Memoir Remix: Writing

The remix of our Memoir Study focused initially on  the reading of memoir. Writing needed a touchup too. Last April, long after we were finished the semester we taught our Grade 12s, the students who studied memoir, in, my colleague Ashley and I were driving to the city to see Penny Kittle. An hour in a car with another English teacher is always productive.

We got talking about the writing of memoir. I have traditionally had students write a wide variety of smaller pieces, responding to various prompts. The intention was always that they compile the pieces they liked best into a single memoir piece, but for some reason, I was never able to make that happen. Ashley told me about a strategy she had played with from a workshop where students wrote on note cards, writing various aspects of a memoir piece, which they then arranged to create a draft from which they’d write their memoir piece.

You know that cool thing that happens when you get two solid collaborators together, and elements of what each suggested become defining aspects of a cool new thing? It happened that day. We loved the idea of writing a lot of different things. We loved the idea of writing on note cards, giving students a manageable space in which to capture thoughts that could be expanded upon later. Memoir Cards became the new thing.

In September, when we got our new Grade 12s in our classrooms, we began. Ashley and I began sharing the prompts that we used with our students. Some prompts were the ones we already had, typical memoir writing things around names, places, memories and such things. The practice of writing only on note cards seemed to revive these prompts. In quickwrite mode, the note cards gave me what I like best – this was a writing task that looked easily manageable for a reluctant writer, and a limit of sorts to challenge, and focus, those who find writing easier. Continue reading

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“Listening Is an Act of Love”

Full confession: I wanted to say something profound, to share some brilliant new teaching strategy that had emerged from my classes over the past month, but as I sit down to write on one of the first sunny days of a very gray February, I’m feeling a little tapped out of great ideas. Like Hattie, knowing that I have just two months to get my IB students ready for their spring exams is making me feel a little white rabbit-y, and I think all the newness of a new school, new students, and a new city has made me stick to familiar lessons rather than pioneer new ones. Though I haven’t invented any new lessons, in the past week, I did re-learn an important one: to borrow from the title of The Princess Diaries’ Lily Moscovitz’s cable access show, I’ve been reminded to “shut up and listen,” because–to quote another public broadcast show host, StoryCorps’ Dave Isay– “listening is an act of love.”

The lesson began when my freshmen held a Harkness-style discussion of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve not taught the novel before, so I didn’t have many resources to draw from and I worried all month about what I should have been doing differently. Should I have asked more questions about symbols? Should I have reviewed comprehension questions after each assigned reading? Should I have shared more instructions about how to find and think about Notice and Note signposts? And should I have guided our first big discussion of the book so that I could make sure students were probing deeply and thinking critically?

The students’ mature, compassionate, and well-mannered self-guided discussion on Tuesday and Wednesday gave me my answer: “No…you should shut up and listen.” They didn’t need me to make magic happen. For two days, students talked thoughtfully about Holden, challenged each other to support ideas with evidence, and coaxed each other to speak when some classmates sat silent for too long. And as I listened to my students, I realized that they had listened to Holden Caulfield in a way I never had as a student. When I read the book during high school, I couldn’t get past Holden’s rough shell to appreciate the “catcher in the rye” inside, but my students “got” him, and they appreciated the way Salinger seemed to “hear” people their age decades ago.

As I read some revised paragraphs from the freshmen later in the week, I tried to listen again. The ninth graders’ revisions showed me that they had heard my questions about which pieces of evidence supported their ideas, and their writing told me we needed to talk some more about building momentum and ending with a “click.” As I listened, I learned that these revisions didn’t need grades yet, they just needed feedback, more questions that showed I was still listening.

Standing in the eye of a group-work hurricane during my IB classes was also a time to listen. As students worked together to put scenes from The Merchant of Venice on their feet, I sat at my desk or wandered around and listened in on conversations. The project’s assessment depended on that listening. I looked forward to final performances, certainly, but the skills I was really looking for were demonstrated during planning. As they brainstormed and rehearsed, students justified their costume choices, their sets, their props, their gestures, and their expressions with evidence from the text. To the passerby who just looked inside my room, it would appear that I had given the class a day off, but a good listener could hear how much the students knew and understood about Shakespeare’s problematic play.

And then I greeted my seniors on Wednesday, the day when we learned they had lost a classmate in an accident, I knew it was also time to listen. A day intended for more scene work was instead a time to talk together or be quiet together or find comfort in a routine…a time to listen to each other–to memories, to questions, to the little funny stories anyone tells when they’re trying to cut the silence and the sadness.

And then I came home Wednesday night to news of more students, miles away, who had lost classmates, too. And the next day, those students channeled their anger and fear and sadness and frustration and mourning and love into a powerful political voice. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and their classmates in Parkland are making the world shut up and listen. Sometime, somewhere, someone else must have listened to those students, listened to the point that it empowered them and assured them someone would always listen.

And so I will keep practicing the lesson I re-learned this week, all the while hoping that listening is just the first act of love I can offer communities who are hurting. Let the next act be action, changes that protect the young voices demanding to be heard. 

What’s the best thing you heard (or overheard) this week? When have you felt listened to? How can we teach our students to show each other that they are listening? How can we help our students be heard? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 

Beyond Literary Analysis – Free Study Guide

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Whether you are interested in studying Beyond Literary Analysis on your own, with a teacher buddy, or as a department, we have written a study guide to facilitate your thinking and discussions!

You can find it FOR FREE (along with a sample chapter from the book!) on Heinemann’s website!

Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading

On days like these, write. Just write.

EACH MONTH ON MOVING WRITERS, I try to share something writing-related happening in my classroom that might be interesting or helpful to fellow teachers. As I sat down to write this month’s post, however, news of the Parkland school shooting was just breaking—how 17 individuals died today in yet another mass school shooting.

Suddenly the ideas I’d brainstormed for this blog post didn’t seem appropriate or enough or, well, anything. Tips about conferring, strategies for prewriting, scaffolds for organizing ideas—while all these are valuable and important components of the writing process, I know that none of them are as important as the most valuable component of all—our students.

What do our students need from us right now? In challenging times—and unfortunately, there seem to be many more these days—what can we do as teachers in our classrooms to help students find their way? How do we help them find answers that we don’t have ourselves? As teachers, we often pride ourselves on being professionals, experts, the ones in the room with the answers. We think students look to us for answers, but the longer I teach, the more I think that’s wrong.

I don’t think students look to us for answers—at least not for the most deeply human issues we face in life, like love, grief, sorrow, pain, or anger. I think they look to us for the questions—to ask questions and to give them time and opportunity to ask their own, to process, to think, to wonder, to talk, to stumble, to discover, to figure out for themselves. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Swim Your Own Race

Mentor Text: Swim Your Own Race by Mbali Vilakazi

Techniques:

  • Form
  • Purposeful Use of Figurative Language
  • Exploring Clichéd Sports Metaphor
  • Using Contrast

Background:

I love the Winter Olympics. I’m setting my alarm to get up in the morning before school to watch sports that I normally dismiss. The excitement is so infectious. Especially fun this time is watching events with my oldest, this being the first games she’s really aware of.

The games also coincide with our new semester. As my coworker Alicia and I were talking plans, talking Olympics, we realized that we had a perfect subject to explore within our Grade10 theme of Facing Adversity and Being a Hero – the Olympics. The next couple of weeks are going to be focused on Olympic adversity and heroism.

 

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Image via howtheyplay.com

One of the first activities we did in this was one of my favorites, the Poetry and Image Pairing, or PIP. As is the case whenever  I’m putting together a PIP, I opened Google and looked for “Olympic Poetry.” After I learned that there was a time that poetry was an actual Olympic event, I came across NPR’s Olympic Poetry contest results from 2012’s Summer Games. The winning poem, “Swim Your Own Race.” gave me my poem. This beautiful poem, by South African Mbali Vilakazi, was written about swimmer Natalie du Toit. After losing a leg, du Toit continued to swim, not just as a para-athlete, but also qualifying for the Olympics.in 2008. This kind of story is what makes Olympic viewing so damned compelling, and if we’re using the Olympics to explore a theme of facing adversity, well, what a perfect story for that! Continue reading

Taming the White Rabbit and Making Time for Talk

Around this time every year, I start channeling my inner white rabbit.  As of today, I have 3 months until my kids will sit for their end-of-course exams.  If you subtract a half week for mid-winter break, a week for spring break, three days for state testing, and another three for a giant field trip that will take two-thirds of my class, I’m left with closer to two months.

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Image Source: giphy.com

 

There’s no way they’ll be ready. We have so much more to do.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly white-rabbity.

I missed Monday because I was out with a sick kid, and there were rumors of a snow day for today (which came true! YAY!), so the five days of teaching I had planned became three.  I stood in my classroom trying to rethink the day’s plan to cram more stuff in, but, luckily, my gut told me to slow down. My kids were *hopefully* heading into a three day weekend. I needed them to leave excited about their new writing projects and ready to spend a little of their snowy Friday writing.

Generating excitement, though, takes time.

This writing piece we’re starting is the most choice-filled thus far. Some of my kids have an idea and are running with it. Many, though, need some help. I decided to scrap the day’s plans and instead do some purposeful talk about our writing.

Continue reading

3 Teacher Stances for Writing Conferences

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Before I leapt into writing workshop years ago, the biggest thing holding me back was my fear of writing conferences. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say or that I couldn’t help or that a student would bring me a problem I didn’t know how to solve.

Years have passed. Now, writing conferences bring me a rush of adrenaline. I never feel more in my groove than when I’m running around the classroom in a conferring frenzy. But, like all insecurities, it’s still an element of instruction I spend a lot of time thinking about.

It’s sometimes tempting when we are trying to navigate a room full of students to give a quick to-do and move on. But we need to tread carefully because we should never use writing conferences to limit a writer’s choices by imposing our will on their piece — even accidentally. One thing I’ve discovered on the road to having good conferences is that how I make a suggestion or teach a strategy is just as important as what I say.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I did some Google Hangout professional development with a department in Connecticut who wanted to know more about conferring with writers in a way that is both meaningful and manageable. As I prepared for our time together and tried to articulate how I’ve made conferences work, I discovered that when I approach a writer, I typically take one of three stances depending on what they need and how they need to hear that information: the teacher, the reader, and the writer.

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The Teacher

This is our default, right? The Teacher is a more directive stance, perfect for re-teaching a mini-lesson, re-enforcing a fundamental writing skill, or giving a writer a new technique as a challenge.

What I Might Say:

  • When a writer wants to ____, they ________.
  • If you’re trying to ____________, consider _________.
  • Remember that when we _________, writers ______.
  • To take this to the next level, you might try ____________________.

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The Reader

Approaching a student’s writing like a reader is the gentlest stance — one I turn to when a piece of writing is in deep trouble (especially in terms of comprehensibility), when I am working with a writer who is resistant to help or feedback, and when I just don’t know what to say.

I love the Reader stance because it gives me an answer every time. No matter what, I know how I feel when I read something. Plus, this stance reminds the writer that there will be an audience on the other side of the writing — an audience who has expectations and needs that should be met. And for the writer in your room who doesn’t want any feedback, the Reader is difficult to disagree with!

What I Might Say: 

  • As a reader, I’m wondering ______.
  • As a reader, I’m confused by ______.
  • As a reader, it’s difficult for me __________.
  • When I read this, I’m thinking _________. Is this what you intended?
  • When I read this, I feel like ________________.
  • As a reader, I’m noticing ____________.

writer

The Writer

The Writer is my go-to approach when a writer doesn’t need a craft move but needs a habit or process instead. This stance is all about articulating for a student what real writers do to move through the writing process.

I might suggest that a student take a break from the words and take a minute to sketch about their ideas instead, talk out their ideas with a friend, go back to a mentor text right before they finish their last-minute edits for inspiration, do some writing-off-the-page, go back and re-read what they had written before.

What I Might Say:

  • When I’m writing, I sometimes ____________________.
  • When a writer gets to this place in their process, they might ___________________.
  • Often, writers ________________ when they _________________.
  • To ________________, writers sometimes ___________________.

Why Do These Stances Matter?

Taking different stances in a writing conference meets the needs to the writer at hand better than when I think I need to be the Teacher all the time — hurling writing strategies around the room at warp speed. I need to differentiate my stance just as much as I need to differentiate my instruction.

But these also help me organize my thinking as I enter a conversation. By thinking in terms of three simple stances, I limit my pre-conference panic. The options and answers no longer feel dauntingly limitless — I know that I am going to take one of three approaches.  They give me an extra boost of confidence which allows me to help my writers feel confident with their choices, too.

Are there different stances you take in a writing conference? A different way you organize your teacher thinking as you approach a writer? Leave us a comment below and share how you conceptualize your conferences with writers, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahODell1! 

 

Memoir Remix: The Last of the Reading Work

A nice thing about sharing our remix of our Memoir Study here at Moving Writers has been that it’s been very much a reflective act for me. We’ve just wrapped the semester, and some elements of our memoir work came in as the semester ended.

What’s funny about what I’m sharing this time is that this post feels almost like an obligation. See, the pieces I’ve already shared, as well as the forthcoming post about writing memoir, are cool. In my head, I call this kind of stuff “showcase projects” – you know, the ones that make people curious, the ones you can show off easily. The ones that make other projects feel less interesting.

That being said, the final two pieces that I’ll share from our work while reading memoirs are ones that matter to me. When we sat down and discussed the things we wanted students to  explore in reading a memoir, these were definitely things that we felt mattered. Continue reading

5 Reasons Why Analysis Essay & Meeting Your Students Where They Are

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One tried and true way I choose mentor texts for my students is to strike while inspiration is hot by building assignments from engaging and effective texts that I stumble upon “in the wild.” Like Michael’s series on Teaching From My Twitter Feed, sometimes the best mentors are the ones that find you.

Because it’s nearly impossible to turn off my teacher switch, I knew as I turned the page in my new issue of The New Yorker that I would include Carrie Battan’s “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” as a mentor text in my AP Literature class. My students had been struggling with depth in written analysis, and this text did so many things right, there’s no way it could go wrong.

For some more context and background on why this mentor text, my AP Lit students are whip-smart. They are insightful and curious and down for any activity I plan. They play my reindeer games, if you will. And although they had been making gains in their writing and analysis, I still wanted more—more depth, stronger voice, stronger arguments, more authority.

When I introduced what my students and I have fondly come to call “the Taylor Swift mentor” to my AP Lit students, I saw light bulbs. No matter how often we discussed the hallmarks of mature and sophisticated analysis, it wasn’t until my students got their hands on Battan’s deep dive into Taylor Swift’s new album that they began to understand the finesse of controlled, creative analysis.

We first read this text aloud in class and then pasted each page onto chart paper for group annotations. What I like about collaborative text annotations is the opportunity for students to process together—to exchange noticings and ideas about why the mentor text is…well, the mentor. Because ultimately that’s what it’s about, right? Examining the stitches and seams of the text to get a better, deeper understanding of the writer’s craft.

Here are my students’ major takeaways from “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation”.

Writers of sophisticated analysis…

  • Are conversational but maintain sophistication
  • Seamlessly embed quotations
  • Are intentional about the structure of their argument
  • Pull no punches—defend their analysis even if it is critical
  • Have a purpose and know what they want to communicate to the audience

Now, here’s where the 5 Reasons Why Essay comes in and why I want to stress: you’ve got to meet your kids where they are…

At the time, my students were on the heels of another big paper, at the end of the most demanding novel we’d yet encountered, and we were only a couple weeks out from Thanksgiving break. I knew I wanted my students to have an opportunity to practice what they’d learned from the Taylor Swift mentor, to discuss the novel they’d studied, and to continue to build necessary AP Lit exam skills.

So, 5 Reasons Why Beloved is a Work of Literary Merit was born.

Essentially, I wanted my students to write like Carrie Battan writes about Taylor Swift, but I wanted them to format it like the good folks at Vulture or Paste. So I set out to make “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” our anchor mentor text and  “Every Batman Movie, Ranked” and “5 Reasons Why Jupiter is Weird” our style guide.

Based on my students’ needs and based upon the mentor texts that were most apt, I assigned the following task:

In the style of a pop culture listicle, defend why Beloved by Toni Morrison is a work of literary merit. Students were required to address the following criteria: why the novel is ambiguous, provocative, complex, emotionally challenging, socially challenging.

Admittedly, the listicle style felt like a bit of a risk, but it yielded some of the strongest analysis I’ve seen all year. After having gone on the emotional journey of this novel, and after dedicating ample classroom time to examine the moves of Carrie Battan’s Taylor Swift mentor, and after checking out the “reasons why” listicle style, students were more than ready to write about the literature they’d studied.

Here are a few excerpts of student papers:

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All year we’ve focused on voice, style, and narrating our insights using our authentic voices. This assignment was a reminder that mentor texts are crucial in guiding student writers, but also a crucial reminder that we must meet our students where they are.

How do you determine which mentor texts to include in your instruction? How do you meet students where they are? I’d love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla