Saturday, November 21, 2015

(Mis)Adventures with Mentor Texts: From Sloppy to Stronger

I basked in the warm glow of believing I ran an exceptionally effective activity in class. Teaching and learning synergy?  Achieved.  Students engaged and satisfied? Affirmative.

I’m  an awesome teacher!

That’s what I thought as I read through students’ exit tickets, responses about experimenting with mentor texts. We examined the opening lines from selected novels by one of my favorite authors (Walter Mosley!) and brief ledes from a couple of my favorite blogs (Crunk Feminist Collective and VSB - Very Smart Brothas). Our goal? To explore how authors craft words to make meaning in order to “try on” those formats and to apply those patterns to our composition/storytelling projects.

The responses were overwhelmingly positive:
  • I enjoyed exploring and trying on mentor texts because it opened my eyes to different styles of writing. Looking for craft helps [me] see how much impact it has on an audience.
  • [Looking for craft] makes me have to really think.  
  • I like this exercise a lot. I always like the lessons that I can use practically and immediately. With the free write and activity, I was able to create more ideas for my [composition].
Mission accomplished!

Then I read the lone outlier:

“Honestly, I was confused. I feel like you say we need something like the [storytelling project] and we never work on it. I get how you approached [teaching] “craft words”. But I would like to know why we are starting with these exercises. i was lost trying to find craft words in the Walter Mosley sentences. I was lost when working on [developing thesis statements]. At the end of class, I did get what craft is, but the process was too messy. And we hardly touched on [our composition].

It was if I got punched in the gut. My default emotional responses kicked in: 1) Guilt and shame -  “I’m a horrible teacher. I better start looking for a new job.”  2) Anger and defensiveness -  “Everyone else got it. What’s wrong with this student?!?" I slid down that “impostor syndrome” spiral, berating myself for a single “negative comment”, one that indicted my inadequacies.

After a fitful night (anxiety nightmares plagued me - I'm back in college taking final exam for a class I hadn't attended a single session), it struck me that I need to take my own advice about the way many of us learn.

I’m a novice at using mentor texts. I started experimenting with them last year and am slowly gaining confidence. And like students who are exploring different skills and applying new concepts, I am experiencing that natural learning curve. I’m making the kinds of mistakes one must when trying on new techniques.

When students’ initial attempts at a new skill don’t immediately result in mastery, I’m quick to encourage them, reminding them that it takes time. "Sloppy copies” (what I call those early drafts) get stronger if we share our attempts and reflect on our process. The feedback that occurs on peer revision and group work is meant to strengthen skills, not demean nor attack us.

What I’ve been doing with mentor texts are basically my sloppy copies of my lessons - early drafts. And since I’ve asked students to share their feedback, I need to remain open to hearing what I might need to refine, fine-tune, or re-adjust. I’d say the same thing to students when they resist feedback during peer revision. I encourage them to remain open when visiting the writing center or meeting with a tutor. Approaching mastery means listening to and accepting feedback.   

Time to practice what I preach! Rather then remaining defensive over a “negative” comment, I need to take it for what it is - a student’s truth. And that truth is a gift, not a jab at my efficacy or commitment. When I step away from my insecurities, respecting what students share (will) help me reflect on my sloppy copy and to refine my lessons. After all, that's why I asked for feedback!

Here’s a preliminary list of observations and possible readjustments that derive from taking in my student’s feedback - feedback I’m only ready to receive when I listen with humility rather than shame:  

Transparency: Perhaps students could use more structure that amplifies the end product, how the smaller activities feed into larger projects. I'm lucky that students trust me, but I can do better at making the connections among and between lessons more clear. Something a little stronger than simply having the “learning objectives” or agenda on the board. Something concrete they can see.

Illustration: The word “see” reminds me how important it is to demonstrate, to show. I’m a writing teacher, constantly urging students to do more showing and less telling. I can do a better job of providing written samples. I could demo in front of them, showing them how a writer might use mentor texts.

Scaffolding: The messiness may have everything to do with attempting to rush through a very complex, multi-step process. Even if the process is recursive and, I would argue, idiosyncratic, I can divvy up the process into bite-size chunks that are easier to digest.

Conferring: I could have made myself more available to students as they puzzled through the process.I already know how important it is to work the room when folks are writing.  Some students are quick to ask for guidance. Others, not so much. So I need to be more “intrusive” - not waiting for folks to ask questions or just asking folks “Do you get it?”. Instead, I can peek over students’ shoulders, asking I can see their work. Whenever I do that, even with the most resistant writers, I almost always end up helping someone out who, though they appeared to know what’s going on, needed a bit more guidance. I’m reminded that checking for understanding is more than asking, “Do you understand?”

I don't see anything unreasonable here. In fact, they're pretty obvious now that I've taken the time to do the kind of introspection I ask of learners. 

I’ve already begun refining the lesson, preparing for a different version for next period. I anticipate that the intentional revisions I’m making will begin to address the concerns raised by the “outlier”.  Perhaps others felt as s/he did, but weren’t able or willing to articulate their needs so clearly.

And the changes I plan to make are simply good teaching practices (clear objectives, showing not telling, scaffolding, and one-on-one instruction)  that benefit all the learners.

The upshot? I need to acknowledge that my own process can be sloppy, too, that requires ongoing feedback. I need to be willing to revise my teaching based on learners’ feedback, assessments that more directly ask what students want. I need to be ready to hear what students have to say. Honest sharing (and that means taking in what is shared) pushes me to be a stronger teacher.  

The other takeaway is that I’m prone to the same sort of insecurities and defensiveness some learners exhibit. I get it. I'm human. But it is my responsibility, as the facilitator, to intentionally seek out feedback to make purposeful revisions/decisions -  instead of wallowing in recrimination. That will keep me on the path toward creating conditions for awesome  learning.