Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?

Postscript

Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question

The Power of Freedom

I knew from the moment I applied for summer school that my primary focus in class would be on writing. As a Writing Project teacher, I believe in the power of writing to open new doors for kids and to give them a voice. I wanted them to be able to think creatively and independently and to actually see themselves as writers. As I think kids’ writing identities all emerge at different times and in different ways, I didn’t exactly know what this would look like, but I felt like I might know it when I saw it.

With the ideas of independence, voice, and identity in mind, I was so looking forward to beginning our mini unit on argument with my kids last week. I thought for sure this would get them going. I mean, it’s teenagers’ job to argue, isn’t it?

I thought we might be onto something when my kids began spouting all the topics they could argue about–everything from social networking sites to sports teams to social issues. I told them that the topic from their argument paper was completely their choice, and they flourished.

Of course, generating ideas is only one small part of the writing process, and as I reflected on the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, I realized that students really needed to know how to build a coherent and cohesive argument, as they learned how to develop reasons, include valid evidence, and acknowledge and address counterarguments. Honestly, though, those particular expectations aren’t too different from the standards that we currently have in California. What makes the Common Core different, though, is that students are expected to be able to independently make strategic decisions about how they use the writing process, conduct research, and display the information they have gathered. And with limited resources in summer school, I wasn’t sure how this would go.

But what I love about teenagers is that they’re always wondering what’s possible.

My first reminder of this was when a student, Jack, who has been building a definitive argument to settle, once and for all, the debate of the best player in the NBA, asked if he could use a chart in his paper. When he showed it to me later, I saw a data-nerd’s dream come true: three columns comparing the stats of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (Jack’s pick for best in the NBA). He had organized information regarding average points, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks, and other relevant bits of information. He was determined to prove that James was superior to both Bryant and Durant, especially given the fact that Bryant has four more championship rings than James and is widely recognized by basketball fans as the best player in the NBA.

On his chart he had determined that James had outperformed both Bryant and Durant in all categories but two, and in those two categories, James had lost by tiny margins. The paragraph surrounding the data he had gathered outlined his analysis of these players’ successes.

While he was sharing this research with me, another student was working the room, interviewing all of the students about which shoe brand–Converse or Vans–was superior. He was tallying his results and determining the categories for his comparison–styling, cost, and durability. Of course, he had already looked up the price ranges for both brands and found that, by far, Converse were much more expensive than Vans. When I talked to him about his survey later, he talked about his frustration that, while Converse was the preferred brand by his peers, it was definitely the pricier option. He was trying to determine how to handle that pressing issue in his paper.

When I was talking to these boys and witnessing their enthusiasm as they were working through what evidence was truly going to convince their audience that their opinion was the one and only correct one, I realized that these boys had found their voice. I never told them to integrate charts or to do surveys. They discovered these ideas all on their own as we discussed all the different types of evidence writers can use. These boys had a purpose, and they were on a mission. All of a sudden they realized that their purpose was not to force their points into a predetermined structure; it was to determine how best to communicate their information in order to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one. And they did this because they owned their argument. They did this because they found their voice.

So even though I never predicted this level of engagement with these particular students, I realized that, plain and simple, these kids had become writers.

“But I Can’t Read”

I have been teaching for eleven years now, which I think is long enough to have a deep understanding of teaching practice but not quite long enough to avoid the charming giggles of my veteran colleagues who will probably say to this, “Eleven years? You’re still a baby!”

Either way, I had a moment today that I have not yet had in those eleven years, so even though I feel like a veteran at times, the universe reminded me today that, in some areas, I’m still soberingly inexperienced.

This morning, my students and I were reading more personal narratives. Feeling like they were ready for some independence, I provided a new narrative for them to read and then subsequently write about. That’s when it happened.

One of my students, a gregarious JV football player looked at me and said, “But, Mrs. Kukral, I can’t read.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

I went into problem-solving mode, trying to determine whether it was a comprehension issue or a true-to-life decoding one. As I reflect on the day, I think it’s probably a bit of both.

I wanted him to read aloud to me, but understandably, he didn’t want to do that with the other students around, so I selected a small chunk of text, and asked him to read it to himself and underline words he couldn’t figure out. Some of his selections were words like surroundings, belongings, anxieties, samurai, and ethereal.

As we worked together, I offered him some decoding tricks, and then we also tried some comprehension strategies. When he had success decoding and comprehending a chunk of text, I asked him about his thought process so that we could determine other strategies that worked. Over the course of the morning, I noticed that he was starting to use some of the processes independently. But this lively, energetic boy (who admits he got kicked out of class last year–a lot) still has a long road ahead of him, and I have very little time to make a difference.

Thinking about this turn of events for most of the morning, I started to reflect on some really relevant issues in the Common Core, and the one that surfaced most quickly for me is also one of the most controversial: Text complexity.

Of course, we know that the Common Core State Standards advocate that all students should be reading grade-level text and that our kids need to be able march up a perfect little staircase of complexity as they advance through the grades.

Teachers of reading know this isn’t quite so neat and tidy. On the other hand, if students are going to be successful in the world outside our classroom walls, they are going to need to have strategies to comprehend (and decode) complex text from all different disciplines.

That’s where the teaching comes in.

Because another expectation of the Common Core is that we are all literacy teachers. This is a paradigm shift of colossal proportions–even, I would argue, for many English/Language Arts teachers. This is because while biology teachers have genetics, evolution, and ecology, English teachers have Shakespeare, Faulkner, and the persuasive essay.

I think that this needs to change.

In order for us to be able to help our students learn how to read (because this isn’t just a problem unique to elementary school, as it turns out), we need to know how to do that.

I was faced with that reality today. I had this student in front of me who vulnerably said, “I can’t do it.” And I pulled out every tool I had in my shed, including immediate formative assessments I could try in that moment in order to “diagnose” his particular issue.

  • I questioned him in order learn what his mind was doing when he read.
  • I showed him how to deconstruct words and look for word parts that he recognized.
  • I showed him how to read small chunks of text at a time and paraphrase.
  • I showed him how to use his understanding of the previous paragraph to build an understanding of the one below it.
  • I asked him what we was doing to understand the text when he finally did start to figure it out.
Most importantly, I drew on my own experience and reflections as a reader to provide the support that he needed in that moment.

Are these all the answers? No. But they’re what I felt were appropriate at the time given the circumstances. Will I continue to investigate interventions and supports that will work for this student? Absolutely. But my reality is that I have seven more days to help, and he has a very frustrating lifetime ahead of him if we can’t start to solve this problem.

So what do we do about the Common Core? We teach teachers–all teachers–how to be teachers of reading and writing, how to explicitly draw on their own experiences as readers and writers in order to understand how these complex and intricate processes work. Because at the end of the day, not all students are going to fit the straight-edged text complexity mold, and we need to know what to do about it.

We will not always recognize these students, and they will not always bravely tell us what mine did today. In fact, he shared with me that, “I misbehave in class because I don’t know how to do the work. It’s just easier that way.” This is also the student who, on the first day, asked me to do grammar worksheets instead of read and write.

Now it all makes sense.

So no, sometimes our students don’t tell us what they need–not directly anyway–but they somehow still figure out a way to let us know.

We just need to be able to hear them.

It’s about the Writing

I am passionate about the teaching of writing. But I have to admit. I wasn’t always. I guess it’s because I didn’t really understand how to do it very well. I thought if I did a two-day PowerPoint about the features of a particular genre (“Here’s how you write a personal narrative, kids.”), guided them through the writing process (in a very linear way), and then showed them a couple of student-written examples, I’d be good to go. The kids would produce amazing writing, and all would be right with the world.

Not surprisingly, it never quite worked out how I imagined it in my mind.

Over the past few years as I’ve started learning more about the teaching of writing, however, I’ve learned how much better I could have been at the beginning of my career. And when I became a part of an amazing community of writers and writing teachers–the Area 3 Writing Project–my understanding of the teaching of writing deepened as much as my passion did. This is mostly because, as part of the Area 3 Writing Project (or any Writing Project site, really), I had to actually become a writer myself.

Why is this important? Obviously, for lots of reasons.

However, as I realize how the expectations for writing change with the shift to Common Core, this idea of teacher-as-writer seems to take on new meaning.

Here’s why:

Let’s start by talking about Writing Standards #5: The revision standard. The anchor standard states the following expectation for students: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.”What is most striking to me is this new view of the writing process as, well, an actual process. In the current standard (I live in California), the stages of the writing process are presented as isolated events. For example, Writing Strategies 1.9 in the California ELA 9/10 Content Standards states this: “Revise writing to improve the logic and coherence of the organization and controlling perspective, the precision of word choice, and the tone by taking into consideration the audience, purpose, and formality of the context.”

This, by the way, is the only time that the actual writing process is mentioned in the ELA standards for grades 9 and 10.

The way that the standard is written seems to make the following assumptions:

  • Revision can be isolated from the rest of the writing process
  • Revision is the most important part of the writing process (since it’s the only part mentioned)
  • When we revise, we revise only for certain finite things (like organization or word choice)

In contrast, the Common Core State Standards presents the process for what it is–a connected, non-linear cycle that students should be able to manage independently.

Take the phrase as needed, for example. This implies that students use elements of the writing process in the ways that best serve the needs of their writing. The writing process, then, is not a series of steps to follow in a certain order.

The Common Core also values the idea of independence, so not only should students be able to use the elements of the writing process in a non-linear way, they eventually need to be able to do so independently.

Finally, the Common Core Standards also expect that students are able to try “a new approach.” In order to do this, they need to have a deep understanding of task, purpose, and audience (so that they know when to try a new approach), and they will need to have a deep understanding of the writing process (so that they will know how to try a new approach). And again, they should be independent.

With me so far?

So what does this mean for my summer school class? And where does my involvement with the Writing Project factor in here?

First of all, my summer school students struggle with the very act of writing. Most of them (approximately 80%) have told me they “hate” it. Many of them tell me they think it is a “waste of time” and do not see how it relates to their lives. Of course, when the majority of the writing they do in school is writing that does not speak to them, can we blame them?

Second, my summer school students, for the most part, do not see writing as a process. They think revision means that they should add a couple of words here and there, add two or three sentences, fix the spelling, or even make their piece shorter. I know this because I watched them revise some writing yesterday. These students are not yet using the writing process “as needed” or “trying a new approach.”

Therefore, one thing I’m learning about the Common Core is that we must immerse our students in the process of writing. They need to see all the different ways they can engage in it and use the process the way that real writers do. And when teachers see themselves as writers and are able to to model for students how they use the writing process in authentic ways, it makes a huge difference.

This is where my work with the Writing Project comes in. A few years ago, I would never have been able to tell when a student was or wasn’t authentically using the writing process. As long as they went through the motions of completing the graphic organizers I spent hours creating, I was satisfied. As long as they turned in a rough draft with their final copy, I was convinced I had done my job teaching revision.

Now I know there’s much more to it. Students need to spend time collecting ideas–and they need to be shown how by a teacher who writes. Students need to gather details for their piece, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing with others, and who is a better coach and guide in this process than the teacher who writes?

As I’ve been teaching my summer school class, I have shown my students entries in my writer’s notebook and talked with them about my process as a writer. I am talking with one student about his interest in writing graphic novels and another about his voice as a writer. I would not have been able to have these conversations had I not known what it was like to feel the power of writing in my bones.

And though my day wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, today my students told me that they liked it.