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Posts Tagged ‘writers conferences’

Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences

With Writer’s Workshop, teachers typically organize a one-hour workshop so that at least half of the time is devoted to writing, peer conferences, and writer-teacher mini-conferences. Properly managed, the writer-teacher mini-conference can be a key ingredient to the success of developing writers.

Here are some tips to make the most out of Writer’s Workshop Mini-Conferences and some great attachments, links, and free downloads as well. Make sure to pass along this article to one of your favorite colleagues or your department.

Writer-Teacher Mini-Conference Procedures

  • Not every student needs to be seen every day. Use a Status of the Class chart to plan conferences in advance.
  • Walk the room to complete your planned mini-conferences and supervise student behavior. Briefly eavesdrop on any peer conferences as you circulate.
  • Make students responsible for completing the Status of the Class. Students can certainly x-off the box below their names on the Status of the Class chart after they complete their mini-conference. Some teachers use pocket charts labeled with the stages of the writing process (brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting, peer response, revision, editing, publishing) and students are responsible for placing name cards in the pocket that matches the stage where they are working that day.
  • Keep mini-conferences brief. More frequent conferences tend to work better than less frequent conferences, so shorter conference times mean that the teacher will be able to meet with students more often.
  • Establish a focus for your mini-conferences. Traditional Writer’s Workshop devotees favor a student-centered inquiry approach, asking thought-provoking questions such as What are you working on? Can you read me some of what you’ve got? How do you think your writing is going? Can you read me some of what you’ve got? How can I help? These are all fine, but I tend to be more directive, so I announce to the class at the beginning of Writer’s Workshop “I will be focusing my conferences on _________ today, so be prepared to discuss this focus and share a writing sample that reflects this focus in our conference.” The daily focus could be any step of the writing process or any of the 6 Traits of Writing. Often, I tie the focus of the mini-conference into the focus of a recent mini-lesson to get more bang for my teaching and coaching bucks.
  • Establish a system of accountability for your conferences. Let students know that you have high expectations of them. I award participation points for my mini-conferences.
  • Allot some of your mini-conference time each day for students to ask you questions and get your coaching feedback on issues of their own writing. During this time, I sit at my desk and students line up with their writing in hand. Tell your students that only three students can be in line at one time for a student-teacher writing conference. You want students to spend most of their time writing, not waiting in line. Sometimes having writing down the students’ names on the board or a “take a number” system is a good way to manage a conference order and keep the students on-task.
  • Some Writer’s Workshop teachers do not write on student papers; I do. To be efficient (and train students for higher education), I teach students the common editing marks. Download my set of Writing Posters (which include these editing marks), if you wish. I do suggest marking only a few mechanics (punctuation and capitalization) and spelling issues per visit.
  • Verbally explain any content, structure, or grammatical problems. If there are such errors, mark a ain front of the sentence and send the student back to revise.
  • Differentiate instruction. If the focus of your mini-conferences is using speaker tags and quotation marks in dialogue, and a dozen of your students need help, invite the group up to your whiteboard to teach these skills or assign targeted worksheets to be completed individually. Oftentimes, a class mini-lesson will not do the trick for every student, so group or individualized instruction certainly makes sense.
  • Use your school’s computer lab to complete mini-conferences. Computers are ideal for the social context of writing and work well with Writer’s Workshop mini-conferences. Have students submit their online for you and their peers to discuss. Submission options are numerous: Google Docs®, Turnitin®, Moodle Docs®, Viper®, Screencast®, a school network dropbox, or e-mail.
  1. Teachers can respond to their students’ writing during mini-conferences with text, hyperlinks, or audio files by using the comment bubbles feature of Microsoft Word®. For accountability, teachers can require their students to address each comment by using Microsoft Word® “Track Changes.” Students then re-submit revisions and edits for peer and/or teacher review. Just like real professional writers do with their editors!
  2. For teachers who want to be more prescriptive in their mini-conference comments, they can get an entire e-comments bank of 438 entries that cover all of the comments teachers would make if they just had the time. Each comment has a concise definition, explanation, and example. Teachers can download the author’s free The Pennington Manual of Style, which has the text of all 438 of the e-comments and a download link to insert all of the 438 e-comments into the Autocorrects function in Microsoft Word®. Inserting a comment on the student’s word document like the one in the example is simple. Just type an alphanumeric code, such as M1, and the comment magically appears!

The author of this article provides two curricular writing resources aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Both are appropriate to help teachers differentiate writing instruction for upper elementary, middle school, and high school students.

The first, Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets (perfect for mini-lessons) corresponding to the Common Core Writing Standards, the e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 Common Core Standard informative/explanatory and 4 Common Core Standard persuasive), 64 sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

The second, Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, makes sense of grammar instruction with a curriculum designed  to integrate grammar and writing instruction.  Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, provides a coherent scope and sequence of 64 no-prep Sentence Lifting lessons that include Teacher Tips and Hints for the grammatically-challenged, simple sentence diagrams, and both basic and advanced rules/skills. The mechanics and grammar skills complement those found in the 72 Grammar and Mechanics Worksheets (ideal for mini-lessons) and target the diagnostic needs indicated by the Grammar and Mechanics Diagnostic Assessments. Perfect for upper elementary, middle school, and high school students.

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20 Tips to Teach Writing through Music

There is no doubt that popular music transcends arbitrary barriers of age, culture, and language. My students and I share the same passion, although not the same music. Music speaks to their generation just as must as it has to mine. In fact, most students probably listen to more music than I did growing up. As a result, students have internalized the structure, syntax, and rules of music far more than that of any writing genre. This prior knowledge is simply too valuable for the writing teacher to ignore. Analyzing the songwriting composition process will enable students to apply the relevant strategies to their own writing of narratives, poetry, essays, and reports (and maybe even songs).

As an amateur songwriter and English-language arts teacher, my experience in learning the craft of songwriting has constantly informed my writing instruction. Here are 20 tips I’ve picked up over the years about how to apply the techniques of songwriting to writing in any genre.

Background: Paying Your Dues

1. Experience Matters

You don’t have to become a heroin addict to play the blues. However, knowing that blues usually follows a twelve-bar (measure) pattern provides an important foundation for a songwriter. Knowing the different blues genre of Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues will help the songwriter follow the rules and stylistic features of the chosen genre.

Prior knowledge in writing content, genre, and style informs composition. For students lacking this experience, it is essential to “frontload” as much as possible to provide an equal playing field and give these writers what they need to be successful in a given writing task.

2. Reading to Write

Bob Dylan (Zimmerman) graduated from high school in a small town in Minnesota and moved to Greenwich Village. During his apprenticeship, Dylan played clubs and learned a catalog of folk and blues songs; however, he spent much much of his time reading everything that he could lay his hands on. In his autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan comments on his reading: “I was looking for the part of my education that I never got (p. 36).” His body of work shows the impact of this reading on his music.

Dr. Kate Kinsella of San Francisco State University summarizes the reading-writing connection research as follows:Reading widely and regularly contributes to the development of writing ability. Good writers were read to as children. Increasing reading frequency has a stronger influence on improving writing than does solely increasing writing frequency. Developmental writers must see and analyze multiple effective examples of the various kinds of writing they are being asked to produce (as well as ineffective examples); they cannot, for example, be expected to write successful expository essays if they are primarily reading narrative texts.

Teaching the reading-writing connection will help your students significantly improve both their reading and writing.

3. Learning the Tools

You’ve got to learn the tools to practice the craft. Not every instrument is conducive to songwriting. It’s hard to play the trombone and sing at the same time. Tools are the means to an end and are self-limiting. Having written songs with the guitar for years, I know that there are limitations to the instrument. Learning piano has expanded my songwriting potential. Some tools fit some genre and some don’t.

Teachers generally do a fine job of teaching the structure and identifying characteristics of the various writing genre. Teachers generally do a poor job of teaching writing strategies, sentence structure, grammar, usage, and style.

4. Learning Writing by Writing

Burt Bacharach: “Music breeds its own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It’s a work process. Or just improvise. Something will come (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

It’s simplistic, but true: you get better at something by practicing it. And this includes writing. Practice needs to be regular with both subjective and objective feedback. Writing fluency comes from daily writing practice, not from occasional on-demand writing assignments.

Brainstorming and Prewriting

5. Content is Writing

A songwriter with nothing to say cannot write a song. Even the most simplistic love song says something. What the songs says must ring true, even if it is completely fictional. Successful songwriters study the content of songs, newspapers, poetry, literature, and life. Paul Simon: “It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

Studying literature, history, and science is all writing instruction. A student with nothing to say cannot write a poem, an essay, or a story.

6. Location Matters

Jimmy Buffet: “You know, as a writer, I’m more of a listener than a writer, cuz if I hear something I will write it down. And you find as a writer there are certain spots on the planet where you write better than others, and I believe in that. And New Orleans is one of them (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

The collaborative classroom can be ideal for creating a productive writing climate. All of the resources are there: computers, dictionaries, thesauri, the writing teacher, the peers. Rarely do students compose as well at home as they do in the classroom. The classroom can be optimally suited to the social nature of the writing process.

7. Emotional Connections

Bono: “You can have 1000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay (http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=458609330&blogId=481041893).” Sting: “Songwriting is a kind of therapy for both the writer and the listener if you choose to use it that way. When you see that stuff help other people that’s great and wonderful confirmation that you’re doing the right thing (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

All too often, students mimic their teachers in order to please us and demonstrate that they have harvested our pearls of wisdom. Students often have little understanding of audience and even less passionate commitment to their writing subject. Developing the emotional connection to their writing in an authentic voice is key to connected and committed writing.

8. Titles and Hooks

Most all songwriters begin their songs with a catchy or meaningful title-one that provokes curiosity. A writer on a songwriting blog comments, “After you answer the question, ‘What is the title of my song going to be?’, your next job is to think about hooks. Here you need to decide what the central point of your song is and create song hooks around this thought. Briefly, a hook is anything that will help the listener remember the song. With many songs, it’s the melody, the chorus or even some of the lyrics. It might even a be a sound effect added to make the song more interesting (http://hubpages.com/hub/How-To-Write-A-Song-Title).”

Teach how songwriting titles and hooks capture the essence of the writing topic and thesis statement. Every stream flows from the one source. Good writing is essentially deductive in both narrative and expository forms.

9. Self-Questioning

Many songwriters flesh out the lyrics by asking questions of their song title. After coming up with the title “I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty could have posed the following questions to develop his lyrics: Why won’t I back down? What’s happened in the past to make me have this attitude? Are there exceptions?

Student writers can use the process of self-questioning during brainstorming. Using the topic or thesis as a prompt, students look at the direction of their essay from a variety of points of view. Using the conflict as a prompt, students look at the direction of their narrative from the major and minor characters’ perspectives.

Drafting

10. Structural Foundations

Songs follow well-established organizational patterns. Verses (same melody, different words), choruses (same melody and words), perhaps a bridge (a different melody and lyric), and perhaps a pre-chorus (a short section at the end of a verse leading into the chorus) are the songwriters’ foundational structures. Robbie Robertson: “It would be nice to abandon the verse-chorus-bridge structure completely, and make it so none of these things are definable…Make up new names for them. Instead of a bridge, you can call it a highway, or an overpass…Music should never be harmless (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

Similarly, narratives follow the elements of plot and essays have introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions. All good writing has structure. Even most all poetry follows prescribed structures.

11. Flexibility

Some songwriters write the lyrics first, then follow with the melody. I tend to write both lyrics and melody together, though I have completed songs in many different ways.

Beware of straight-jacketing students with the components of the writing process. Some students prefer to spent significant amounts of time pre-writing; others would rather jump right in and draft. Some students revise and edit as they draft; others like to do multiple drafts and/or edit at the end. Word processing enables many options.

12. The Rules Do and Don’t Apply

The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” follows the structure of many pop songs; however, it breaks every rule of chord progressions. “Each verse sung by Lennon follows the same basic layout, but each has a different way of ending. The first verse, which is twenty measures, ends with a repetition of the F major chord progression before returning to the home key. The second verse, two measures shorter than the first, ends on the C major chord rather than repeating the F major progression. The third verse is the same as the second, except that there is one more measure (to accommodate the ‘I’d love to’), and the verse does not return to the home key. Instead it leads to a bridge, a 24-measure long glissando-like crescendo starting from low E to an E several octaves higher. Random cymbal crashes are interspersed near the end to ‘challenge your sense of meter’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Day_in_the_Life).” Paul McCartney instructed the accompanying orchestra musicians to play notes beyond the range of their instruments to intentionally break the rules.

Each writing genre has its own rules. A Shakespearian Sonnet has its own rhyming pattern, a persuasive essay has a counterargument, and a story must resolve its conflict. However, knowing and applying the rules permits intentional deviations for special effect.

13. Mimickery

Songwriters advise aspiring musicians to study the techniques of those they admire and emulate their styles. Because everyone has his own unique voice and experiences, no two compositions will be the same. Chord progressions are not copyrighted. The chords for “Louie, Louie,” “Wild Thing,” “I Like it Like That” and hundreds of other hits are all the same.

Some English-language arts teachers believe that discovering one’s voice is the result of a self-guided journey. I would argue that for students to develop voice, they need to practice voice in specific teacher-directed writing assignments. It is not plagiarism to mimic the writing style of good authors. Additionally, teachers need to help students practice different voices for different purposes.

14. Time to Percolate

Carole King: “If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write andnothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it (http://www.buffalostate.edu/library/rooftop/past/docs/2008-10-15_Songwriters_on_Songwriting_excerpts.pdf).”

Neil Young: “I don’t force it. If you don’t have an idea and you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go mow the lawn…My songs speak for themselves (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

We live in the real world. Our students do as well. The SAT 1® allots 25 minutes for an essay that counts 240 points out of the 800 overall writing score. College professors give timed essays. Bosses want that report due by 3:00 p.m. or else. We need to equip our students to face these time constraints in their writing. Certainly, some on-demand writing practice makes sense, but the best practice to develop writing fluency remains untimed, day to day writing practice in a variety of writing genre. Good teachers provide time for writing reflection and revision. Good teachers allow students to face writer’s block and practice problem-solving.

15. Let the Writing Write

John Lennon: “Song writing is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something and then you’re allowed to sleep. It’s always in the middle of the night, or you’re half-awake or tired, when your critical faculties are switched off. So letting go is what the whole game is. Every time you try to put your finger on it, it slips away. You turn on the lights and the cockroaches run away. You can never grasp them (http://home.att.net/~midnightflyer/jl.html).”

Good writing instruction provides students with enough practice so that a degree of automaticity has been achieved. Writing fluency is familiarity with the structures, rules, and patterns of writing. Writing fluency is the conversation between author and the writing. Writing fluency does not mean effortless writing; sometimes content knowledge and writing dexterity can challenge the writer as much as would sheer ignorance.

Revision and Editing

16. Read the Writing

Tom Petty: “You’re dealing in magic–it’s this intangible thing that has to happen. And to seek it out too much might not be a good idea. Because, you know, it’s very shy, too. But once you’ve got the essence of them, you can work songs and improve them. You see if there’s a better word, or a better change (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

“I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to paper… I edit as I am committing it to paper. I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before me and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts out. If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it. Sometimes,you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.” — John Prine, quoted by Paul Zollo in “Legends: John Prine,” (American Songwriter, Jan / Feb 2010).

Revision is the hard work of writing. It involves a conversation with the text and audience to ensure coherency. It appropriates everything in the writer’s tool kit. It also necessarily reaches out to others for feedback. Frequently teachers expect that inexperienced writers will be able to revise with little guidance. Simply modeling how to add, delete, substitute, and rearrange a paragraph does not mean that a student will be apply to apply these skills to her draft. Young writers need objective and subjective feedback from both teacher and their peers. Writers conferences and response groups at all stages of the writing process will provide the feedback necessary for revision.

17. Grunt Work

Neil Diamond: “Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest.” George Gershwin: “Out of my entire annual output of songs, perhaps two, or at the most three, came as a result of inspiration. We can never rely on inspiration. When we most want it, it does not come (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”

Writing inspiration is an unfaithful friend. Mature writers certainly welcome her visit, but the more we depend upon her, the less gets done. Much of any writing is simply grunt work. The more experience and tools that a writer has acquired, the more choices are afforded to the decision-making process. The grunt work of word choice, transitions, examples, and more are the last few puzzle pieces that just don’t seem to fit. I, personally, take more satisfaction out of placing these puzzle pieces (even if I have to shave off the edges to make them fit) than the ones that come without effort. Still, no writer is completely satisfied with his own writing. Indeed, few writers ever revisit their own works after publication.

18. Collaborative Competition

One of the reasons that John Lennon and Paul McCartney enjoyed such a fruitful songwriting collaboration was because John was right-handed and Paul was left-handed. Thus, both songwriters could sit facing one another, eye to eye, without the guitars banging up against each other.

Teachers can do much to establish a collaborative writing culture. The Web 2.0 culture provides both vulnerability and anonymity that writing teachers can use to motivate students in their writing. Most all writing is a social venture and teachers can appropriately guide this experience in and out of the classroom. Online postings afford students the opportunity of time and reflective thought through the students’ own self-regulated filters. Students can choose what to and what not to share. However, in-class face-to-face time is necessary to provide the unfiltered audience and conversations that balance the ones on the web. Teachers control the climate of in-class writing and can model and sometimes referee the collaborative efforts.

19. Publish to Write

Hearing the sound on the published record or CD guides the songwriting process, but the studio experience and interaction of the musicians can certainly change the composition. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones says that he never finishes a song before entering the studio, in order to allow some room for creativity in the recording process. There are also happy accidents. John Lennon accidentally left his volume turned up on his guitar and leaned it against his amplifier while tape was rolling. The screeching feedback began and Lennon kept the mistake as the introduction to the Beatles Number One Hit: “I Feel Fine.” This was the first time that feedback was incorporated into a song.

Teachers need to let students in on one of the secrets of successful writers: writing rarely turns out precisely as planned. The variables of the publication process often determine the end results. Some things are simply beyond the writer’s control. Constraints of time, mistakes, and misunderstandings contribute to the final writing product. Students will be frustrated at times by their published work, or by fellow students’ responses, or by the teacher’s grade and comments. Writing is about as subjective as we get in academia, despite our analytical rubrics and our objective pretenses.

20. Writing for a Pay-off

Paul McCartney: “Somebody said to me, But the Beatles were anti-materialistic. That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, Now, let’s write a swimming pool (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).

Our students frequently write only to please an audience of one (their teacher), and the resulting pay-off is simply a grade. Hardly motivating and largely perceived as being irrelevant to their lives. No wonder there is often little authentic voice, creativity, or passionate commitment in our students’ writing. The solution is to make the pay-off a motivator for student effort. Survey students to find what publishing ends would motivate their best efforts. Online postings, video reads, peer reviews to name a few.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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Using Music to Develop Authentic Voice

A few years back, I sat down at my kitchen table on an early Saturday morning to begin the arduous process of grading a set of seventh-grade persuasive essays. I had postponed the task for too long and grades were due on Monday. Why did I dread the grading so much?

I knew what to expect. I would see the results of my instruction and significant improvement. I would feel self-validated and be able to give myself a well-earned pat on the back. The essays would sound like miniature versions of me. No doubt my essays would make me look good that week during our department read-around. However, I knew what would be missing in my students’ writing: Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection. No… it was not the fault of the writing prompt. There were several to choose among, and they were intrinsically motivating for my students. There was something else.

As many teachers naturally do, I reflected back to my own successes as a writer. I drifted back to my own junior high experience. Mr. Devlin was an odd teacher with horribly worn black shoes. He was odd, even by English-language arts teacher standards. But, his writing assignment is the only one I’ve saved from my entire K-12 experience.

Mr. Devlin gave us a journal assignment with no rules. No, I’m not advocating this kind of unstructured experience, per se. After all, I’m still assigning those persuasive essays, right? In fact, it was not the assignment that was meaningful at all; it was what I did with it.

My room was my personal sanctuary. I’m dating myself at this point. My room was covered with psychedelic rock-art posters-each painted/printed in luminescent color. Yes, I had a black light. Yes, I had a strobe light. I begged my parents for black-out drapes, but olive-green was their choice. My stereo was bitchin’. I burned incense, even though I hated the smell. It was 1968.

I played the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums non-stop. One of the most irritating memories I have is that of my father, a professional musician, saying that the flutes sounded like cheap recorders on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill.” He said the song was garbage.

I listened-no… I felt the music and I wrote. As I read the journals today, much of the writing is juvenile and prurient—a budding Steinbeck I was not. However, my analysis of lyrics, wanna-be girlfriends, my parents, comments and warnings to Mr. Devlin to hold true to his promise that he wouldn’t read the journals rings true to my age and experience. The journal had what my students’ persuasive essays lacked-an authentic voice. With all of the Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection.

I graded the persuasive essays, and as I expected, most were technically very good. But, I vowed to do things much differently with their next persuasive essay. I was going to Mr. Devlin their writing by allowing my students’ cultures to create their own voices. Music would be the transformative medium. Connecting to student experience with their own music can transform the way they write essays, reports, narratives, poetry, and letters. Music was just as influential, just as pervasive, for my students as it was for me. I knew what I was getting into. I hate their hip hop, new R&B, metal, and rap. It really is garbage.

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing writing. Read how teachers can develop a productive writing climate by learning a bit about how the music business operates.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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Using Music to Develop a Productive Writing Climate

In my last article, “Using Music to Develop a Creative Writing Culture,” I suggested that music remains the singularly most influential motivator and reflection of youth culture. Ask students how much they listen to music today. It’s certainly more than they spend reading or writing. And they listen to music while they are on Facebook®. That’s a powerful combination. It seems to me that we can apply a few lessons from how our students combine music and social networking to how we should teach them to write.

As music has always been a social medium, in makes sense to analyze the music business, and songwriting in particular, to see how we might apply some of their lessons to improve student writing.

At the height of the Great Depression in 1931, the recently completed Brill Building at Street in Manhattan opened its doors. The owners were forced “by the deepening Depression to rent space to music publishers, since there were few other takers. The first three, Southern Music, Mills Music and Famous Music were soon joined by others. By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

“A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. The creative culture of the independent music companies of Brill Building and the nearby 1650 Broadway came to define the influential “Brill Building Sound” and the style of popular music songwriting and recording created by its writers and producers (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

While songwriters such as Carole King, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart (writers of The Monkees hits), and Neil Sedaka were cranking out the hits out of the Brill Building community that defined American music in the 1960s, their British counterparts were doing the same thing on Denmark Street in London. On this short, narrow street The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix all recorded in basement studios. Publishing companies were headquartered on this street.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies writes the following in their 1970 hit, “Denmark Street.”

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road

Just round the corner from old Soho

There’s a place where the publishers go.

If you don’t know which way to go

Just open your ears and follow your nose

“cos the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes

You can hear that music play anytime on any day

Every rhythm, every way

In 1972 “Elton John wrote his classic early song Your Song, here. Later, the Sex Pistols lived above number 6 and recorded their first demos there. The street contains London’s largest cluster of music shops. It was also the original home of London’s biggest science fiction and comic store, Forbidden Planet.

Writing Lesson #1

Although writing can be done most anywhere, it certainly makes sense to do so where resources are available and accessible. Both the Brill Building and Denmark Street provided all of the resources necessary to write, record, market, and sell music. A teacher’s classroom can provide the necessary resources for academic writing. Not just dictionaries, thesauruses, and computers… but the human resources as well. The writing expertise of the teacher and the listening ears of fellow student writers make the entire process of composition efficient within the classroom community. In my experience, rarely does the quality of at-home or at-library student writing match the level of in-class composition.

There’s just something about the social nature of composition that motivates creativity. Don Kirshner, 1960s publisher, record producer, and radio/television mogul recognized the fact that massing talent would be beneficial. Kirchner subdivided his Brill Building office space into cubicles and hired eighteen songwriters to crowd into these spaces. He then directed his songwriters to churn out love songs, and occasionally dance and novelty hits, for the teen masses (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).

“Describing conditions in the Brill Building, (Barry) Mann said, Cynthia ( ) and I work in a tiny cubicle, with just a piano and a chair, no window. We’d go in every morning and write songs all day. In the next room Carole (King) and Gerry (Goffin) are doing the same thing, with Neil (Diamond) in the room after that. Sometime when we all get to banging pianos, you can’t tell who’s playing what.’ (http://www.rockphiles.com/rp_artist.php?act_id=19).”

Writing Lesson #2

A productive writing climate can be promoted by establishing a collaborative community of student writers. Allowing students to help each other by “borrowing” ideas, providing immediate feedback (including criticism), and thinking out loud can motivate effort and improve the quality of the product. A community that feels that they are all in the same boat remains task-oriented and maintains motivation. There is a reason that Don Kirshner did not let his songwriters work from their apartments.

The teacher can facilitate this kind of intense writing community, ala Don Kirshner, by establishing a business-like, no-nonsense, and product-driven set of high expectations within the tightly confined community. Kirchner, and good teachers, can choreograph the activities, but the writers are the ones who have to write the hits.

Beyond massing writing resources and developing a collaborative community of writers, there is something to be said for the value of competition and the pressure/adrenaline that it produces. “Carole King described the atmosphere at the Brill Building publishing houses of the period:

“Every day we squeezed into our respective cubby holes with just enough room for a piano a bench, and maybe a chair for the lyricist if you were lucky. You’d sit there and write and you could hear someone in the next cubby hole composing a song exactly like yours. The pressure in the Brill Building was really terrific-because Donny (Kirshner) would play one songwriter against another. He’d say: ‘We need a new smash hit’-and we’d all go back and write a song and the next day we’d each audition of Bobby Vee’s producer (The Sociology of Rock 1978).”

Writing Lesson #3

One of the positive outcomes of developing a productive writing climate is that success breeds success. A healthy competition among student writers can be enormously motivating. Students care about what other students think, no matter what they say. Public sharing of student writing in class, online, in book stores, coffee houses, etc. can inspire quality writing. More gifted students can inhibit some student writers, but the wise teacher can even use these inhibitions to improve writing.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum,Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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Ten Tips for Coaching Basketball and Writing

Being born and raised in Los Angeles, I knew little about life in the country. Newly married, I agreed to follow my wife’s dream and apply for teaching jobs in the Gold Country of Northern California. I sent out my resume, highlighted by my three-whole-months of substitute teaching experience and hoped for the best.

Four days before the start of school, I got a call from Sutter Creek Elementary, a K-8 school, in picturesque Sutter Creek. The principal asked two questions: “Could you be here and ready to teach by Monday?” and “Are you willing to coach our eighth grade basketball team?” I gulped and said, “Yes.” Little did I know what I was in for…

The teaching part of the job was challenging. I taught six periods of history and English to the seventh and eighth graders. My principal asked me to focus on their weakest area: writing. I jumped in with the Five-Paragraph Essay. I lectured them about all of the component parts and had them write one final draft essay most every day. That’s all I knew about writing instruction, but I struggled in silence–too embarrassed to ask for help. However, compared to the other part of my job as basketball coach, teaching writing seemed “a walk in the park.” The basketball part of the job was a nightmare.

My Sutter Creek students pummeled me with questions on the first day: “Why did you leave Los Angeles?  What’s it like having McDonalds®, Burger King®, and KFC® all on the same block?” “Do you know any of the Los Angeles Lakers?” There wasn’t much for kids to do in Sutter Creek, other than basketball.

Basketball was pretty much an entire-school-year affair. We began practicing a few weeks after the beginning of school. More than half of the eighth graders tried out, and I had to “cut” the team down to the number of our uniforms. This was a difficult proposition because the kids were really quite good, having played in community leagues for years. In fact, I had a bonafide superstar: David Dalton. David could dribble between his legs and do both right and left-handed lay-ups. And he could shoot the “lights-out.”

I knew little about basketball. Baseball had been my game. So, I turned to the experts. I called up my six-foot-five-inch best friend and asked his advice; I read books; I watched video tapes; I studied diagrams; I learned how to teach the game.

We had three months to practice before our season was to begin. I taught a motion offense and set-plays, full-court and half-court traps, and complicated zone defenses. I fancied myself the “sage on the stage.” Our practices consisted of eighty-five minutes of walking through my complex plays and five minutes of scrimmage at the end of practice. My principal left me to my own devices and supported me when a few of the parents began grumbling about my rigorous practices.

Our season began and we won every game. I don’t think we scored more than a few points off of my elaborate motion offense or set-plays. We did, however, score plenty of points when the plays broke down and on opposing team’s turnovers. David Dalton was incredible. He consistently doubled the score of the opposing team all by himself. We even handily beat our archrival, Jackson Elementary, in our one seasonal match-up. Victory was sweet, but after that game, the opposing coach took me aside and asked me if he could give me one small piece of advice. “Of course, I said.” He advised, “Perhaps you should teach less and coach more.” I thanked him, but really didn’t understand the difference.

In the final game of our championship tournament, we once again faced our archrival, Jackson Elementary. The high school gym was packed with 800 spectators. We again were winning handily after the second period of play. As the third period began, Jackson’s defense had changed. Two of their guys were stationed “under the bucket,” but three guys were glued to David Dalton. Frustrated, David began picking up fouls. I did not know how to adjust. None of my six-foot-five-inch friend’s advice, the books I had devoured, or the video tapes I had watched had said anything about adjusting to a triple-team.

At the beginning of the fourth period, David fouled-out. I kept calling out plays, but we couldn’t score. I called time-outs and reminded the players about everything I had taught them. Nothing worked. Jackson crept closer. With time running out and the score tied, a Jackson player hit a “buzzer-beater” and Jackson Elementary earned the championship. The parents and my players were disgusted with me. Jackson’s coach had out-coached me.

After assuring me that I would not be fired, my principal “suggested” that he would coach next  year and I could serve as his assistant. Quite humbling. However, the next year, with my principal’s help I learned how to coach, not teach basketball. And learning how to coach basketball made me a much better writing teacher.

Here are  ten tips that my principal shared with me about coaching basketball that helped me change from a teacher of writing to coach of writing:

1. My principal had me practice with the boy’s eighth grade basketball team. It was embarrassing not being the best player. I learned the value of doing each of the writing assignments that I assigned to my students. By doing each writing task, I began to see things from the students’ perspectives. I caught my instructional mistakes, realized how much I assumed students already knew, and re-worked my instruction accordingly. I began doing Write-Alouds with my classes to model my own writing problem-solving.

2. My principal had me shoot free-throws with the team. The boys all shot better percentages than I did, but I did improve. I learned to share my own writing with students. Some of it was quite good; much of it was poor. But, the  writing assignments were authentic and provided reachable models for the students. Solely reading great works of literature does not help students improve their writing skills. The reading-writing connection is not the magical “be-all,” “end-all” solution to literacy.

3. My principal emphasized drills: passing, dribbling, rebound, and defensive positioning. I learned to teach writing inductively—from the part to the whole. I spent time coaching students on sentence structure, modeled sentence combining, had students work on grammatical sentence variety, and paragraph development. I took classes from mentors through the Area 3 Writing Project and began to help students practice the components of the Writing Process. I put the five-paragraph essay on hold for a while.

4. My principal scrimmaged a lot. Of course the boys loved this, but I noticed something else. They were incorporating what they practiced in their drills, with a few reminders. I learned to allot more time to actual writing in a wide variety of voices, to different audiences, for different purposes, and in different forms to build writing style and fluency. Students got better at manipulating the elements of rhetorical stance and their writing coherency significantly improved.

5. My principal kept things simple. He taught very few basketball plays. He did demonstrate and practice “the pick and roll” and “the pick and pop,” but not much else. Mostly, he told the boys to “free lance.” I learned to relax and stick with the “main and plain” components of writing instruction. I dropped my demands that “the devil is in the details” and stopped obsessively red-marking every mechanics and spelling error.

6. My principal didn’t force every player into the same box. He didn’t have any David Daltons that next year, but he let players go with their strengths and interests. He even let our only six-footer play the guard position, and not the center position. I learned to differentiate my writing instruction. Some students wrote three-page narratives, while some wrote one-page narratives. I still slept at night and the sun still rose and set. I discovered grammar diagnostic assessments and stopped teaching parts of speech to my students who had already mastered their parts of speech.

7. My principal never taught from the sidelines during our basketball games. He knew that coaching was for practices and not for games. I learned to use judicious error analysis and criticism in writers conferences with students during the prewriting, drafting, revision, and editing stages of the writing process. But, I focused only on what students did right on their final “game time” published products.

8. My principal was a motivator. Instead of focusing on the myriad of things our players did wrong, he focused on the few things they were doing right. He built up their self-confidence. He let the kids play. I learned that students could write better, if they perceived themselves as effective writers. I praised student work, published student work in the local paper, made parent phone calls.

9. My principal knew about successive approximation. He pushed his players to do “do-able” process tasks on the court, not product tasks, and then asked them to “do a bit more.” He had his son keep track of “do-able” tasks, like running down the court during transition defense and “boxing out” during our games, not product tasks like points scored, rebounds, turnovers, or assists. I learned to use detailed analytical rubrics to help students self-evaluate their writing and specifically inform them how to improve upon their strengths.

10. My principal planned his practices well, but he was flexible. If a drill did not go well, he knew when to devote more time to the drill, at the expense of another. He also knew when to “ditch” the drill and do something else. I learned to adjust my writing instruction to what students were and were not learning. Some carefully planned week-long lessons were accomplished in two days. Many mini-lessons turned into multiple-day lessons as I re-taught and struggled to find ways to get my students to learn what seemed so easy for me to teach. I learned the value of quick, informal formative writing assessments. I learned the value of asking students “thumbs up” if you understand, and “thumbs down” if you don’t.

Find essay strategy worksheets, writing fluencies, sentence revision activities, remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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