Never a Day Without a Line… or a Word

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“Never a day without a line,” Brenda repeated.

In the summer of 2011, I had the pleasure of participating in the PA Writing and Literature Project Summer Invitational Writing Institute. Although I’d been teaching for several years by then, my experience with the writing project that summer was the first time I started to think of myself not just as teacher of writing, but as a writer who teaches.

The truth is that I had been always been a writer. I’d kept journals and notebooks and diaries for years. And as an English major, I’d also written my fair share of essays, papers, and assorted assignments. But in my mind, none of these things qualified me to be a writer. Writers publish their writing; they write books and for newspapers, magazines, and journals.

That changed when I participated in the writing institute. Which brings me back to Brenda. Brenda Krupp, a third-grade teacher and co-director of the writing project, facilitated the institute that summer. Her boundless energy and passion for not just her students’ writing lives but also our own—as teachers, as colleagues—was palpable. Although she taught us many things those four hot weeks in July, if I had to choose one thing that I will always remember, it’s the words she shared from writing legend, Don Murray: “Never a day without a line.”  Continue reading

Looking at On-Demand Test Writing in a New Light

You know the feeling you get when a beloved former student comes back to visit you right before leaving for college?

 

Our school has a new fangled sign-in program that lets you experience the elation twice. The front office snaps a picture of the visitor as she signs-in at the front office and sends the receiving teacher an email. I had my first official visitor of the year on Friday:

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My heart leapt twice: once when I checked my email, and again when she walked through my door.

My heart does a similar dance when I hear about real people doing real writing in the real world. I tend to hover over my husband’s computer when he’s writing a proposal, contract, or memo. “What are you writing about? Are you making an argument? What other writing skills are you using?” When I send a letter home with students at the beginning of the year, I often include a postscript that asks parents/guardians if and how they use writing in the workplace. I collect these moments and examples of writing to share with my students as “proof” that the writing they’re doing in school matters — that they will use what they’re learning and practicing later in life, no matter the field.

So you can imagine how excited I was when my friend Carter, who was interviewing for a communications position at a university, forwarded me an email from her potential employer:

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A WRITING ASSIGNMENT!!!!!

A light bulb went off. A few weeks ago, when Rebekah and I were doing Professional Development in Hanover, someone asked about how on-demand writing (a la Common Core-aligned writing prompts) fits into the writing-with-mentors model.

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End-of-course writing prompts, Virginia Department of Education

At first glance, it might appear that it doesn’t. In our classrooms, mentor texts are at the center of everything we do — from planning to writing to publication, professional mentor texts guide and inspire our students in every phase of the writing process.

Additionally, we come from a tradition of writing workshop in which choice is the bedrock of instruction.

Common-Core aligned prompts are offer very limited choice, and the student sample prompts teachers can share with students do not fit our definition of inspiring, professional, relevant mentor texts.

However, many professionals today have to sit and write for a potential employer. The tasks range from 20 minutes to a few hours to a few days. Years ago, when my friend Carter was making a shift from broadcast media to public relations, she was presented with another writing assignment: write a press release in 25 minutes. While she had never written a press release before, she had studied myriad press releases in her old job. So she conjured up the power of those old familiar mentor texts, wrote the release, and got the job.

In this most recent interview, Carter was given a 19-page project proposal document from which she had to “develop a story” that would reach the entire University community. For privacy reasons, I won’t publish the assignment here, but I will say that the project proposal included an image that Carter needed to work into her story, a description of the audience, and the following requirements:

  • 150-400 words
  • The writing sample should be considered appropriate for print, web, and social media
  • Deadline: 6:00 PM on Wednesday, July 27 (she had three days)
  • An email address for submission

Real writing by real people in the real world.

All of this to say that on-demand writing isn’t limited to standardized tests; it’s an authentic genre that deserves a place in our workshops. And when presented to students the right way, it can contribute to their growth as writers and people.

As I begin to think about how I might integrate on-demand writing into my classroom, I’m chewing on several big ideas:

On demand writing is a unique genre.

Because it’s every genre. On demand writing is ANY writing that is germane to the profession requiring it. A press release. A news story. A report. An email. A brief. And for our students, standardized essay prompts on Common Core-aligned exams. Additionally, on-demand writing must be completed in one sitting. Unlike processed writing, the writer must formulate a plan at the beginning, stick to it, and complete the task within a specific time frame.

But while on demand writing is different from all other writing we teach, it’s also ALL the writing we teach. Because on-demand writing can be anything, we are preparing our students for it every time we expose them to a new genre. When our students write poetry, they are developing the skills they’ll need for on-demand writing. When they write narratives, they’re practicing it, too. When they write commentary or op-ed, they are preparing for on-demand writing. Because when you take away the time limit, on demand writing is just writing. And students need to be as comfortable writing in as many different genres as possible to be prepared for any and all on-demand writing tasks thrown their way.

Students should not write “on demand” until they have had multiple opportunities to practice writing in that genre without time constraints.

A student who cannot write a compelling piece of commentary will not be successful writing commentary on-demand. The skills of on-demand writing should be nurtured by process writing first. Students must be allowed to practice writing using a process approach before the words “on demand” are ever uttered.

Teaching students how to write on-demand and how to write commentary at the same time would be like teaching them how to do long division and add simultaneously. They need to be separated out, with plentiful opportunities to practice the writing, and small focused lessons on time management and planning later.

An on-demand writing genre study is a study in planning.

If I were to teach on-demand writing, I would teach it in the second semester, after my students had been exposed to several different genres of writing. My mini-lessons would be about time management and planning, not about writing techniques — because the writing techniques would be the same techniques I had taught them in our process writing units. And the mentor texts would not be Common Core-given student samples but the same mentor texts we had used in previous genre studies.

On-demand writing units offer a wonderful opportunity to linger in lessons about planning. I’m envisioning at least four or five different lessons on various pre-writing strategies — everything from sketching to listing to flash drafting. In Chapter 4 of her new book The Journey is Everything, Katherine Bomer offers numerous tools and activities for generating topics and ideas, including mind maps, two-minute blasts, and twenty questions.

I’m also envisioning another set of lessons on time management, including Kelly Gallagher’s ABC tackle the prompt exercise.

On-demand writing should be one study you teach, not every study you teach.

As with everything we do, balance is key. In reading, we offer our students a healthy, balanced diet of whole class novels AND independent reading AND literature circles. Their writing bento boxes should be just as colorful. When we have to prepare students for a Common Core-aligned test, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of one prompt after another. But on-demand writing cannot be the only writing we teach. It’s a piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture, and a failure to give our students myriad, diverse writing opportunities can deprive them of the very thing we’re trying to get them to do: become so comfortable as writers that even the lamest on-demand writing prompt seems infused with possibility.

How do you frame on-demand writing in your classroom? How much on-demand writing vs. processed writing do your students do? How can the power of mentor texts and the workshop approach be harnessed to teach on-demand writing?

-Allison

First Day of School: Six Word Stories with a Twist

Today’s guest post is from one of Rebekah & Allison’s colleagues, Maria Bartz. Maria  is an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, VA.  She loves a clean white board for spontaneous think tank sessions with her inspiring colleagues, a fully charged laptop to explore the ever-growing world of educational technology, and  big circle of passionate teenagers engaged in thought-provoking discussion.

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First-day six word memoirs from Maria’s students

Planning for the first day is a balancing act.  I want it to be fun, unique, and a truthful preview of what the school year will look like in my room.  For the past six years of teaching, plans for the first day were a mix of icebreakers, quick review of the syllabus, and writing some sort of introduction letter, which they would finish for homework.  It just never felt genuine or much like my classroom.  

This year, I decided to make it truer to my class: I wanted them writing.  And not just an introduction letter that skims the surface of who they are and what they like to do. Still, it’s tough to get students studying mentor texts and writing a finished piece in only 25 minutes.  I was up for the challenge.

My secret weapon came in the form of six word stories….with a twist.  In past years, I have used Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story to open the conversation about intentional word choice: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  While this is still one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, I wanted this activity to act as an introduction to the process of studying mentor texts as well as a gateway into the students writing about themselves in a personal way.

So instead of asking them to create a fictional six word story, it had to be a six word memoir.  Here’s how the class went:

  • Define “memoir”

I define the word “memoir” for my students and explain that memoirs can come in all lengths–a couple pages or an entire book.  I then tell them that they are going to write their memoir in only six words (listen for the gasps!).

  • Study  one six-word memoir together.

I preface the reading by saying, “This writer was asked, ‘If you had to tell me about your life in six words, what would you say?’ This is the memoirist’s response: ‘Ask me again in a month.’”

Independently, students respond to these questions: What is the tone, the feeling exuding from the sentence? How do you know?

I let students share with their group and then share to the class. Students notice that the word “month” is an indicator of hopefulness or despair, depending on how they perceive the length of a month to be.  Students note that the word “ask” is friendly or intrusive, depending on how they interpret being asked personal questions. We only spend a few minutes discussing this, as they quickly grasp the power of each word in the sentence.

  • Study more mentor texts

Next, we read ten examples of six word memoirs (amazing examples here). I chose IMG_1531examples that varied in topic, tone, and style and that resonated with high school students. Here are some of my favorites: this and this and this and this  They are unintimidating and clever; students have even commented, “I like these” or “This is cool.”

Students choose their favorites from the list of ten and work through the same questions about tone–what is the tone?  How do you know?  To that question, I add “What makes that sentence special–is there a play on words? Is there a creative use of punctuation?”  Some circle or highlight words, others don’t. Since this is a 25 minute class, I will save that discussion for another day.  My goal today is just to have them read sentences thoughtfully.  Due to my time constraints, we don’t share our thoughts on our favorite sentences; although, if the class was longer, I would ask for volunteers to share their findings.

  • Students take a turn

I then tell the students that it’s their turn–that they will be writing their own six word memoirs.  Some eyes widen, some let out a groan for having to do more work on the first day of school, but most are already spinning the wheels in their heads.  

For the sake of those who are not as eager to write, I offer up myself as tribute and share the drafts of my own six word memoir.  I explain why I made any major or minor adjustments in each draft and show my final draft written cleanly on a sentence strip.  This is intended to ease their anxieties, allow them to get to know me personally, and illustrate the power of revision.

At this point, there is about five minutes left in class.  I coach them along, asking rhetorical questions that could spark an idea–”What is going on in your life right now?  What is your life motto?  What are your hopes for the future?”  Some students will write six words immediately.  Others reread the mentor sentences and have zero words written when the dismissal bell rings.  Homework is to finish the first draft of their six word memoirs.

Without much dawdling, this took one 25-minute class period.

The next class, as the warm up, I ask the students to reread their original six word memoirs–does it reflect the tone you intended?  Does anything need tweaking?  Once they are satisfied, they will write their final drafts on sentence strips–no names required.

IMG_1532That afternoon, I staple all the memoirs on our bulletin board to publish their writing.  When students return to class, they are given three votes (pencil hash marks) for their favorite ones; we applaud those who got the most votes but keep the winners anonymous.

Students love reading each other’s memoirs and seeing their own work displayed.  I’ve even had a few students submit a new six word memoir, feeling the inspiration of their peers’ and their own writing.  We will refer to this activity throughout the year when I introduce the concepts of mentor texts, word choice, and taking risks.

It is my favorite first day yet.  

(For another beginning-of-the-year writing idea using six word memoirs, check out Stefanie’s post from last week!)

What new experiments are you trying on the first day this year? What are your tried-and-true favorite ways to getting students writing from day one? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Maria @MsBartz.

Mentor Text Wednesday: Synonym Toast Crunch, Euphemistically Speaking

Mentor Texts:

Excerpt from Labors of the Heart by Claire Davis

Writing Techniques:

  • Word Choice

Background:

In Nova Scotia, where we usually spend July, there is an amazing chain of thrift stores. They usually have an interesting selection of books, which corresponds nicely with my having more time to read.

This year, I really lucked out. I’ve become a big fan of the Best American series of books, and this year, the stacks coughed up three of them, two short stories, and one poetry from the early 2000s.

As I dug through the short story book from 2001, I came across this passage from Claire Davis’ story Labors of the Heart:

Labors of the Heart

Right away, I knew I had something I wanted to share. Continue reading

Pedagogical Documentation: How Writing Teachers Learn From Their Students

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When Allison and Rebekah asked me to begin a new year of blogging by considering the first thing I would want the writers I teach to understand, this post nearly began writing itself. You see, I’ve spent this summer learning more about the power and practice of pedagogical documentation, and this has inspired some unexpected shifts in my thinking about what matters most inside of writing classrooms.

Writers do.

Of course they do. This is a simple fact. So simple that we tend to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that the curriculum we design is intended for our students, but when I look hard at many lessons and units, it’s clear that they were designed to meet the needs of teachers and systems, not kids. It’s easy to assume that our assessments are intended to serve learners well, but if we’re disrupting learning in order to assess it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right just yet. And when we position ourselves at the front of the classroom, we’re typically taking ownership of instruction, aren’t we?

Continue reading

The First Thing: Writers are Readers.

thefirstthingOn Moving Writers and in Writing With Mentors, you get a taste of my classroom and a peek behind the curtain of my planning process.

But what you see is only half the story.

While I am passionate about writing instruction, it’s only one half of my instruction. I also teach literature — through whole class novels, in literature circles, through independent reading. Even if I were only a writing teacher, I would teach many close and critical reading skills just through mentor text instruction alone. But I became an English major once-upon-a-time because I was in love with literature, and I became a teacher because I wanted to impart that to students. And so, while my professional writing zooms in on writing instruction, reading is equally taught and equally important to me.

I’m like you – I want to make learning as sticky as possible for my students, and I want to try to make my life easier in the process. Explicitly linking our literature study and our writing study to the greatest degree possible can help us accomplish this. And so, the first thing that I want my student writers to know about writing is that our reading lives and writing lives are more than two discrete activities we do in English class. They are more than two sides of a coin. Our reading life and our writing life feed off of each other — they each survive and thrive when they are meaningfully joined together. Put more simply, I want my students to immediately know this : Writers are readers. Readers are writers.

What does this look like in the first two weeks of school? Here are three foundational understandings I want to communicate to students from the get-go as  I connect students’ reading and writing lives: Continue reading

Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

 

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: One Good Story

Mentor Text: Jesse Newton’s Facebook post about his Roomba and dog poop

Writing Techniques:

  • Anecdotal writing
  • Descriptive writing
  • Humour

Background:

I’m originally from Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. That means that there are a few things hardwired into my soul. One of these things is an appreciation for a good story.

I often tell my students that everybody should have at least one good, practiced story to tell. Most of us spend our lives collecting them, whether we do it consciously or not. And we edit and revise them, crafting the narrative for maximum impact. We’ve all seen this play out in social situations haven’t we? We can tell when someone is telling their “story” – the pacing, the emphasis.

We need to remind our writers sometimes that the written pieces we treasure came after the oral traditions of storytelling. We’ve evolved them over time. Viral pieces on social media have become the new avenue for many of these stories.

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Image via Jesse Newton on Facebook

And that’s where this week’s mentor text was found. On a peaceful Saturday morning, I was up before my family, holding in laughter so as not to wake them while I read Jesse Newton’s Facebook post about his Roomba dragging dog poop throughout his house. This, in writing, was the kind of thing I had been telling my students they should be crafting. Continue reading

Writers Explore Possibility

thefirstthingToday our school was abuzz with new students arriving for freshman orientation. At certain points in the day I felt like I was fast forwarding through an action movie: students dashed from classroom to classroom at uncomfortable speeds, clutching their schedules, many barely looking up to say hello. Pure relief washed over the face of a new student when he saw me waving his lost schedule in the air. What would he have done without a schedule to tell him where to go and when?

The schedules these students were glued to are stories. Stories other people have written them into. On the first day of school, students are being ushered to classes that (excluding electives) have been chosen for them. They are expected to know what sports they are trying out for, what clubs they want to join, and what electives they want to take. They are expected to “orient” themselves to several fixed points, to discover themselves quickly and painlessly.

This is a lot for a ninth grader. This is a lot for a human!

What can we offer to these students in this first week? What can we offer to these students throughout the year as they continue to be bombarded by fixed curricula and well worn paths?

The writing classroom. It can be an oasis. An escape from the crazy. Because in the writing classroom, students are invited to discover rather than receive, to turn rather than stand still, to explore rather than orient.

I want my students to know immediately that writing is not about right answers, or formulas, or worn paths. Writing is about possibilities. A writer’s purpose is to explore possibility.

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How writers explore what’s possible in their writing:

Writers explore what’s possible in their writing by practicing writing every day; trying on new ideas, structures, and patterns; and talking with other writers about their thinking and craft.

One way I will introduce this concept to my students:

Notebooks. I want notebooks to be EVERYTHING this year. Like an athletic field on which my student athletes practice and try new formations and fiddle with moves, the notebook is a space where students can capture thinking, emulate mentor sentences, plan out a piece of writing, jot down ideas for future writing projects…the list goes on and on. I figure that THE FIRST THING we present to students says volumes about what is important in our classroom, which is why I plan to introduce the writer’s notebook on the second day of school, and all the rhythms and routines of workshop will spring up from there. My notebook minilesson will include a tour of writers’ notebooks — my own and famous writers’ notebooks I have found images of on the internet — as well as some suggestions for how to organize (or de-organize) the notebook, ideas of what to keep inside, and some notebook work for the day.

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives:

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives by closely examining their lives, by looking forward and backward and noticing patterns across moments; by reflecting on things they’ve seen, experienced, and thought; and by sharing that thinking and writing with others.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Poetry. For many reasons — and especially because Nancie Atwell told me to — I like to start the year with a study of poetry writing. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” What better way to help students understand the power of language than with poetry?

Even more important, I have found that poetry is the best invitation to students to explore their inner lives. So many of our students arrive at our classroom doors at the beginning of the year with the introspection beaten out of them. They have been tested and SOL-ed and standardized more than we’d like to know. And even if they aren’t come from high stakes testing environments, many of them hail from classrooms in which the first person pronoun has not been allowed in their writing.

But the beautiful poems of Greg Orr and Faith Shearin and Jed Chambers and William Stafford can set them free again.

Beginning with a study of poetry can rekindle the same introspection and reflection and care that all genres of writing demand — because writing without an I  — without a thinking, feeling, vested person behind the words — is empty writing.

How writers explore what’s possible in the world:

Writers explore what’s possible in the world by reading actively, trying on others’ ideas for size, and writing into those ideas; by making research a daily practice; by drawing connections with other thinkers and writers.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Noticing ideas too. I’ll admit that I can get carried away by mentor texts. I love mentor texts and what they do for my students’ writing (and mine!) so much that I sometimes skip the important part that comes before the reading like writers: I skip the reading like readers. I jump to the chase after we read a mentor text together: What do you notice? What techniques do you see? Why do you think the writer used that craft? How might you use it in your own writing? And when we skip over reading like readers, we missing something really, really important: the pulsing heart of the piece itself. The ideas. This isn’t good for us as readers, and this isn’t good for us as writers.

Because writers MUST also be readers who think and talk about ideas — about the what — rather than just the how.

I love the how. I love noticing craft moves and naming them and seeing what my students come up with. Out of order adjectives. Whispering parenthesis. Absolutes. Circular structure. I eat craft for breakfast.

But without a what there would be no how. And I want to raise writers who care about the what. So this year, when I teach a lesson on reading like a writer, I will amend the guidelines I typically give to writers:

Reading Like Writers (the old way)

Reading Like Writers (the new way)

  1. Notice something about the craft.
  2. Name is using language that makes sense to you.
  3. Think about why the writer used this craft.
  4. Try it in your own writing.
  1. Find and think or talk about an idea that strikes you.
  2. Notice something about the craft.
  3. Name it using language that makes sense to you.
  4. Think about why the writer used this craft and how it enhances her ideas.
  5. Try some writing yourself on this topic and/or using some of the craft in a piece of writing.

 

Our writing classrooms must be places where students can feel safe trying on ideas, playing with new forms, and exploring what they may or may not think. I believe that what happens in the notebook is directly linked to what happens in the brain and the heart. And I want to nurture students with open minds, open notes, open hearts.

-Allison

How can you facilitate exploration in your writing classroom? How can you invite students to explore, discover, uncover their ideas, their preferences, their opinions? How can you help show them the possibilities?