Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

This Is What Revision Looks Like

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This is What Revision looks Like –

I glanced across my classroom today and this is what I saw. About five weeks ago, we started the Modes Project (a great idea from my APSI instructor Valerie Stevenson). This part, the writer’s workshop, in which students meet in ‘expert’ groups to critique each other’s papers was the part I dreaded most. Frankly, in my previous years teaching ninth graders, I’d felt like most group revision was not very helpful, that might students didn’t know enough to truly help each other revise. At best, they were proofreading and editing. This year in this project, with my AP Lang students, I was pleasantly surprised.

I’d had my students read an essay in each of seven modes all centered around the same general topic of language. I then had them read two essays on any subject of their choice in each of those seven modes. For each of those they had to write a rhetorical précis, which is a highly structured four-sentence paragraph blending summary and analysis. Finally, the students had to choose a topic of their own and write an essay on the topic in each of the seven modes.

Our days have been filled with reading, writing précis, getting feedback, and writing essays. Today we are to the revision stage. As I watch my students work in these groups and eavesdrop on their conversations, I hear things like, “If you think metaphorically, you can take this paper from here (the speaker’s hand is waist high) to up here” ( her hand is now over her head). Another group member agrees, “If you stomp through the woods long enough, you’ll get a dead deer! Your paper is really about perseverance.” This narrative essay from a deer hunter was being revised to more than he thought he had written.

I’d written the acronym RIP on the board just before my students began their group revision. “It stands for Rest in Peace,” I said, as this was the first time in weeks they didn’t have assigned homework or a deadline for my class hanging over their heads. We would be back in the groups the next few days in class. “It also reminds you to RIP those papers up,” I said, reminding them of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We have created a safe community in these classes this semester. The students know and trust each other. They are highly motivated and want to succeed as well as see their peers do so. I suggested they think of themselves as doctors: diagnose the problem with these paper and cut out the diseased parts before they come to me for summative assessment. “You can even think of me as the coroner. You don’t want your paper to be pronounced Dead on Arrival, so don’t be shy, do for your peers what you want them to do for you—-tell them the truth and help them write their best essay in the mode you are an expert in.

As I watched and listened and heard them caring enough and trusting enough to tell the truth and receive the truth, I realized these revision groups are working a lot like what a friend of mine calls “a pit crew”. Not exactly the NASCAR kind, though she does borrow the image from them. We all need a few people in our lives who are brave enough to tell us the truth, to help us be our best selves, to not let us get away with bad behaviors. We need people who push us farther than we want to go – for our own good, and who call out the bad and tell us to get rid of it. Like a pit crew in a NASCAR race, they make us perform more efficiently and become more capable of finishing the race we are called to run.

This is what is fun about teaching. My students become my teachers. Just watching and eavesdropping in class today reminded me to give thanks for those “pit crew” people in my life who love me enough to clean my windshield, change my tires, and keep me fueled for the race.