Friday, July 12, 2013

Across the Divide

High School and Higher Ed. Writing Instructors Come Together

This Monday, I attended a great event, Across the Divide, a writing forum that connected high school writing instructors from multiple disciplines with college writing instructors (mostly FYW). The forum took place in the form of a 2-hour roundtable talk that was based around organic discussion. It was held in a beautiful conference room at Biotechnology High School in Freehold, NJ, where several of the high school teachers were currently teaching. 

The conversations were insightful, constructive, and fun. You can watch the conversation and check out the live-tweet feed to see for yourself!

Just a quick aside: I found out about this event from my twitter pal, @ReadyWriting. I was immediately interested because I don't think there are nearly enough opportunities for high school and college educators to collaborate. Plus, I am an alumna of the school district that was hosting the event and still live in the area. However, I didn't learn about the event from local media outlets; I learned about it from someone hundreds of miles away via tweet. Props to the power of social media.

Anyway, some really great things happened at this roundtable. For one, high school teachers and college writing instructors got to talk to one another. Connecting educators across the vertical divides can be a challenge. This was a great way for us to recognize each others' wants and needs, as well as those of our students. And of course, I loved learning more about what these teachers were doing in their classrooms.

Furthermore, there was no "blame game" going on in the room. Often in education, we pass the buck-- How many times have you head "why didn't they learn that in high school?" or "Didn't they teach you anything in first year writing?" This event, however, was a testament to how bright and motivated educators across grade levels are. It also showed that we shared many of the same notions of "good writing," "good writing instruction," and had many of the same goals for our students.

Some of the things that were discussed included:
  • Interdisciplinary learning: Many of us noted that putting subjects in boxes was detrimental to students' learning processes, that they were most able to engage when they could make connections to other content/contexts. Students had a hard time seeing English as anything but literature, and therefore, they were unable to transfer the skills. Part of this had to do with testing, but we saw that part of it had to do with educator's "that's not my job" attitudes that box disciplines in narrow constructs.
  • Using Multiple Genres: One of the things that the Common Core introduced this year was more information texts, which through some high school teachers for a loop ("not my job"). At the forum, though, we seemed to agree that students needed to be exposed to more genres and learn how to read texts that are informational because it will help to remove the idea that English is only reading Literature and writing is only figuring out what literary devices are used in a piece. It will also enable them to read, understand, and evaluate different texts outside the classroom, and in a world where they are constantly bombarded by text, this is essential.
  • Rhetorical Awareness versus Content Learning: Rhetorical awareness was something that the college writing instructors was not taught/encouraged much in high school writing classroom, and the high school writing instructors seemed to agree and see a need for more. They also noted, however, that time constraints made doing anything more than reading a text with students difficult sometimes. Time to discuss rhetorical concepts was limited.
  • Form versus Formula: We all agreed that there may be a time and a place for a 5 paragraph essay, but there is a difference between The Five Paragraph Essay and an essay that happens to be five paragraphs because that is the best way to write about the issue. It was important to us that students recognize the difference between matching a form to a purpose and audience and simply choosing a formula and filling in the blanks. 
  • Encouraging Students to Take Risks: Partially because of testing, partially because of cultural ideologies, partially because no one likes to be disappointed, and sometimes because of laziness, we noted that students seem to fear taking risks and many of them seek "right answers" to questions that don't need/have "right answers." We want to find more ways to encourage students to take risks and move beyond marking experimentation as failure, even when it doesn't go as planned, because that is how real learning occurs.
What was evident across the board is that we all had a passion for teaching. Everyone who was there wanted to be there to improve our students' experiences with developing as writers, which perhaps goes against cultural rhetoric that suggests many teachers are just skating by or are there because they want summers off. The people in that room were dedicated to improving the lives of others. Each one clearly held her or himself accountable for improving their practice, volunteering to take on professional development on their own time that day. We were all engrossed in the process of teaching and revising our teaching strategies as new contexts demand. It was obvious that we were all enthusiastic about learning new ways to help our students, which included keeping up-to-date with research in the field, checking in on the conversations happening among professional peers on social networks, and talking to current and former students. And we all agreed that these conversations were useful and likely necessary, but far too rare. Why is that?

The group plans to meet for several more sessions, though no dates have been selected. Those interesting in joining, either face-to-face or via GoogleHangout, can contact Michelle Lampinem (@MichLampinem) or Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone) for further information.

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