Archive for the ‘Reflections for Eng 625’ Category

How I have grown as a teacher and a writer these past few months at the Borinquen Writing Project

Taking these two graduate courses at USC has afforded me the opportunity to take a break from the bustle and hustle of my daily teaching routine and reflect upon my instructional practices. It has also allowed me to bond more closely with three of my CPN colleagues, renew and refresh my knowledge of Elbow, Graves, and Atwell, and encounter some new and useful theorists and theories which will surely continue to inform my teaching in the future. Most importantly, my time as a student at the Borinquen Writing Project has enabled me to become part of a wonderful community of teachers who are engaged and dedicated to the teaching of writing in Puerto Rico. I look forward to becoming a BWP teaching consultant and expanding our teaching and learning community even more.

In the past two months, I have enjoyed spending time with my fellow teachers, writing, sharing, and responding to each other’s writing. I particularly enjoyed sharing with the other participants my experiences implementing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the classroom; preparing my presentation helped me both reflect on last year’s NaNoWriMo journey and plan for this year’s extension of the activity beyond my classroom and my students. I also appreciated the strategies and resources other teachers shared with us, such as Pilar’s innovative use of radio technology to inspire kids to write, Harry’s cartoon-related activities, Jann’s postcards inspired by The Time Machine, Marisa’s concrete writing, Annette’s writing cards, Sandra’s movie-based vocabulary instruction, and of course, Sheri’s defense of grammar.

As a fellow grammarian, I appreciate Sheri’s attention to the conventions of language, and her insistence that teachers must master these conventions in order to both model and instruct their students properly. It behooves us teachers to be careful in our own use of language, and to have enthusiasm for the more ‘arid’ areas of language learning, such as vocabulary and grammar. If we teachers don’t evince joy in and enthusiasm for learning, how can we possibly expect our kids to be joyful, enthusiastic learners?

The truth is that we can’t.

We must work to transmit to students an honest appreciation for the complexities and the beauty of language that is anchored in a deep understanding of how that language works. Perhaps it is my experience with older students, including five years teaching undergraduates and my current position teaching eleventh and twelfth grade students, and conversely, my dearth of experience dealing with young students, that fuels my desire to make sure my students are both creative AND conversant in the rules of the English language. I want my students to let their creative juices flow as they write their novels, but I also want them to do well in the standardized tests that are required for college admission. It’s a delicate balance, but one I strive to achieve every single time I step into my classroom.

So, thank you, Prof. Monllor, Prof. Avilés, and fellow BWP participants, for reminding me of the myriad reasons I love teaching. And of course, for pushing me to start and keep a blog! I intend to continue blogging as way to continue growing, changing, and developing.


Author Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity

I just saw this wonderful talk that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Pray Eat Love, gave last year for TED.

Gilbert talks about creativity, and proposes that we should all conceptualize the creative spark the way the Greeks and Romans did, as an inscrutable exterior force that bestows genius upon the artist as it may, instead of continuing with the Renaissance idea that the genius is individual and inhabits within. Her point is that the idea of genius as other frees the artist from the tyranny of self-doubt and self-hatred that tortures many artists, and which has led to the stereotype of the tortured artist (and which has contributed to so many artist suicides).

Gilbert argues that as an artist all you should do is show up and do your life’s work, without fixating on how it will be received or whether you have what it takes or can top your own success. Just show up and do your own thing, and attribute everything else to that whimsical, irrepressible, enigmatic sprite –muse, daemon, genius—to take care (or not) of everything else. It is liberating, Gilbert claims.

I have decided to embrace Gilbert’s idea, and have decided to name my own creative daemon Ariel, after the magical androgynous sprite in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If that Ariel could help Prospero shipwreck enemies, find a mate for his daughter, and reclaim his lost dukedom, I think my Ariel could help me through NaNoWriMo 2010.

(Latest word count: 14,140 words!)

Students on textspeak

Awesome teacher and fellow blogger Sandra Garced sent me the link to this student-produced video on the prevalence of texting among adolescents. It highlights linguist David Crystal’s observation that students perceive textspeak as detrimental to their own and others’ language skills, though research has demonstrated this is NOT true.

SchoolTube – Texting Communication Breakdown!.

Textspeak: not a threat to literacy

The three articles about computer-mediated communication (CMC) sparked my interest in netspeak and led me to seek out the linguist all three cited: David Crystal. As a linguist, Crystal differentiates between CMC and “textspeak,” which far from being a distinct language, as Aliza Sherman claims in her blog post, is rather an “idiosyncratic variety” of speech that is driven by the constraints of the technology which spawned it. Textspeak is not the demon spawn of standard written English, but rather a useful play on written language. In his own writings, Crystal debunks many myths related to textspeak, including the ones related to texting’s corrosive influence on children’s literacy. In fact, Crystal argues, kids who text use language more than non-texters, and thus have more practice writing. Texters, he continues, must have an awareness of standard rules of written English, which they purposefully subvert. In addition, according to his own research, ninety percentage of text messages are written in standard language; only ten percent contain the abbreviations that so enrage critics. These abbreviations, far from being subversive neologisms coined by contemporary texters, are for the most part common abbreviations in circulation for centuries already.

Reading Crystal, I am convinced that standard language is not in peril, and that we should not snatch cell phones from our kids to protect them from the pernicious effects of textspeak. In fact, Crystal points out that the popular story about a student who turned in an entire essay written in textspeak turns out to be an urban legend; no one has been able to track down the source. That this textspeak story is apocryphal seems logical to me; kids are remarkably perceptive about audience and purpose, particularly when it comes to homework – I just don’t think a student would use textspeak on an assignment as anything but a lark.

Tyler Clark’s comment to Aliza Sherman’s blog post on how email, SMS, and social media communication tools are changing both written English and communication in general echoes the spirit, if not the words, of Crystal, at least when it comes to considering textpeak as a putative new language:

“[Sherman wrote:] They are effectively speaking a new language entirely — so who is to say if it is “right” or “wrong”?”

Who is to say? Me. I am to say…I think that the internet has largely killed good writing.

It is not the abbreviations that kill me. It’s the lack of coherence, proper spelling and punctuation. The biggest problem is that this grammatical wasteland is not limited to social media. It has bled into emails, blog posts and writing of all kinds. I often receive inarticulate, punctuation-free, misspelled, verb-less emails from coworkers. Coworkers! Sometimes I need a decoder ring to figure out what they are trying to communicate.

Writing for the digital age should not require sacrificing clarity and the beauty of language.”

Hear, hear, Tyler! You took the words right out of my mouth, which is why I felt compelled to cite these comments so extensively.

Carelessness and linguistic transference from Spanish to English are more of an issue for my students than textspeak, which is why I will continue to stress coherence, clarity, and the appropriate use of conventions (grammar, spelling, etc.) in my classroom.

How can discourse analysis influence teaching and help in text selection?

Discourse analysis (DA) stresses the importance of context –historical, social, ideological, and cultural—in understanding any kind of communication, from texts to movies, from speeches to advertising. Critical discourse analysis (CDA), a branch of discourse analysis, narrows the focus down to just one type of context: ideological. In “Critical Discourse Analysis: A Primer,” home economist Sue L.T. McGregor privileges the ideological to the exclusion of other contexts, emphasizing the power differential between the powerful and the oppressed, the government and the masses, the wealthy and the poor. She focuses on the potential of CDA to effect change by “mak[ing] clear the connections between the use of language and the exercise of power.” McGregor wants everyone to use discourse for “resistance and critique” instead of for “assertion of power and knowledge.” CDA has an inherently political and ideological purpose.

The second article is on “Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers” — and focuses on understanding context in its broadest sense, and does not focus on ideological issues or power inequities. This article, a digest of other research, discusses how ESL classroom teachers can use DA technique of Record-View-Transcribe-Analyze (RVTA) to understand the linguistic interactions and development of their students as English Language Learners and themselves as teachers.

Frankly, I cannot imagine myself ever using such a time-consuming technique as RVTA; I just don’t see the benefit when compared to the investment of time and energy. As for CDA, I don’t see much use for it either. I already emphasize the importance of context –social, historical, cultural—in understanding texts, film, images, etc. I do not feel the need to turn every lesson into a pitched battle on ideology. When I select materials to use in my classroom, I am mindful of the context in which the materials were created, as well as of the context in which they will be used; I am also cognizant of the diverse contexts in which I teach, and try to select both materials and instructional techniques that will be appropriate.

How to use reading to teach editing

My top three strategies

Sustained silent reading/DIVA (Dive Into Vicarious Adventure) time to immerse kids in a self-chosen “word flood.” The point is for students to do what Krashen calls “extensive reading,” in order to develop a sense of how language is used in authentic situations. Extensive reading also helps students to develop a sense about how grammar works and how words are spelled, as Simmons points out.

Reading Like a Writer literature units and discussion. When my students and I discuss literature, we reflect on and analyze the elements of fiction: setting, plot, characters, conflict, theme, point of view, tone, etc. But we also consider why the author might have made the choices she or he made while writing the text, and what different choices we might have made had we been writing the piece ourselves. We apply the insights gained through these discussions during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when we spend the month of November writing first drafts of original novels.

Read-aloud editing. I also frequently ask students to read their own writing aloud to themselves, in order to use their ear to help their eye. This technique is surprisingly effective in sensitizing student writers to the mistakes in their own writing, as often students tend to speak better than they write (at least grammatically speaking!)

Effective literacy instruction

Recommendations for effective literacy instruction based on my teaching practices

In my junior and senior high school English classes at a private all-girl k-12 prep school, I teach higher-order literacy skills through the selection and use of excellent age- and level-appropriate materials, the strategic use of a daily sustained silent reading (SSR) program, and frequent, direct, explicit vocabulary instruction.

Good materials – In our school, we English teachers have the freedom, flexibility, and responsibility as a department of choosing textbooks, workbooks, and supplementary readings that challenge our students and help them develop their language skills in a consistent, deliberate ways. From seventh grade until twelfth grade, we have chosen to have a comprehensive literature textbook, a vocabulary workbook with three hundred new words, a grammar workbook with the same topics revisited year after year in slightly more complex and challenging ways, and supplementary readings (an average of three novels per semester). We work with materials that have been created for native English speakers, since by the time our students reach middle school they are basically bilingual and can do the work at that level of proficiency.

DIVA time – After much research on best practices of literacy instruction in high school, I decided to implement a sustained silent reading program in my classroom. At the beginning of each of my classes, the students and I have ten minutes of pleasure reading, which we call DIVA time –an acronym for what I think reading is: Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. We have created a classroom library full of English language books that are interesting to teenage girls, and from which the students can borrow freely. Each student must keep her book with her until she has finished reading. Rules for DIVA time are simple: 1) Choose any book –in English– you like; 2) Always bring your DIVA book to class; 3) As soon as you arrive at the classroom, sit down and start DIVAing; 4) No talking during DIVA; and 5) Keep track of your reading by writing the title, author, and number of pages in your Daybook, each time you finish (or switch) a book. That’s it. I try to interfere as little as possible with the reading process, since the point is to help the students discover for themselves that reading can be pleasurable, that they can read actual books, and that they are READERS. We have been DIVAing for half a semester, and I see improvement already, particularly in the girls who self-identified as non-readers. In the longer term, I expect to see an improvement in their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and attitude towards reading. We shall see how it goes.

Direct, explicit vocabulary instruction – In our school we are committed to direct, explicit vocabulary instruction, particularly of the academic vocabulary students need to perform well in national standardized tests. We have vocabulary workbooks, quickly quizzes, online flashcards, monthly and quarterly review tests, etc. But that’s not all we do. Every day we call our students’ attention to words: fun words, weird words, spooky words, foreign words, antonyms, synonyms, roots, affixes, etc. Since we teachers love words, we convey that same appreciation of language to the girls in everything we do. So far, it’s working too. We are seeing steadily rising scores and best of all, the students frequently tell us anecdotes about how they used their new words in non-school contexts!

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