Monday, May 23, 2011

Reflections on Writing

Question: How can teachers encourage students to reflect on their writing?

Answer: When students have completed a first draft, they write the teacher a “reflection letter” in which they respond to the following prompts:

.How do you feel about the progress of your rough draft? Do you anticipate that you will need to revise?

. What do you like about your written piece? What are you most concerned about?

When the students have completed the assignment, they write another letter to the teacher reflecting on the finished piece, including what they have learned about writing from completing the assignment. When the assignment is returned, they also compare the initial reflection letter to the reflection letter on the finished product.

Comment: The author originally used this approach to reflective writing by tying it to a short story students have read and then writing a story of their own. I generalized the approach, because that’s how I would use the idea, but the author’s original idea also develops the use of literary devices incorporated into their original stories. An interesting approach to help students improve their writing by reflecting on it and strengthening their knowledge of literary techniques. RayS.

Title: “The Power of Reflective Writing.” K Greene. English Journal (March 2011), 90-93.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Grammar of Page Design

Question: Does a page’s design matter?

Answer: You bet it does. The authors suggest collecting models of attractive page designs. Students then choose a design that will present  the content of their writing in an attractive way.

Comment: Never thought of it. Why not? RayS.

Title: “Beyond Language: The Grammar of Document Design.” J Bush and LA Zuidema, eds. English Journal (March 2011), pp. 86-89.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Supervision Lesson #4: Authority (3)

Question: What finally convinced me that I did not need authority to be a successful supervisor?

[The following is taken from Chapter 30 of my book, Teaching English, How To…., Xlibris, 2004.]

Still Unconvinced: Do Supervisors Need Authority?
As a supervisor, I was tempted at times to demand the authority to make changes. At one point, the math supervisor and I visited another school district where the supervisors did have authority to make changes. These supervisors said, “We have the responsibility for success or failure. If we fail, we will pay the price. We use the authority to make sure we can make the changes. Otherwise, we could fail because the people we are supervising do not have to pay attention to what we say.”

Makes sense. If you have the responsibility, you need the authority. Armed with this reasoning, I met the following day with Wes Opdyke, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction. As he always did, he stopped what he was doing and listened to my impassioned request for the authority to tell people what to do.

“There’s a lot of sense in what you say, Ray,” Wes began. “But I was thinking about you the other day. Did you need authority when you showed that seventh-grade science teacher how to use the directed reading assignment?”

“No,” I admitted, immediately recognizing where he was leading me. He cited other successful curriculum projects that I had led. After each one, he asked, “Did you need authority to accomplish that?

Wes was right. Without the authority to tell people to “do it because I tell you to,” I had been forced to be creative in finding methods to persuade people to change. I had demonstrated directed reading assignments; I had used model lesson plans to show teachers how to teach grammar and writing together; I had taught demonstration lessons on how to teach spelling; how to use the Great Books approach to discussing literature; how to have fun with language; and how to make word processing a part of the writing program. I had even shown teachers how to find the time to read professional literature so they could gain ides that would help them improve their teaching. The results were real. Teachers changed because they wanted to change. They saw how to do their job better and they did it better. Real change.

Without authority, I had fun finding creative methods for helping people see the need for change. Without authority, I was trusted by the teachers who were willing to talk out problems in an effort to find solutions. That was the joy of supervision.

I stood up. “Thanks, Wes,” I said. “I get your point.”

Good man, that Wes. He too practiced what he preached. I changed my attitude about the need for authority, not because he told me I had to—he could have said, “That’s the nature of the job; live with it or find another job”—but because he showed me how authority had little or nothing to do with my success as a supervisor. Nor with his. Because, although he had authority, he almost never used it, preferring instead to talk, reason, persuade and demonstrate how teachers and supervisors should perform their responsibilities.

Thanks, Wes.

I never again asked for, or felt I needed, authority. It was too much fun helping people change without the authority to tell them what to do.

Note: That chapter, like other chapters in my book, is right from the heart. RayS.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Supervision Lesson #4:: Authority (2)

Question: Does Leadership Without Authority Work?

[The following is from Chapter 30 of my book Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris, 2004.]

The joy of supervision is in working with teachers to help resolve problems—without the authority to tell them what to do. The results are real change. Teachers as individuals and in groups will change because they want to, not because they have been ordered to. RayS.

The Mary Jones Incident (continued).
On her own initiative, Mary asked if she could come to my office on her lunch hour to talk about the problems pointed out by the principal. She brought a bag lunch and soda every day for several weeks, and we talked long and hard about effective methods in teaching grammar. By no means did she intend to accept the judgment of the principal, whom she perceived to be an advocate of fun and games, as opposed to rigor in education. She was convinced her approach to teaching grammar was right, and I would have to prove to her that there was a better way—she really didn’t care if she were re-hired or not.

I can’t remember many details of our discussions. I remember that they were intense. She challenged me: “What’s wrong with drill?”I countered that the problem was not so much drill as why students needed to learn the information being drilled. I agreed that drill on the times tables in the fourth grade had been useful to help me add, subtract, divide and multiply quickly, accurately and efficiently, but how would students apply the knowledge of grammatical terms on which she was drilling? I wasn’t saying that no reason existed for drilling on this information, but that the students needed to know what that reason was if they were going to learn and then apply it.

I reviewed with her my own experiences in learning to teach grammar with a clear purpose, admitted that I had had to find out for myself what the purposes were as well as how to teach writing, and had concluded that teaching grammar and writing concurrently enabled me to help students apply what they were learning in grammar to their writing. I also said that the more I taught writing, the less important grammar had become in my teaching.

We challenged each other.
“Why do you need to know about conjunctions?”
“What is so important about indirect objects?”
“What really is the value of diagramming sentences?”

I was not acting as an expert on grammar because, in spite of my long experience with it, I felt that I really did not understand it all that well, and always felt insecure when someone posed a problem in grammar, afraid that I would have to admit that I did not know the answer. What Mary and I did was to explore together just how grammar could take on meaning and be applied. Mary never argued with the suggestion that she also teach writing, which was a new idea for her.

Finally, Mary began to relax when we were together. She no longer felt she had to prove anything to me. Interestingly, she never described to me what she was doing in her classroom. And for some reason, I never asked. After several weeks, she stopped coming to my office on her lunch hour.

When the principal observed Mary’s class the next time, he came into my office beaming. “I just saw one of the best lessons on grammar I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Mary not only taught the grammar in an interesting way, but she showed the students how to use it in their writing. I’m talking to her tomorrow, and I want you to be there, Ray.” I was elated. My discussions with Mary had produced results. I anticipated Mary’s heaping praise on me when I joined her in the principal’s office at 9:00 the next morning.

The principal began by praising Mary’s teaching. He told her that he was most impressed.

I waited for Mary in turn to praise me for my help. She didn’t. Instead, she talked about how she had experimented and had begun to see that the students were becoming actively involved in the lessons. Not once did she look at me, refer to my efforts, or acknowledge that we had even met. I was stunned.

At the conclusion of the conference, the principal stood, shook Mary’s hand, as did I, and she left his office, a very happy teacher. Since I had never said anything to the principal about my work with Mary, he had no idea of the amount of thought and time that had gone into my efforts to transform her approach to teaching grammar.

“Thanks for being here, Ray,” the principal said. “You heard the worst about Mary and I wanted you to be present when I could tell her about her improvement.”

I left the principal’s office, crestfallen and feeling very unappreciated. I had learned the hard way that helping people make changes without the authority to direct them to do so resulted in no credit for my efforts. But it makes sense. I only gave advice. The teacher did the work. The teacher made the effort to change. I was beginning to understand the truth that real leadership empowers other people.

I thought I understood what had happened. Deep down, I think I realized that the change in Mary’s teaching occurred because, without fear of my authority, she was able to talk to me, to say what she really believed and could experiment to see if my advice worked. She changed because she wanted to change, not because I told her she had to.

But I still needed to be convinced that authority was not necessary for successful supervision. RayS.

Next blog: Still Unconvinced: Do Supervisors Need Authority?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Supervision Lesson #4: Authority (1)

Question: Does Leadership Without Authority Work?

[The following is from Chapter 30 of my book Teaching English, How To…. Xlibris, 2004.]

The joy of supervision is in working with teachers to help resolve problems—without the authority to tell them what to do. The results are real change. Teachers as individuals and in groups will change because they want to, not because they have been ordered to. RayS.

The Mary Jones Incident.
The trouble with Mary was grammar—not her use of it but her teaching of it. The setting was a suburban junior high school in the mid-1960s. My role as instructional consultant in the building was to help teachers improve their instruction—but I had no authority to demand change. Whatever change I was able to accomplish had to occur because of my personality and methods of persuasion.

One morning, the principal came storming into my office. He was angry. He had just come from Mary Jones’s English class with seventh graders. She had been teaching, no, drilling, the students in grammar. “What is a noun? What is a verb?” etc. “Ray,” he said, “I haven’t seen teaching like that since I was in grammar school back in the Dark Ages! Some kids actually had their heads down on their desks and were sleeping. Try to show her another way to teach that stuff.” Then he strode out of my office, his job done, my job just beginning.

Mary, of course, was upset at the principal’s negative reaction to her teaching. She was a first-year teacher in the junior high school, and the principal was concerned enough that he had even hinted he might not re-hire her next year if she didn’t change the way she was doing things. The problem was that Mary did not know what was so wrong with drilling when teaching grammar. That was the way she had been taught. She was convinced that the principal did not believe in standards and hard work in learning.

Next Blog: How I Changed Mary’s Thinking.