To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog!

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As Moving Writers readers know, one of the central ideas behind this site is authentic writing—what does writing in the real and wild world look like (versus the sometimes too-tightly controlled world of our classrooms)? Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the more the writing I ask students to do in the classroom can mirror the world outside our classroom walls, the better served my students will be.

I started my first blog in 2006, a few months after my oldest was born. Blogging was relatively new back then (now blogs are everywhere, of course), but for me, it was a way for me to document our family life. I titled my blog “Familyhood: Adventures managing toddlers, marriage, family, friends, work, school, and everything in between.” In my very first post—dated January 20, 2006 (more than 11 years ago!)—I wrote about how I wanted to capture, to keep forever, all the details of my little one.

It was a few short years later that I decided to bring blogging into my classroom. I’ve used blogs with my 9th graders and my 11th graders; blog assignments have been structured and open-ended; posts are serious and funny and everything in between.

With a rapidly changing technology environment, with new tools and gadgets announced almost daily, blogging seems almost seems passe or “old-school.” After all, blogs have been around for more than 20 years at this point (so in 2006, I guess I was actually late to the game!).

Yet if I had to choose just one technology tool I could not live without, it would be blogging, hands-on. It’s not even close. During an online webinar a few years ago, I heard Troy Hicks, co-author of the recently published Argument in the Real World, say the same thing. As one very skeptical student once said to me, “I thought I would hate blogging, but it turned out to be a really valuable experience. Probably the most valuable.” Then after a pause, he added, “You should definitely keep doing this with students.” That was more than eight years ago, and happily, I’ve followed his advice. Continue reading

New Notebook Rituals

As this post drops, I’m wrapping up the second week of the new semester. I’ve got new courses, new students and new ideas.

One of the first things that I try to establish is the importance of our notebooks. I actually try to do a lot of our work, our writing, our responding… our thinking in them.

So, I really want them to matter.

For the last couple of years, as I’ve already shared, I have had students put a word on the front of their notebooks, borrowing from the #OneWord resolution movement. After doing this last week, I can reaffirm there is a power in this. Already, students are calling for their notebooks by their words, and there’s something special about this daily occurance.

“I am loyal.”

“I am overachieve.”

“I am creative.”

“I am intensity.”

Even “I am reckless!” speaks to the spirit with which it actually feels like they’re approaching their new English courses.

I added a new element to notebook personalization this semester. I make no bones about being an Austin Kleon fanboy. Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work are a pair of texts that have had an incredible impact on my teaching. His tweets and weekly email newsletter have added so many ideas to my notebook.

In a recent newsletter, he did what he often does, and shared his one of his own processes. Each time that he begins a new notebook, he tapes a picture of someone who inspires him inside, a guardian spirit. He adds a quote as well.

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A few notebooks from my Grade 9 & 10 classes.

Of course, as I would have students starting new notebooks, I “stole” the idea right away. In our first classes, after we made the initial run through the syllabus, and started establishing our community, we personalized our notebooks. I explained how they were going to have a word that spoke to their goals and aspirations in the course on the front, and a person who inspired them inside. I told them that their first page of their notebook would give me my first glimpse at their writing, as they explained their choices. We had something to do that accomplished a lot, but didn’t feel like a big ask on the first day.

 

The guardian spirits are as diverse and random as the students that chose them. From Yoda to Dali, Homer  to Hermione , Mandela to Jesus, they run the gamut. Of the 60 or so guardian spirits, the only duplicate is Eddie Murphy. In two different classes.

And the rationales for their choices of words and guardian spirits gave me so much insight into who these students are. Eddie Murphy is there because of his bravery as a speaker, his ability to win people’s respect and adoration with his humor. (I know you were curious, so he was the example I chose!) I appreciate the openness with which they did this task.

But as I’ve been assessing those first pieces of writing, and looking at other responses in their notebooks this first week, I’ve actually come to appreciate what those two things they stuck to their notebooks have come to mean. Every time I grab a student’s notebook, I read their word. I open and see the image of someone who inspires them. Who that student is, and wants to be is laid bare for me. It’s quite powerful.

Imagine if it’s having a similar impact on them.

Do you have any new notebook rituals in your classroom? How about for yourself? What do you do? What are yours? We can chat about it on Twitter,  @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below.

-Jay

4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

Continue reading

3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

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Teachers from Farmington High School in Farmington, CT, armed with authentic literary analysis mentor texts and a game plan for bringing it to their classrooms!

Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does?

As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement.  Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading

a Writing With Mentors Webinar!

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Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.

But what does this look like in your plan book?

How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?

How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?

And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?

We’ve got a webinar for you!

Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!

Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.

 

No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Infographic Rankings

Mentor Texts: Rolling Stone magazine’s Threat Assessment infographic

Entertainment Weekly magazine’s The Bullseye infographic

Writing Techniques:

  • Organizing information
  • Tone
  • Visual presentation

Background:

Hi. I’m Jay and I’m a recovering magazineaholic.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but magazines are wonderful things, especially for a mentor text based teacher. They contain, if you’re getting a variety of them, such diverse writing, both in form and focus that it can be quote overwhelming. Most of my magazines wind up making their way to my classroom, to be used as mentor texts, as well as research sources.

A neat thing has happened though, as many aspects of communication include visual literacy more frequently. Many of the features in a magazine are more familiar to people, and forms like the infographic have become more prevalent.

This works for me, because one of the things I love to do is to have students play with information, ideas and opinions. I frequently refer to what I call The Great Scale, the idea that everything is relative. When we’re researching or talking about social justice issues, I often use my white boards or bulletin boards to visually manipulate ideas and opinions, facilitating discussions about how we rank things.

int_bl_2010_sept_30_rolling_stone_picThe Threat Assessment infographic that Rolling Stone used to feature looks like my Great Scale. It ranks things happening in the world from worst to best, or in their words, from the things Against Us to the things For Us. Entertainment Weekly‘s The Bullseye works in a similar fashion, albeit with a pop culture focus and the target as a visual reference point. (I’ve included a recent Bullseye in .pdf format, but a Google image search yields oodles of ’em! Threat Assessment is a bit harder to come by, alas.)

Though these may seem kind of silly, the critical writing involved in their creation is what makes them seem so valuable to me. Continue reading

From Facepalm to Firestarter: Embarrassment and Inspiration at a Writing Project Symposium

Facepalm.

By the second panel of the 2017 Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, “From High School to College: Engaging in Writing Dialogue,” you could have made a meme of me (or at least my inner monologue, since I managed to keep my outer composure), sitting like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with my head in my hands. After a 6AM drive to the flagship university of my Badger State and just one hour of conversation about writing with other secondary and post-secondary professionals, I’d finally realized something about my classes that had always been in front of my nose.

Ugh. Facepalm.

Shaking myself out of my embarrassed gloom, I grabbed a sticky note to catch my thoughts: “ALL of my classes are literature-centered!” I scribble-screamed. “I’m almost ALWAYS assessing students’ writing in terms of what it shares or shows about their reading. I RARELY look at them as writers alone!”

I thought about the assignment I had just returned to my IB juniors, a practice writing that I’d touted as a no-fault attempt at the reflective writing we would be doing all semester (in preparation for an “official” version in the spring). I had returned the papers with suggestions for content and MANY corrective pink marks. In my hurry to share with them how an IB examiner might evaluate their work, I hadn’t really stopped to listen to students’ writing “voices.” Even my follow-up activity had focused on grammar and sentence structure–the very things I had asked my students to ignore when assessing some sample reflective statements!

FACEPALM!!

Peeling my fingers off of my forehead, I continued to listen to the panelists as they discussed ways to reinvent instruction and assessment to focus on what we value in writing. I started to imagine myself as another hero of science fiction, Princess Leia, this time lifting a finger to press a button on R2-D2 and send my plea for a facepalm-burn balm out into the universe: “Help me, Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, you’re my only hope!”  Continue reading

Research Lessons From My Twitter Feed

I’ve been scrolling through Twitter a lot these past two weeks.  I can’t look away from the news and everything I read is prompting new questions and new things I need to research. Saturday, someone tweeted a poem by Naomi Shihab-Nye, Gate A-4. It’s a beautiful story of an interaction between two women in an airport, one helping the other. She ends with some words of reflection:

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Though I teach two classes that don’t traditionally use a lot of poetry, this text fit perfectly in my AP Seminar class because it’s nearly impossible to read it and not be left with some questions in your brain. 

In AP Seminar, a research and inquiry based course, I’ve found one of the best ways prompt curiosity and inquiry is giving my students completely un-research-y types of texts: poetry, music, paintings, etc.  The formula? Give them something high interest, let the questions fly, and then let them build the answer.  Continue reading