Mirror Images: Teaching Writing in Black and White
Mirror Images documents a six-year action research project that attempted to improve the writing skills of low-achieving students. The research was conducted by a cadre of middle and high school English teachers in an integrated suburban district of a large metropolitan area in the Midwest; a local university professor of English was also a member of the group. The first three chapters describe the motivation for the project and the initial stages the action research team progressed through in order to formulate their goals and objectives, delineate research questions, and decide on target subjects. The project essentially evolved through three phases. During phase one, entitled "Fix the Writing," the team established six broad principles that would guide them in their research. Phase two, "Fix the Teaching," developed from phase one after it became clear to the research team that they needed to reexamine their own biases and beliefs about students and their writing. The research team sought information from outside consultants and specialists in Black culture, language diversity, and assessment, among others, in order to pinpoint their own blind spots. Though the project was initially conceived to target low-achieving minority students, the positive results attained after the first two years subsequently spurred the research team to include all low-achieving students, irrespective of race.
With minimal training in action research, the team developed their own collaborative model, learning to trust and share their observations, successes, and failures with each other. This collaborative structure included monthly feedback and sharing sessions, which used extensive field notes and journals as the bases of discussion, and week-long summer synthesis sessions to pull the results of the year's effort together. Communication during the feedback sessions provided the impetus for many of the changes in research focus throughout the project. For example, the major discovery that culturally relevant teachers do not have to be Black teachers led them to phase three: "Fix the Student/Teacher Relationship." Chapter three, "Close-up Views," offers some insights as to how teachers and students can bridge the communication gap to the benefit of the latter's writing.
In time, the six original guiding principles became eight and were fleshed out as a result of the first two years' results. These eight principles form the basis of the subsequent chapters of the book. Chapter four, "Build on Strengths," advocates building on students' oral language, which for many minority students was rich indeed. The admonition to "...recognize language variation as a [-1-] resource for writers rather than as a problem to be fixed" (p. 98) may be both familiar and controversial for many English teachers.
Chapter five, "Use Process Approaches to Writing," explains how the research team moved from a standard process approach to writing to the incorporation of "writing workshop." The team examined their own beliefs and put themselves in their students' shoes by participating as students in the Gateway Writing Project and numerous workshops and courses on creative writing.
Chapter six, "Individualize and Personalize," insists that a personal relationship with one's students is a necessary prerequisite in the attempt to enhance and improve the writing process and a student's subsequent success. One-to-one conferences are absolutely essential as a part of this process. With the students' written work as a vehicle, teachers can come to know their students on a more personal, deeper level, and a necessary trust and caring can develop.
In chapter seven, the research team members "Encourage Cooperative Learning" and delineate the five principles of this teaching and learning approach: positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face interaction, interpersonal and small-group skills, and group processing. Integration of these principles in the writing process is demonstrated through examples of writing assignments, student interactions, and lesson plans. A strong argument is also made in favor of heterogeneous class groupings rather than the homogeneity of "basic English" classes that so often result from tracking.
Chapter eight, "Increase Control of Language," advocates knowledge of many different usages: standard, non-standard, dialect, and so forth. The main point here is for students to know when and how to use this tool of language control. Gaining control is effected by "playing with language" (p. 229), and several creative exercises and activities are offered by which students can gain control over their written language. The use of the rhetorical triangle (speaker/audience/purpose) is suggested when trying to decide on the appropriateness of written language in a given situation.
The research team advises teachers to "Use the Computer" in chapter nine, but for writing only--not cluttering them up with "gamelike software" found all too frequently in "remedial labs" (p. 285). The authors note that revisions in writing assignments are much easier and much more readily and willingly undertaken when using a computer rather than working with a hand-written copy. They also suggest giving credit for the process of revision and not just the final copy as an incentive to complete this portion of the writing process. [-2-]
Because the research team was interested in improving all types of writing, chapter ten is a call to "Foster Involvement with Writing and Reading." Teachers need to give choices when assigning writing tasks, but they must, indeed, be choices. That is, the students must be familiar with and/or have experience with the particular styles. This is gained through reading of various genres and using reader response journals, discussed and illustrated at length in this chapter.
Chapter eleven, "Build Bridges, Expand Horizons," addresses the need for articulation between curricular levels in any given district and among English teachers involved therein. An abrupt break in curriculum appeared between the middle and high schools, moving from a stress on first-person narratives in the younger grades to a stress on third-person expository essays in the later grades. Articulation between levels and among educators was clearly not optimal. Focusing more on themselves, the research team realized that they needed to build curricular bridges so their students could cross over to a more meaningful realm in their writing. In this scenario, the teachers learn from the students.
The previous chapters set forth the project, describe the initial goals, confirm the pitfalls and successes, and justify the changes in focus throughout the six years of research. Many illustrations, examples, and suggestions are offered throughout these chapters. The following chapters provide even more concrete examples of the results of the project. Chapter twelve, "Changes in Student Writing," has numerous examples of students' work from their portfolios, a method of assessment that evolved from the yearly synthesis seminars held by the team and the changing goals of the project. Students' progress and regression points are highlighted, and the different assessment methods used throughout the project are discussed.
Chapter thirteen documents "Changes in Student Attitude" through a forty-item survey, administered pre- and post-year for each year of the project after the first one. Some results were quite surprising for the team, and conjecture about these data is also offered. The data are given in percentiles and are not analyzed statistically. The lack of statistical data is somewhat disconcerting, but the authors explain that it is not their aim to present complicated statistical proof of success; theirs is a predominantly qualitative approach to research and analysis.
The final chapter, "Future Changes--For Us and the Reader," contains a list of suggestions for readers who might wish to begin action research projects of their own. The authors make a strong argument for implementation of classroom action research and, indeed, their book is proof of its possibilities and merit. The Appendices include several very detailed lesson plans, activities, and exercises for writing tasks. Holistic assessment is also [-3-] discussed at length, and an extended list of recommended student literature is offered. A useful bibliography is also included.
This book is an excellent example of how education professionals with common interests and goals can engage in meaningful, substantive, and positive research in the classroom. Too often, practitioners at the elementary and secondary levels feel research is the exclusive domain of their university counterparts. Unfortunately, much of the research carried out by tertiary level educators concentrates on informing instruction at precisely and only that level. Preparatory students and their curricular issues are thus left largely out of the loop. Mirror Images substantiates that solid action research can and should be done by secondary teachers using secondary school subjects and content matter that directly informs their teaching and learning outcomes. It is a well-written, interesting, and inspiring volume for anyone interested in improving the writing process and product of young writers.
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