Writing from the Heart
is a unit which is designed to be used throughout the first marking period with developmental ninth graders as part of their first introduction to the high school environment. It is an attempt to encourage students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses of their oral and written language. I want to generate enough concern and genuine interest in students to make them want a real attempt at remediation and improvement.
My first objective is to change the negative attitude that is so common among this segment of the freshman class towards school and themselves as serious students. I will also attempt to convince these students that the act of writing is a natural extension of how they think and speak and can be a means of self-expression as well as a tool for communication with others.
My second objective is to teach the use of oral discussion and journal writing as vehicles to be used to investigate the process of values clarification through speaking and writing. Through this process, students will be encouraged to care enough about their skills to say something about what they think and write something about it.
Third, as prerequisites of journal writing, I will introduce a writing process along with paragraph composition skills as means of formalizing ideas and opinions in written language. All writing process and journal exercises will be filed in a loose-leaf notebook. A separate writing folder will be used to reserve “final” copies of journal entries.
Fourth, I will combine writing skills with an artwork project at the end of the marking period; therefore, merging left and right brain activities. Students will be exposed to a unique learning experience where they are given full range of expression. Students will construct a “Values” Coat-of-Arms Shield” where they will artistically represent what they have written about throughout the marking period.
In combatting negative attitudes, my first objective encompasses much more than finding the right textbook, appropriate reading materials, or ditto spirit masters. It also involves creating an atmosphere in the classroom where the student feels accepted as he is personally and academically upon entering the course. With students who have not mastered the rudiments of grammar and structure in their writing, I must be willing to start at whatever skill level I am faced with in the first week of classes.
With the developmental student, I know I will encounter numerous problems in written expression. They range from the student who struggles to get a sentence down on paper to the one who fills the page with fragments and run-ons. Wherever they are, it is important that I instill in them confidence in their natural ability to write something in response to a thought or other stimulus. At this pre-writing stage in the process, I will use the clustering and trial-web shift techniques of Gabriele Rico as described in
Writing the Natural
Clustering is a non-linear brainstorming and note-taking process where the writer records a key word representing his topic in the center of the page and draws a circle around it. As thoughts come,the writer records “clusters” of word associations around the key word, circling each word as it’s written, and connecting each with a stem. The writer is encouraged not to censor any thoughts but to allow them to spill out in whatever patterns they will. (See Rico, p. 28)
The trial-web shift is the writer’s recognition of the first “whole vision” of where the writing is headed. After the initial clustering activity, or at times during it, the writer suddenly gets an idea of where to start. An important part of this process is the writer’s willingness to go with this transitional urge from the mind to put something cohesive down on paper. (See Rico, p. 88)
At first, I will allow my students to speak and write in whatever voice or style they feel comfortable with and competent in. The next step is to let them know that there is a big difference between the way they speak or write and Standard American English, but they have the natural ability to bridge this gap with a lot of hard work. Hopefully, the results will be that these students will feel proud about what they say and do in class, as much as for how they get the message across. The use of journal writing will offer students the most freedom in responding in a variety of styles and, thereby, give them ample opportunities to discover or further develop a written voice.
Let me define what I mean by journal writing. In this unit, the journal takes on a number of roles. At first, I will introduce the journal as a class diary where we record something of everything that we do. Students are faced with easy writing assignments to complete that are about their immediate experiences. Thus, topics will be relevant and high-interest. A sense of privacy will accompany some of the writings which the student may allow a trusted “other” to see.
At other times, the journal will be a data collection bank where students record their reactions to what is presented in class in non-text oriented exercises. These exercises may be centered on the responses to classmates, the teacher, a visitor, small-group value clarification exercise, or an A-V production. Students will be supplied will forms on which to record their responses. The fill-in format encourages students to respond in a style that they can handle. (See Lesson Plan #1)
On yet other occasions, the journal is a place for experimentation in writing style and remediation of writing skills. This technique is my answer to the workbook approach to teaching writing. Students will not improve their writing if it is left up to them to practice on their own. They don’t know how to do it, and they don’t enjoy the act of writing itself.
The first journal entries need to highlight the knowledge gained from the act of writing and the fun one might experience in the act of written expression. Whether the student is involved in clustering, modeling, copying, composing prose or poetry, or writing freely and spontaneously, the goal is the same. It is to set little-used imaginations free to create and to release artistic egos to stretch out and be recognized for their worth.
In this “workbook” journal, students will keep a log of their reactions and writings. From these, they will compose a more structured response in some written expression of these ideas. During the first marking period, I will concentrate on introducing several types of “form poems”“(See Koch) and “paragraph patterns” (See Lesson Plan #2) as the bases for these writings. In these preliminary composing sessions, my goal is to present a writing process that the student will use throughout the year to work on improving the organization and the overall quality of their writings.
The entries in this phase of journal writing will concentrate on one or more of the following list of writing process activities:
4. rough draft
5. peer conference
6. revision-rewrite #1
7. teacher conference
8. revision-rewrite #2
9. additional peer and teacher conferences; additional rewrites
10. final draft
11. Motivation Research and Strategies
How, the reader might ask at this point, are you going to motivate students who can barely write sentences or paragraphs to go through your ten-step process with a piece of journal writing? I agree that this is a pivotal point upon which the whole success of the unit is balanced. The discovery and exploration stages are integral and useful in journal writing, but the actual writing of them requires thought process skills that these students don’t possess. Using the traditional writing process assures, however, that these skills are developed.
In order to motivate the apathetic, turn on the unteachable, and make the rejected feel accepted, I intend to turn my usual approach upside-down. I have adopted a response-centered approach to the language arts curriculum. I have turned the focus of the subject matter away from the English textbook and onto the beliefs and the stated responses of the students on their education, their goals and values, and what they will share of their personal lives.
In the wide spectrum of techniques and subject matter which English teachers have to choose from to construct a particular unit, the response-centered approach fits most easily in with what is commonly known as “value clarification.” Some educators criticize the inclusion of value clarification as nothing more than glorified “rap sessions.” For them, it is more beneficial to see students lined up in rows quietly working on a dittoed grammar exercise than for them to be engaged in conversation about relevant issues in their lives. From my experience, all the textbook exercises in the school system will not force a developmental student into a real learning situation. A student might please the teacher by completing an assignment, but there is no guarantee that the student can then transfer the exercise to a real situation.
A teacher needs to carefully think out an approach to values, particularly those connected to controversial issues. We do the student a disservice if we avoid relevant issues altogether. The writing process has much to do with the thinking process which precedes it. If we assume that students possess basic skills of logical thinking, when in reality they are severely lacking in them, then we as teachers doom students to failure before they can ever begin a writing assignment.
Rather than avoid them, I will concentrate my efforts on allowing students to investigate and make decisions on developing values that pertain to their self-image as an adolescent, a student, and a potential writer. These areas of the developing self are the focal points which I will continually bring the class back to whenever tangential issues get us sidetracked.
Much research among educators and humanistic psychologists states that a combination of relevant subject matter, values clarification, and a response-centered curriculum is just what the developmental student needs to motivate them to want them to improve their reading and writing skills.
Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in the humanistic approach to the psychology of basic human needs, states that we think and act the way we do because of a hierarchy of needs which we all share. Our behavior develops from the desire to fulfill a need and, in turn, our values develop from repeated attempts to satisfy them. Maslow constructed five levels of needs which are outlined below.
A. Basic Needs (food, shelter, clothing)
C. Love, Belonging
D. Skill Accomplishment
E. Self-Actualization (See Maslow, pp. 126-196)
In trying to keep the “ideal” of this research in perspective with the “reality” of the New Haven secondary schools and Hillhouse H.S., we are very fortunate to have the services of James P. Comer, M.D., a Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychology at Yale University’s Child Study Center. He has run workshops for the faculty at Hillhouse where he has bridged the gap between Maslow’s theories, the young, black adolescent learner and the classroom in very real terms.
Comer believes, along with Maslow, that we operate schools “on the premise that the three lower needs (according to Maslow) have already been met, and that the child is now in a position to accomplish or learn skills. The reality may be that many children are discipline problems because they are trying to get lower-order needs met through their immature and/or unacceptable behavior patterns” (Maslow,
, pp. 149-178). It is Comer’s belief that schools need to stop and think what they can do to help students meet basic needs, and thus get beyond them to the higher orders of needs.
Comer states that teachers are among those who have access to the inner world of the child through the high level of trust that can develop through the classroom learning experience. He lists teachers, along with grandparents, neighbors, and recreational leaders, as parent substitutes that the pre-adolescent and teenager seek out for someone “to try new ideas, values, and ways” with (Comer, p. 163). This is the classic, natural process of rebellion and the rejection of parental morals and values, whether they be conservative, moderate, or liberal.
Comer gives these reasons for this phenomenon. The teacher or other parent substitute provides an empathetic ear and is less likely to threaten or criticize the adolescent in responding to his or her questions. Their suggestions are viewed as being unique and different from the parent even though the advice is identical to that of the parent. It is important to note that the parent substitute also provides the teenager with a viable, trustworthy alternative to peer group experiences when they “are trying to determine what part of us—our attitudes, values, and ways—they reject, and these determinations are emotionally charged and painful” (p. 163).
Other researchers call on teachers to tap this avenue of real communication with the student. Language arts teachers enjoy a special advantage in that they deal with basic oral and written communication skills. This fact, along with the range of curriculum subject areas the English teacher has to choose from, provides the perfect setting for the use of a response-centered value clarification approach. The research also reveals that there is sound reasoning and well-developed theories validating the use of value-oriented exercises and discussion of relevant student issues.
According to Simon, Howe, and Kirchenbaum in
, there is a list of approaches which adults have traditionally used in dealing with values and the teenager. First, there is moralizing, which is a direct indoctrination of the child in the benefits of the adult’s value system. Second, there is the laissez-faire attitude toward values. The adult rationalization is to let children think and do what they want since no one value system will be right for everyone. Modeling is the third approach, one in which the adult presents himself as a shining example of what is good and true. The problem here is that a child is faced with many different “good” models to follow. How does a child make a choice when it comes down to real, everyday issues? (Simon, pp. 15-17)
Values clarification is the fourth approach; the authors describe it as being developed by Louis Rath who took the idea from John Dewey. It differs from the other approaches in that the emphasis is placed on the
process of valuing
rather than on value content. In other words, it is concerned with how people arrive at a certain set of values rather than another.
Values and Teaching
, breaks down the valuing process into the following steps.
Prizing one’s beliefs and behaviors
1. prizing and cherishing
2. publicly affirming, when appropriate Choosing one’s beliefs and behaviors
3. choosing from alternatives
4. choosing after consideration of consequences
5. choosing freely
Acting on one’s beliefs
7. acting with a pattern, consistency, and repetition (Rath pp. 28-32)
Considering the above list, the teacher’s role is to help the student utilize each step and apply it to established and emerging beliefs. The teacher encourages students to consider the full spectrum of alternatives and sides of an issue. The teacher also gives the students a range of options in how they go about making choices in expressing themselves. Students must be allowed to make decisions along the way in the process to truly develop their own values (Simon, p. 19-20).
Several other researchers validate these theories on value clarification and response-centered curriculum. John Holt, Herbert Kohl, James Moffett, Alan Purves, and Delores Minor all recommend a move away from teacher-centered learning in our English classrooms and toward subject and student-centered education. They also recommend that this move happen at all levels of learning in a school system, and that whole schools rather than individual teachers adopt this style of teaching and learning.
In his introduction to Kohl’s
”, John Holt emphasizes the need for relevant subject matter in urban classrooms. The following is an excerpt from his statements.
A student will only be concerned with his own use of language, will only care about its effectiveness, and therefore try to judge its effectiveness and therefore be able to improve its effectiveness—when he is talking to an audience, not just one that allows him to say what he wants as he wants, but one that takes him and his ideas seriously (Kohl, p.8).
Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum
, James Moffett explains the principles which form the basis of the student-centered curriculum. Each principle is directly quoted below, either in entirety or in part. I urge those who are not familiar with the method to read the full explication of them in Moffett’s book.
1.A course in language learning is a course in thinking. A writing assignment is a thinking assignment.
2. The stuff to be conceived and verbalized is primarily the raw stuff of life, not language matters themselves. Rendering experience into words is the real business of school . . .
3. What a student needs most of all is to perceive
he is using language and how he
4. The role of the teacher is to help students expand their cognitive and verbal repertory as far as possible, starting with their initial limits.
5. The sequential pathway to this goal is a growth scale growing from the personal to the impersonal, from low to high abstraction, from undifferentiated to finely discriminated modes of discourse.
6. The most effective and best motivated learning process for approaching this goal is trial and error. . . The teacher selects the trials—the speaking, reading, and writing assignments. . .
7. The only way, short of tutorial, to provide and feedback is to develop small-group interaction into a sensitive learning method. . .
8. Using language is essentially a social action, which, however, becomes internalized as a private behavior. The quality of individual utterance depends much upon the kinds of dialogues that have been previously absorbed.
9. Producing language is more difficult than receiving it. (Moffett, pp. 11-12)
It is upon this backdrop of principles that Purves and Minor, among others, paint their mosaic of response-centered class activities in
How Porcupines Make Love
. They supplied answers to my questions about how, specifically, I would go about managing this type of class. I learned how I should act, what to do, and how to assess or measure what I had done.
In “The Response-Centered Curriculum,” Alan Purves begins an outline of the teacher’s duties based on his experiences in teaching poetry, and he arranges them in a sequential order. Later in my unit, I describe how I have adapted this method to the writing process.
To begin the process, the student and the teacher select materials to be read together. The student then reads a—selected piece and, either an individual, small group, or class setting, discusses the piece with classmates who have read it and the teacher. The teacher suggests different or alternative forms for the student’s response to the piece. If need be, the teacher structures a particular form of response for the student based on his or her individual ability. The teacher then works toward drawing the fullest response possible from the student. He calls attention to and isolates certain parts of the text. In the process, the teacher also tries to convince students that they can help each other when the teacher is not available immediately. He also elicits the class’s aid in determining types of remediation and allows the more competent students to help with the remediation and evaluation of classmates. In doing so, the teacher encourages students to try new approaches to an old problem (Purves, pp. 29-56).
In “Structure of the Classroom,” Delores Minor adds to the Purves list of teacher responsibilities and methods.
She describes the teacher as a challenger and a stimulator who circulates around the room from one group to another making contact with each student as he or she works within the group activity. The teacher suggests rather than tells, demonstrates rather than lectures. At times, he is a devil’s advocate; at others, he is a facilitator and listener. The atmosphere which the teacher strives to create is one where conflicts or disagreements are viewed in the light of mutual respect for the opinions of others. The teacher also insists that students be responsible for what they say and do in class while he offers resources and opportunities for individual growth. In general, the teacher is creative and can be further described as being observant, sensitive to others, honest, knowledgeable, helpful, resourceful, intuitive, and open-minded (Minor, pp. 59-68).