Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

Last year, Rebekah and I committed to opening our classes with “notebook time” — ten minutes at the beginning of every class period for our students to write and think and sketch in their notebooks. Best decision ever! But let’s be honest, sometimes we’re still searching for the perfect writing invitation seconds before our students walk in the classroom. It’s good to have a few go-to back-up options for days like this, which Tricia presents in today’s post. Thanks, Tricia!

I have a confession. I didn’t always use a writer’s notebook, either as teacher and especially as a student. It’s hard to remember what that was like—Where did I keep all my thoughts? How did I keep track of it all? Writer’s notebooks—or journals—were something I remember learning about in graduate school, and while I tried a bit of it when I first started teaching, I quickly abandoned the practice in favor of the neat, clean handout I could create (and control).

I think it was the open-endedness of the writer’s notebook that intimidated me: What prompts would I use? How would I know what prompts would work? And for what texts? Do I even have time for this?

Fast forward 15+ years, and I can’t imagine teaching without a writer’s notebook. That is not to say that I use them in all my classes. I’m still working on using them more deliberately and consistently in my literature-based courses. But writing? How do you teach writing without a writer’s notebook? I can’t imagine.

Instead, I’ve learned to embrace and celebrate the opportunity that writer’s notebooks offer. My own notebooks have changed over the years, too, as I moved from small, lined notebooks to bigger, unlined versions (my current notebook, and so far my favorite, is a Moleskine with dotted pages—dotted pages!).

I used to worry that every notebook prompt had to tie in with what we were reading or currently writing. While that’s still true most of the time, I’ve also found that sometimes a good notebook prompt doesn’t just reflect what’s in the curriculum, but also opens the way to new thinking and reflection, which then leads to new reading and writing. A good notebook prompt is generative.

So in no particular order, I thought I’d share three of my favorite writer’s notebook prompts from this year (so far). Continue reading

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Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

I love this question…although that might be because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  I wish that meant that the forthcoming answer was some magic bullet I’ve discovered, but alas, I’m fairly certain that no such bullet exists.  But there are some magic spells (I don’t like bullet metaphors–so violent!) that I’ve found work at least some of the time.

My overarching advice would be to be willing to cast lots of spells with any given piece of writing–one student may respond amazingly to one approach while another proves impervious to the same strategy.  There’s probably a Voldemort in every class too–that one kid who just doesn’t respond very well to ANY of your magic.   Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Three Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers

Learning to read like a writer is a skill that takes time and practice, but there are some simple scaffolds for moving our writers towards this special way of reading that can help. In this post, I offer three try-it-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas for helping your writers understand how a piece of writing was put together, so they can bring these ideas back to their own work.

Imagine you’re eating at your favorite go-to restaurant, that small table for two in the back corner by the window. You place an order for dinner without the menu. You have been here more times than you care to count. You don’t need a menu!

Now imagine that the head chef at this restaurant has invited you to cook alongside him in the kitchen. You’ve been eating at this restaurant for years — you know the menu like the back of your hand, but as you enter the steaming kitchen, your body seizes up. You know the food by heart, but you don’t know the first thing about making it. “Just watch,” the chef says to you, pushing you into a row of line cooks. He smiles, assuming you’ll be fine since you frequent this restaurant so often. But eating the food and cooking the food are two very different things, and the cooks are moving so quickly. Even though this restaurant has always been dependable in the past, suddenly you find yourself wishing you hadn’t come here tonight.

This analogy is my best attempt to describe how our students might feel when we first introduce the idea of reading like writers. As in the scenario above, our students have been eating at the same restaurant for years: they are experienced readers, and they have been “eating” books and texts like readers for a while. But for these same readers, the concept of reading like writers–or reading to identify writing techniques–is brand new.  It’s hard to “cook up” techniques when you don’t know what to look for.

To grow, young writers must be able to recognize craft in professional writing and bring it back to their own work. But this kind of reading does not come easily. At the end of a year, we still have students who struggle to read a text in this way. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: What does a writing unit look like?

Ask

We are spending Mondays this summer answering reader questions in a series called Ask Moving Writers. If these reading our answers sparks yet more questions, please feel free to ask below and join the conversation! 

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

Best of 2016-2017 School Year: “Teachable Alternatives” to the 5-Paragraph Essay

It’s no secret that the five paragraph essay is dead.  But what goes in its place? In this post, Tricia examines several ways of moving beyond the contrived essay formulas of the past and into new writing territory that ultimately lets our students write what matters and find the forms that best showcases their ideas.

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On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades. 

Part of the reason writing doesn’t matter to most students is because they know, as we do, that the assignments we give are contrived, and that there is no assignment more contrived than the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve written about the tyranny of the form on Moving Writers here and here. And while I’ve committed myself to freeing myself (and my students) from under the form’s weight, I continue to struggle with the how.  Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

Each summer we press pause for a few weeks to tackle new writing projects and plan for the upcoming school year. And we reflect on where we’ve been by sharing with you the most popular posts of the past school year. We will share these with you over the next ten weeks, beginning with today’s post — one Megan wrote in August about suppressing the urge to cover your classroom walls with stuff, and instead saving room for instruction.

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.

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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: Sing Me A Story

Mentor Text: Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip

Strategies Used:

  • Poetic Narrative
  • Symbolism

Background:

Waiting for the last day on Friday means I’m in my classroom, wrapping up this year, cleaning up, prepping for next year… that kind of thing.

It means a pretty much constant stream of music is playing. I’ve been testing out the albums that I feel are going to be the albums of the summer for me, diving deep into a couple of new gems, and just letting shuffle bring me what it will.

A couple of artists loomed large in my classroom this year. One of these artists was The Tragically Hip, fronted by Gord Downie. One of my first Mentor Text Wednesdays of the year was about one of his poems, and he was the catalyst for what we called The Chanie Project, as Secret Path, his album, and the accompanying graphic novel, were core texts as we talked about the legacy of residential schools in Canada.

As I was pondering a text for this final MTW of the school year, I felt compelled to pull a good Canadian text in. It is Canada’s 150th year as a country this year, which is being celebrated with great fanfare. There’s a sticky note protruding from my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale marking a passage that I will feature at some point, but The Hip came on. Continue reading

How did I do?

As I write this, I’m finishing up the school year.

The last exam is written, and I’m marking the last dregs of the deadline hugging academic daredevils. Report cards are in various stages of completion. Graduation celebrations are in full swing. I’m getting my family ready to travel halfway across the country in our annual pilgrimage home.

 

The end of the year is a special time. I look at the last few weeks as special opportunities to give students opportunities to show what they can do for the last time in the course. The wonderful thing about this is how many take this to heart. There is no greater feeling than marking an essay that not only exemplifies what you asked them to do, but actually exceeds your expectations. I’m kind of an analog guy, and I write notes about the assignments on my marking sheets. Without prompting, or discussing it with me, three different students added elements to an essay that I had them write, adding depth to the assignment. I’m hitting my notebook later with those suggestions, and that piece will be stronger next year.

 

 

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My marking sheet for the Adversity in Children’s Film Essay, complete with my notes and  grape drink splatter.

The last few years, I’ve forgone any kind of formal reflection or feedback piece from my students. There have been a couple of reasons for this. I guess I ran into a few classes in a row where the responses were best summed up in one pithy, “Why are you asking us how the course could have been taught differently? It’s your job to plan it dude.” It seemed like at this point of the course, many students weren’t in the most reflective place. There were a lot of lists of products they liked, claims to have learned a few skills, and a general complimentary vibe. Like so many feedback opportunities, it was taken as a thing they had to do to be done, but not really worth investing the time.

 

I was reflecting on this this week, as I marked. In procrastination, I went walkabout in my room, and visited some colleagues. They were sharing their feedback forms, and had much the same result that I’ve had in the past, stock responses with a few gems peppered throughout. With others, I discussed projects and materials we had planned together, and how students responded, as well as performed.

Upon reflection, I feel as if the way that a handful of my students just did what they saw was necessary reflects a more organic feedback model. See, I work to encourage this kind of spirit, this intentional way of working to improve things. I try to be open and purposeful as we work, explaining what we’re doing and why. I’m open to questions and feedback. Sometimes, our work evolves as we’re doing it. Other times, we work to understand why I’m being rigid on something, from a pedagogical or metacognitive stance.

See, I don’t ask for feedback at the end anymore because I want it to be a regular part of doing business in my room. I tell students that I believe that their education is something that should be done with them, not to them. They are active participants in what happens in our room, and not just jumping through the hoops that I set up for them. The goal is learning, and we work towards that goal as a community. As I expect them to be using their strengths, and working to do their best, I must do the same. As a result, we talk a lot while we’re working. That talk is where I draw my feedback from, our discussion of the work and ideas we’re dealing with. We reflect frequently, as we’re in the midst of things, and as we finish them.

I like that a lot better.

What is your model for getting feedback from your students? What is the value of their feedback to you? What’s your system for keeping track of that feedback?

As always, connect with me on Twitter, @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below to connect.

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesday: Ted Wilson Reviews The World

Mentor Text: Ted Wilson Reviews The World  by Ted Wilson (posted and collected at Electric Literature, The Rumpus.net and I Am Ted Wilson

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Reviews
  • Humour
  • Satire

Background:
Perhaps the thing I love most about the Internet is the delightfully random nature of what it manages to put in front of me. This weeks mentor text set is an example of that.

Electric Literature has been a Twitter fave of mine for a while. It’s a great lit journal that regularly posts great pieces, from poetry to criticism, I’ve had a lot of wonderful reading roll across my feed. I’m not sure how I’ve only just now noticed “Ted Wilson Reviews The World.”

“In 2009 I began reviewing the world, one item per week. So far I’ve reviewed hundreds of things!” is what I saw when I first clicked the link in the tweet. And I began reading the review posted on June 9th, for Windex.

And I laughed. Continue reading

4 Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text: Incidental Comics

The school year is winding down—and I find myself thinking more and more of warm poolside days—yet everywhere I turn, rich mentor texts seem to come my way. I’ll find something and think, “Oh, that would have been perfect to use with ____” or “That would have worked great with ____!” Although it may be too late to use these ideas this year, I click my bookmark button and tuck them away for next year.

One mentor text I can’t wait to use is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics. Although I’m usually suspicious of most social media “suggestions,” I have to thank Facebook’s algorithm for introducing me to Snider’s work. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Grant Snider’s work before. As someone who loves the way words and pictures can work together, whether it’s through infographics or graphic novels, the moment I started browsing Snider’s work, I fell in love. And once my teacher-brain took over, I couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for reading and writing for next year. Continue reading