Action Research

I am just beginning an action research project under the guidance of Dr. Barrie Bennett who is working with our board for one more year.

Last year, in my role as a learning coordinator, I helped facilitate a similar project for a larger group of elementary teachers, and I remember wishing that I had a classroom so I could do my own project. Well now I’m lucky enough to be asked to participate in this project as a classroom teacher. If feel particularly lucky because it’s as though I’m doing a mini Masters with Dr. Bennett for free!

I had hundreds (okay 5) of ideas floating around in my head for this project but decided to settle on this question: How does having an authentic audience for student writing impact student motivation and writing quality?

Due to tight timelines I wanted to pick a topic that I could already integrate into what I was working on, namely the student “This I Believe” oral essays. So I created a writing attitude survey and tried to gauge where students were in terms of their attitudes about writing and whether or not they thought it was important to have a real audience for their writing. Most students agreed that having a real audience would probably improve the quality of their writing, but a number of them said that they would not be willing to post their “This I Believe” oral essays to our blog.

So I’m wondering about a couple things. First of all, is it the content that makes them uncomfortable about sharing? Based on the rough drafts I’ve read so far, there are some students who don’t yet seem to understand the connections between audience, purpose, and content, even though they’ve analysed a number of model essays. Some students think that the only type of writing worth doing is that stream of consciousness ranting about how unfair the world is. Also, even though I have stressed that this is meant to be personal but not private, some students are still confused about that line.

I also wonder if some students are confused about what we are talking about posting. I am using this project to assess their oral communication skills, so they are recording their essays and posting the MP3. I think some students are concerned that their spelling and grammar is going to be criticized by others (even though I’ve told them that we will work on those skills a little later).

For now, I think I will go ahead with this project and invite those who said they were willing to post to do so and then interview them to see what their responses are to the process. I would like to invite teachers and students from other schools and perhaps other countries to comment on their essays (moderated comments of course). If the response is positive, then hopefully that will encourage other students to post their work next time. I wonder if a more informal type of writing would garner more student participation. After all, the ones who are most anxious about their writing abilities tend to also be the ones who need the most help.

Why the Essay?

Boolean Squared by Kevin Hodgson

So I’ve decided to declare war upon the 5 paragraph essay–which is perhaps bad timing, given the fact that I’m about to head out to a school where some 7/8 teachers are doing teacher moderation of 5 paragraph essays. Nonetheless, war has been declared and alliances have been formed and well, it’s just hard to stop that ball once it gets rolling. Just ask that poor Serbian nationalist who assassinated the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand.

Why have I decided this call to arms is necessary? Please read the following manifesto:

Like a virus, the five-paragraph essay infects almost every student, starting as young as grade 4 with some students and continuing each subsequent year until grade 12, and then if the student has survived the virus, sometimes college and university. 

Why do we hold this writing form aloft as the pinnacle of academic achievement?

It’s formulaic, repetitive, restrictive, and forces students to purport themselves as experts on a topic they can hardly be experts on.

It doesn’t allow for creativity, questioning, divergent thinking, or personal voice (“Never use ‘I’ in an essay!!”). Is that really the kind of thinking we want to encourage among our students who will be one day venturing out into a future we can’t even begin to imagine?

I am all for encouraging students to explore ideas and support those ideas with evidence, but why oh why does that have to be done in an essay? Or at least this kind of essay.

Because it’s in the curriculum expectations you say?

Where? Show me. I dare you.

The essay does not appear as an example in the Ontario language curriculum document until grade 9 Academic English. And even then, it doesn’t say “By the end of this course all students will write an essay.” It says “By the end of this course students will identify the topic, purpose, and audience for several different types of writing tasks (e.g., … an expository essay explaining a character’s development in a short story or novel for the teacher)” That doesn’t actually say that the student needs to write the essay, just identify the topic, purpose, and audience for the essay.

Some may argue that the essay should still be taught because it is an important skill that they will need in later grades or in college or university. I’d argue that essay writing itself is not a skill. Critical thinking? Paragraph construction? Supporting ideas with proof? Elaborating? Brainstorming? Making connections? Yes. All skills. And they are all necessary to write a cohesive essay. I argue that these are the things we should focus on. Not the essay. These skills are all necessary for a variety of types of writing.

So, comrades, please take up the banner and join me in my fight to find more engaging and creative writing tasks for our students. Do not submit to the facist authority of the almighty essay.

And while you’re at it, here’s some supplemental reading:

Three reasons why the five-paragraph theme is a bad thing

Alternatives to the Five-Paragraph Essay


Student Engagement and Self Reflection

I’d like to share this video created by a really dynamic York region teacher, Royan Lee.

Royan is working on an action research project along with some other teachers (one from Peel and one from Thames Valley) on digital story-telling. Royan’s portion of the project looks at podcasting and student engagement.

What really impresses me about this video is how well the students are able to articulate not only what they learned, but HOW they learned it. They discuss the process of looking at exemplars and determining criteria and then evaluating their own work. I’m so impressed by the metacognitive skills displayed by these students. This is all a result, I believe, of their level of engagement with the task, and their teacher’s ability to structure the tasks in a meaningful and authentic way.

These students definitely know their content material, but what’s more, I think they’ve learned valuable lessons about how they think, how they create, and how they can set goals and plans to reach those goals.

Well done, Mr. Lee and students!

If a tree falls in the forest…

Photo by john-morgan

While writing in isolation and without an audience may not be quite the same as the old “If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it?” adage, but it’s got me thinking.

In preparation for a workshop, I’ve been giving thought to the idea of authentic writing opportunities for students. In Kathleen Blake Yancey, in her article “Writing in the 21st Century” concludes by saying:

Through research documenting these new models [of composing], we can create the theory that has too often been absent from composition historically, and we can define composition not as a part of a test or its primary vehicle, but apart from testing. In creating these new models, we want to include a hitherto neglected dimension: the role of writing for the public. As Doug Hesse has argued, the public is perhaps the most important audience today, and it’s an audience that people have written for throughout history. If this is so, we need to find a place for it both in our models of writing and in our teaching of writing.

We always tell students to consider their audience and purpose when writing, but so often their only audience is the teacher, and then, we are often only seen as judge. Students need authentic opportunities to write which is why I think Web 2.0 presents so many amazing opportunities for students to write for a real audience and receive feedback from peers–not just those peers in their own classroom who may have preconceived notions about who that student is, but for peers around the world. I believe that when students write for an audience and receive real feedback, they see writing not just as a task they have to complete for marks, but as a way to forge connections.

If we want to make writing engaging for our students, we’ve got to make it authentic.

Just as an aside, right now I’m waiting on some input from student bloggers about why they enjoy blogging. Thanks to Jane Smith and Nathan Toft for their help with this. Check out their class blogs by clicking on their names. You should also check out Portable PD for great information (the name says it all). These teachers are amazing and I have so much to learn from them, not to mention a local star-teacher David Carruthers. All three of these teachers are doing great work with podcasting too.

Conventions: They’re just like so whatever

photo by Jai-to-Z

Just finished reading an article in ASCD  by Naomi S. Baron called “Are Digital Media Changing Language?”   Rather than summarizing the article myself, I’ve included the abstract. Take a moment to read it. I’ll wait.

Are instant messaging and text messaging killing language? The author’s research has found that electronically mediated language is only changing the mechanics of traditional speech and writing in a few minor ways—for example, the incorporation of such acronyms as brb (be right back) and lol (laughing out loud) into everyday language. Of more concern, she writes, is the way the new media may be changing attitudes toward language. Two attitude shifts stand out: (1) a shift away from caring about language rules or consistency; and (2) a tendency to view language not as an opportunity for interpersonal dialog but as a system we can maneuver for individual gain.

Got it? Okay.

A while back I was talking to some colleagues about whether or not grammar was elitist, and I was reminded of that conversation while reading the article.


Lately the issue has been of interest to me in my role as a learning coordinator working with language teachers and English teachers who are very concerned about assessing conventions in their students’ work. I feel that I can write about this with impunity, having been one of those teachers who obsessed over the lack of subject verb agreement in a student’s essay (Argh! “Them” is plural! PLURAL!). And I still break out into a cold sweat when I see improperly used apostrophes (although I am guilty of recently committing the crime of using “it’s” when I meant “its.” I may be on Lynne Truss‘s hit because of it.)


What I’m getting at is this: What is it that makes a piece of writing worth reading? Have you ever set down a book and said “Man, that Atwood sure punctuated the heck out of that book!” ?

(And yes, I momentarily agonized over the punctuation of that sentence and then let it go. And yes, this is not a very good use of parentheses.)

Not likely. That doesn’t mean that punctuation, sentence construction and other conventions are not important to the communication of ideas, but does their contribution to the meaning of a piece of writing warrant the weight they are usually given in an assessment? Unless the teacher is explicitly assessing for conventions because that is what has been explicitly taught, then I say no.


Then why does it happen? I would argue because it is the one aspect of the subject of English that we can distill down to something science-like. There are rules. It is right or it is wrong. It’s one of the few things that we can grade without pausing and considering, “Well, maybe….” 


But as Baron’s article points out, many of our grammar “rules” were arbitrarily created in the 18th and 19th centuries. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but if I recall correctly, this is a result of the increase in printed texts and a desire for some uniformity in spelling and sentence construction. Prior to that time, there was wide variation in spelling and very little punctuation at all.  


I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t teach conventions at all. Right now, if a student were to go to university and take a “whatever” approach to their (subject-verb agreement be damned!) writing, they wouldn’t do very well on their essay. But rules are evolving, and it probably won’t be long before the rules that I followed in essay-writing turn into, well, guidelines.


The other thing to keep in mind is that not all our students are planning on attending university; in fact, most aren’t! Shouldn’t we place the focus of our teaching and assessment on clear expression of carefully developed ideas? Certainly conventions are a part of that, but if a student has perfect punctuation, spelling, and grammar, but no depth or creativity in their writing (doing it again, I know), then that’s a much bigger concern to me than if the opposite were the case.