Writing, Period: Teaching Communcation, Defense, and Revision for 21st Century Learners

hcg ultra

Getting students to write is difficult enough even for an English teacher, but getting students to write randomly, about anything going on between their hyperdrive synapses is near impossible. Today’s children do not rely on imagination and creativity as in times past. They are an immediate generation which often translates to entitlement but mostly just means the generation is answer focused with momentum set for this very second instead of well rounded ability and nurturing of talent (or at least competency). We want better writers. We have a generation that couldn’t give too rat poops less about germinating ideas, brainstorming, or the dreaded fleshing out of an essay in defense of a thesis. So what do we do? We fight fire with fire.

Technology is one of the easiest and most cost efficient ways to get students to write. All good essays begin with having a good grasp on the subject to be talked about; this includes a significant amount of prewriting research and brainstorming. I have found that tricking my students into being good writers begins with allowing them nearly unbridled research access to the internet. Of course, in my county this means a plethora of blocked sites that thankfully our technology coordinator is working tirelessly to evaluate and make accessible, but still it’s a start. When students feel they have freedom to answer their own questions they apply that freedom to freedom of expression as well. When we write essays we do not adhere solely to the 5 paragraph norm; in fact I teach them that they only write this way for “old, cantankerous writing judges who are frustrated with their lot in life”, and that actually writing, writing for LIFE has no place within the confines of the 5 paragraph format. This is not to say that writing does not have structure, but rather that we must ensure this structure, this medium of communication has enough flexibility to encompass what our students are trying to stay.

Build relationships with your students using the avenue of technology. Encourage your students to defend a topic or belief from all sides, not just the sides given in class. Allow the time and resources to research before they argue, and use the internet, discussion boards, and blogs to foster discussion among themselves. A person cannot learn what they believe until know why they DON’T believe other points of view. Our students need to be taught this same life lesson – to back up what they believe with logic and evidence, and to not be ashamed to stand confidently on a point in the face of the publicity of their peers.

Places to Start:

www.wordpress.com – Blogging

The way I do blogs is to create private accounts for all students; they then invite me as their sole viewer. They must do a blog entry once a week on ANY subject of their choosing. At first this freedom to write about anything can be crippling, but they soon find their voice especially when they see my comments. It takes about 45 mins but I comment on EVERY student’s blog. This is a really effective way to build a positive emotional climate with your class and reach each student individually. The response is tremendous when they realize they are still getting 100 for blogging, it can be on anything they wish, AND Ms. Caso is genuinely interested in what they have to say that may or may not pertain to the lesson. I count this as quiz grades.

iphone 5 case

Now this is a fishy one as of late because the Lefora Discussion Board site itself is down, or something is screwy with it. The site comes and goes, and I sent an email to the Lefora help desk to see if their server is down or going through updates or something. I moved my posts to  but as of late  the filter is now allowing this site either. Le sigh.

I try to make each post have an element of research in it, something they have to solidify their opinion about. For instance, we do current events a lot (because I listen to NPR on the radio every morning on the drive in) and the other week we were discussion Al Shabaab, a Somali terrorist cell with ties to Al Queda (sp?). We listened to the NPR bit in class (working on oral language per the SCOS), then they had to research an AMERICAN group that mirrored Al Shabaab’s terrorist tendencies, recruiting methods, and violence. Without telling them my opinion, many of them made connections to American gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, especially those who are in these gangs themselves (or say they are). It was definitely a teachable moment on the idiocy of gang life and how self centered these groups really are.

Each www.lefora.com post counts for a quiz grade, but each grade is their initial post PLUS two replies; after all, it wouldn’t be a discussion board if they didn’t discuss with one another. The site itself is very easy to use, navigate, and personalize. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a computer whiz AT ALL, so I like technology for dummies stuff A LOT. :)

The links attached will open up kinda funky and are NOT indicative of how the site actually looks. Google docs takes away the graphics and all the snazzy stuff.

*** And as always, don’t allow apprehension to dictate whether or not you use the technology available to you. ASK! Someone in your district knows how to use this stuff; track that person down! You can also pull up the websites you want to peruse (prezi.com, lefora.com, wordpress.com, livejournal.com, pollseverywhere.com, etc) and each site has a tutorial you can pace yourself through.

Beowulf, Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Guy

Courting the Classics Series

Fictionista Workshop, September 2010

The first time I read Beowulf, I hated it. Not in the “it’s a little difficult and linguistically annoying but I can suffer through it” kind of way, either. To a first year senior English teacher with an enduring love of the classics, the contradictory epic poem of Beowulf encapsulated everything I despised concerning so called “heroism” – unnecessary and flagrant violence in the name of personal glory and arrogant cavemen types arbitrarily wielding weapons and words. I can get down with some magic, with some monsters, with some arm-ripping battle scenes, but the difficult language of the piece and unbridled arrogance of Beowulf himself is enough to make anybody gag.

Two years ago I began teaching English IV to local seniors. Completely green and scared I would do my students a disservice in the world of English Literature, I figured the most appropriate work to begin with was, well, the beginning. Long held as the oldest piece of English literature, Beowulf was written down by an anonymous Anglo Saxon poet after the poem’s long oral tradition. At the time of the poem’s creation in Britain all literature included the violent and battle-driven tribes of the area as characters. The Celts were the preliminary tribe on the scene of Britain (where the name “Britons” comes from) but the Celts eventually clashed with the Roman Emperor Claudius for control of the British Isles. To his credit though Emperor Claudius’ arrival in 43 AD did begin to merge a Roman appreciation of written history and poetry with the existing battle-driven societies, creating the first action tales of English literature. Several more tribes leant a hand, a battle axe, or the occasional Pagan holiday or three, but suffice it to say that all tribes inhabiting the British Isles enjoyed frequently kicking the holy dog crap out of each other and writing about it.

The more I prepared to teach Beowulf the more I realized I owed Sir-What’s-His-Name an apology for doubting the cultural and personal application of his work. To begin with, Beowulf  is the paradigm for every epic hero in English literature, and I daresay culture. An epic poem by nature is ridiculously long, very wordy, and hard to navigate with your brain; but the beauty of the work and the common human experiences found throughout are meant to draw the reader in and keep her reading. For example, Homer’s Iliad is 24 books worth of beautiful imagery, sword wielding nonsense between supposed heroes, some trickery, some tomfoolery, and a mutilated corpse; but the reader eventually realizes the commonality between the characters and the modern age, how relationships can strengthen or defeat, as well as some solid evidence for both sides of the fate and honor argument that plagued most Greek heroes. Perhaps arguably, epics are meant to draw the reader lovingly towards the protagonist through a series of victories, and then question that very loyalty through a significant character flaw.

Epic poems traditionally include the elements of epic hero, epic quest, valorous deeds, great events, and divine intervention. My interest in Beowulf began to peak when I realized that the epic element of the hero was still very much alive and well today. American heroes are traditionally arrogant although there has been a recent fad in having the heroes realize their arrogance has disastrous effects, but usually all is well or at least resolved at the end of the story, film, or book. Think about James Bond, created by Ian Fleming but mass produced in America as the wanna-hump-a-lot gadget genius with the cool accent, the never cold sheets, and the proclivity to set off explosions every time he blinks. Think about Dan Briggs, the initial main character of the Mission Impossible series that lasted from 1966 until the 2000s. Briggs was the leader of a top secret agency taking on impossible missions for impossible amounts of lucrative awards that reinforced American materialism and quest for validation through accolades and possessions. This idea of glory and riches defining the people we consider heroes, however, is not an American creation. To me, this idea began with Beowulf.

Beowulf as the epic hero is like a steroid version of Fabio complete with chain mail accessories, a booming bass voice that stalls men in their tracks, and a huge entourage of faithful fans. In the story, even Hrothgar’s soldier who was guarding the cliff where Beowulf and his men first landed on their way to destroy Herot’s monster problem couldn’t help but comment that Beowulf was a “beautiful man” and that his weapons were pretty cool too.

The case for Beowulf as epic hero begins when he tells his own chieftain that he is leaving to sail for Herot, the meadhall in another land plagued by a murderous monster that stalks and slaughters by night. This is an important introduction to Beowulf’s character because in the tribal system one’s chieftain is the only one capable of giving such an order or making such a proclamation – and Beowulf at this time is not a chieftain. Even so, Beowulf argues that he is the only one with the strength and strategy to defeat the monster Grendel, and tells (not requests) his chieftain that he is taking 14 of the best warriors with him to track down this monster. So not only is Beowulf possibly putting his own tribe in danger by leaving with the best warriors, he is not seeking Grendel out to help his homeboy Hrothgar. Beowulf leaves to go monster-chasing for personal glory. Luckily, he is supported by his chieftain, a warrior bloodline, and some pretty neat weaponry, but nonetheless Beowulf from the very beginning breaks from the tradition of his culture for personal gain. Hero?

Even in Beowulf’s primary encounter with Grendel, Beowulf puts himself and his own ambitions first. Beowulf orders his men to rest, tells them there is nothing to fear in the dark halls of Herot. Beowulf positions the men from the door to the walls of the meadhall, and as the only one awake Beowulf has the advantage of launching a surprise attack against Grendel when he chooses to strike. Grendel snatches the closest snack to the door, one of Beowulf’s best men strategically placed to engage Grendel. In the end Beowulf fatally wounds the monster by ripping his arm from the socket, revisits Grendel in his underwater lair to finish the monster off, has a creepy and violent encounter with Grendel’s mother, and in the end went down in his own history as what a hero should be – strong, unyielding, justifiably arrogant, and dedicated to the mission without wavering.

The final scenes of the poem see Beowulf as an old man going after a dragon’s treasure. While the dragon is said to have terrorized the township Beowulf eventually became chieftain of, it’s implied that the main object of Beowulf’s desire was the dragon’s treasure, not solely the safety of his people. Even as aged and debilitated as he was, the now much-more-crooked-and-weaknened version of Beowulf fought to the death against a dragon he never thought for an instant could best him. Even as an old man Beowulf goes down in a literal blaze of glory, setting an example for his men to follow.

While Beowulf’s arrogance may have reached nearly unbearable levels the reader is forced to contemplate his own itinerary for heroism, her own definition of virtuous acts, and whether one can serve himself and his people at the same. I teach my students the virtue of a classic piece of literature is whether it touches on a common human experience and withstands the test of time. Perhaps Beowulf is not meant to give solely an example of an ancient world hero; perhaps he is meant to make us challenge our own definition of heroism as well.

Collaboration

So a fellow teacher relayed to me recently her current state of collaboration with her colleagues at her new job – zero. While she says she adores her new students and new high school home, she daily picks up on a large lack of collaborative relationships amongst her colleagues. Though a small school, everyone seems to keep to themselves and no one goes out of their way to share ideas, activities, rigorous assigments, or classroom management strategies. Collaboration seems to be a symptom of a proverbial fairy godmother waving her magic wand in hopes the dust settles in all that downtime we know teachers have outside of their regular responsibilities. Somewhere in a land far, far away teachers do talk to one another …

The teacher burnout rate is incredible from my personal experience. As a 3rd year teacher, I am just as excited this year as I was my first year and probably more so since I am at a new school with a new challenge set before of raising EOC English I scores from 61% to 80%. I do not look at my enthusiasm as a rarity but rather directly related to the new environment I find myself in. I was so torn down by the political bs of my former school that I almost lost my taste for teaching entirely … and I was only in my second year! Thus said, I can see how my colleagues of 8 or 10 years or more are burned out on the task of shaping the rocky mountain minds of our youth. They have cut hands and short patience and they just don’t care. Show a movie instead of reading the novel? Why not? Isn’t the point “engagement”, anyway? Open book tests? Sure! They aren’t going to really have to study for anything in the real world anyway, and all the answers will be provided. Yep, right there in the library of that ocean front property in beautiful Arizona.

Collaboration is the name of the game, but we are failing to build relationships with each other as educators. Even the best educator who is closer and more involved with his teaching than any other in his building is failing if he is not building relationships with “those who came before” so to speak. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, and there is nothing wrong with sharing. Call it burn out, or strike out, or I don’t care and am GETTING OUT mentality – we need to do what’s best for our students. While it may not be the easiest, most convenient, or most desirable option (especially when you are the youngest in your department by 15 years), you have people who shared your enthusiasm even if it was once upon a time – and they are dusty treasure chests waiting to be opened, even if it takes you to pry them open again. Collaboration is twining two wicks and sharing the same fire for kids. Let’s swallow our pride (or yawns) and set our sights and energies where they should be – on the students.

The First Day of School

The first day of school is quickly approaching and some words of wisdom from my superintendent keep resonating in my mind.

I am teaching part time at a country county, so I can have most of my time dedicated to the development of Writing, Period. I could never step away completely from the classroom especially since I have never felt more included or passionate than I do when teaching 25+ eager minds (well, let’s be honest, sometimes not so eager; how I do love a challenge). At a fully catered breakfast for new teachers to the county, the superintendent kept talking about the importance of the incorporation of technology into our current curriculum, across content areas, across grade levels. Because Writing, Period. focuses on the marriage of writing and technology, I found myself going off bobble-head style furiously nodding in agreement with his words. While his focus is technology and mine is predominately cultivating writing skill for professional marketability after graduation, I believe our mission is the same – engaging, rigorous, applicable instruction for today’s 21st century learners. I am crashing into this country high school with technology and writing and the enthusiasm of  1000 hyper active cheerleaders.

Regardless of your occupation, I know that the time is coming and the opportunity is knocking to learn something new, to pursue knowledge. And in that spirit, happy first day of school, everyone!

The Problem with Plagiarism

Throughout the past two years of teaching high school English I have noticed a theme recurring in the minds of students and administrators alike – there is no such thing as plagiarism. That is to say, plagiarism is not a problem. That is to add that plagiarism is not a punishable offense nor does it really adversely affect either the offender nor the work plagiarized. As a teacher, writer, and part time poet you can understand my dilemma.

When a child walks into a store, pockets an item, and attempts to leave without payment we say they have committed a crime. They are often grilled and scared to death by an intimidating store official, usually accompanied by law enforcement; because stealing is wrong and the way to break criminal behavior is to catch them young and scare them senseless. Why does this mentality not carry through to academic arenas? Why is this behavior being condoned and in some instances encouraged in professional settings? What are we doing to scare our youth senseless that stealing someone’s work and not paying them with credit is paralleled criminal behavior that is equally as defiant, inappropriate, and punishable in turn.

Recently, plagiarism has reached the national news in the person of Colorado Governor candidate Scott McInnis, who allegedly gleaned numerous passages from a judge’s work to prop up essays written on water rights. Initial news coverage was skeptical in tone, seemingly asking why this behavior was even a big deal. The judge in question has even been reported to have given permission post plagiarism for the lifted passages to be included. However, the media eventually forced an apology from McInnis which appears to be evidence that the majority believe this is an apology worthy offense. If plagiarism can possibly cost a political candidate his potential office, why do our students believe plagiarism is acceptable in their smaller sphere?

Plagiarism is stealing, period. There is never a time when taking another person’s work is acceptable without due credit to the author. College students are kicked out of schools across the country for plagiarizing, and many schools hold the offense as not only punishable by expulsion, but also as an honor code violation. In essence, this means you not only broke the rules of the school, you broke the basic human understanding of what is right and wrong.

The problem with plagiarism is that no one seems to care much about catching it, much less punishing it. Our age is so high speed and overwhelming at times that many educators do not feel they can possibly screen papers, projects, or even homework assignments for possible plagiarism. I implore you to maintain the standard of writers everywhere, that originality is what we strive for, that connecting ideas exhibits brilliance threading previous work with the current conjecture of the author, but that we will not stand to teach our children that settling for less time consuming or thought provoking means of communicating is unacceptable. We want to hear their voices, not the regurgitated findings of others. Let’s teach them how to write effectively, knowledgeably, and with purpose. And let us not ever settle for echoes, laziness, or theft.

Philadelphia, PA

Around 9 o’clock on our first night in the city, a friend and myself drove down to 17th Avenue or thereabouts in search of sushi. We found said sushi in a night-clubesque establishment with light-up Van Gough vodka bottles mounted into the walls and extremely repetitive techno music playing so loudly that even face to face we had to rely on lip reading. The bass from the songs shook our soy sauce dishes so much they seemed to be going into seizures every other BOOM BOOM beat.

We were going to check out the rooftop of the restaurant, but in dire need for auditory respite we opted to walk around the streets instead. At around 11 o’clock we stumbled upon a park with giant trees and a huge sculpture of a human figure at the entrance. To our surprise dozens of people were mulling about: couples not so subtly necking on benches set back from the main walkway, homeless people sleeping under scrap mounds of blankets, a group of teenagers with rainbow hair attempting dangerous feats on trick bikes, and people just enjoying the night air in the company of a listening companion. For the first time since we arrived in Philadelphia, I wished I had my poetry notebook with me. The black and white marbled composition book I have favored since high school usually lasts for one year of writing. All my gleaned quotes, good phrases, or quick images go into the book along with new poems and old revisions. And I didn’t think to bring it with me. Nor did I bring the book with me when we visited the Constitution Center and we felt patriotic fire in our veins. Nor did I remember to pack it today for our afternoon downtown excursions and possible adventures.  

The moral of the story is that inspiration is a sneaky but suctioning beast. She strikes without warning and leaves you holding a void if you have no materials to put that inspiration to paper (or canvas, or dance floor, etc). I have learned a new lesson here that writing is not an activity tailored to a time slot with all materials present in a noiseless room. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt a line slide in my head and right back out because I was unprepared to receive the words. I should show y’all my collection of restaurant napkins with snippets hurriedly written down in the middle of a meal. I carry at least 20 pens on me at all times in case half don’t work. But I’m still bad at being prepared to receive the vision the world is trying to get me to see.

Be an eager receptacle for words. You’ll flesh out the good and flush out the bad soon enough. At least be prepared enough when the inspiration strikes with pens, open ears, and a shut mouth. And don’t forget your notebook.

Just Write!

This morning I spent a great deal of time organizing my poetry for yet another chapbook competition. A couple things come to mind when you find yourself in the position of a silent house, no hungry kids tugging on your legs, husband at work, and all of your poetry notebooks from the last 10 years spread on the desk in front of you and the floor under you. The first epiphany is holy crap that is a lot of randomnosity to sift through. The second is, how much work can I get done before the baby wakes up from her nap? The third goes a little something like, good lord I say the same thing over, and over, and over in these poems. If I write new poems they’ll probably follow the same pattern.

For chapbook competitions I rarely ever write new poems. Most of my time is spent sifting through old ones to revise. Going through ten notebooks chock full of snippets and bad poems, I noticed the books were filled with quotes from authors, funny conversations from friends, lines and lines of rhyming words, and poems that were so many times revised they looked like the leftover bloody battle between Sharpies and Bic ballpoints. But I wrote and wrote constantly. I wrote down everything. Any random line that popped in my head I thought was worthy of entry into my notebook. Finding poems to revise in these old notebooks is easy because of the sheer volume of words to choose from. I did not become a half decent poet by only writing down the poems I thought were good. It was finding accidental brilliance in the midst of copious refuse. I have a renewed mission to write daily no matter what comes out of my pen. I can ball it up and trash it as soon as it’s out, but the words need to come out , get out, speak out from inside me. I can sift for the pearl amidst the mud-slopped pigs later.

As writers we cannot afford to let our egos or the opinions of others inhibit a personal regiment for our writing. If you find yourself on the proverbial chopping block of written stagnation, then write your way out of it. Write down every cheesy, sappy, crappy line that comes into your head. Get the cliches out and root out the typical adjectives, verbs, and analogies. I tell my students often that in order to find new and original thoughts we have to peel away the conditioned thoughts that rise to the surface of our critical thinking. 

If you say you’re a writer, then prove it. WRITE.

(P.S. – Nothing is original in art. The standard of truth exists outside of our ability to encapsulate it. You are creating art always with borrowed themes, images, and words. Release yourself from the incarceration of needless expectations. Someone’s said it before you and probably better. Great, now let’s get started.)

Get Over It!: Writing Apprehension

 One of the main barriers to the progress of any work is the apprehension of the author. From research papers to creative writing to blog entries, authors give into doubt and excuses that inhibit creative outflow. The Carolina Area Writing Project I attended during the summer of 2009 dealt heavily with writing apprehension, its causes and effects, in order to move individuals from regurgitators of words to competent communicators. Some of the strategies my workshop group focused on included the following:

JUST WRITE. – Most writers will agree that one of the hardest aspects of getting an idea on paper is, well, getting it from brain, to pen, to paper! Just write. If it’s terrible and not Pulizter worthy, don’t worry about it. If you’ve documented your ideas then you’ve won the initial battle with the blank page.

Nothing is a final draft. – This is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice that I give my students, and it was taught to me by Dr. William Tate of Campbell University during my freshman year of college. Dr. Tate made sure that we understood until our papers left our hands and entered the pile to be graded on his desk, we were in complete control of our piece. If there was something we noticed at the last minute we were permitted to change it with a pen before turning it in. Everything has room for improvement. Nothing is a final draft.

Write a little every day. – Nothing develops confidence in writing more than writing every day. Mastering this strategy sounds daunting, but it’s really not. Write a note to your spouse, describe a conversation with your best friend using elements of dialogue, journal, review an article on Yahoo!, or just write a really bad poem about a cat on the mat. A masterpiece is not found as an oasis in the middle of a desert; it is sifted out of or made up of the rubble of past failures.

We are all trying to communicate something. Don’t let fear impede that right.

- Catherine

Resources: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing