Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogging Inquiry: Further Refinements to the Question

The last time that I wrote about the inquiry process, I decided that I'd come to a good point in my question-asking. I thought that I wanted to focus on balancing play with analytical writing:
How do I balance teaching (analytical) writing skills with the habit of playing with the text?
Now that we're a few weeks further into the school year, I find myself looking at that question and wondering what on earth I meant. I mean, I know what I meant: I want to make analytical writing accessible, and I want to help my students learn to cultivate a playful attitude toward analysis. I don't want reading and talking about the text to become a chore, something miserable, something that sucks the life out of books. But, given the students I have, is avoiding joylessness really the right focus? Or does the question need a bit more refinement?

I have a few weak writers this term. It's hardly surprising: I certainly don't expect perfection (not at any stage, really), but least of all do I expect perfection from freshmen. Even so, some students struggle considerably with putting their ideas together in a way that is coherent and thoughtful. So, the question really is: how do I reach those students? How do I coach them into improving their weaknesses as writers, without making them think I'm judging them as people? How do I make writing something that all students feel they are both able to do and able to improve at? I have some thoughts, but I guess that's what this term is about—finding out ways to shift my practice that will help these students.

Of course, making changes is all well and good, but I also need to spend some time proving that those changes have worked. How will I know that a shift in my practice has made a tangible difference to this group of learners? Can I just ask a student to report back to me about what works for him, or is this supposed to be more subtle? Am I supposed to sneakily notice what's different, even as I make deliberate changes and efforts with one particular student? The standard ways of assessing student achievement in English classes include essays and participation in class discussion. There are some informal assessments, too. But how will I know that one student has made more progress in his/her writing than another student who initially struggled equally in the class? What happens if I decide to broaden some of my changes to the whole class? How will I know then? Sometimes the best teaching I do feels accidental, some sort of alchemical procedure that just happens to work. Sometimes I know why it worked. I do spend a lot of time planning. But sometimes I'm not sure. Maybe that's a challenge to me as a teacher: I need to begin to be better at identifying not just what works, but why it works.

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