Book Snap #54

Title: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

Author: John Warner

Date Read: July 10, 2019

Two Snaps

This title drew me in– it tackles a problem I have wrestled with myself as an English Language Arts teacher. Discussion of the book had a lot of traction on Twitter amongst many people in my personal learning network. I had to read it.

Warner, a college writing professor, posits that much of the writing we ask students to do are simply imitations of writing. Writing is a skill. It is also a process that allows us to think and to respond to the world at large. It is a struggle, and it is difficult. But, as Warner argues: “[We] should also operate under the assumption that every student needs to prepare for the long haul of life as a writer because in truth, these days, everyone is a writer” (139).

The crux of Warner’s thesis is that the greatest barriers in the way of building better student writers are systemic. These include ingrained practices like the misguided fixation on grades– which intensify poor student mental health, add intense stress, provoke anxiety and heighten depression; a panoptic surveillance of student academics and behaviour realized in unrealistic “real-time data” portals; the standardization of testing that favours memorization and regurgitation; educational fads and misuses of technology.

For so long, school has been about performance divorced from learning; so it’s difficult to find value in anything other than an A.

Warner. p.41

He offers a thorough examination of these and other disincentives that manufacture an unappealing atmosphere, a grind– a place where teenagers, especially, are bound to affirm, “school sucks.” Devoid of curiosity and engagement, personal autonomy and motivation… is it any wonder that students don’t risk and experiment to build their skill as writers?

Warner contends that writing makes us better and more contented humans. Through writing, we can develop a capacity for empathy. It is an essential skill for our students because it enables them to act with more personal agency. And so, he devotes the last half of the book to providing examples of valuable writing experiences and approaches to help writers develop their skill– while still tackling further systemic barriers in a new framework.

Like many of the writers tackling educational issues I care about, Warner maintains that grades are antithetical to learning. He had me at hello on that one. He further claims that they are also demotivating, unfair, and maddeningly imprecise. They fail to reflect what a student has actually learned and they incentivize cheating and plagiarism. He, likewise, advocates for grading practices that emphasize self-reflection and agency. I thank all of my colleagues in the English department who have conspired with me on our own journey tackling this very issue. I hope this book validates your hard work.

Moreover, writing is a process, not a product. It takes patience and time. Let’s take the time.

Students who feel accepted and empowered, who are given a voice in their community that is heard and respected, are more engaged with school, more committed to learning, and more giving of themselves to those they are surrounded by.

Warner, p.240

Read Warner’s essay: “Kill the 5 Paragraph Essay.”

Book Snap #53

Title: Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn

Author: Myron Dueck

Date Read: July 7, 2019

Two Snaps

I was lucky to have attended a conference in which Myron Dueck was the keynote speaker. He is funny, energetic, and engaging, but most importantly, he cares about finding ways to engage students in their learning and finding assessment practices that fairly assess student knowledge and understanding.

Grades are a nebulous hangover of generations of teachers advancing the ways in which they had school done to them. For the most part, grading has served primarily to sort and rank students. Furthermore, schools have trained students to be grade-focused rather than learning-focused (Dueck, 101). The book outlines the common beliefs and misconceptions about grading practices while offering solutions and four key lessons: 1. By grading smarter, teachers can reduce their workloads; 2. we would do well to think more like coaches– looking for things we can do to move to the next level of performance– in effect, assessment of learning; 3. learning is more important than grades; and 4. relationships are crucial.

Dueck walks teachers through five key issues in re-thinking their pedagogy and assessment: grading, homework, unit plans, retesting and creativity.

As far as grading goes, Dueck asks teachers to think more carefully about the use of punitive grading; like zeroes and late penalties. Most importantly, he argues, despite the fact that these penalties rarely modify behaviour– the accuracy of the grading data is also compromised. We are now assessing behaviour, not the student’s ability to meet a learning target.

On a four point scale, where “A” = 4, “B” = 3, and so on, the zero is accurate, because the difference between the A, B, C, D and F are all equal– one point. But assigning a zero on a 100-point scale is a math error; it implies a 60-point difference between the D and the F, while the other differences are typically about 10 points. It makes missing a single assignment the “academic death penalty.” It’s not just unfair — it is not mathematically accurate.

(from Doug Reeves, 2010, p.11)

Dueck also tackles the issue of homework. Specifically: “…assignments designed to serve as a follow-up or practice usually designed to yield identical answers from every student.” (p.44) Many teachers rely on assigning homework because they believe that they are instilling a work ethic in today’s youth; the problem with this well-intended argument is that attaching a grade to homework inevitably leads to grading completion rather than understanding.

He provides excellent suggestions on unit planning, and how it is beneficial for both organizing teaching and learning. Unit plans offer students road maps to focus on where they are in their own learning. He wisely suggests that students also be provided with samples of what excellence looks like as they work to complete products of their own. He models key questions to help teachers make their own quality unit plans, while offering samples to lead the way.

He devotes his fourth chapter to retesting. In nearly every other area of the real world, he says, we embrace and celebrate mastery through repeated effort– so what are tests and exams meant to emulate? Testing can only give us information on a single moment in time, which can be affected by variables totally unrelated to the learning targets.

I was most impressed with how Dueck focuses throughout the book on the multitude of variables that affect learners and why a re-thinking of our practices are crucial. These include but are not limited to: socio-economic status; learning disabilities; chronic stress and anxiety; drug use and abuse; violence in the home; and a lack of nutritious food. It is evident that Dueck’s motivation is not simply about making grading easier for teachers, but rather has arisen from a place of caring deeply about the students he serves.

His final chapter focuses on creativity which he contends is: required to solve problems; needed in a world that rewards the unique; and helps students to develop autonomy.

The human condition is based on connection and socialization. As a species, we’ve been storytellers since long before the advent of the written word. We draw meaning from interaction more so than from homework or lectures (Geary, 2011). Research confirms that when people are spurred on by curiosity, they learn more (Engel, 2013), and when intrigue and surprise are added to the mix, they remember more (Engel, 2013; Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992).

(Dueck, p.121)

Educators, most especially in high school, would do well to spend some time with Dueck, and allow him to guide them through an examination of their own teaching and grading practices. He offers current research; rich examples and detailed work samples; and a multitude of personal story sidebars that reveal his benevolence for his students and his desire to create a classroom where they are met with success.

Book Snap #39:

Title: Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

Author: John Spencer

Date read: December 29, 2018.

Two Snaps.

A great reminder about allowing students choice about how and what they learn. A great refresher and way to infuse second semester with a little extra excitement! Looking forward to John Spencer visiting teachers in our district very soon too!