant that they could write “like themselves.” They were talking about voice, authenticity, honesty. To my teacher’s ears, “like themselves,” too often meant sloppy arguments, careless grammar and generally bad writing–all the things I am trying to educate out of them. And sometimes it does mean that, but what they were talking about was the freedom to use their own authentic voices. They were talking about the freedom to take risks without being judged, not just by their teacher, but by the site itself.

It seems that “academic” sites, like Eli.review, look academic or, as one student put it, “like academic trying to be cool,” and that academic feel puts different pressures on the writing. The same thing happens whenever I set up a task for them on Google docs–reviews, feedback, backchanneling–the assignment didn’t matter. What mattered to them was that I, or another academic, had set it up for the purpose of teaching writing, and they were acutely aware of that and it affected how they wrote.

175285249 (1)Keep in mind that I use both of these platforms (Google Docs and Eli Review) as places for my students to interact with each others’ writing and ideas. I have been alternately pleased and frustrated by the results. But it had never occurred to me that although I expressly told them that they were to engage with each other–that their classmates were the audience–they felt pressure from me. Not because I said anything, but because I had created the space, given it my traits, so the space itself was whispering requirements to them, telling them that their writing had to be “schooly.”  Years of schooling have taught them that school writing has strict requirements. That to be  “scholarly” and “academic” they had to strip the personality, the voice, out of their writing. This lesson has become so ingrained that they could sense it lurking in these academic sites, and they weren’t about to be fooled into authenticity. They certainly didn’t trust me when I said anything to the contrary. The site told them the truth–that outside of creative writing in school, they had to be academic–dry and in many ways false.

Genius.com whispers different things to my students. Besides the cool yellow font (I could do that), the masthead (Don’t call it that–makes it instantly less cool.) lists all of the different types of texts being annotated, and it puts “Lit” third in line behind Rap and Rock, but ahead of  News, Pop, and several others. My students said that putting Lit with those others made them think that what we were doing “might be relevant,” because their work was part of what was happening on this site, and it was happening alongside of other relevant work. This site, the people using it, put what they cared about next to other serious work being done by serious people.

Click to visit Genius.com

Click to visit Genius.com

It’s important to note that the annotations we worked on were not public. I set up a private space for us to work in so that the only outside audience and collaborators were the South Dakotan students and the occasional monitor from the genius.com staff. My students’ work was being seen by the same people who had always seen their work. Their audience, at least as I saw it, hadn’t changed. But here again, they think about the site and the audience as one thing. They also said that the presence of those non-academic topics made it clear to them that they could “loosen up” and “be themselves.” I’m only asking them to annotate a text so I can see what they’re thinking, but even that carries some pressure when it’s their teacher asking them to do it in an “academic space.” This different space tells them that it’s alright to take  chances, to be wrong, to be smart. Genius.com tells them what it wants them to be and how to write for it.

That this same thing might occur in other sites leads me to think that I am talking about audience in the wrong way. Rather than me, as teacher, creating digital space for my students to write and then talking about the audience that we bring to that space, I need to work harder to find spaces that communicate their demands and figure out how to read those spaces myself. In truth, I have no idea how to do that. This presents me with significant challenges and questions, but I think the first thing I need to think about is broadening my ideas about writing. Am I locked into “school” writing forms that are forcing many of my students away from their own voices? I honestly thought that a digital space would be freeing for my digital natives, but it turns out I need to listen harder.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Teacher as Director & Coach

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

In a previous post, I wrote about the unnaturalness of acting, how awkward I felt, and what a poor actor I was. I mentioned how important I think it is for teachers to write alongside their students so we can feel the frustration and vulnerability that comes with doing something unnatural, like writing or acting. My recent experience being directed made me think about what it is like to be taught. In the interest of full disclosure, I also coached soccer for a long time and played very poorly, so awkwardness and unnaturalness is something I’ve been on both sides of.

As an actor I struggled, but I was got better. I gained a little confidence as I got past just remembering the lines and where to go. I started thinking about other things, like how to deliver rather than remember the line. How did that happen, I wondered? I watched the same thing happen to my castmates. They were getting better too. I started to pay attention to the director. He was teaching us to do something so awkward and unnatural that we were actually forgetting natural things, like how to walk. (I’m glad I only had to cross the stage once. #stumbles) Watching him direct novice actors showed me ways to teach novice writers.  Here’s what I learned:

450296197Recognize and acknowledge students’ difficulty and the effort. “I know this is hard, and I can see you’re…” It’s unnatural and hard to go from being an excellent talker to being a deliberate writer. Putting myself in the role of learner reminded me of that.

Use different approaches.  This is where coaching or directing skills come in handy. Look for what works and what doesn’t, and build on the good stuff, no matter how small. Coaches also know when to sort the groups by ability, work one on one, and when to step back and let someone struggle. Our director did the same things, taking one of us aside while the others worked, or sometimes stepping back and letting us muddle through a scene until we found our groove and got a taste of what it felt like to get it right.

To the struggling actor: “If you want to make this funny, try picking out one person in the audience and talking to her…” or “When you say that line think about your own child’s birthday…” or “Memorizing long stretches of dialogue is hard. Try writing the lines on note cards, and walk around as you read them.”  We don’t all learn the same way, so my teaching has to have multiple points of entry.

Not everything works for every person. Actors, writers, and players are all different. They think differently, see things differently, and need different ways to move their audience.

When you get lost, keep the end in mind. “Where do you want to be at the end of the scene? How are you going to get there?” Writing is about purpose. How best to achieve it? As a teacher it’s easy to get bogged down in things that aren’t going well. The grammar is wrong. I haven’t really explained how to transition without being mechanical. The same thing happens to coaches and directors but if you can see where you want to end up, it’s likely you’ll find ways to get there.

Always leave space for epiphany, creativity, and happy accidents. This is connected to the above thought in that sometimes we get where we wanted to be, but we don’t know how. Writers need to be okay with trusting their instincts, especially if the end result is good. Praise the end result–nice goal, great paragraph, hilarious scene–and find out what went right.

Things don’t always go right.  When I was coaching I used to tell my players, “You’re going to make 100’s of mistakes this season. (Thanks, coach.) I don’t care about the mistake (A lie). I care about what you do next.” I got the same advice from my director and it had the same effect on me as it had on my players. I was scared, but relieved. I knew I’d feel the mistakes, but I also knew I had to keep going and make it better.   

Do not just tell your students what you want; model it. This seems to be a key move in giving good feedback as well. I ask my students to rewrite weak parts of their partner’s writing so the partner can see how it’s done, or how it might be done. In truth, this was always a struggle for me as a coach. As a player, I aspired to one day be…mediocre, and I’m not the best writer but modeling isn’t always about the only way to do something. In writing, it’s also about giving an option for another way to do something.

158997850Never forget your audience.  Like much of what I learned, this applies to students and teachers. It’s all about moving your audience. This goes for writers, actors and teachers. I think of those long-winded professors I had in college. Droning on, oblivious to the blanks stares, they might as well have been talking to a mirror. (Any teacher who thinks that a lecture is a good way to teach should be forced to actually sit through one.) It’s not about the director, or the actor, or the writer. It’s about getting that audience where they need to be. As a teacher, I think about the purpose–where I want to be–but I try to listen to my audience; find out what works for them and use that to reach the purpose.

I thought about a lot of this while we were rehearsing and learning Our Town. It was good to be on the other side of the relationship: learning something new, working with people with different learning styles, an unfamiliar text.  There were no lectures. Talks? Yep. Listening? Check. But lectures? There wasn’t one and yet we still learned. I say take every lecturer and turn him into a coach, or a good director, after we make him sit through a lecture. Teach him the skills that directors and coaches have to master. Teachers should coach something, or direct, and they need to learn to play something or act.

Finally, gentle reader, this my last play related post. I promise, I’m over it.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Students: I Am Not Your Audience

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

178742843Several years ago, I went in search of an audience for my students, although at the time I didn’t know that was what I was up to. I’d seen enough student writing to know I wasn’t doing something right in my instruction. My students were smart, interesting and capable of all manner of argument, but their writing didn’t reflect that. However, they were willing to risk suspension by breaking through the district’s internet firewall to reach sites like Myspace and Facebook where they wrote (Wrote!) about things they cared about in ways that reflected their personalities. This was what I was looking for. So I started a website where my students and I could build on the conversations we were having in class, and they could write in the same way they wrote on social media sites. I envisioned a free flowing forum of ideas and enthusiasm, a place for authentic voices like I’d seen on Facebook and Myspace, like I’d heard in my classroom. Yeah, I was wrong.

Our website quickly became a place where my ideas went to die, or where students would respond to my prompts as if they were short answer questions, writing in a dull, mechanical, and predictable way.  I asked for modern examples of  Holden Caulfield thinking I’d inspire students to write about alienation but got lists of “bad boy” actors and links to a band called “Holden Caulfield.” In my students’ defense, that’s how I wrote the prompts. They were prescriptive and came from my ideas about what the students should find engaging. Every now and then we’d spark a little discussion–but not really. The site was more of a bulletin board than a forum. Still, I was determined to use this new internet realm for something.

181407018This all happened at the turn of the century, but the idea of 21st century literacy wasn’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking about how drastically teaching reading and writing was going to be impacted by the World Wide Web. I just wanted to be in on what was happening.  Though my first failures did send me in a new direction. My students were using platforms like MySpace to say things about themselves, to give their opinions, and to challenge each others’ ideas. It was entirely social, but what they were doing was writing, sometimes with letters and words, sometimes with images. But it’s all text, and that’s what drew me in. So I tried again.

Dipping  my educational toe into social media in a few places didn’t bring  much success. Individual blogs I had my students set up felt isolated and formal. I gave them assignments to be completed on the blog, which they treated like electronic paper. The writing didn’t change much, but they were more careful and deliberate with their work. Discussion boards or chat rooms were too fast and too informal. They were conversational in nature and didn’t leave my students time for a carefully considered response. They had to get ideas out quickly or be left behind. Still, I had little glimpses of what I was after: a sustained and thoughtful conversation in writing and images. But when this occurred, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how to recreate it.

What was the difference between what I was doing and what I wanted? The answer is audience. I hadn’t been aware of just how much weight audience carries. When I was the audience, even the perceived audience, it changed 128930844the way my students wrote. Their voices faded. Those few times I did manage to spark something good–thoughtful, honest writing with authentic voices about a text we were looking at–then their writing became self supporting. Students abandoned me as audience and wrote for each other, fed off each other and it had very little–actually nothing–to do with me. In fact, I was very careful not to enter into the conversation because as soon as I said anything, their writing changed course and was directed at replicating the thing I’d praised. The writing even changed when students knew that I was lurking but not writing anything.  Many of them would lose the nerve to be the writers they really were. It didn’t matter that I told them that their audience was each other; my mere virtual presence changed how they wrote. When I became their audience, they tried to write like students. But when their audience was other students, they wrote like writers. They had more confidence, took risks, and tried to engage the each other. In short, they did what writers do.

Encouraged but still confused, I went looking for a platform that allows the immediacy of a conversation but encouraged more thoughtful and deliberate writing. A couple of years ago I came upon Tumblr.com.  At the time, it was a kind of hybrid hipster blog with lots of art and music. There was plenty of careless writing, but there were also blogs with very good, clearly professional writing. I started by following blogs on Tumblr that both interested me and fit with what I wanted the students to see like Blake Gopnik On Art,  The Paris Review , The Nearsighted Monkey. These blogs are all clearly written for a specific audience–Tumblr users–and decidedly too cool for most of my students and their teacher. That’s was part of what I was looking for. I wanted to connect my students to a fairly sophisticated audience in hopes that they might adopt the characteristics of that audience. (I was wrong about that but not for the reason I thought. That’s grist for another post.) Tumblr looked promising enough to try, so I set my first class loose.

Screen shot 2014-10-22 at 10.00.16 PM

11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

I traditionally assigned some kind of evaluative essay where the students had to make a case for including something in the curriculum or extolling the virtues of a new technology. It was an okay assignment. It let us look at different ways to advance an argument, what counts as evidence, warrants–all of the things I wanted my students to learn. The essays were fine but lacked passion and voice because they weren’t writing about anything they really cared about, and they weren’t writing to anyone they cared about. It was an exercise to them, nothing more. Why work hard when they didn’t care about the subject or the audience?

With this question in mind, I asked student to find examples of and talk about what they thought was art (hanna art, animation). And I turned them loose in the Tumblr world. They followed, promoted and wrote about things they liked. Things they were interested in. As I watched voices emerged, I learned what my students were interested in and why they liked what they liked. I saw arguments. I saw rhetoric in action. I saw some real writing and I heard authentic student voices.

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 11.01.13 AM

11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

Why did Tumblr work?  The audience had changed. Students were writing for themselves and trying to write in ways that would attract attention from other writers and readers in that world. This was three years ago, and I was just starting to think about how the ways that students will read and write is fundamentally different than how I read and write thanks to the new media world. That first year I took what my students did on their Tumblr blogs and kind of wedged it into an existing curricular format. It wasn’t a great fit and moving from the blogs to an essay cost them some voice, or the tone was too casual for the classroom. I didn’t do a good job of explaining how a change in audience or situation, let alone both, required some serious rethinking of rhetorical strategies. It’s an ongoing conversation I have with my students. We talk about…

  • What are the characteristics of the platform and how do we adapt our writing to fit its conventions?
  • Is the platform the same as the audience?
  • What counts as evidence in a setting that seems to demand visual arguments?
  • How do we warrant and cite a picture? A video? A gif?
  • How can I make my writing stand out?
  • How do I grab the audience’s attention and then hold it long enough to engage them in my writing?
  • What kinds of arguments hold sway with this audience?

These are all very good, important questions that deserve serious consideration. I can’t answer them now. I usually turn the questions back at my students. They are the experts, the digital natives whose interest drew me into this world in first place. I have 20th century knowledge. They have 21st century experience.

I have only just begun to really consider what students writing in the 21st century might require  of me as a teacher. It is exciting and a hot mess. How do I manage all of this? Evaluate it? Channel it?  The Tumblr experiment continues into it’s third year. I’m a little more sure of what I’m doing–a little. In my next posts, I’ll share more about what’s going on–successes, failures and everything I learn.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Audience is Everything

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

In my first post, I said I was in an alumni production of Our Town. Now, the play is over, and the reviews are in. Wilder’s play survived my assault on Doc Gibbs, but the experience has me thinking about teaching writing.

Audience is everything.

Audience_3_previewDifferent disciplines define “audience” using other words, but it all comes down to the perception and experience of the end user. All products, all successful products, are designed with the user in mind, as determined by product testing or a focus group. Art and music, while often very personal,  succeed when they “find and audience.”  Sketching, journaling, and playing random chords because they please you is fine because you are the only audience. But if you want to find out if you’re good, however that’s defined, you need an audience.

What’s the measure of success in writing? Did it achieve the writer’s goal with her intended audience? As a teacher, I know that my goal is for my students to be successful actors in the play that we call writing. I am both the director as I guide them through the process, and a participant as I write alongside them.  But where’s our audience? Who are we working so hard for? How do we know if our choices are the right ones if we never get to see the audience, hear them laugh in the first two acts, and then go silent in the third because we set them up for that on purpose?

When we rehearsed Our Town, our only audience was each other and the director. We ran our lines and worked through how to deliver them, but we had no idea how they’d be received by an actual audience. There were places that we suspected would be funny or poignant if we delivered the lines well, but we didn’t really know if they would work as we expected them to. There were words and phrases that we had to say, either because another character depended on hearing them as a cue to deliver another line or because they were vital to delivering some thematic idea. We had to be fast and bright in the first two acts because we planned to shock the audience with our somber tone in the third.

The director helped us imagine our audience and what they would see and hear, but that’s not the same thing as having an audience. The whole endeavor, the play, was aimed at the audience, not me. I was having fun, but the audience was who I was working for. When we did perform the play, we knew where it worked because we could see and hear the audience react. It was a rush when we got it right, and it stung when it fell flat, but at least we knew for sure what the audience thought.

That idea lingers.

181748002In the past couple of years, I have been putting more and more emphasis on the importance of audience in writing. I talk with my students about who their audience is, its characteristics, what moves it, and recently, we talked about what might delight the audience. The mantra “when you write for everyone, you write for no one” echoes through my room as we try to imagine that one person we’re trying to reach. (I know who it is for this piece.)

The problem is–it’s fake. There is no audience, not really. We give excellent feedback to each other, but it isn’t the same thing as having an audience. I had been aware of that, but until I walked across a stage and delivered my lines for a real audience, I didn’t feel it. I do now, keenly. The question becomes: where do I get an audience for my students?

My students have been blogging for years, and my use of new media platforms has evolved from a place for me to make announcements to a static discussion board to a place where my students can engage each other. But the audience is still “us,” the theater company. We are currently setting up blogs on Tumblr. This will be our third year on that site, and I have a decent sense of how to use it to talk about 21st century writing, but my goal this year is to try and get my students’ best work in front of a real audience. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like or if I can accomplish it. Is this something I can do using Tumblr blogs, or is that still too insulated?

Peer feedback is another option I’m working hard on, but again, it doesn’t feel-big enough. When I was at an NCTE Conference, I saw a presentation on having a Writers Week, but that’s a ton of prep for really only one week. I’m looking for help here, gentle reader. If you have a suggestion, please share it.  I want my students to feel the sting of missing a line, or having something they think will work fall flat, and then come back with a better idea. I want them to know their writing has succeeded, not because I gave them an “A,” but because they can hear the laugh and see the audience cry a little in the third act.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Unnatural Acts: Realizations about Writing Instruction

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

146747989I am in a play. It’s an Avondale Schools staff and alumni production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  My role is Doc Gibbs.  I have never acted or been part of theater company, but I was asked by a colleague to take a risk and show my students I wasn’t afraid to step outside the usual role of teacher. I was intrigued. I accepted the invitation.

Yes, teaching can be a kind of theater, but not like this. I walk on stage and say things that someone else wrote. I move in ways meant to suggest this character is me. The director is gently nudging my performance in ways that help me communicate who this character is–what he feels when he doesn’t say what he feels. The director is giving me things to do with my hands so I won’t keep touching my face, telling me where to look and how to stand so the audience can see what I’m doing. It feels odd…unnatural.

480810487Writing is also an unnatural act. Human beings have a voice box that evolution has designed to create speech. It’s unique to us. We have no such organ designed for writing. Speech is natural; writing is not. I encountered this idea in a piece by Dylan B. Dryer, a professor at the University of Maine. He contends that when measured against the naturalness and ease of speech, writers tend to judge their efforts harshly. This idea was banging around in my head when I took up the script of Our Town to learn my lines.

In Act One, my character, Doc Gibbs, has two scenes with boys. He teases the paperboy in one and later leads his son George to feel guilty that a chore he should be doing is being done by his long suffering mother. In real life, I am the father of two boys, so this scene should feel natural. I’ve both teased and guilted my boys. But, as I rehearsed the lines and blocked out the scene, it felt awkward. A natural conversation becomes unnatural when spelled out and scripted. Shouldn’t acting be easier? Am I being too hard on myself here?

177371540For years I approached teaching writing as though it were natural, as natural as speaking. I exposed students to “good writing,” provided models and rubric, and gave instruction. But the idea at the core was that the ability to write well was buried somewhere inside of my students and by my efforts, it would be awakened–this dormant, but natural, ability. After all, they can speak in sentences and that skill developed because they were spoken to, or were near other speakers. They learned by osmosis or proximity. The same should hold for the written word. I thought good writing would rub off on my students the way good or bad habits of speech do. I considered writing a natural act, and I taught it that way. To be fair, this is how I was taught. Some of my students did become good writers, but most didn’t. They didn’t simply move from speaking to writing with a bumpy transition period. It was frustrating for them and for me.

470701001I wanted to be a better teacher, so I started working through different approaches and models. I pieced things together, tried, and failed and attempted to learn from my efforts. Gradually, I got better, but when I encountered the idea of writing as unnatural it crystallized for me. Of course my early efforts were misguided. My expectations were based on a false premise. Writing habits aren’t something my students could naturally adopt because writing is unnatural. Before I came to this idea, I looked at writing the way I might’ve looked at something natural, say walking. My students needed needed help standing: so I gave them a framework to lean on, the 5 paragraph essay, until they got steady. They leaned on these complicated rubrics and paragraph models that looked like a set of Ikea instructions. But their writing was mechanical and clumsy and bore no resemblance to the writing we read and they liked.

When children first begin walking, their motion is graceless and jerky.  But at some point it becomes natural and fluid. They don’t think about it. The gait is natural and no one can say when this happens. I was waiting for that same natural transition in my students’ writing, but it rarely came. Most of them continued to lean on the frameworks I’d given them, and as a result, their writing was mechanical, clumsy, and lacking voice. When I stripped those crutches away, expecting the transition from mechanical to fluid, they fell and got frustrated. Writing isn’t like walking or speaking. I needed to think of it as unnatural, like dancing or singing, where the moves and techniques are broken down and rehearsed until they become, not natural but second nature.

rbrb_2118Realizing that writing is not natural changed the way I approach teaching it. It isn’t an ability to be awakened any more than a father’s ability to talk to his son. It is a habit that is developed.  With this in mind, I find it easier and more natural that we should have to work so hard at writing and teaching writing. My students and I participate in the unnatural act of writing together. I keep a writer’s’ notebook and write with them, sharing my own frustrations with this unnatural activity. Unnatural activities have to be made less uncomfortable and that can happen by simply acknowledging the difficulty, not from without as a “teacher” of writing, but as member of the struggling writing community. It involves taking risks by making our thoughts and habits public. In this way, acting and writing feel oddly similar. I didn’t know I touched my face when I was nervous until I had to communicate a character to an audience from the stage, and I didn’t notice my love of alliterative language until a reader of my writing pointed it out to me. Turns out, both habits are distracting.

It’s my job as a teacher to take this act of writing and help my students see the small moves inside of it. Writing doesn’t have to be a big frightening act. It can be a series of small decisions about what word to choose or where to break a line or the choice to hint at something rather than say it outright. It isn’t easy. It isn’t natural, but as we uncover ways to break down the discomfort and pursue goals with our writing, it gradually becomes a habit.

RICKKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project at Michigan State University concentrated on improving writing and peer feedback and has presented at the national Advanced Placement convention and the National Council of Teachers of English convention. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.