Day 5: Sheridan Blau

Today was an exciting day and great way to end the first week.  Sheridan Blau came in to speak about Learning Academic Literacy: Genre Theory in Practice.  The presentation was thought-provoking, inspiring, and motivating.  He began talking about genre theory.  My understanding of it is that there are many different genres in different places- something that seems simple enough.  His example was that the forms of writing in a courtroom are very different from the forms you would find in a doctor's office.  His next point was that academic writing is its own genre, but unfortunately, it is not one that is used outside of school and therefore is not really preparing students.  It was an interesting point to consider.  When do kids need a five-paragraph essay in MLA format in real life?  They don't.  He went on to explain that teachers should be spending more time on helping kids contribute to a conversation, rather than memorizing a form that they won't use after they graduate.  He feels that forms stop thinking and prevent kids from contributing in a meaningful way, and engaging in the process of inquiry.
I think he has a point.  He talked about the traditional way writing is done in school: students research and write about a topic the teacher is already an expert in, and the teacher is the only one reading it.  It is a one-way conversation in which students need to prove themselves.  That is not contributing to a conversation or participating in the process of inquiry.  Instead, he suggests having students participate in commentaries, all contributing to an academic conversation, and letting that writing evolve into an academic genre.  He feels that a thesis will naturally come up in conversation because once students sort out thoughts and have the back-and-forth of conversation, they will reach an opinion about the topic and have evidence to back it up.  Instead of giving kids a topic and assignment to come up with a thesis, he presents a literary piece, encourages the students to comment and begin a conversation, then organize their thoughts in writing (the essay component).  This way, all students are contributors and experts, and they are writing and responding to their academic community, not just the expert teacher.  He understands the need for forms, but wants his students to understand that they change in different environments and that they should be able to write with out without them.
I have noticed in my own classroom that my students' writing is much more rich and meaningful when we have a conversation beforehand, in which everyone can contribute.  If I throw information at them (or even a meaningless font) and they don't have time to process it and explore the topic, the writing is limited and meets the bare minimum of my requirements (form).  Our snake mini-unit is a great example.  We started by gathering all the information we already knew, organized it, and added more we learned through research.  By the time we wrote, we had talked about snakes so much, I didn't need a form- all I needed was to supply the paper.  They all had something to say and they were all experts.  Most of what they wrote was what they learned from each other.  They got the opportunity to contribute to the academic community and it was very powerful. 
I am still processing all the information I learned from our conversation today and am sorting through how it will look in my classroom on a regular basis, but it is exciting to consider.  I can't wait for more speakers!

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