Tag Archives: intelligence

Week 13- That’s Me, Local Screw-Up

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Well, I screwed up.  Got too big for my britches.  Caused myself a whole mess of work.  As it says on the tag line, this is a journal of reflection which means looking at where we make mistakes as well as reveling in our successes.

I often regale people with stories of how wonderful peer revision is.  Except when you don’t teach it correctly.  Then, it’s hell on wheels.  And it’s a little hot down here.

For most of the class, this is their second paper.  For some, it’s their ninth.  So, when it came time for students to score each others’ papers using the 6+1 Writing Trait of Idea and Content, I assumed (catch that: ass, u, me) that the students would be confident enough to give each other helpful feedback.  (In my head, I hear Dr. Bob Kelso from Scrubs shouting: “WRONG-O!”  I loved that show.  I’d be really worried if the voice was Dr. Cox’s.  That’s when I know I’ve really put my foot in it.)  Because of my rush, returning students did not feel that they received enough feedback to make peer revision worthwhile, while some of the new students were not sure what to say.  One of my students gave such cock-eyed feedback to the writer of the paper she was revising that he was practically in tears.

So, as hard as it is to look at my screw-ups, learning is in the reflection, and here is what I think I did wrong.

1) I allowed myself to be rushed.  The rubric for the returning students was significantly harder than what they had before, and they needed more time.  Some of the new students also needed more time to put their thoughts in order.  I give myself a month to shepherd students through this process, and as I saw that they were working their tushies off but needing more time, I gave it to them.  However, I did not really take into account what that would mean in the end game.*

2) Because they did such a great job scoring each others’ papers the first time, I didn’t take the time to review properly.  I needed to have reminded myself that we have all slept since then, this is new material for many students, and I’m a dumb bunny.  Just remembering the dumb bunny part would have reminded me to take more time to practice giving feedback.  (This is commonly called anchoring.)

3) The pairings.  I had new students reading old students papers and vice versa.  I’m still not convinced I should change that part.  The cool thing about pairings like that is that the returning student’s paper helps the new student to see what is possible.  It is a model for them for future drafts.  The returning students also give very good feedback.  But this time, it wasn’t reciprocal.  The returnees didn’t feel they were getting enough back.  In the early days of class, the returning students felt honored to help their classmates, but that was when they were confident with the rubric.  Now, it feels to them like a drag because they aren’t getting the help they need.  Two of the students almost panicked when they got their paper back with a score (which were accurate) but very little information on where revisions were needed.  I almost paired them exclusively with each other, and I probably should have listened to myself.

4) This process usually takes about 50 minutes.  I knew I was in trouble when many of the pairings had not finished conferencing at the end of class.  The process wasn’t fluid.  I saw it, and I did not intervene.  Bad teacher.

So, how much damage have I done?  It’s hard to tell.  Ted, the founder of my last school, likes to say that our mistakes are transient, and our successes are enduring, meaning that it is not our mistakes that define us.  I really, really try to believe this.

But it does not mean I can write off this mistake and just “do it better” next time.  I need to fix the mistake.  To do this, I’ve been meeting with frustrated students to help them see what to do next.  I’m reading the returning students’ papers with an eye to seeing if their reader, at least, gave them a holistic score that was correct, and giving them particulars to revise.  And reminding them that their readers are new to this process.

I’m meeting with new students to help them pinpoint what is on the paper which can be seen in the rubric so that they can give better feedback next time.  I’m having that one student meet with me so I can re-teach her, and having her do an extra scoring of a paper so that I can be sure that she can participate next time.

We will not be writing a full paper for December.  It is a half-month of school, and I don’t expect that we will get to do a peer scoring for a Humanities paper.  So, we won’t get to do a process like this for expository writing until January.  However, students are currently working on some creative writing that could be used.  I will certainly grab the overhead and have students anchor a few papers before I let them go on that.

All of this is a lot of unnecessary extra work I created for myself.  This is what living and learning feels like.  Living and learning also means using the knowledge I gained from having to fix my mistakes.  God grant I put to use what I’ve learned this week and last.

*Note: I never blame students for not knowing something.  One of my biggest peeves as a teacher is hearing other teachers say, “Well, they should know this.”  Bullshit.  If they knew it, they would do it.  They want to get it right.  Only in cases of very damaged kids do you get that kind of oppositional behavior.  It isn’t something that happens in normal life.  If they don’t know it, it is because the student is in the wrong level of class or you, dear teacher, haven’t taught it.  I always want to say to these people, “Pull your thumb out and stop blaming your students.”

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Week 7- Your Spelling is a Measure of Your Intelligence

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Or at least that’s what people think.

My third year of teaching, I worked with a boy who would not write anything.  Ever.  Jon wouldn’t pick up a pencil in Language Arts class. He had major holes in his learning, which was why he was in my remedial English class in the first place.  He sat in the front row, and was a generally pleasant young man if not sometimes a little surly.  He would draw, talk, participate, but refused, flat refused to write one word.  Questions only made him angry, and since I could see he was a natural leader, the other boys following his lead on just about everything, it would have been a major mistake to push it.

For the first week of school, he dictated to me what he wanted to say.  There came a point when this was untenable. My class started out with 24 students, but was quickly expanding.  When I just couldn’t do this anymore, I asked the boy to sitting next to him to write for him.  This went on for a while until it was time to take the first test.  The boy next to him could not write his test for him, and so I finally sat him down and asked him why he wouldn’t write anything.  By that time I had proved to him that I cared, and that he could trust me.  He hemmed and hawed, but it finally emerged that he was embarrassed by his spelling.  He had understood an earlier teacher to equate his spelling ability with his intelligence, and he simply could not bear to have people think of him as stupid.

I was amazed that something like that could have such a profound effect on a young person.  I explained to him that spelling could not be a measure of intelligence.  I knew by working with him over the past few weeks that he was smart.  Hell, I could see it in his eyes. I told him that I am dyslexic and if spelling were a criterion for intelligence, I never would have gotten into grad school.  He agreed to take the test, and I agreed not to grade him on his spelling, at least not for a while.  He took the test.  He aced it.  As his confidence grew, he learned how to use a dictionary and how to spell-check his work.  He grew by leaps and bounds.

Today, I worked with a student who went to a school where spelling didn’t matter at all.  He writes phonetically, and sometimes it is a mystery as to what he is trying to say. The other day, when he was typing out a test, he became discouraged because almost every word he typed had a little red line under it.  He started to look for ways to get out of it.  When I saw his sentences completely underlined in red, I took his computer away from him, found the spell-check function, and turned it off.  When I handed it back to him, I said, “I’m dyslexic.  Those little red lines make me feel bad about myself.  They stop the flow of my writing.  I’ve turned them off.  When you are done, we’ll spell check it.  But not until then.”

Fortunately, nobody has ever told him that he is stupid because he doesn’t spell, but because of the nature of the work students were doing today, he was truly anxious about pairing up with another writer.  Students are revising their first drafts by having a classmate read their essays back to them.  I call this a Clang Session.  He knows that his spelling would keep another student from understanding his writing.  So I worked with him myself while the other students paired up to do revisions.  I read his essay back to him from his grubby and crumpled binder paper, reading it as it sounded.  We spent the entire period finessing the language and making the essay clearer without once referring to the spelling.  Jon’s experience haunted me.  It was as if he was there with me, hovering over my shoulder and reminding me of the damage that I could so easily do.

When my current student and I had finished with his paper, he was all aglow.  He loved the way it sounded, and how clear his ideas were.  His eyes sparkled.  He didn’t know he could write so well.  I was so proud of him.

We will have to deal with his spelling.  That can wait until the third draft.  But at least we won’t start from an emotional deficit.  He knows he’s smart.  He knows that with work he can spell just as well as anybody else. But he also knows that bad spelling is keeping him from communicating his ideas to his peers.  Because it isolates him, he can see why spelling counts.