Ideas to change our school’s reading and writing climate

As I’ve been wandering the Internet and absorbing as much on Twitter as I can, I’ve kept a running list of ideas/wishes to help change the reading/writing climate at JHS. Will any/all of them work? I don’t really know. But it was sad to hear from Tony Ferrante last year that a student literary magazine had been defunct for a long time. As far as I know, there’s no forum for student writing voices to be heard – what about Ms. Zanotto’s poetry students’ work? Mr. Lorenc’s short story writers’? And even beyond that, how many of our faculty members write and/or read actively, voraciously? So I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if we took some steps to get the words “reading” and “writing” to be less charged by associations with homework and assignments and essays and more energized by more positive, real-world associations?

Writing weekends: start with teachers (all disciplines). Bring something to write – handwritten, typed, freewrite, draft, write personal letters, thank you notes, essays, short stories, fanfiction – whatever! I’ll bring good coffee, pastries. Meet in the library on a Sunday or Saturday. If it takes off well, extend the invitation to students? Writing in an atmosphere free of grading or assessment. Just writing in community with opportunity to share and read others’ work. (Idea from Maja Wilson, author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment.)

Independent reading competitions/reading throwdowns: period vs. period, homeroom vs. homeroom, teacher vs. teacher, grade level vs. grade level? Spirit Week aspect? one month, one quarter, one semester? prizes/payoff? We have many English teachers on campus who already require independent reading, but most of them stop after the sophomore year. Why?

After school writing center: I know Mrs. Cerati and Mr. Hancock have their after-school resource center for grammar and remediation assistance, but I think a multi-discipline writing room with rotating teacher (and student?) volunteers would be highly beneficial. Maybe it’s not only a physical system: Google Docs will allow students to share work with anyone for assistance. Can we at least get a team of people willing to help make student writing better across the board? Get help on a theology paper from an English teacher, help on an English paper from a trusted social sciences teacher, etc. Might help move the school in a Writing Across the Disciplines direction, as well as toward the writing resource center for next year with block periods.

NB: I don’t mean for this to become a “correct my essay” center. Instead, I think we can instill a sense of authentic writing if we simply provide feedback as readers. In some cases, it may be a call to attention that the piece was hard to read. In others, praise more lyrical writing or insightful writing.

Writers Week: Got the idea for this from Gary Anderson (@AndersonGL) at Fremd High School. Put together a week (maybe a couple days to start?) to celebrate student writing. Schedule readings, workshop time, testimonials about writing, end with a publication of participants. Attempt to schedule visits from authors – local or otherwise; could do Skype interviews if possible. Showcase as much Jesuit writing as possible – students, faculty, alumni.

“What I’m reading”: Have teachers post in conspicuous/consistent location an update on what they’re reading (books, magazines, newspapers, whatever!). Goal is to make it clear that reading can and should be done outside of English class. Encourage teachers to have Goodreads accounts that are linked to their Edline pages. If teachers aren’t reading, why aren’t they?

Student “journalism” blogs: Find enterprising students who can report on events – as they happen (Twitter) and/or after the fact. The Plank can run a digest of these items. I’d be willing to bet we’d get a handful of kids who can recap games at all levels and all sports and other events like concerts and Robotics. Especially for arts events, students need to know what to expect (what the choir is singing, what the band is performing, what kinds of arts pieces are on display, what the show will be about) before they attend. Fliers can’t do it all – but advance press can! Let’s utilize the manpower we have. Will require a faculty team to moderate and model, but should be a self-driving system (editing, proofing, posting). With number of tech-savvy students on the rise, could possibly be accompanied by video or audio enhancement – at very least photos!

Oh, I’m sure there’s more in my tank. But I don’t want to put so much out there that I will (undoubtedly) sign myself up to spearhead a million new things before even setting foot back on campus.

Final note: I don’t mean to overlook or denigrate any of the good writing and reading we are having our students do. Instead, I’m aiming at making the “ungraded, unassigned” writing and reading more transparent and commonplace. So, apologies if I inadvertently stepped on anyone’s toes!

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