Posts Tagged 'students'

Adding it up: Writing another semester

It has been so long since I shared on this blog!  The second half of the semester has been hectic.  I’ve started my on-site dissertation research, which is exciting and will figure in to future posts. I’ve also been busy enjoying my daughter’s first lacrosse season, track season, some task force work, and various other obligations both personal and professional.

But, for the moment, I am thinking about the courses I taught this semester. I had the privilege of teaching two groups of college seniors at the University of Georgia (59 in all), all on their way to certification in teaching elementary aged students. I taught two sections of Language and Literacy P-5, where we explore our ideas about writing and language arts and develop a vision for writing pedagogy.  One of the key parts of the class is, unsurprisingly, a LOT of writing.  We write all kinds of things in this course, in large amounts.  As a way of wrapping up this semester, I wanted to do a rough calculation of the massive amount of writing these students created since January.

472 blog posts (plus quite a few extras)

59 narratives, both imaginative and personal

108 maps to fuel our ideas (heart maps, place maps, and so on)

22 piclits

59 persuasive pieces, from commercials to letters to essays

40 (or more) wordles and tagxedos

59 informational pieces, about everything from vacation spots to the history of M&Ms

25 recipes

50 concrete poems

177 lesson plans

59 stories of our writing identities

40 sets of writing mentor texts

108 reflection papers

180 genres for our multigenre project, including everything from collages to diary entries, stories to brochures, birth announcements to wall maps, menus to videos, tickets to medical bracelets, paintings to poetry

countless drafts on the way to final pieces

endless to do lists (that have now, finally, ended!)

scores of emails

and more!

This accounting is all the more impressive given that many of these students walked into class fearing, hating, or feeling downright bad at writing.  They each challenged themselves and accomplished wonderful things. I am honored to have read every word of their work. I feel as if, as the semester added up, my own teaching and gratitude multiplied many-fold.

So, as I wrap up this semester, I just wanted to publicly share this wonderful experience. It is especially bittersweet because about a week ago I learned that I will not be teaching next year as I had planned. In an unexpected turn of events, I received a Dissertation Completion Award which allows me to focus my attention on completing my research and my degree.  Although it is a wonderful honor, and a gift for a researcher to have this devoted time, I confess I was a bit sad when I thought about not teaching again.  I have to think of it as a brief break from formal teaching, knowing that I will be back working with and learning from students very soon.

Hopefully I’ll be back to blogging a bit more regularly in the coming weeks.  I want to share the latest batch of multigenre projects, a bit about my research, and a whole list of other things I’ve been thinking about.  Thanks for staying tuned. Congrats to all my students!  You give me hope that the future will be better and brighter. Take care, be well, keep writing, and keep in touch.

What’s the Big Idea?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  I’ve been caught up in evaluating the other group of multigenre projects.  I do have more to share about those, and will post examples soon. But in the mean time, classes have been coming along and I wanted to share a few thoughts about what we’ve been doing.

I can’t believe it is only a month until semester’s end. Even though my two classes come from different programs (elementary and middle grades are separate programs in our college), they are both approaching an “end” of sorts.  For my middle school Language Arts group, they are coming to the end of their main semesters studying literacy. Last semester they studied middle grades literature, and this semester they’ve had content area literacy and my writing pedagogy course. As far as required literacy core courses, that is it. Next semester they are back to spending a lot of time in the schools.

My elementary school class is coming into their last month of coursework before student teaching. They’ve had two courses in reading, my language arts course, and children’s literature.

As you might imagine, these endings, along with the hectic rush of this time in the semester, bring up a lot of emotions in the classes – some of them conflicting.  The students seem excited about the end of the semester, but there is also a palpable weariness. They are overwhelmed by all the different approaches and strategies they’ve learned – this is only compacted by the impending awareness that soon they’ll be implementing many of these ideas daily with students. Even though they are overwhelmed by what they’ve learned, they also seem to feel anxious about not knowing enough. I hear, over and over again, “how am I going to DO all this???”

Through all of these emotions and a fair amount of exhaustion, I try to keep the students learning and thinking. A couple of weeks ago, it felt like the right time to start telescoping back out to try to focus on some of their “big ideas” for literacy teaching.  I was inspired by this post about simplicity at Two Writing Teachers. I invited my students to start trying to think about how they will begin their lives as literacy educators. I asked them: What are the simple principles that form the core of your vision for literacy teaching?  How does the way you plan to organize your time and space reflect that vision?  We’ve worked on timelines, maps, and other exercises to try and get the vision to begin to come together on paper.

One reason for this process of developing a vision is to give them a place to start when they get into their classrooms.  But, I admit, there is another reason, too. Sometimes I worry about the future of these young teachers – so bright and full of energy, ideas, and fire. With class sizes growing, resources disappearing, and, most troubling, the thunder of emphasis on test scores and standards, I fear that what we’ve worked on in our courses will quickly be swallowed, perhaps even smothered by the onslaught of the structure of schooling.  So, we are taking a little time to try to develop their vision. I hope they keep their core principles posted somewhere near their desks, as touchstones to refer to and expand upon as they continue to develop as teachers.

As my students thought and wrote, I also took the time to articulate my vision for literacy classrooms. Of course, it is a work in progress, and has changed a lot this year.  I thought I’d share it here, along with this wonder: what “big ideas” you return to again and again as a teacher?

Beth’s Vision for the Literacy Classroom

My students will know that I care about them.
I will know them and their lives and what matters to them.
I believe that my students have important things to say and I value their voices.
I am committed to helping them find ways to express themselves and their insights in a manner that allows them to be heard and understood by others.
I encourage my students to take risks and make mistakes in my classroom and in the world at large. I believe this is one of the main ways that we learn. I strive to model risk taking, and reflecting, rethinking, redoing, and renewing practice in my role as a teacher/co-learner.
I want my students to love reading and writing (broadly defined) and learning, and to know that engaging in reading, writing, and learning can enable them to grow as teachers and as people.

Beth Friese – 4.1.10

Multigenre Research: Choosing Topics

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about Multigenre Research Projects.  For an introduction, read more here. I am going through this project step-by-step to avoid a really long post. I hope you’ll find some of it interesting and worthwhile!

You might think I would start by telling you exactly what multigenre research and composition is. But, I’m going to hold off, just as I did with my students for the first couple of weeks of the project.  (Organizational note:  We completed the project over the course of seven weeks, meeting once a week during that time period. Much of each class meeting was spent on the fundamental principles of writing pedagogy. About a hour of each class meeting was dedicated to this multigenre research project, including time for explanation, mini-lessons about research and genre, independent writing, peer and teacher conferencing, and sharing.)

There were two main contributing factors to the design of this assignment. First, the instructor who taught the course before me included a multigenre project on diversity. The idea appealed to me, but I didn’t commit until an event happened last semester, when I taught a Children’s Literature and Oral Language course. During that semester, the students in our elementary education program pulled some faculty together to share their views on what was working in their program and what wasn’t.  They taught us a lot that day, but one critique struck me particularly hard. The students said that they heard about diversity a lot in their classes. But, our students told us, when we talked about diversity, we only seemed to talk about racial diversity or students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In my department, we work to develop anti-racist educators who are also mindful of social class. While we still have a long way to go, we have definitely made this a priority for discussion in many of our classes and we will continue to work on these topics. In spite of all this talk about diversity, though, I knew the students were right. They were not getting nearly enough information about all the other ways people can be diverse, at least not in my classes. When I re-designed the multigenre research project, I thought about this problem, and decided to develop the project to address it.

To begin, I invited the students to select a group of people, different than themselves, that interested them. The group would be their general topic of study. This was a tricky proposition for a number of reasons. Most importantly, I didn’t want my students to become more rigid or monolithic in their thoughts about diversity. So, we talked about the way that any group we chose to study would contain a lot of diversity in itself.  Our work will always be oversimplified.  This does not mean that the work isn’t worth doing, but that we always have to keep this complexity in mind. Thankfully, multigenre research seems to invite complexity. But, more on that later.

For the first week, that was it. The students’ only assignment was to think about what they wanted to study. They could interpret “diversity” however they chose. To my surprise, it did not take long for people to ask me if they could study groups that they belonged to themselves. It turns out that many of my students felt like they were part of cultural groups that were misunderstood. They wanted to research and write about themselves and their cultures to help others (and even themselves) understand. Not really knowing how this would turn out, I agreed to let the students pursue this self-focused kind of research as well. I thought back to my experience conducting an I-Search in my Information Literacy course with Dr. Julie Tallman. As Dr. Tallman used to say, when we do personal research we do not choose our research topics, “our research topics choose us.” With that in mind, I encouraged the students to pursue whatever topic about culture that seemed to pull at them.

Here is a sampling of their topics:


Verbal abuse

Students with gay parents




Perpetrators of school violence



Emotional and Behavioral Disorders



Institutional racism

Students with chronic illnesses


Students who have been incarcerated

Teen mothers

Asian-American identity

Visual Impairments


Victims of sexual abuse

Holocaust survivors

Students with alcoholic parents

Tourette’s Syndrome


Childhood Obesity

Hearing Impairments

and more…

As you can see, the students selected a wide range of topics.  If I had developed a list for them to choose from, I’m quite certain that most of these topics would not have appeared. For many of them, the simple process of choosing a topic was an opportunity to think about what “diversity” means to them. It turned out to be much broader than many of them had considered. This became even more clear when they heard about all the other topics being studied.

Here we are at the end of the post, and many of you may still be wondering what multigenre research is. At this point, so were the students.  I asked the students to trust that I would guide them through the process, and I guess I’m asking that of you as well.

In the next post, we will talk about information sources and the way they managed their research. We welcome your comments!

On Their Turf: Making the Change To Student Blogging

This semester I’m teaching two courses for prospective teachers – Writing Pedagogy (4th-8th grade) and Language and Literacy (PreK – 5th grade). I’ve never taught the middle grades course and have taught the elementary course just once before. I’ve also never taught two groups at the same time – much less different courses (although I’ll admit that some of the content overlaps). Needless to say, here in week 2 it is already an adventure.

I am experimenting with many new approaches and activities in these courses this semester. I’ll be sharing more about these as time goes on, but for the moment I want to talk about blogging.

First, a bit of history. My students write weekly in my courses (after all, they are writing courses), and post their thoughts electronically. I read every word they write, and try to respond to each post. I enjoy the chance to keep up with their thinking this way, but after three semesters reading discussion threads in a course management system (CMS), I was tired. I wanted to make a change but just hadn’t done it for a number of reasons, until my university changed the CMS this year. One of the first things I found out about this new system was that students in my courses would automatically be wiped out of the system at the end of each semester. I guess this was supposed to make my life easy – hey, I didn’t even have to copy and reload the content (since, of course, I would be using the same content over and over and over again, right?) Just add a new set of names and away we go. (a joke.)

With the old system, students had access to courses for as long as the professor left us in the system (often years). Considering that I’ve been a student myself in graduate school for 5 years now, you can imagine how much information I had access to through that system. I referred to it often, even though I had downloaded much of the content elsewhere.

So, the new system and the default to purge students each semester bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why. After all, students could download content just as I had, as long as they did it before the end of the semester. What was the problem? Then, I figured it out. Wiping my students out of the courses represented something completely against my growing philosophy of education. In the past year or two, I’ve realized that my job as a teacher educator is not to cram my students’ heads full of all the knowledge they will need to be a great teacher for their entire (hopefully lengthy) careers. Instead, my job is to offer them the chance to engage with important experiences and ideas, to help them get to know themselves as writing teachers (both as teachers who write and as teachers of writing), and to start them on a path where they can continue to learn about language, literacy, and teaching long after my course is in the rear view mirror. As I told them on the first day of classes, the best teachers are learners, always.

Erasing my students from my course once the semester is over, then, didn’t line up with my ideas about my job as a teacher educator. I wanted to give them ideas and experiences that continued with them into the future. So, considering all of this, I made many changes this semester (basically circumventing the course management system in most regards). The one that has been the most obvious (and exciting) is the switch from posting their weekly writing on the course management system to posting on student blogs. I encouraged each of my students to start their own blogs. I gave them a range of sites to choose from – blogger, wordpress, posterous, edublogs, and the students also used tumblr of their own initiative – and had them link their blogs to our course wiki.

Why do blogs make a difference? Now, when I read my students’ weekly posts, instead of reading paragraph after paragraph on the gray, bland course management system screen, I go to each students’ personal writing space. Many of the students have chosen interesting, colorful designs for their blogs. Some have added photos and quotes. (By the end of the semester, they will each develop a blogroll as well, as part of creating their learning networks). Even at this early stage in the semester, each blog is already unique.

I realized last night that I was having the same reaction to the old CMS that my students often have toward textbooks. We know what a textbook looks like – it has a genre all its own, no matter how hard textbook publishers try to change it. The content, the pictures, the writing can be wonderful, but we still can spot a textbook a mile off, and get that same revulsion. My students were writing great things over the last semesters, but dealing with the system still made me impatient while reading their work. The container just didn’t appeal to me. It was a disservice to the writing my students were producing.

Now, reading their blogs, I feel like I am personally connected to each of my students – I am “on their turf” when I comment. I am the visitor in their writing space, not them the visitors in my CMS space, and I like that. I hope that this practice will encourage them to develop an online presence for themselves as writing teachers, as well as a web presence for their classrooms and students in the future. I also feel like their writing is improved. Is that just because I am more attentive? Are they really doing a better job? It’s hard to say just yet. But with their blogs, they have a chance to build their writing and work over time. And, it won’t disappear come summer semester.

I’ll admit, it was a scary risk to take to leave the security of the CMS behind for blogs (and the semester is still young), but it seems to be paying off so far. Sometime soon I’ll share my students’ thoughts on blogging. If you blog with your students (at any level), I hope you’ll share your thoughts and impressions. Or, I wonder, what have you done to give students their own educational turf?

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