Writing Workshop Finals (or Wrapping Up a Year of Writing Workshop)

In our workshops, we want our students to learn to craft moving pieces of authentic writing. But we hope that this will extend far past our classroom — how do we do this? How do we assess and ensure the independence we hope we have instilled in students all year long?  As a final project (or final exam, as we are currently required to give one), we ask our students to use the processes and resources of the class — specifically mentor texts — to create one final piece of writing.

In a way, this is similar to the beginning-of-the-year mentor text activities we use to open class (Here is what I did last year, and here is what Allison did). For these final, independent writing projects, we look for mentor texts that are engaging (often this means that they are highly visual), easily accessible to students of all abilities and reading levels, and thematically help us wrap up a year’s worth of work.

For an end-of-the-year writing project, the biggest difference is that rather than walking students through the process of studying and using mentor texts like we do in every other study of the year, we ask students to do this for themselves. They follow the process that (hopefully, by now) they have internalized:

  • Study the mentor text cluster and make noticings
  • Decide which noticings they want to study more closely & use in their own writing
  • Return to the mentor text as needed for additional clarity, ideas, and inspiration

Want some ideas for final projects to engagingly wrap up your workshop? We have three for you (ranked from easiest to most challenging):

What it is

In this collection of essays and gorgeous bookshelf art, editor Thessaly la Force examines the books that have had the most significant impact on prominent cultural figures ranging from Patti Smith to Chimamanda Adichie.  While illustrator Jane Mount creates stunning depictions of these “ideal” bookshelves, the contributors craft an essay considering the impact of these texts on their lives.

How to Use It

Have students create bookshelves of the year. These might include:

  • Students’ independent reading
  • Everything a student has read in your course this year
  • The most personally influential pieces the student has read in your class
  • Everything you student has read this school year in all of his classes
  • Their all-time best book list

Give students a cluster of mentor text essay-and-art pairings from the book, and have them create their own!  La Force has even included a blank bookshelf template in the back of the book for you to photocopy and pass out to students! In this study, the content and presentation are fairly uniformly determined by the editor, making this an easy entry point into mentor text independence.

This is also a  great project because it includes a built-in publication processes as La Force encourages readers to take a picture of their bookshelf and post it to Twitter using a special hashtag.

  •  Buzzfeed List

What It Is

You know you love these, and your students do, too. Buzzfeed creates handfuls of fascinating annotated lists every day. Some are more serious (“30 Most Powerful Photos of the Week”), while others are lighthearted (“26 Things You Might Have Missed in Wayne’s World), and some are straight up ridiculous.

How to Use It

Using a Buzzfeed list as your final project has a few distinct advantages. First, they are a strong cultural meme that your students will be instantly engaged by. Second, all Buzzfeed lists include images (sometimes captioned) or GIFs. This mentor text study would force students to think not only about content but also about presentation.

You can choose a cluster of lists for your students to study (sometimes this is a good idea because not all Buzzfeed lists are equally appropriate) or just set your students list on the site to pull together their own cluster of 3-5 lists from which they will draw ideas and inspiration.

  • Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.57.54 AM

What It Is

Amy Krauss Rosenthal’s memoir includes so many unusual and captivating genres, that you really just need to see it for yourself! Including almanacs and alphabetical encyclopedia entries, Rosenthal tells the story of her life.

How to Use It

Have your students create one page of their own Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 8.57.44 AMencyclopedia using Rosenthal’s memoir as a guide!  In this study, they would have to carefully consider content (Rosenthal uses lists, timelines, quotes, definitions, narratives, among others!) and presentation (she includes charts, illustrations, etc.).

How do you wrap up a year of writing workshop? How do you assess students’ independence with both the processes and the products of writing? What would you add to our list?

Comment below or comment on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett).

5 Mentor Sentences to Help Students Writer Better Analysis

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

If you haven’t checked out Rebekah’s series on analysis, stop what you’re doing and go read about her brilliant work with her IB students! I’ve never been more excited to teach analysis than after reading her thoughtful blog series.

I’m going to piggyback on her posts and share something that I have found useful in the teaching of analysis with my ninth graders: using mentor sentences to help them articulate their thinking about a text.
Like Rebekah, I, too, am searching for ways to make literary analysis a richer experience for my young writers. While my students are working on a fairly traditional literary analysis of a poem right now, I have been able to complicate the simplistic formula they have been trained to use for far too long (5 paragraphs, claim as last sentence in introduction, sentences that start with the phrase “This quote shows that…” and so forth ) by sharing ways that professional writers have written about themes, symbols, and diction.

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Literary Analysis Week Wrap-up: Observations, Conclusions, & Lingering Questions

You might remember that this burning desire to meaningfully bring literary analysis into a real, thriving writing workshop began because I was trying to find a solution for the mutual malaise experienced by my students and me in my IB English class. There had to be something more — something better — than the by-rote way we had been used to writing.

Together, we discovered that writing workshop can transform the writing of literary analysis — making it dynamic, making it invigorating, moving it out of the classroom and into real life.

In the last couple of weeks, I have shared about

Today, I want to share with you some things that I have observed after diving into this full-time with my IB students over the last few months. I also want to share some of my lingering questions, wonderings, and itches — the places I intend to investigate next.

My Two Biggest Instructional Take-Aways

  • For my older writers, the time in class to write and confer has much more to do with the rehearsal acts of writing than actual paper-on-pencil drafting.

One of the many reasons I wanted to bring writing workshop to my older students is that they had gotten into very bad habits of procrastinating on writing tasks and then turning in work they weren’t proud of because they didn’t have any time to revise. I wanted to break this habit by showing them the value of working steadily along in small pieces.

This didn’t exactly happen.

Though I followed the exact same workshop routines that I follow with my younger students, when I finished the mini-lesson with my 12th graders, their work looked a lot more like talking through ideas with peers, writing off the page, and studying mentor texts. Initially, I looked at this and saw failure. But Katie Wood Ray saved the day (as she has a habit of doing) when she visited my class one day, and said, “But they are writing. They are doing tons of rehearsal, and that is writing!”

I think my students still write most of their papers in the nights immediately before a due date, but they have spent many more hours considering their writing, planning their writing, rehearsing their writing aloud than they ever did before. To borrow from Andy, one of my students, they are now writers with a plan rather than “writers floundering in a vacuum.”

  • We are all more engaged, and we are all better writers

Bringing the depth of literary analysis into the life of writing workshop has engaged my students more deeply than I have ever seen them engaged before. I taught this year’s seniors before when they sophomores. I know them well. This is the hardest I have ever seen them work, the longest I have seen them toil in productive wrestling with their ideas. It’s the best writing I have seen them produce.

And not just for the brilliant writers, whose work I have shared with you in this blog series. Writing in a more open, more authentic way about literature has benefitted my students who are still struggling with commas and structure and logical organization and effectively supporting their ideas. Even when their product isn’t perfect, they are thinking through the task in deeper ways and coming out with writing that has more voice and personal imprint.

I am also more engaged. This has been a (wonderful) challenge for me, too. Finding mentor texts that speak to the tasks of literary analysis has been a new kind of treasure hunt for me. Answering their questions has pushed me, too, to define literary analysis for myself, to examine what is truly being demanded by IB/AP/school standards, and to reconcile my beliefs about writing instruction.

Without doubt, I am a better teacher than I was months ago because I jumped into this experiment beside my students.

What I Wonder

As I move into my summer period of idea incubation and research, there are still lots of avenues I want to pursue. Specifically:

  • Is there a scaffolding of analysis skills that should progress as students move from 9th to 12 grades?
  • What does brain research actually say about the teenage brain and its capacity for analysis? What should we be expecting of our students in terms of cognitive development and this very challenging way of thinking and writing?
  • What are accessible literary analysis products for newer and younger writers? If they aren’t ready to write like writers from The New Yorker, what are they ready for? What’s fair?
  • Do our writers ever need to write a traditional, academic piece of literary analysis? Are journalistic analysis pieces “enough”?
  • Should we ever teach formulaic analysis? Is that truly a stepping stone for more sophisticated analysis? Does it ever make sense to teach skills we will later want to unteach?

Answers — and inevitably more questions — are forthcoming.

In the end

Perhaps my biggest — and most surprising — takeaway from this school year is that this kind of writing has actually done the work of moving writers. I expected the quality of writing to improve. I expected students’ engagement with the writing process to improve. But I didn’t expect to grow aspiring writers through the process of writing literary analysis.

Multiple students have reported to me that they now “feel like a real writer” as they craft papers for English class in response to the literature we are studying. One student, Madison, says, “I now am actually considering a major in journalism because of studying the mentor texts.”

Friends, treating our students like writers, regardless of the kind of writing they are producing, truly makes them think of themselves as writers. It raises the stakes everywhere.

Thank you for following along with me this week! What lingering questions do YOU have? What other observations have you made? Where are you still nervous? Skeptical? What makes you the most excited to dive in with your students and redefine literary analysis?

Comment below and find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study

This week, I gave my ninth graders this definition:

Analysis: breaking something into its parts and pieces so that we can closely examine it and, ultimately, come to a better understanding of the whole.

Literary analysis: when we do this with a piece of literature.

In the traditional high school English classroom, literary analysis has looked one way — like an essay, sometimes in five paragraphs, beginning with a generic introduction, thesis statement, body paragraphs (following a strict topic-sentence-followed-by-evidence-and-explanation format), and a conclusion that regurgitates all the was said before.

But look at the definition of analysis again. Can we teach students to use these same skills — thoughtfully, deeply — and come out with a different product?

Last week, we looked at one way to approach this in a writing workshop classroom — breaking literary analysis into sub-genres, teaching the techniques and characteristics of that sub-genre, and using real world analysis examples as mentor texts. You saw two different technique-based analysis workshops as they lived in my classroom:  an analysis of two texts side-by-side and a character analysis study.

But there is another way to approach literary analysis in the writing workshop: literature-based analysis studies.

After we have studied a work of literature together, that text morphs into a writing mentor text, and students craft their own piece based on the work of this mentor.  Literature-based analysis studies came to life in my classroom because I wanted to give my IB students a different kind of writing experience, while still focusing on the whole-class literature we are required to study and analytical skills they will need for their exam and for their future.

This is the ultimate double-duty workshop classroom moment. Students already do the noticing and studying of craft moves as they read and discuss the text. They simply lift the analysis they have done in their reading and translate it into a piece of writing! For this reason, literature-based analysis studies tend to be a bit shorter than technique-based analysis studies.

Here’s how the process works:

  • Whole class studies a piece of literature
  • Students choose some of the mentor’s moves to put into their own original piece of writing, in the same style as the mentor  — when we study a poet, the students write poetry; when we study memoir or essay, the students write memoir or essay, etc.
  • Students mark the footprints of their mentor in their writing
  • Students write a brief commentary analyzing how their own mentor-inspired choices have impacted the overall meaning of their piece.

Analysis is all over this kind of work — analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing and the impact of one’s own choices as a writer.  My students report that this is way harder than they thought it would be.

Here’s a taste of a literature-based analysis study my students did after studying the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

The Assignment
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Literary Analysis Blog Blast Day #3: Character Analysis Writing Workshop

On Wednesday, I shared the rationale for analysis workshops centered on different analytical techniques, and I shared one technique-based analysis study in which students analyzed two texts side-by-side. Today, I want to share another technique-based analysis study with you — this time, a character analysis.

The Assignment

Without choice, there really is no writing workshop, so, for this writing study, my students had choice about which character in which piece of literature they wished to analyze. They could interpret this charge anyway they chose — broadly or narrowly — writing about a clearly defined protagonist, a secondary character, or even something far more abstract that they defined as acting like a character in the text.

The Mentor Texts

Since my students have been chirping about the new Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I pulled three different character analyses about this show.

  1. Why It’s So Hard for Us to Agree About Dong from ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (NPR) — This text looks at Dong, a secondary character from the series, and weighs his role against ideas about conventional Asian stereotypes.
  2. Candy Girl (The New Yorker) — This piece analyzes Kimmy, the protagonist, against the broader themes of the show. While it seems like the most conventional piece, this was probably the most sophisticated mentor text in the cluster because of the quality of the writing and the breadth of the argument.
  3. ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Takes on New York City (The Washington Post) — This mentor text considers New York City as a character in the series.

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A Technique-Based Literary Analysis Workshop

But even if we want to, how can we teach literary analysis in writing studies throughout the school year using a workshop approach?

Do we just repeat the same mini-lessons again and again until the students have mastered them? Do we teach the mini-lessons once at the beginning of the year and just bring out new mentor texts for each subsequent go-round? Do we only teach literary analysis in one study of the year and hope it sticks?

Technique-Based Analysis Studies

To combine the study of literary analysis writing and writing workshop, one trick I have found is to break literary analysis into sub-genres: analyzing theme, analyzing character, analyzing symbol, analyzing a key passage, etc. Not all analysis is created equal —  in different kinds of analysis the techniques differ. The structures differ. The way we read, think, and unpack our ideas differs. So, we can teach students to look a pieces of analysis differently based on their purpose.

The Assignment

A few weeks ago, my IB students launched into a technique-based analysis study in which they analyzed two poems side-by-side. (For my IB friends, this is the same task they will be asked to do on Paper 2 … so it was great exam prep!) I intentionally avoided calling it a compare-and-contrast paper because I didn’t want visions of Venn diagrams to pop into my students’ heads — that’s too simplistic, too easy, compared to what a sophisticated analysis of two texts actually does. Like all true workshops, students had choice — they each chose the poet and the two poems on which they wrote.

My IB students, seniors all, are well-versed in writing rote literary analysis. They are masters of school writing. They understand the structures — they know how to construct thesis statements and bring in textual evidence.  Thus, the focus of our study was breaking out of the tightly constructed box that we, their teachers, have made for them over the years. We focused on maintaining fidelity to smart, tight, persuasive analysis while also incorporating voice and style — hopefully writing something that they would actually want to read.

The Mentor Texts:

I began by giving my students four mentor texts: Continue reading

Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft.

Mini-Mentor Texts

Allison wrote about mini-mentor texts in one of our very first blog posts. Mini-mentor texts zoom in on a specific skill — making a claim, using supporting evidence, etc. — in a larger piece of analysis.

Rather than using a cluster of whole mentor texts, we parse out snippets of larger articles as we teach specific skills. We don’t give students the entire article — just the relevant paragraph or two that demonstrates the technique we want to see in student writing. Because these are bite-sized mentor texts, we use them most often with our younger writers who are new to analysis.

Take, for instance, this David Edelstein review of the new Spongebob Square Pants movie — a “text” from childhood that our students would be amused to revisit.  Edelstein gives a charming synopsis of the movie that can help my students as they write meaningful, engaging context for a piece of literature in their analysis. I might pull just this paragraph as a mini-mentor text:

It begins as all “SpongeBob” episodes do, with a hairy pirate who’s there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he’s live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he’s on an “Indiana Jones”-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you’re thinking – this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you’d be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe – I have a feeling I’m losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.

Notice how Edelstein paints a scene, gives the gist of the plot, and connects with his audience.  I can use it for more than just teaching context, though. This excerpt from Edelstein’s review also makes an allusion to Indiana Jones — a helpful skill to teach students as they work to draw connections between the literature they are studying and the world around them. I can also use it to teach making a claim about a text; Edelstein makes a claim at the end of this paragraph that he will spend the rest of the article unpacking: “The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained.”

This mini-mentor text has the potential for use in three mini-lessons perfect for the writing of literary analysis.

Whole Mentor Texts

While mini-mentor texts are perfect for teaching literary analysis skills, whole mentor texts are great for teaching skills melded with voice and style in analytical writing.

My students love the casual-yet-authoritative style of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, whose piece “Candy Girl” — a character analysis of Kimmy on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — we studied as a mentor text for their own analytical piece on a character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Nussbaum’s piece bears all the essential skills students need to include in a work of literary analysis: a claim, reasons that support that claim, copious evidence that props up those reasons. But, from this text, students also explored how to sound expert and human at the same time (my students often swing between sounding like a robot with a thesaurus or a tween chatting with friends at the mall). They noticed the effective use of parentheticals to hold extra information and commentary. They picked up on Nussbaum’s use of dashes for emphasis and to quicken the pace of her argument. They examined her skillful and clever transitions — pulling the idea from one paragraph down into the next paragraph to deepen her nuanced argument.

Whole mentor texts are perfect for our older writers who are already familiar with the essentials, and thus can more easily digest and translate an entire article. These students are ready for something more — ready to take their writing to the next level.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how we think about finding mentor texts for studying literary analysis, Wednesday we will dive into a workshop analysis unit — a technique-based study comparing/contrasting two pieces of literature.

Moving Writers’ Literary Analysis Blog Blast: April 27 – May 6

Last week, I promised more details on using the workshop approach to teach literary analysis. I haven’t forgotten you!

And, so that you won’t have to wait to hear all we have in store, next week we will celebrate our very own Literary Analysis Blog Blast Week. Here’s the lineup:

Monday, April 27: Ways to Think About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis Workshops

Wednesday, April 29: Technique-Based Analysis Studies — one kind of analysis workshop, with suggestions for mentor texts, mini-lessons, and samples of student writing.

Friday, May 1: A second sample unit for a technique-based study

Monday, May 4: Literature-Based Analysis Studies — another kind of analysis workshop, with a sample unit.

Wednesday, May 6: Take-Aways, Discoveries, and Next Steps for Literary Analysis Workshops

We hope that you will join us each day as we tackle a topic that is so central to high school classrooms!

If you’re in town on April 30…

On Thursday, April 30, Rebekah and I are presenting at the Central Virginia Writing Project’s Spring Writing Mini-Conference at the University of Virginia. We will be talking about using mentor texts (surprise!) and also about our experience of turning our teaching ideas into a blog and eventually a book.

If you attend one of our sessions, you will be entered into a raffle to win a free copy of our book due out in September!

Win a free copy of our book!

Win a free copy of our book!

Below are the descriptions of our presentations:

Session 1: Using Mentor Texts From Planning to Publication

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience:  9-12      Room: Ruffner 206

Classroom teachers and new Heinemann authors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell will share how to use multiple, current, engaging mentor texts to reach every writer in the room. They will show how mentor texts inspire and instruct students through every stage of the writing process, from planning to publication.

 Session 2: Turning Teaching Ideas into Publications

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience: Teachers K-12       Room: Ruffner 206

Authors Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, will share their experiences turning their teaching practices into a blog and then a published book with ideas about how teachers can do the same. They will give suggestions for ways to take a seat at the English Ed table and join a bigger professional conversation through writing and speaking.

We will be presenting alongside some amazing speakers, including the keynote speaker Dr. Natasha Henry, whose talk is titled “Beyond Tradition: Reconsidering Writing Instruction and Student Writers.”

Click here for more information about the mini-conference and registration materials.

A Writing Workshop Cure for the April Doldrums

Photo via Creative Commons

Melancholy by Edvard Munch Photo via Creative Commons

T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.” Sadly, this observation rings true for many students. I don’t know what it is about April, but it seems to bring on the stress, boredom, and lack of motivation that one would normally associate with months like December and February.  The guidance counselor at our school recently shared about the dramatic spike in the number of students who visit her office during March and April every year. We see a lot of rain in Virginia, too.

Sometimes one of the best ways to comfort students who are feeling low is to honor their feelings of stress, sadness, and melancholy rather than try to distract them or encourage them to stay positive. A study of the elegy — a poem that expresses sorrow or lamentation — can be a way to honor students’ emotions and help them reflect on their feelings in a healthy way while studying some absolutely brilliant poetry. Continue reading