Writing to Learn: Urban Teacher James McDermott Joins Board of Ed

James McDermott

Professor James McDermott of Clark University is one of two new members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. He has a nearly 40-year teaching career focused on improving public education for urban students. A classroom teacher for over 30 years, Dr. McDermott was the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 1988. He worked for five years as an English teacher at the University Park Campus School in Worcester.

LG: How does your background working with urban schoolchildren and teaching writing inform your goals as a new member of the Board of Education, and what are those goals?
JD: Kids, especially those written off by others, have taught me that, no matter their background or perceived abilities, they can compete with anyone anywhere.  The key is their having amazing teachers who love their discipline so well they want to share the love they have of their content with younger others.  My goal then is to help the bureaucracy provide amazing support for these amazing teachers – to free them from the constraints that institutions often impose. Good teachers understand the importance of designing thinking classrooms, respecting youngsters as the thinking and feeling individuals they are. They know that the end of education cannot be to produce narcissists whose only reason for schooling is to earn higher paying jobs to satisfy their yearning for instant gratification. They understand that they who follow a program or a text or a curriculum without understanding why perform an injustice on young minds.

Good teachers also have the ability to inspire each child to grapple with rigorous material. They know their job is to arm their students with the knowledge and the skills needed to compete in this world, and they know how to push each child to grasp the stuff they should know.  At the same time, they understand that getting youngsters to understand means touching the heart, the soul, as well as the mind.

To me, writing is the best academic tool we have to probe thinking. I like to talk about two broad types of writing: writing to learn and writing to show learning. Writing to learn is the low-stakes writing—timed, messy, zany, brainstorming—used to quickly reflect on what you think might be going on as you try to figure [something] out…We do not use enough of this low-stakes writing in classrooms. Indeed, we do not use thinking enough in our classrooms today.

Thinking classrooms are not focused on correct answers, but on questions and the idea that there is more than one way to answer a question, even in math. Writing to show learning is the high-stakes writing – but I believe very strongly that you do not get good at the high-stakes writing unless you practice a lot of the low-stakes. I want my students to understand that writing is thinking and that a good piece of formal writing is clear thinking.

LG: Your biography on the Clark University web site refers to your focus on “creating classrooms that engage all students as thinking and feeling human beings through using low-stakes writing to help even the most at-risk students to think deeply and to understand rigorous content.” Can you describe in more detail what you mean by “low- stakes writing” and how it helps at-risk students?
JD: Before I can help anyone with her writing, I must first get her writing.  Suppose I were introducing a complex poem to a group of youngsters some may label as ‘at-risk.’

I might ask first that they write a ‘bad’ letter to a friend who hates poetry.  I ask them if there is anyone in the room unable to write a bad essay.  Then write a bad one and you will receive credit.  They need not worry here about being perfect.  We learn so much from making errors and from our misunderstandings.  I’d tell them that they have but 12 minutes to write a “Dear Confused” letter that begins with the line, “This poem is difficult, but not as difficult as you think at first.  Start with what you know.  For example,…”

All my students begin to understand that the writer discovers things about poetry, about life, about themselves as they write down what they know.  As one of my students said once, “I don’t get this poem, but I get some things.”  When they finish the ‘bad’ letter we share them and discover as a class that there are some profound things we already know about this poem, about life, and about ourselves.  From these ‘bad’ letters we move on to writing formal literary analyses. These are not formulaic essays, but thinking, creative and thoughtful works that help all of us see the ambiguity within great art.

LG: The Board of Education recently heard testimony from a college writing instructor who said she feels she must re-teach writing to students who have been drilled in writing five-paragraph essays to prepare for MCAS tests. As a writing teacher, is this a concern of yours and what can you do as a board member to promote instruction that better prepares students for college-level writing?
JD: Yeah, I see this as a college instructor.  So often, my high school writers were so much better than my college writers. At least at first. I think the problem is that we focus our attention so much on the high-stakes stuff that we do not do justice to the fact that writing is thinking. Two things loom very large in writing – voice and honesty.  They are intertwined.  I tell my writers to only write what you know. When we write what we do not know we BS. We’ve all done it. We BS when we write not from our own thoughts, but to say what we think an authority wants to hear.  If we do this too often, we lose our voice.

I worked on the scoring of the MCAS compositions, and I remember pulling superior ones that were not five paragraphs as models and anchors for high scoring papers.  I remember arguing for a superior paper that had but one paragraph.  We wanted to dismiss the idea that the key to great essay writing was this five-paragraph form.  But, alas, I walk into schools today that prepare kids for the MCAS by taking them out of regular English classes to work with an MCAS specialist (imagine!) who drills them on the five-paragraph essay.

We have a wonderful resource in the National Writing Project, which has several chapters in this State.  I would suggest we use them.

LG: As you may know, the final report from Governor Patrick’s Readiness Project Subcommittee on MCAS and other Assessments, on which I served, recommended significant changes to the high-stakes MCAS.
JD: Look, I worked on the frameworks and on MCAS.  MCAS is a misnomer.  The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is not comprehensive and it is not a system.  I call it MT – Massachusetts Test.  Still, as a teacher I had no problem with it.  It was a fact of life for my inner-city kids.  The English test required an ability to read, write and think.  As an English teacher, my job was to get my kids reading and writing and thinking around rigorous material.  I wanted my kids to be able to compete with those who go to Phillips Exeter where they sit around a Harkeness Table and read, write, and think.  I figured if it were good for the affluent kids in the private schools, then that type of pedagogy should also be good for my kids who were not as wealthy.

I had many ways to assess my kids.  I knew my kids better than anyone correcting the MCAS test.  We did portfolios and presentations and took college courses and wrote and read and laughed and struggled and grew.  And then I told them: This MCAS test will ask you to do some reading and writing.  All I want you to do is show your thinking – that is what we have been doing every single day.  So at University Park Campus School we took the MCAS test and outscored nearly everyone in the state – no test preparation and no focus on five-paragraph essays.  Scores count.   But not at all costs.  The funny thing is the test worked for us because we did not teach to it.  On the other hand the test may actually lower expectations if kids are pulled out of actual classes to do mindless test-taking drills.

LG: Would you be willing to add your voice to those of others on the board who support the kinds of changes proposed by the MCAS Subcommittee, which were not adopted by the final Readiness Project report?
JD: I need more time to think about this question.  I will say this though.  “So Much Reform, So Little Change” is the name of Charles Payne’s book.  Over the years since the reform movement began we have had plenty of testing programs.  And we are still looking to reform our schools.  Maybe we should focus on the classroom.  What does a thinking classroom look like for every child?  I know good teachers who teach to the standards, and I know poor teachers who teach to the standards. Does teaching to the standards ensure powerful learning is going on?  Is it possible that teaching to the MCAS test may actually be lowering expectations as the focus on scores trumps thinking deeply about complex academic material?  Maybe we should turn our attention to the classroom, creating powerful learning in each classroom for each child.  Funny thing, we have the research and the experience to know what works.  Not so funny is that we know what works, and yet we do not apply it enough.   For me the MCAS became a means toward a much bigger end.  So I used it for my own purposes.

An interview with Vanessa Calderon-Rosado, the other new appointee to the BESE, will appear in an upcoming issue of the Backpack.

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