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Author Interview: 'Write, Think, Learn'

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Mary Tedrow agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping The Power Of Daily Student Writing Across The Content Areas.

Mary K. Tedrow, M.Ed. NBCT is the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project in Winchester, Va., and an adjunct with Shenandoah and Johns Hopkins universities. She spent 26 years in the high school English classroom earning recognition of her teaching excellence as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School and the 2001 Frederick County District Teacher of the Year.

LF: A key tool you discuss is a "Daybook." It seems like it's similar to what others refers to as a "Writer's Notebook." First, is that accurate and, second, can you describe it a bit and why you use it?

Mary Tedrow:

Like many language arts teachers, I have experimented with writer's notebooks of various kinds but homed in on the Daybook as a useful term for my purposes in the classroom. It is borrowed from Donald Murray. Unlike a writer's notebook, a Daybook is used to capture thinking in any area and is appropriate for all content courses. Murray carried his book with him, recording fleeting ideas to fuel his Pulitzer Prize-winning column.

The Daybook becomes a vehicle to help students see that the inner workings of their own mind, or what James Moffett called inner speech, can be recorded and viewed as a potential source for making meaning around many ideas. Though the writing can certainly be used to capture seeds for later writing—effectively serving as a Writer's Notebook—the term Daybook implies that this tool is used daily and can enhance very individual purposes. For instance, Murray spent a lot of time reworking his writing schedule and commenting on his preferred writing tools.

My students respond very favorably to the term Daybook, which sets it apart from the journals or diaries that some students resist. I like it because it frees us to do a whole range of writing for a variety of purposes. Beyond writing to collect ideas for summative writings, we write to reflect and set goals, to learn ELA concepts, and to uncover individualized thinking. When introducing this tool, time is spent defining the Daybook and its uses before diving into the expectation that students strive for daily writing—or thought capturing—as they go through their day.

LF: What are some of the favorite writing tasks/assignments that you have students write about in your classes? 

Mary Tedrow:

An initial writing always completed is the Mission Statement. I borrowed this idea from Roy Peter's Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer but adapted it for the Daybook. After reviewing the many ways in which writing is helpful to us individually, I challenge students to write a personal Mission Statement for their Daybook. In that statement, I ask them to write reasons why they might want to carve time out of the day to write and to include a prediction on the likelihood of meeting this goal. (We have first read and discussed articles about how to set and achieve goals.)  Interestingly, I never read their Mission Statements, though students have shared them with me. Midway in the course I ask them to read their own Mission Statements and then share writing explaining how well they are or are not meeting their own stated goals. Then they write a new Mission Statement reflecting what they have learned about their own habits and dispositions, making adjustments in their Daybook goal. This serves as their new goal for the second half of the course.

For the sheer fun of it, I always look forward to doing "10 Wonderful Things." This is actually a lesson on how very specific details often reveal universal experience. But I enjoy the side effect: we always feel both wonderful and bonded to each other after sharing.

The activity goes like this: Make a list of 10 wonderful things. These should be specific and not general. For instance, "a snow day" would not work—too general. But "Waking up to a call from school that school is cancelled when you didn't even know it was going to snow" is a wonderful thing.  After listing, students share with a partner, and then we all hear some of the best wonderful things volunteered from the group. We ooh and ahh over every wonderful thing, since we all share and understand its sheer wonderfulness. We discover how we see ourselves in a truthful detail. This is especially apparent when the class sits in quiet, satisfied contemplation after a wonderful thing is described. Following that, students pick one of the items to write about for five to seven minutes. This may or may not become fodder for a later writing. The student decides what he or she wants to develop. Decision making is a key skill for successful writers.

I also enjoy having students write about gratitude. School is primarily about deficits—looking for what is missing, rather than what is there. I think it is important that students have time to consider abundance in the face of so many minus signs. It improves their mental health.

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LF: I thought the chapter on assessment, titled "What About Grading?" was particularly interesting and helpful. Can you talk about some of its highlights? 

Mary Tedrow:

My overall philosophy that grading is a very powerful tool which can either extend or squash learning and should be used with care. To help our students most, we should do less of it. When it comes to developing thinking through the vehicle of writing, grades get in the way because the element of fear is brought into the process. Additionally, grades have a finality that ends attempts at experimenting and risk-taking because the hammer of evaluation looms. Even our best students will do a minimum to protect an A, avoiding any risks that might end in disaster—a lowered GPA. The students who have had poor experiences in school are most affected by the damage grading does. Their negative experience with grading colors their view of learning, causing many students to disconnect from schooling all together. I'm currently reading Thomas Newkirk's Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning. His thesis supports my observations of the student need to self-protect.

Early in Write, Think, Learn, I use basketball as a metaphor for building writing as a skill. We all know that basketball players spend much more time running drills than actual playing time.These drills are not graded. They do not go into the record books to work for or against a team. The team needs the time to run drills without the high-pressure anxiety connected with scores so they can make many, many attempts at growing skills—with someone offering encouraging feedback and opportunities for new challenges. 

Our students need this kind of free space for growth in all their courses. I make it clear to students that their Daybook is the safe place for these practice runs, an honor that I pledge to uphold. It IS important that they do the drills—and I guide them in much of that practice by offering opportunities to go out on a limb without suffering a penalty—but these writings are not ready for a score based on skill—that comes from summative writings, not the practice. We owe our students the time and space to fail. We also owe them the opportunity to take on some of the judgment, making their own assessment over whether this is good or this is not so good based on self-selected goals. Providing a time for what Peter Elbow calls high-frequency, low-stakes writing is a path for empowering students to find their own gains and to leap ahead through risk-taking.  

Additionally, it is very important that the teacher is clear on the purpose for an assignment before determining when and how to assess. Are you asking about ideas? Then grammar is not the focus this time. Have you provided opportunity for feedback? If not, hold off on the summative assessment until students have worked extensively with a concept or process. Know that when a grade is assigned, the learning has ended. Anything gains hoped for through commentary at the point of assessment is essentially wasted effort on the teacher's part. There should also be transparency in the grading contract. Students should understand what is being assessed, why the assessment comes when it does, and how it measures what was taught. Guidelines for making these decisions are in the chapter you mentioned.

LF: One of the biggest challenges teachers have with having students use a Daybook or Writer's Notebook daily or often is making the time to read the sheer volume of writing.  What's your response to that concern? 

Mary Tedrow:

This is the million-dollar question, isn't it? And I'm sure it is the reason many teachers simply will not provide time for students to write. Reading the daily writing of 100-plus students is an impossible workload. So here is the answer: You cannot read it all. Nor should you expect to. Do people read every draft of your emails? No one does that for me. By not reading every entry, students are given yet another opportunity to take control of their learning. Invite them into the process. Students who work for a grade are compliant, and often learn to be helpless.

Teachers often argue that students are not likely to participate if the work is not read by teacher-as-assessor. However, if the writing is used immediately in the classroom, students will see purpose in the writing. And we want them to see how writing works to shape thinking. Writing is about communicating ideas. Too much assessment sends the message that writing is about correctness, not thinking.

To keep writing relevant and important to the coursework, students share writing with a partner or group. Through sharing, teachers hear what students are thinking and do not need to collect the writing. But, even more important, students will hear each other and their thoughts around content.  This is very important listening, especially for students who are striving to grasp content or ways of understanding. With careful daily prompts, peers can reframe teaching in their own language, making it potentially more accessible to their classmates. Now they can harvest from a buddy. This is the zone of proximal development Vygotsky outlined that we struggle to achieve in our classrooms—we learn best from those who are just a step beyond our understanding. Plus, students absolutely love to hear what their peers think.  We should be capitalizing on this. Writing that is shared immediately has purpose and is highly motivating. Writing that is shared immediately also provides a teacher with a window into student thinking and misconceptions can be dealt with in the moment, rather than at the end of a unit. By the way, warn students in advance when sharing is the expectation. A live audience has a bearing on what they are willing to write. Sometimes the writing is not shared because it has another very individual purpose. 

When students are asked what they notice or what they think, there is no wrong answer and students have a high degree of success and will want to do more. Shared writing drives the lesson for the day with everyone invested. Well-crafted writing prompts connect student experience with the subject matter and builds a community of learners who all benefit from shared stories. We can continually reflect on our learning and set goals for the future. It is a powerful tool that my students both come to expect and quickly stop thinking of as writing.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share? 

Mary Tedrow:

Probably the biggest leap I made in using daily writing came from a very simple solution to a management question: how can we organize all of this writing? Some years I had students divide their notebooks into sections: reading, writing, vocabulary, that sort of thing. But now, I simply have the students number every page of their book and date every entry. The page numbers allow us to index big ideas revisited over time on the very last page—or second to last page if there is an "About the Author" entry in the back. Or you can leave a few pages blank at the front and create a Table of Contents as you go.The bonus is that students are learning about text features by building a book and are additionally categorizing their thinking—another intellectual activity that will serve them in the future.

LF: Thanks, Mary!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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