In September, I’ll begin my third year working with target cluster ninth graders at Hillhouse High School. These are students who are reading four to five levels below their grade level. They are clustered together in English, science and social studies classes in order to keep a close watch on academic progress and attendance. These students fall into the developmental track due to their deficiencies in reading and writing skills.
During the 1981-1982 school year, 38% of the sixty-five ninth graders I worked with failed for the year. An astounding 89% of those who failed did so because of attendance policy violations. Coming to school on a regular basis is a major task for some of these students. Some show for the first weeks of school and then vanish. Some take off at regular intervals during the first half of the year and reach their allotted twenty days sometime in the third marking period. One student “bugged out” on me towards the end of the second marking period, showed up for the mid-term exam and received the highest grade in the cluster and then vanished for the rest of the year.
A severe lack of order and of continuity exists in these students’ lives. This is why I emphasize the use of a step-by-step process in this unit. I need to establish in the classroom some sense of one activity naturally following another. I need to reinforce the idea that what we do today is a result of what we did yesterday and effects what we will do tomorrow.
Based on my observations in other areas, these students exhibit the following characteristics. They are eager readers. No sooner do I have the
magazines in sight when the competition begins for the first oral reader of the day. Verbally, they are very active and this becomes a main problem in the classroom. The amount of insults and cutting in on others’ reading and speaking time far outweighs constructive comments. Class discussions have to be interesting and highly structured in order to succeed.
Writing skills seem to be where “target” students need the most help. Most students respond with tortured looks when a writing assignment is announced. A common problem concerning writing is students coming to class unprepared to write—without pencils or pens, paper or notebook. This shows to what extent writing fits into their role as students. A teacher, as a result, has to play parent in providing writing materials for the chronically unprepared students.
In combating these problem characteristics, I have used journal writing to focus students’ attention on their writing problems. Individual grades are given for being prepared to write and for following the format of the writing process being taught (notes, rough draft, revision, final draft). Envelopes and folders are provided to keep writing materials in. These are stored in a box in the classroom for each period. Students are encouraged to decorate their folders to make them their own, to give them an identity. This is an attempt to change the punishing nature of writing which has already been learned.
In order to match the identity
the folders to what is
them, most writing assignments are autobiographical in nature. In the past, I have relied upon value clarification related exercises and discussions to get students to write about themselves. (see Appendix A) This seems to be the one area that developmental students have confidence in responding to in writing. It is the one content area that they are sure of. Even if they can’t write correctly in standardized English, they know that they are correct in what they are writing about. To encourage this more positive attitude, this unit offers a structured approach to the study of autobiography through student readings and writings.
Current research on the teaching of writing points to the writing process as one of a few key factors in changing a student’s attitude toward writing. In teaching a
, a teacher emphasizes that language learning takes place by incorporating “teaching how” techniques with “teaching about” techniques. The student becomes involved in a search-and-discover type of exercise based on something they know or have been told about. Since a process is being taught and not facts, the student knows that he/she has a long period of time in which to ask questions and work problems out. What students do in the class truly becomes “developmental” in nature and the pressure to respond correctly at all times is reduced.
Teaching English to Speakers of English
, Bradford Arthur sums up this idea in stating that “language is not constructed like an office building but grows more like a tree; teachers should be more like gardeners than mechanics.”
Arthur’s statement is representative of the linguistic approach to language study which I have based the methods of teaching the writing of autobiography on. Other proponents of this method are Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. In
A Revolution in Teaching
, they write that “language study is most effective when placed in the context of the scientific method of inquiry.” This method involves defining, questioning, observing, classifying, generalizing, verifying and revising.
These techniques are used in most English classes in one way or another, but usually in the reverse process from the linguistic approach. The
is usually doing the discovering and questioning rather than the students. The focus is on the one person who already knows the sought-after facts or skills instead of groups of students learning how to learn.
It is the consensus of researchers that there is a need to make learning in the English classroom more “real”. The emphasis on error-oriented evaluation and textbook-oriented lessons in teaching writing only compounds the problem of the writer’s low self-image and provokes even more hostility toward writing in general. Mastery of details in the mechanics of writing and major attention to grammar and usage errors should come only with advanced students and never be seen as the only criteria for evaluation.
Students should be asked to write for a variety of situations and people. Education is the preparation of life and people in real life write for many reasons and not just to show that they know a narrative paragraph from a descriptive. Teachers have to get away from the idea that they are the only audience and evaluator for whom their students write. This is an unrealistic view of the world to impress upon fourteen year-olds.
This is why my unit begins with readings and discussions on the topic of autobiography even though the title infers that the emphasis is on writing. Students should have the opportunity to develop a background of information from which to proceed. The inductive method of inquiry applied to the autobiography will produce such a background, with each phase adding more detail to it.
, the teacher and students invent meanings for words which will describe the different roles they will play in the process of studying the autobiography. These are speaker, listener, investigator, writer, editor and evaluator. The teacher must be aware of the importance of allowing the
’ input a valid position in the beginning of this process. It will set the tone for the succeeding phases by setting the focus on the
’ imagination and thought processes and not the teacher’s. Remember that it is the process of defining which is being
and not the teacher’s definition being taught.
To facilitate the beginning of the process, the teacher must take the lead and, thereby, establish the importance of his/her position as guide and educator. Using the small group process, the teacher can assign each group a term or list of terms to invent a meaning for through discussion. Knowing what autobiography, recollection, memoir, portrait, dialogue, narrative, description, composition and essay mean to the students and the teacher gives the class a sense of familiarity with the variety of modes of expression that will be dealt with. Assigning individual group names will solidify the group and the process and will give both an identity for the students to relate to. Let their imaginations run wild in this specific task!
, the groups turn their attention specifically toward the autobiography. They will discuss the following questions. What are different types of autobiography? What are some examples of autobiographical writing? Which are good examples for students to read and try to imitate? What common elements can be found in different autobiographies? What are the benefits from students writing about themselves and other people, places and things in their lives? What else associated with language study will students learn about by reading and writing autobiography? What do people choose to write about when describing themselves? To give the students specific information to use in their discussions, the teacher will provide exerpts from a variety of autobiographies as reading material on which to base answers to the above questions.
is vital to the process. It allows the students to base their statements of facts about autobiography on what they have discovered through their own readings and not on authoritative word or others’ conclusions. This encourages students not to accept factual answers on hearsay or from ancient authorities simply because they feel that they
be true. This phase helps develop critical thought processes applicable to any subject matter. In this phase students will read selections from or entire autobiographies and discuss questions from the preceding phase and those which deal with a specific reading. Depending on the progress of the small group process, students will develop their own specific questions or the teacher can supply a list as a starting point. (see Appendix B)
will investigate the process by which all autobiographical information gained from the readings and questions will be categorized. This necessitates the selection of a series of recorders throughout the inquiry process for each class or the use of tape recorders and transcribers. Possible headings for this classification are those supplied by Richard Brodhead, English professor at Yale and autobiography seminar leader. These are the following:
1. different voices (poses or attitudes) used by each of the writers studied
2. how the self is seen in different historical eras
3. quality and intensity of feelings expressed
4. kinds of personal crises included
5. aspects of ordinary, everyday life included
6. unique or unusual beginnings or childhoods; family structure and family position of the author
7. effects of schooling and the role of a student
8. how one pictures or describes other people, places and things in their life
sums up the information gained from the classifying phase. A series of factual statements are produced by the class concerning how to go about autobiographical writings of their own. This provides a blueprint or outline for students to use in the next phase in which they attempt to make concepts “real”.
The last two phases incorporate the writing process and what the class has learned up to this point about the autobiography. In the
, the student begins to investigate and observe his/her own life and write about it in a variety of modes. The teacher becomes a guide in preparing practice lessons in narrative and descriptive writing while incorporating letters, compositions, essays, poetry, recorded and transcribed interviews, memoirs and portraits.
I realize that this process of inquiry is untried in the study of autobiography, and as such is an experiment in theory. Many adaptations in the length and complexity of each phase may be necessary depending on the make-up of each class. It is important to attempt each phase at some level and give each a level of completion. The process itself is intended to instill order and responsibility upon chaos and apathy.
The schedule which I have tentatively set up extends throughout the school year. In the first month of school, the journal writing sessions progress from a timed (ten min.) entry to two full period (forty-two min. each) sessions which run through the notes, rough draft and final draft process which will be used on the Ninth Grade Proficiency Exam in October. Group dynamics, value clarification and academic review exercises will be the format used in classes up until the proficiency exam. From the students’ first writing samples and their response to these types of exercises, I will get a sense of their reading and writing skills as they enter the ninth grade. The Nelson Reading Test will be administered at this time and decisions made concerning those students who should be moved up or down in the cluster system.
The autobiographical reading and writing responses will begin after the proficiency exam and continue on the average of one assignment a week until review for the mid-term exam begins. The small group revision and evaluation phases will be introduced in the last half of the second marking period depending on whether these classes have begun to “gel”.
By the third marking period, class attendance generally stabilizes. The students in class at this time are the ones who will receive an academic evaluation in June. Most students with chronic attendance problems have been weeded out or have been forced to audit the class. The third marking period will be reserved for the introduction of the cultural journalism segment of the unit discussed below.
The final editing and production of the autobiographical booklet will be done in the first half of the fourth marking period. This will give the classes time to evaluate the unit through discussion and apply the evaluation process learned to assessing yearly grades based on student/teacher interviews.
As the student enters the writing stage of the unit, it is important to remember what current research points out about the teaching of autobiographical writing. Richard Beach, in
Writing About Ourselves and Others,
some focusing is required on a particular time period or set of experiences on the part of the student. The writer should try to capture the essence of the self through physical characteristics (age, sex, weight, height, etc.) and personality traits (needs, values, social roles, family position, etc.). Other vehicles of the expression of the self are through details of dialogue, overall appearance, non-verbal behavior and expressed thoughts and opinions. By narrowing the focus of a particular incident through detailed description, the student might discover the reason behind his/her actions in that situation.
This type of focusing can produce a therapeutic effect for the student in his/her coming to a realization about how to deal better with a similar situation in the future and produce more desirable results. This also forces the student to develop an objective viewpoint through reflective thinking and a sense of a writer’s “voice’’.
Keeping the developmental student in mind, a few ideas from Lou Kelley and Douglas Barnes are well worth remembering. In his writing workshop described in “Learner-Teacher Dialogue and Writing That
Learning”, Kelley allows students to “talk” on paper. This gives the student an opportunity to begin to develop a “voice” of his/her own and gives added significance to the piece.”
By writing in their own dialect, students gain a sense of who they are, what they sound like and what attitude or pose they are communicating in. This is an individual learning experience which has to be constructed. Don’t ask students to write like themselves. Few teachers would be able to describe what they sound like in their writing. It is unfair to expect students to be able to. Let them discover the range of possibilities on their own. Construct exercises in role playing through impromptu drama sessions, puppetry or ask students to try to imitate an author in describing a moment in their own life. Let them decide which moment is crucial to include and which is not. In writing about their lives there might be segments which students do not want to remember in detail.
Talk-writing is a good place to start for those students who are verbal but who can’t put a simple sentence together. Let them begin with something they can handle—their own dialect—and work for a more standardized version from there. Build their confidence with small successes. By denying a student’s way of speaking, one denies his/her ideas, identity and basic attempts at communication. By remaining in this negative mind set, the teacher cuts himself/herself off from ever establishing a meaningful relationship with the student.
Douglas Barnes adds to Kelley’s idea on the role of talking in the learning process in
the learner and the school
. He comments on the barrier which the actual language the teacher uses can become in the classroom. For the student, new material is always clouded by the “jargon” the teacher uses to explain it. Only the teacher knows exactly what he/she is talking about. Thus, a gap exists. The student can bridge the gap only when the material takes on a conceptual function through talking, thinking and writing. So the student must make the jargon real by doing something with it, not just listening to it. Barnes suggests that “students actively participate in gaining information that is openly available to them.”
The last and most difficult phase of the unit to cultivate to fruition deals with
. Here, the student seriously looks at a piece of writing selected for editing and submits it to an evaluation process involving small groups of classmates and then a one-to-one conference with the teacher. I have never been satisfied with my attempts at this phase because students never remained serious about revision in small groups. This phase has to be structured throughout and the students prepared for it before it is used in actual editing.
G. Robert Couillard of the Hamden school system, in commenting on the use of small group evaluation at this year’s CCTE Conference, stated that he waits until sometime during the latter half of the second marking period before he introduces this style of evaluation. Students will be too unfamiliar with it and rebel against it if thrust suddenly upon them. A seriousness in students’ attitude and the need for positive and constructive criticism first needs to be generated through class discussion and trial runs with the small groups based on the exercises contained in
Developing Effective Classroom Groups
Once I decide that students are ready to handle the group process, I will use the format developed by Joyce Armstrong Carroll in “Talking through the Writing Process”. After students have completed a piece of writing, they proceed to meet in groups of five in what Carroll calls the “analytic talk” stage. Activities include students talking about a piece of writing after each member reads theirs to the group twice. During the first reading, the others listen and then respond with their impressions recorded during the second reading. The group discusses their reactions according to the following questions:
1. Did I like the opening sentence(s)?
2. Was the opening clear and interesting?
3. Would I continue reading if I read the opener in a magazine?
4. Was there a lazy or phony question? (ex.: Have you ever been in love?)
5. After hearing the beginning, am I sure what the writing is about?
6. Did I ever get lost during the reading? If so, where?
7. Did I get confused during the reading? If so, where?
8. Was I left hanging at the end? If so, was it intentional, effective or due to lack of detail?
This stage is followed by “evaluative talk” with the teacher in Carroll’s process. The evaluation phase of my unit is based on my process of evaluating my students’ academic progress six times a year. Half-way through and at the end of each marking period, I sit down with each student behind my desk and talk about how they are doing and what grade they are heading for and why. This process takes about two days while the other students waiting their turn complete silent reading and reviewing assignments. I will adapt this to the evaluation phase of the autobiography unit in discussing the result of each student’s group reactions to a piece of writing.
This discussion with the student will include positive, constructive comments on the piece and suggestions made for revision. The piece is graded on completion of the writing process, sticking to the topic and a few points of attention to grammar/usage mechanics. These will be determined before the initial writing of that assignment and changed for each assignment depending on the class’s or individual’s needs. For example, some students write one, long, run-on sentence for a paragraph. One of the grammatical points they would be graded on would be end punctuation or writing complete simple sentences.
During one of these evaluative interviews, I will show the student either my original notes, unit description, prospectus or my first, second or third drafts of this unit to get across the idea that no one, not even a teacher, writes their best attempt, perfectly, the first time. This will reinforce the concept that editing and revision are a natural part of the process being learned.
Carroll concludes her process with “closure talk”. After a revised piece has been evaluated and handed back, the class meets together and discusses the following questions:
1. What did you like best about your completed piece?
2. What did you have the most trouble with?
3. Do you know why you had that trouble?
4. Did you receive any help with that problem?
5. Did you learn anything about writing?
6. Did you learn anything about the process of writing?
7. Would you do anything differently if starting again?
8. How do you feel about this piece at this moment?
This class meeting is designed to foster a sense of completion and satisfaction about writing. These good feelings could also spill over into other phases of study in the curriculum.
Specific autobiographical topics for students to use in the “talk-write” process follow. The first lists were included in a research report done for NCTE in 1969 by John C. Mellon entitled
Transformational Sentence Combining
your most unlucky day
your narrowest escape
your most frightening moment
your proudest moment
your hardest job accomplished
your luckiest day
your greatest thrill
your most embarrassing moment
your first time being away overnight
your first bad fight or quarrel
your first time winning a contest or prize
your first time in the principal’s office
your first real job
your first plane flight
your first date
your first time being lost
Another assignment would be to write about an ordinary, everyday happening such as riding in the family car, preparing for school in the morning, doing the wash, shooting a foul shot or sitting in English class. The benefits of using this type of topic is that every student has this type of experience to base a writing on and can examine it in detail. It also forces a student to look at how he/she spends time during the day and possibly how to use time more wisely.
An assignment which reinforces what Richard Beach says about focusing on essence is to have students write about at what point in their life they feel they discovered themselves as an individual. What was the big moment or turning point? When did other people begin to notice you? When did you find out that you were special? Did this event cause you to begin to actively pursue your life instead of waiting for things to happen?
Another assignment which examines essence is having students describe and explain the significance behind a piece of “junk” in the attic, room or basement. These types of items are symbols of importance in a specific phase of their lives or that of a family member.
The final segment of this unit entails getting students out into their community to investigate further additions to their autobiographical folder. I hope to be working with the Wilderness School in Goshen, Ct., and incorporating their techniques described in their “Cultural Journalism” course. In this course, they work in the classroom and out in the students’ environment to produce an autobiographical booklet.
This last phase of the unit has important implications for three reasons. First, remember that these students are at a highly impressionable age. Their view of what is really going on is shaded by a media blitz and what is being talked up in the streets which is carried right into the classroom. The interest and energy to pursue the autobiographical issue is already there. By focusing that interest into writings about their neighborhoods and their people, the teacher taps into that energy and relates it to the pieces being read, or written about or discussed. Students are forced to investigate what is
there, ranging from the benefits of hidden resources to the pitfalls of absenteeism.
The second reason is the effect that the final product, the autobiographical portfolio, will have on supplying a sense of completion. In teaching a process, the end is the last step. For the students, hopefully, the real final product is the learning of the writing process, the inductive method of inquiry and some knowledge of the autobiography with very personal and practical applications.
The third reason is purely fiscal in nature. If we use Wilderness School personnel, we will need to raise money for each class session to pay for their services. The New Haven Foundation has provided matching funds for Wilderness School services in the past. I would make it the students’ responsibility to raise the first half of the costs. Fund-raising activities have the effect of unifying classes in an atmosphere which seems non-academic. However, the steps necessary for successful fund-raising is another
which students would learn. This would only lend support to the application of the writing and small group discussion processes.
If the fund-raising idea fails, I would go with the following alternative plan. Using the small group process, students would schedule excursions into the community on a monthly basis as homework assignments or with a teacher during the “cluster periods” block of class time. Each group would be responsible for one of the following chapters of their neighborhood/city supplement to their portfolio.
1. a history of Hillhouse High School
2. a history of the immediate neighborhood near the school
3. reports on industries, churches, libraries, colleges, parks and other natural resources
4. a history of New Haven
5. a history of Blacks in New Haven
6. a history of other ethnic groups in New Haven