“No Dress Rehearsal…”

I do not hide the fact that I am a fan of rock and roll.

And, if you’re a Canadian of my age, that means being a fan of The Tragically Hip.

That means being a fan of Gord Downie.

Gord, as we all call him, in a very Canadian way, like we knew him personally, sort of way, passed away this week. About a year and a half ago, it was revealed that Gord had terminal brain cancer. As fans, we got to say goodbye. There was new music. There was a final tour. The last show of that tour was televised, and Canada pretty much stopped to watch.

And now, he’s gone.

It rattled me. I’m a big fan of music, and lately, that seems to mean dealing with loss after loss of artists who had given you songs that meant so much. Gord’s passing has hit the hardest of these.

 

Gord

The painting that hangs in my classroom.

A painting I did after catching my last Hip show hangs in my classroom. Gord watches over us as we work. I’ve looked up a number of times the last few days, and thought about what that means in my English classroom.

 

Like many of my favorite artists, Gord made rock and roll a literate pursuit. I’ve written here before about his lyrics and poetry. In many ways, Gord wasn’t a lyricist as much as he was a poet fronting an amazing band. The Huffington Post, this week, called him a pub-rock poet. In my classroom, he watches over young writers. As I encourage them to play with words, a master of the craft is there, I hope, in spirit. Continue reading

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Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

A Tour of Mentor Texts for Middle Grade and High School Boys

On weekly visits to the library with my two-year-old son I often find myself browsing the periodicals in the children’s section. From there I can spy my busy toddler as he moves from the play kitchen to the dinosaur section to the puppet show.

Recently I found myself drawn to magazines geared for boys and threw a few in my bag to take home ans peruse: Boys’ Life, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Ranger Rick.

When my brother was a kid, he used to hoard issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids. I remember a distant aunt sending us annual subscriptions to Ranger Rick. But I hadn’t seen these ancient periodicals in years. In fact, I was kind of surprised they were still in existence!

Turns out they supply some pretty decent mentor texts for our students, texts that may specifically be of interested to the boys and young men in our workshop. Below I take you on a tour of the three magazines I toted home and a few of their regular features to get you started.

Unfortunately a lot of the content I describe below is not accessible online…so get yourself to the nearest public library and fill your bag with the gorgeous slippery pages of these beloved childhood magazines!

Ranger Rick

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What it is: A children’s nature magazine published by the US Wildlife Federation. 

Target readers: Ages 7 and up

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Ask Rick 

A question-and-answer column featuring questions from real readers about science and nature. The answers present information in a kid-friendly, easy-to-understand tone and format.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-driven study: Q&A Columns 
  • Summative writing assessment: At the beginning of a new unit, students might list wonderings they have in a KWL chart. At the end of the unit, students can study “Ask Rick” mentor texts and craft responses to their initial wonderings using the knowledge they gained during the study. Bonus: nwf.org/rangerrick offers an interactive Ask Rick feature on their website.
  1. The Buzz 

two-page spread featuring highly-visual blurbs about current science and nature events.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-study: Science-y current events writing 
  • Mentor sentence study. Here are a few sentences culled from the September 2017 column–note the interesting use of colons and em-dashes!

Here’s a creepy way to think about it: Pound for pound, [spiders] could eat every person on the planet. (Page 13)

Now here’s the happy truth: Spiders don’t eat people (Page 13).

But next summer, [the wild bison] will be released to roam free–just like their ancestors once did! (Page 13)

  1. Ranger Rick Feature Article

The main feature in each Ranger Rick issue combines a multi-paragraph introduction with a strong hook and a two-to-three page visual spread presenting the rest of the content. For instance, in the September 2017 issue, the feature article looked at the “super (small) heroes” of the ocean: plankton (14). The two-page infographic spread showcased craft-ful facts printed on colorful shapes against a black background with images of different kinds of plankton floating around the word bubbles.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre Study: Infographics
  • Mentor texts for Technique Study: Strong titles and captions
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Powerful leads. Here’s the lead from the September issue:

They’re not faster than a speeding bullet. And they could never leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yet all the living things you see here are superheroes, just the same (15).

  1. Ranger Rick Adventures

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A cartoon strip that explores a hot-button environmental issue using the beloved characters Boomer Badger, Ranger Rick, and Scarlet Fox. The three-page cartoon closes with a helpful sidebar: Ranger Rick’s Field Notes (shown here as “More Facts”).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Informational Cartoons
  • Mentor Texts for Purpose-Driven Study: Writing Our Way Through Problems to Solutions
  • For teaching a minilesson on using sidebars, pull-out quotes, and other text features

Boys’ Life

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What it is:  Magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.

Target readers: Ages 6-18

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Heads Up: Fast Facts

A vibrant one-page infographic presenting facts on a simple concept like “The Human Body” or “Golf.”

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Infographics
  • Mentor Texts for Technique-Driven Study: Presenting Numbers and Facts in an Engaging Way
  • Summative writing assessment: Students present information learned in a conceptual unit in a highly visual and engaging way.

2. BL Workshop

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Image from David J. Brooks’  (Illustrator) Pinterest page

A two-page how-to spread, featuring a range of DIY crafts and projects. Recent examples include “How to Make a Shoebox Solar Viewer” (August 2017, Page 44-45)) and “How to Make a Twig Number Sign” (September 2017, Page 56-57).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre Study: How-To Pieces
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Presenting information in a list

3. Gear Guy Update

A semi-regular column that offers short, blurb-y reviews of gear readers’ might want to take on their next backpacking trip, paddle boarding adventure, fishing excursion, and so forth. This column has an online version, but doesn’t have the same impact as the visually engaging two-spread spread in the actual magazine.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Short Critical Reviews of Products
  • Mentor texts for Technique-Driven study: Persuasive, concise language

Sports Illustrated for Kids

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What it is:  A monthly kid-version of the sports magazine for adults.

Target readers: 8-15

3 Features for Teaching Writing

1. Prime Time

A medium-length profile of an athlete with section headers and images.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Profiles
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on using section headers to break up a longer piece of writing into meaningful chunks

2. Freeze Frame

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A hot-off-the-press news-worthy image, accompanied by a caption and super-short paragraph explaining the photo.

How to use it:

  • Notebook Time invitation: Project a relevant, engaging sporty image, and invite students to caption it with bold, concise language.
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on strong caption writing
  • For writing about images

 

3. From the pages of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated for Kids used to print a multi-page insert with bonus material for older readers. In 2010, they scrapped this insert and replaced it with a carefully selected full-length feature article from Sports Illustrated.

How to use it:

  • For differentiating reading and writing in your classroom — inside this magazine, there’s something for everyone, including your more experienced readers and writers
  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven studies: Feature Articles & Profiles

With the ubiquity of digital texts, we may rarely finding ourselves looking for mentor texts inside books and magazines. But these gems are surely worth a trip to the library. Do you study magazine writing with your students? If so, which magazines have you found particularly helpful and inspiring? Which regular columns do you turn to for writing instruction? Tweet me @allisonmarchett.

 

No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Poets Respond

Mentor Texts: The Poetry of Poets Respond, via Rattle Magazine

Writing Techniques:

  • Responding to current events
  • Finding Inspiration
  • Poetic Form

Background:

This post has been at the back of my mind for a while now. It’s not the first time I’ve written here about how our classrooms are places that we have to deal with the troubling things that our world puts in front of us. I openly advocate having poets and poetry journals in your social media feed. I do, and it’s a rich resource. One of my favorite follows is @RattleMag. There are many wonderful poems and poets peppered throughout my feed as a result of this follow, but there’s a wonderful strategy there that I want to mine as well.

 

Once a week, they publish a poem under the banner Poets Respond. The intention is that a poet is able to respond to events in the world within the past week. This is a concession to the “age of information” on their part, as they have a lengthy period of time between issues. I love their selection criteria, “Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome.”

 

I stand by my opinion that poetry, and other forms of writing are important ways for our students to work through their opinions and ideas about things that are challenging. Poets Respond is what this looks like in practice outside of a classroom, in the “real world” where our writers live. Continue reading

Why This/Not That? A thinking routine to move kids from identification to analysis

One of the biggest challenges in teaching rhetorical analysis is teaching kids to move beyond identification to actual analysis.  I have found over the years that when I teach kids to look for certain things, they find them!! If we talk about repetition, they can track it down. If we talk about parallel structure, boom. However, I’ve also found that many struggle to move beyond that identification.

“Oh, look!” they cry delightedly. “Parallel structure!”

And then they move on.  

I would press them when we would discuss and analyze in class, and they could usually get to something analytical, but when they would move to writing, they’d still stop at identification.  I found myself scribbling (over and over) in the margins of essays “why is this important?” and “what does this show you?”  

During a class discussion of a text a few weeks ago, I was digging for a more analytical answer and I said, “Yes, but why this word and not another one?” It was one of those teaching lightbulb moments when I realized it was a prompt my students could be asking themselves: Why this and not that?

wilson james

Continue reading

Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Lynda Barry

If you’ve taken note of my Twitter handle, you might be curious about where it comes from. I didn’t join Twitter as a teacher, and my initial avatar was a drawing I did of a stuffed monkey that used to travel with my wife and I wherever we went. Being drawn to artistic pursuits, and travelling with a stuffed monkey, it made sense to adopt the handle @doodlinmunkyboy and roll with it.

lyndabarrymys

A page from What It Is

It’s a different handle than most teachers have, as it doesn’t necessarily reflect my “teacher identity” as a high school English teacher. It actually speaks more to my artistic leanings, though I have taught art as well.

Some of my posts here at Moving Writers have highlighted my interest in focusing on the visual elements of the language arts. Though we often focus on reading and writing, viewing and representing deserve, in my opinion, development and practice. I’ve drawn quite heavily on my interests in art and design, as well as my experience as an artist and art teacher to make this happen in my class.

I am well aware that this notion is daunting for many teachers. If we don’t self-identify as artists, we feel ill-prepared to encourage our students to play and explore that side of literacy. I totally get that!

Recently, I dropped a quick recommendation of a book that I’ve used in my classroom recently. I’ve thought about that brief mention, and would like to expand upon it. There are two books that I use in my classroom that are invaluable resources in pushing the creative limits of ourselves as teachers, and the efforts of our students.

SYLLABUS.cover-web

Syllabus one of my favorite teaching books (image via Drawn & Quarterly)

Cartoonist, author and teacher Lynda Barry has created many wonderful things, but it is her teaching books that have become very important to me. I have read all three of them: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and keep What It Is and Syllabus close by, alongside my Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher books. Let’s be honest, someone who’s official title is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity absolutely has to have great ideas, right?

I recommend these books to my English teacher friends because they are a blueprint to helping students find a path to expressing themselves visually. Many of the core ideas about creativity and artistic attitude that I worked to instill in my art students years ago are laid out in these texts. Barry lays out exercises to help students develop, while also encouraging them to embrace their innate talents, whatever they may be. If you’re a teacher who wants to have students sketching as part of their writing process, and aren’t sure how to go about it, it’s a great blueprint. The drawing jam from Syllabus has been invaluable the last few years as we study graphic novels, and work on graphic storytelling. After running through a couple weeks of drawing to start the class, students develop confidence in what they can create, an acceptance that they can do something that works artistically, even if it isn’t necessarily of the caliber of the art they see in the graphic novels we study.

I recommend these books to English teachers because there are so many activities in them that are invaluable in the idea generating stages of the writing process. In What It Is Barry shares ways to get writers to (literally) draw from their own experiences. They’ll pay attention to their day for ideas, or reflect upon people they’ve known to find characters to write. These exercises combine visuals and text, giving them material from which to write. They are engaging ways to generate ideas, so much more lively than sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration.

I recommend these books for their mentor text potential. In What It Is Barry includes a collection of pieces in which she creates pieces that explore some big, rhetorical and inquiry style questions through a combination of art, collage and text. They’re engaging pieces that have students represent their thoughts and ideas. There’s no thesis, no body paragraphs, or the conventional features we expect when students work with these kinds of questions… there is simply the wondering, the exploring, the attempts to answer, presented in an interesting way. Much more interesting to mark!

I recommend these books because using them allows students to have fun. Have you broken out some crayons in a high school classroom lately? It takes the students right back. If you think asking students to draw a castle in two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, and finally 15 seconds doesn’t create a buzz… And that fun is engaging. We go from laughing about our castles to talking about how we established criteria for what makes a castle, and how we could express that idea succinctly. From fun to important learning in a single exercise. Maybe we do this a few times, with dragons, unicorns and portraits of our teacher before we have that chat. If we do, we’ve strengthened the connection between expressing oneself creatively and fun, which is also a big win.

Before I bought these books, I had discovered Barry online. Her Tumblr page is a treasure trove, as it is essentially the course website for ‘The Unthinkable Mind,’ the course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin. It’s loaded with activities, ideas and exemplars, and well worth a visit. I just took a look at the first page, as I haven’t been there in a while, and I noted a handful of things I’d like to try in my Creative Writing course next semester.

These texts are unconventional in many ways, which is what makes them, in my opinion, so important for us to have. I love handing them to someone to check out, and the conversation that comes afterwards. Creativity is an important part of what we do in our English classrooms, and they encourage that in a natural and holistic manner. They’re wonderful guides for visual expression and literacy, which can be challenging to teach. Most of all, they’re catalysts for fun in your classroom, a way to play as part of learning, which is very important in our work.

Have you used Barry’s work in your classes? How? What’s a go-to text of yours that we might not know about?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?

My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.

After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.

So, here’s what we did…

First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?

I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After our routine writing, turn and talk, and share out, I asked students to post their best responses on the board. Here’s what they said makes sentences beautiful…

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Next, I asked them to go digging.

I gave students 5-6 minutes to thumb through the text for examples of “beautiful language,” and then write down a few examples. We then went around the room, student to student reading aloud our beautiful sentences.

Here are some some very recognizable, albeit beautiful examples, that emerged in class:

  • “All time is all time.”
  • “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
  • “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
  • “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
  • “The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.”
  • “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
  • “The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”

After that, we read like readers and then read like writers.

Some guiding questions that helped:

  • What do you notice?
  • What feeling, idea, or event is the sentence conveying?
  • How does the writer do it?
  • Is there anything significant about connotation?
  • Are literary or rhetorical devices present?
  • Is there repetition?
  • What is special, exciting, powerful, or summoning about this sentence?

Then, we built our list of mentor text “noticings.”

From students of Room 729…

 

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Finally, we did some writing of our own.

I write about this often, but this is the beauty of literature as mentor texts. You read the literature, you practice close reading, you read like a writer, and you try your hand at crafting your own beautiful sentences by making concious choices. I tell my students over and again that this is how we become more mature, sophisticated, and intentional writers.

For this portion of this activity, I gave students a series of abstract words and asked them to conjure up a sentence or two that somehow conveyed the feeling or idea of the word. As always, I asked my students to let the mentors be their guide and to use their list of “noticings” to inspire their work.

With this scaffolding and rule of thumb in mind, we wrote about WARMTH, about HOPE, about DESPAIR, about SATISFACTION, and about INEVITABILITY.

Here are a few beautiful sentences written by a few of my very lovely students (who I am grateful to for allowing me to share here):

For Warmth by Jillian C: Warmth is something that cannot always be found under blankets, or in front of heaters, or between the arms of another. Sometimes it cannot be sold or borrowed or stolen. So ignite.

For Hope by Madison B: The potential was proven when all at once, humanity became whole.

For Despair by Sydney B: At night she navigated the den that was her mind; the wolves would arrive soon. It’s a pack mentality.

Reflections on the lesson:

– I happen to be teaching Slaughterhouse Five now, but this activity can be done with any text anywhere. There’s something fun and interesting about that for me. I suspect there’s beautiful language in unsuspecting places, and if we can get students to notice that and pay attention, that’s a win for the good guys.

– Although “beautiful” is a subjective term (in the eye of the beholder and all that), this lesson forces students’ hands in categorizing and articulating beauty in language, a frequent sentiment in AP Literature.

– This lesson hit the head and the heart. One of my favorite, favorite lines from Slaughterhouse Five that I find particularly moving, especially now, says…

“What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once…they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Ain’t that the stuff?

How do you celebrate and call attention to beautiful language in your classroom? I’d love to find out. 

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