“I don’t know what to write about.”
As a teacher and writer with “so many ideas and so little time,” I find this common student response troubling. But when I pause to reflect on why students might be uninspired or why they have difficulty finding ideas, I realize that, in some cases, it’s because they haven’t been taught how–or worse, many of them have actually been force-fed ideas, forms, sentences, everything, in the past.
While professional writers do sometimes write on demand (job interviews, article deadlines) or to a specific prompt (“Hey you, cover the rally downtown today…”), writing seems to emerge from a place far more natural and common…from experience.
Writers experience moments and write into those moments.
Mentor Text: See Learnist board
Genre-Based Workshop: Infographics
Technique-Based Workshop: Using visuals as evidence in writing
Background: We usually study mentor texts in isolation, but sometimes it can be useful to show students a group, or cluster, of mentor texts all at once.
Studying a group of genre-specific mentor texts helps students identify the traits of that genre. Studying a group of craft-specific mentor texts help students understand how certain techniques work across a variety of genres. Rebekah recently wrote about using a cluster of mentor texts to think about purpose and audience.
How I Used Them:
To introduce students to infographics, I created a Learnist board with five infographics that represented a variety of styles and subjects. If you’re not familiar with Learnist, it’s like Pinterest for teachers–a great tool for organizing digital teaching content.
Rather than breaking down one mentor text into its smaller parts, I asked students to study these mentor texts as a group. I posed the following questions:
- What do you notice?
- What do these texts have in common?
- According to these examples, what is an infographic? What are the features of an infographic?
Students jotted down their observations in their notebooks and crafted definitions. We shared these definitions as a whole group and tweaked until we arrived at a class definition. This definition helped me immediately see what the students already knew about infographics and what they didn’t–fodder for developing my unit.
- These mentor texts could be used to introduce the technique of using visuals as evidence to support an argument in a variety of genres.
- I return to this Learnist board throughout the unit on infographics, especially when I’m introducing students to different types (e.g. timeline, narrative, comparative, etc.)
- These mentor texts could also be used to engage students in a discussion about what constitutes a “text.”
Do you have clusters of mentor texts that you use together? How do you use them? Feel free to leave a comment or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1
Way back one month ago, I made some resolutions for my classes. Among them was a switch-up that would turn the Quick Write into a broader Notebook Time — giving my students lots of varied opportunities to play with words in different ways.
In short, switching things up has been invigorating for my students. I no longer hear a low groan reverberate throughout the classroom when “Quick Write” appears on the board. In itself, that feels like victory.
By far, their favorite way to spend Notebook Time — and the way that has proven most profitable — is playing with raw data.
I got this idea from Penny Kittle at a workshop this winter. In speaking with college professors, she has discovered that college freshman are grossly lacking in the ability to interpret and make meaning out of raw data. Kittle suggested that Notebook Time is a good opportunity to put charts, graphs, and statistics in front of students and ask them to say something.
This is the first chart I gave students:
With each chunk of data, I give them a simple charge: write what you notice. What do you see? What does this make you wonder about?
After students have a few minutes to write, we share out. I encourage them to begin by observing the obvious — it’s a starting place. After noticing things like “Print is declining”, “Online news sources are rising”, students begin to get more creative in their thinking.
And this takes time.
With this first chart, only a few brave souls state something that pushes beyond the barriers of the literal and easily observed. One student noted, “Maybe Germany is a more traditional country because they use more print sources than the others listed here.” Another asked, “How were these countries chosen?” I celebrate these speculations and what-ifs, encouraging students to go farther — where might we find that information? Where could we research? What might it mean?
Because I want my students to also become critical media consumers, I end each raw data Notebook Time by pulling our conversation back to the writer’s purpose, asking, “What point was the writer of this chart (or graph, or statistic) trying to make?” Allison also asks her students a brilliant final question — one I am stealing immediately — what kind of writing might this lead to?
Another fun source for raw data is Harper’s Index. I often put a handful of these statistics on the board and let students choose what they want to write about.
One favorite statistic was found in the December 2013 issue. It read:
Number of Chicken McNuggets Usain Bolt ate during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to his autobiography: 1,000
Students postulated — are Chicken McNuggets actually athletic power food? Did Bolt perform better in the 2012 London Olympics because he ate too many McNuggests in Beijing? Another student wondered if Bolt was sponsored by McDonalds. This led to a flurry of cell phone web surfing: Who were Bolt’s sponsors? Whom did McDonalds sponsor? How much did Chicken McNuggets cost in 2008, and in what quantities were they sold? Does McDonalds provide free food to athletes?
While charts and graphs initially felt like the domain of other content area teachers, I have been amazed and encouraged by the thinking that has come out of our 5-10 minutes of writing and chatting. It sparks students’ curiosity and creativity — something they desperately need in their writing. It often leads to follow-ups, to debates, to research, to wonderful tangents of real thinking. Most of all, we have fun, and Notebook Time finally feels like play.
This play propels good writing forward. Students generate ideas for writing. Students build the ability to interpret their world — this interpretation extends to interpreting their experiences in memoir, interpreting literature in a critical analysis, interpreting a film in a critical review. Pushing students’ thinking pushes students’ writing.
Allison and I have shared some of our favorite examples of raw data in our Mentor Text Dropbox Project (you can find the link at the top of this blog). Please feel free to use and share these resources. You can add your mentor texts, too! Share what works for you!
What are your favorite sources for finding raw data for students to play with? What kind of writing has come out of this sort of play? Share in the comments below or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 or @allisonmarchett.
Writing Technique: Choosing a form for an idea by considering purpose and audience
While I want my students to leave my class able to confidently write in an array of genres, I also want them to have opportunities to chase their own ideas and see where they take them without the restriction of a prescribed genre study.
After all, this is how real writers write.
Last night I tossed and turned, hunting for an idea for this week’s post.
This morning at the breakfast table, a steaming cup of coffee beside me, I scan through a Google folder labeled “Blog To Do List.” Rebekah and I created this file months ago, preloading it with ideas for future entries. I feel myself begin to relax as I consider the possibilities. I am grateful for these plans.
Penny Kittle has said that “readers have plans.” Students keep to-read-next lists in their notebooks, recording titles, authors, and genres they want to delve into as soon as they finish their current read. Kittle writes that the next list is a “critical” component in her “teaching and organizing towards independence for students” (64).
I love this concept. It’s simple yet powerful, and it works for writers, too. Encouraging students to make long-term writing plans is one of those things that distinguishes teachers of writing from teachers of writers.
Writers have plans.
Mentor Text: Up. Dir. Pete Docter. Pixar, 2009.
Story is the lifeblood of all good writing. But students don’t realize its power until they are explicitly shown how it works across all genres of writing.
An editorial tells the story of an issue. A memoir tells the story of a life. An analysis tells the story of how something works.
Students needs ways of talking about story before they recognize it as a powerful tool for all kinds of writing. Continue reading
As my IB seniors approach their exams — not to mention college life — I want to take these last months of teachable moments to take what they are already doing well and build on it. Push them deeper. Expel the idea that there is ever an “enough” point in their thinking and writing.
In their writing, my students often quit after presenting the first smart thing they have to say about a particular piece of textual evidence. And they do write smart, persuasive ideas. But then they stop. I want them to probe more deeply, searching for multiple layers of nuance, contradiction, and sophistication in the text.
To visually demonstrate the “more” that I keep asking for, I had my students bring a passage of significance from In Pharaoh’s Army, the text we are currently studying. Students studied the passage and crafted a commentary on it. Rather than spending my time underlining anemic explanations in their papers, I asked them to return to class the next day with another, blank copy of the same passage on which they had just written.
Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.
In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.
Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.
Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.
But what exactly does that mean? Is there a noticeable difference? Here’s what I came up with:
||● Encouraging a student to make long-term writing plans
● Helping a student find a form or genre that fits her idea
● Conferring with a student about his growth from paper to paper
● Encouraging a student to revisit older papers and use her present perspective to improve and transform old work
● Incorporating mentor texts that cut across genres and demonstrate skills that individual writers need
● Incorporating self-reflection into the assessing of writing
● Writing narrative feedback that requires the student to revisit lessons and learn something new
● Assessing the skills you have taught from all the previous units of study
● Helping a student build a writing portfolio
Assigning writing is to be avoided at all costs. Teaching writing focuses on the short-term needs of a writer, and teaching writing, on the long-term needs. Teaching writing helps students write papers; teaching writers helps build writing lives. Both are necessary, but one is transformative.
As I prepare to hunker down and assess several class sets of editorials this week, I’m particularly interested in how the ways in which we respond to student writing can help improve writers in the long run. I have found the following four types of responses to be effective:
● redirect the writer to previous lessons
● show the writer his work is part of a larger conversation
● encourage the writer to make plans
● invite the writer to see the possibilities
Redirect the writer to previous lessons. Writing is recursive, yet students go through the motions of the writing process with little understanding of this. Brainstorm, draft, revise, submit. We have to un-teach the “one and done” mindset under which many of our students operate. Some writing calls for more revision while other pieces beg to be scrapped entirely. How can we help our students understand the writing process and make it work for them?
One way is to direct students to previous lessons that will help them hone in on skills they still need to master. Perhaps when they rewatch or review the lesson, they will see something they did not see or understand before. This redirection, coupled with the invitation to resubmit work, encourages a culture of revision, forcing students to take this step more seriously—to see revision as something that will boost their growth rather than their grade.
Show the writer that his work is part of a larger conversation. When I can, I try to make connections between the student’s writing and the mentor texts we’ve studied in class–or even something I’ve read on my own that I see as somehow “talking” to my student’s writing. Sometimes just pointing out to writers that they are behaving like other writers can make all the difference.
Other times I will direct the student to a relevant article or other published piece.
I want students to view themselves as writers who are making important contributions to a large corpus of work rather than teenagers who are writing for school.
Encourage the writer to make plans. Good writers have plans. We must invite students to think about writing they’ve started and want to finish, writing they have yet to begin, and audiences they want to write for. We must ask them to think about how each piece fits into the larger scheme of their writing. Here are some of the questions I have posed to students in the margins of their paper and encouraged them to respond to:
What other topics might come out of this paper?
How does this paper fit into your writing plans?
How would you rank this paper in terms of its effectiveness? Compared to the other papers you’ve written this year?
For whom did you write this piece? What other pieces might you write for this audience?
How does this piece demonstrate your overall growth as a writer this year?
Invite the writer to see the possibilities. Writing is about discovery, yet many students believe that their initial idea is the one thing they need to communicate through to the end. Good writers often begin without a clear picture of where they are headed, and this uncertainty excites them. Good writers understand that the process leads to meaning. To help our students realize the potential in the process, we must share what we notice while refraining from telling them what to do with it. We must help them see that their writing is a rubik’s cube with a thousand combinations. Success comes from noticing possibilities and running with them until they lead somewhere or don’t, so when I notice something interesting in a student paper, I share it with them.
Good Feedback is a Two-Way Street
You’ll notice that all four types of responses require the writer to do something more: to revisit an old lesson, reread a mentor text, respond to his work. Narrative feedback–especially when provided on a final draft–can breed passivity. Students read–or don’t read–the comments and move on to the next thing. But narrative feedback, when done right, can spur action. We must invite students to join the conversation about their writing and continue the process, or they’ll miss out on a powerful opportunity for growth.
How do you assess writing? How might we tailor assessment to have a greater, long-term impact on the writer? Feel free to leave a comment, or better yet, join us next Thursday, February 13 at 7:30 EST for a chat about Assessing Writing. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.
Writing Technique: Supporting an argument with evidence
Truth be told, I am not a sporty girl. Athletic metaphors in the writing classroom do not come naturally to me. Thus, whenever I see one of my favorite cultural institutions write about sports, I jump on it. Because while I am not athletically-inclined, this is the native tongue of many of my students. Examples of smart sports writing can often be a persuasive mentor for these students — an entry point through which they can connect more deeply with their own writing.
Students need to be able to support an argument with evidence in many different writing genres. In a traditional literary analysis essay, in an editorial, in a persuasive appeal, even in a memoir, students’ ideas require support. However, they often have trouble understanding what evidence looks like on the page.
So often, our students engage in what I call one-two-skip-a-few writing. Since all of the pieces add up in their heads, they assume their brilliance will automatically convey to the reader. As a result, we see a point here and a point there without the evidence necessary to connect all the dots for the reader.
The thing I adore about this mentor text is that it makes evidence visual by showing moving GIFs of football plays to support its point.
Brown’s argument centers on the factors that he believes contribute to Peyton Manning’s stunning success in his late career. Sure, Brown uses words to describe Manning’s skills on the field, but then he does something even better — he shows us what it looks like by embedding the actual play into his article.
How I Would Use It:
Rather than using this article as a top-to-bottom mentor text, I would instead lift a couple of body paragraphs to use as mini-mentor texts.
I would first provide students with a pared-down, edited version of the article — just the “introductory paragraph” (to give them context) and two of the body paragraphs. We would read it aloud together.
I would ask the students, “Based on these two paragraphs, why is Peyton Manning a great quarterback?” Now, with the exception of a few students who are very attuned to football, the body paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense by themselves. The natural follow-up question would be, “What other information do you need for this to really make sense to you?”
The answer? They need to see it. They need to see the play happen in the game to understand the writer’s argument.
This is exactly what all readers need when we read an argument — we need to actually see the play happen in order to understand it. We bring this back into their writing: when we present an argument in our writing, we have to support it with evidence. Evidence is “showing the play” to help the reader understand.
I would then project Brown’s original article — full of images, charts, and video clips of football games. We would reread the body paragraphs and talk about what the evidence — what showing the play — adds to our understanding.
In an essay of literary analysis, students need to show the play in the text that supports their interpretation. In an editorial, students need to show the plays of expert testimonials, facts, and statistics that boost their opinion. In a persuasive appeal, students need to show the play of why their issue should become important to a reader, too. In a memoir, students need to show the play of a moment’s significance in their broader story. This skill is everywhere.
While this example is striking for our athletes, it’s also a concrete visual that every student will remember. And this can become a refrain in our classrooms, among our writing groups, in our writing conferences: “Show me the play in your writing.”
This is an awesome example of multi-media writing — combining words, images, and videos!
- Many of my student athletes like to write about games. However, as you know, the “story of the big game” gets tiresome after three, four nearly identical essays. This can be a great mentor for another place to go in sports writing — the profile of a particular player and his or her important contributions to the game.
How would you use this text in your class? What other sports mentor texts have you had success with?
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