Early Thesis Proposal Draft

This is the draft of my proposal:

  1. My problem/question: Students in urban schools are subject to strict controls to keep order in the classroom and school. Teachers then ask students to be creative, to think outside the box, and to use their own voice in their writing. Not surprisingly, students are frequently at a loss where to begin. How can teachers in urban English classrooms give students the freedom to express their ideas? What are the best practices for teachers to encourage students to create arguments, write theses, and find their voice?
  2. Current research is focused on the maker movement and student creativity. While schools were built in the industrial era with a factory-model, our society has moved into a digital age where creativity, not conformity, is valued. Educational research asks teachers to develop best practices for our classrooms. Combining these two ideas: what are the best practices to cultivate student creativity in their writing?
  3. There is a great deal of research on teaching argumentative writing (possibly the most difficult writing form to teach). Newer research on teaching in the urban classroom and creativity will also be applied. My proposal grew out of the work of a teacher in North Korea who posited that her students could not write because they lacked access to outside information, particularly the internet, and because they had been told what to think, do and say their entire lives by their totalitarian regime. It occurred to me that while our students have access to outside information, they are forced to mold their behavior to fit the confines of urban public education. The lower the achievement level of the students and the more dangerous the environment, the more controls are placed on student behavior. On the other hand, more affluent students not only have greater access to technology and resources, they are also privy to greater freedom in and out of the classroom. How does this dichotomy feed the achievement gap? What can teachers in urban schools do to narrow the pernicious achievement gap and get our students ready for a world where they are asked to think, speak and write creatively.
  4. My approach is to explore any methods that have been effective for writing teachers. Then I would evaluate those methods for effectiveness in an urban classroom. I will gather resources from personal experience, from the work of my peers and cohort, and from a variety of resource sources. My focus is not on theoretical ideas but on concrete methods teachers can use tomorrow in the classroom.
  5. I hope that my outcome will be a catalog of options that urban English teachers can use in their classroom. After initially exploring the unique challenges of the urban classroom, I would like the focus of my project to be a collection of lesson plans and classroom ideas the teacher can adapt to his/her situation. I would like to end up with both narratives and videos of lessons that have worked in my classroom and in classrooms of other teachers.

Bibliography work

I had originally thought I might make more progress on an annotated bibliography, but, alas, I did not read all these books and articles yet! I am skimming through them and seeing how they can help me answer my over-arching question: how do we free our students intellectually to create thoughtful arguments and counter-arguments when they are working within a very controlling environment of urban public education? Many of these articles have very practical solutions, and I began taking notes on the things I read.

Argumentative Essay Writing – Working Bibliography

Cliatt-Wayman, Linda. “How to Fix a Broken School? Lead fearlessly, love hard.” TED. June 2015. Lecture. (This Ted Talk is inspirational because the principal who took over a low-performing and persistently dangerous high school in North Philadelphia was able to turn things around for her students. Part of her success stems from a great deal of external control of both students and staff, and it made me wonder if this degree of control interfered with intellectual risk taking necessary for strong writing.)

Delpit, Lisa. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Harvard Educational Review 50.3 (1988): 280-298.

(Delpit’s work focuses on how teachers can serve disadvantaged students. She notes that both explicit instruction, including attention to the rules of power, are necessary to be effective in urban schools.)

Dickson, Randi. “Developing ‘Real-World Intelligence’: Teaching Argumentative Writing through Debate.” English Journal 94:1. (2004): 34-40. ProQuest. Web. 29 June 2015.

(Debate is a powerful pedagogical tool, and it is interesting because it incorporates argumentation–which many teens love–with rules–which many teens hate. How do we incorporate debate into the classroom to promote learning?)

Dixon, Chris Jennings (Ed.) Lesson Plans for Teaching Writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of the Teachers of English. 2006. Print.

(This book focuses on effective, high-interest lesson plans that allow teachers to engage students while still meeting the standards for writing. The chapter on improving persuasive writing would be especially important.)

Dornbrack, J. & Dixon, K., “Towards a more explicit writing pedagogy: The complexity of teaching argumentative writing.” Reading & Writing 5.1 (2014): 1-8. Proquest. Web. 6 July 2015.

Esquith, Rafe. Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56. New York: Penguin. 2007. print.

A genius teacher who does incredible things with his students in a poverty- and violence-filled Los Angeles school.

Esquith, Rafe. There Are No Shortcuts. New York: Anchor, an imprint of Random House. 2003. print.

Esquith shares his secrets of success in working with inner-city students.

Felton, Mark K. and Suzanne Herko. “From Dialogue to Two-Sided Argument: Scaffolding Adolescents’ Persuasive Writing.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 47:8 (2004): 672-683.

Gallagher, Kelly. Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling an Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse. 2011.

(A product of the NWP, Gallagher employs modeling and mentor texts to teach rather than merely assign writing.)

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton. 2014. print.

(In the forward, the authors state that their goal for the book is “to demystify academic writing and reading by identifying the key moves of persuasive argument and representing those moves in forms that students can put into practice.” The authors state that they had a shared interest in democratizing academic culture and this volume is a method of explicitly sharing the moves that more privileged students may have absorbed throughout their education.)

Hillocks, George, Jr. Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 2011. Print.

(A widely-known resource, Hillock uses the Toulmin model of argumentation to teach students how to create arguments.)

Kim, Suke. “This is What It’s Like to Teach in North Korea.” TED. Mar. 2015. Lecture.

(This lecture states that North Korean students were unable to write because they were denied access to outside information, particularly the internet, and they had always been told what to think in a system that denied free expression of thought. I wondered, then, why American students who have access to the internet on their phones and are free to think whatever they want still struggled with creating thesis statements and supporting them with effective arguments. Could U.S. students also be subject to a system that has consistently told them what to think? And do they now suffer from an inability to think creatively? Are disadvantaged students more likely to suffer from external control that prevents independent thought?)

Kozol, Jonathan. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, an imprint of Crown Publishing. 2005. print.

Kozol returns to remind us that the achievement gap is continuing to widen. Like Savage Inequalities, this book is a study of the realities for many of our inner-city students.

Lemov, Doug. Teach Like a Champion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass–John Wiley. 2010. Print.

(Lemov has created a guidebook for teachers in urban schools. He focuses on controlling every moment of class time to maximize instruction. Any teacher in an urban district will appreciate the explicit focus on what to do and how to do it, but is this method effective in creating independent thinkers and problem solvers?)

Lunsford, Andrea A. and John J. Ruszkiewicz. Everything’s an Argument. Boston: Bedford – St. Martin’s. 2010. Print.

(A practical guide to teaching argument, from an introduction to rhetorical appeals to argument structure and evaluating evidence and citing sources.)

Miller, Donna L. “Cultivating Creativity.” English Journal 104.6 (2015) 25-30. Print.

(I just got this issue in the mail this week and I am really excited about these ideas. Miller quotes a lot of famous people who point out that we can’t keep running schools modeled after factories and then expect the kind of creativity necessary to survive in the digital world. I know that my daughter who works at Google has so much freedom in and out of her office to do her best work–I know most educators can’t say the same….)

Moffett, James. Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1968. Print.

Moss, Barbara and Suzanne Bordelon. “Preparing Students for College-Level Reading and Writing: Implementing a Rhetoric and Writing Class in the Senior Year.” Reading Research and Instruction 46:3 (2007): 197-221. ProQuest. Web. 6 July 2015.

(Interesting because it suggests that students will get to be seniors in high school and still not know how to effectively write and argue in preparation for college.)

Newell, George E., et al. “Teaching and Learning Argumentative Reading and Writing: A Review of Research.” Reading Research Quarterly 46.3 (2011): 273-304. EBSCO. Web. 6 July 2015.

(A lengthy literature review that divides the research on argumentative writing into the cognitive approach and the social approach. The authors suggest that students need to learn both in order to write arguments.)

Nussbaum, E. Michael & Schraw, Gregory. “Promoting Argument-Counterargument Integration in Students’ Writing.” The Journal of Experimental Education 76:1 (2007): 59-92. Proquest. Web. 6 July 2015.

Rex, Lesley A. and Laura Shiller. Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Rex, Lesley A., Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Steven Engel. “Applying Toulmin: Teaching Logical Reasoning and Argumentative Writing.” English Journal 99.6 (2010): 56-62. EBSCO. Web. 29 June 2015.

Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2015. print.

I read a review of this book, “a stunning account of efforts by wealthy outsiders and ambitious politicians to fix Newark, NJ’s failing public schools.” There has not been a shortage of money or rhetoric, but neither have had an impact on student achievement. Students who live in poverty continue to under-achieve, while the adults clamor for the spotlight. The author offers some hope, but mainly focuses on the fact that students are dealing with the devastating effects of poverty in their community while adults talk about standardized test scores.

Song, Yi and Ralph P. Ferretti. “Teaching Critical Questions about Argumentation through the revising process: effects of strategy instruction on college students’ argumentative essays.” Reading and Writing 26: 67-90 (2013). Proquest. 29 June 2015.

VanDerHeide, J. & Newell, George E. “Instructional Chains as a Method for Examining the Teaching and Learning of Argumentative Writing in Classrooms.” Written Communication 30.3 (2013): 300-329. SAGE Publications. Web. 6 July 2015.

Watson, Tim W. and Pamela J. Hickey. “Lingua Anglia: Bridging Language and Learners.” English Journal 104.2 (2014) 121-123. Print.

Weiner, Lois. Urban Teaching: The Essentials. New York: Teachers College Press. 2006. Print.

(This book has been used as a text book for new and prospective city teachers to acquaint them with issues they are likely to face in their new occupation. The book is written in a personal style — the author shares her own experiences, both failures and successes. She is realistic about the demands on urban educators, but also urges them to personally reflect on the issues that they will face in the classroom. She is able to clearly define what separates urban teaching from teaching in the suburbs. In fact, she insists that the large, impersonal bureaucracy with its emphasis on inflexible rules is often the determining factor in urban teachers’ and students’ struggles.)

Yeh, Stuart S. “Empowering Education: Teaching Argumentative Writing to Cultural Minority Middle-School Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 33:1 (1998): 49-84. ProQuest. Web. 6 July 2015.

(This article echoes Delpit because the author shows that research shows non-white students write better argumentative essays after explicit instruction with extensive practice and modeling.)

Zeicher, Kenneth M. and Daniel P. Liston. Reflective Teaching: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. 1996.

(The first in a series for prospective and new teachers, this book guides educators into the practice of reflection, an action necessary to improve individual practice and the social conditions of schooling. This book is an important beginning for urban educators.)

A beginning

I now have a roadmap to begin navigating the MA thesis process. Dr. Zamora has provided a series of deadlines for the semester and I was able to talk to her about my topic. I need to get the proposal into a more suitable format, but my basic idea is creating a collection of best practices for teaching writing in urban schools. The theoretical underpinning is based on the (sometimes necessary) restraints placed on students and teachers in urban schools. Often the need for control and management removes all the freedom necessary for creative intellectual (and other) thought. So we are left with a classroom of students looking to fill in the blank or regurgitate information they heard in class or googled. The starting point for this project was a Ted Talk I saw about a teacher in North Korea who said her students couldn’t write because they were so controlled by the totalitarian government that they were unable to come up with original ideas. Similarly. students in urban schools are often told what to think and are not given the opportunity for original thought.

Quick ideas – skits and debates are good ways for students to be free from the formal structure of writing but still come up with their own ideas. The physical movement of skits is a starting point for creative thought.

This is maybe only tangentially related, but urban teachers are very likely to be working for an administration that requires canned or scripted curriculum, to have a lot of rules and paperwork and a lack of individualized attention. Creative workplaces (I am thinking google here) give workers complete freedom — massages and good food and drinks are all included — and they still accomplish a great deal. Is there a way to take charge of our workplace so we feel empowered enough to free up the classroom for our students?

I am looking to turn some of these ideas into the initial proposal and continue work on my annotated bibliography. I am trying to remember to breathe whenever I think about some of the other deadlines I will be facing this semester (public school teachers in New Jersey have to create Student growth objectives — and meet them — each year, so working on that is always stress-inducing). But if I work steadily, I believe I will complete the project and have a solid piece of academic and practical work completed by May!