Tiny Writing: Boosting Opportunities for Frequent Student Publication

I love swimming in writing studies for weeks at a time with my students — immersing ourselves in mentor texts, gathering information, writing off the page, talking out our ideas, drafting, revising. But when the average writing study lasts 3-5 weeks, it’s hard to keep the momentum and excitement of seeing a piece through to completion. Last year, I dabbled with mini writing units between big genre studies, like writing our own Buzzfeed lists. But this year, I’m getting even smaller as I find ways to support tiny writing publication.

Inspired by Allison’s post last year about finding time in workshop by extending notebook time through a 5-day week, I have been using extended notebook times as opportunities for tiny writing studies.  Before I tell you about what we have written, let me tell you why this works:

  • We can be working on meaningful, publishable writing while we simultaneously work on our literature study.
  • I am using time already set aside in my class.
  • We can continuously ride the wave of publication — through big genre studies and though low-stakes tiny writing studies.
  • I can experiment with pieces of writing in my classroom that normally wouldn’t make the genre study cut because of other demands.
  • Students are getting more practice reading like writers & more exposure to the real world of writers.

Tiny Writing Study Logistics

For a tiny writing study, I use my regularly scheduled notebook time — the first 5-7 minutes of class when we play, explore, and discover in our notebooks. (If you want to know more about all the ways we use this time, we dedicate an entire chapter to it in Writing With Mentors, and you can check out our session on notebook time at last spring’s EdCollab Gathering.) Each day, we build on and expand our writing.  By the end of our fifth class period, we have a piece of writing that is ready to publish.

Day 1  – Introduction & Mentor Text Immersion

On day 1, I direct students to a slew of mentor texts and ask them to skim, scan, and look around for 5-7 minutes to get a sense of the genre. I don’t specify which mentor texts they should look at because I want there to be variety. This will help make our noticings more thoroughly developed tomorrow.

Day 2 – Noticings

Next, I grab a marker and we make a list of our noticings on the board. How is this thing made? What is it composed of? What will they need to do to create something in kind?

Students have been learning how to make noticings since the very first week of school. This is  awesome practice as they continue to practice and refine their reading-like-a-writer skills.

Students copy this list of noticings into their notebooks so that they have them as we work throughout the week.

Day 3 – Try one

In most cases, I reserve the middle day for trying — writing their own version of the mentor.

This often extends into homework. For example, when we did a “Humans of …” series, students needed to actually interview and photograph people outside of class. So students used  the “Try One” class period to brainstorm and share interview questions. When we wrote haikus, students tried their hand at writing a few during notebook time, but then they selected their favorite for homework.

Day 4 – Revise

On the fourth day of a tiny writing study, we share and then revise. We keep the task of revision simple: make your writing better.

Day 5 – Publication

We keep publication simple, too. Publication simply means “going public” and sharing our work in some way. But you don’t need to have a big author’s celebration every time. Here are some simple ways we publish:

  • Read-arounds
  • Jotting favorite bits and golden lines on the white board for all to see
  • Compiling a whole-class slideshow of writing
  • Tweeting out our writing.

It is so easy for me to make publication an after-thought — a nice-to-do but not necessary. What I forget is that this is the step that takes my kids from students to real writers. This is where we get buy in and show students that their words are real and that their writing matters.

Four Tiny Writing Studies That Have Worked for Me

Ready to try this with your students next week?

The secret to a tiny writing study is in the size. The product has to be very, very small in order for students to successfully study the mentor texts and produce their own original piece. Here are four tiny writing studies that have worked for me:

Two-Sentence Horror Stories 

 

This week, my ninth grade classes studied two-sentence horror stories. (You can find oodles of these on the web, but here are some I share with my students.)  We noticed that there was a lot of sentence variety, that they built suspense, that they usually begin with something ordinary and then twist it into something scary in the second sentence.

Students wrote their own and then Tweeted them. You can see some of them here:

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Haiku

 

Allison came up with the brilliant idea to teach reading like a reader versus reading like a writer through haiku — something so small and so concrete students could quickly see the differences between their readerly observations and their writerly observations.

Using mentor texts from The New York Times’ haiku contest, student made noticings and ultimate wrote their own haikus about places they love.

Humans of …

 

Based on Humans of New York, students interviewed and photographed people around a theme they invented (Humans of My Neighborhood or Humans of the Trinity Basketball Team or, my favorite, Humans of Teenage Drama). By the end of the week, students had composed three slides, each featuring an image and bit of an interview.

I compiled all of these into one giant slideshow that we enjoyed together.

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Buzzfeed Lists

 

This is slightly bigger than tiny, but I’ve found that students are so well-versed in listicles that they can quickly pick this up and put it together.

Students worked on their own original list in the style of Buzzfeed. They incorporated images, gifs, and videos to support their list and boost reader engagement. Best of all, Buzzfeed allows you to submit your lists for publication on their site! Publishing for a big, wide Internet audience boosts students efforts in a race to see who will get published and who will get the most “likes”. One student even had his list featured for a day on the Buzzfeed main page!

Two More Ideas I will Try This Year 

I’m constantly on the lookout for great tiny writing projects. Here are two more I want to try this year:

Letter to My Younger Self

The Player’s Tribune, a site started by Derek Jeter, features writing by pro athletes. What a gold mine! While only some of these pieces feature enough craft to really be used as technique-teaching mentor texts, many lead to big-time inspiration for our student writers.

I’m dying to have students look at the series Letter to My Younger Self, in which athletes look back and give themselves advice. Students will love finding the insightful, personal letters written by their favorite athletes and then composing their own letter.

Crowdsourcing Pitches

One way that real adults write is in the form of crowdsourcing pitches. Sites like Kickstarter and Donor’s Choose rely on savvy pitch-writing and story-telling to elicit funds from donors!

Using this as fodder for tiny writing would be so much fun. It’s a very authentic form of writing, and it also asks students to be inventive. What would you want to raise money for? Maybe a film you’ve been dying to make or a video game you want to produce or a book you want to self-publish … or maybe a car for your sixteenth birthday! Students will learn to write persuasively for strangers (or in order to persuade their parents!)

Let’s pool our resources! What ideas do you have for units of tiny writing? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahOdell1.

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Breaking Mentor Texts into Loose Parts

“What’s a break it box?” Ethan asked, pulling the overflowing black bin from the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. These shelves on wheels serve as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.

“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there are some old wireless modems in there right now.”

“And you’re going to let us break them?” He asked me, incredulously.

“Sure,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. Make something new.”

He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re going to let me rip this stuff apart.”

“How will you know what’s inside unless you break it open?”

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Continue reading

The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Can You Tell Me How To Write About A Show?

Mentor Text: ‘Sesame Street’ Isn’t Just The Best Kids’ Show Ever, it’s Also Genuinely Funny and Clever by Nathan Rabin (pdf / via SplitSider)

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing pop culture criticism
  • Structuring a critical piece
  • Utilizing tone and voice
  • Incorporating media into a digital text

Background:

This will mark Nathan Rabin’s second appearance in this column in a short period. It likely won’t be the last, as there are at least two other things that he’s written that I want to use.

This one, however, came across my Twitter feed a couple of weeks ago. (I can’t strongly enough recommend having a Twitter feed that branches outside of education for this purpose, amongst others.) I read it, recognized myself in it a bit too much, and laughed. And promptly earmarked it for mentor text use.

grump-tower

As Rabin mentions, Sesame Street satirizing Donald Trump via mic.com

In this piece, Rabin offers us a really great critical analysis of our beloved Sesame Street. As a parent, I connected right away, but as a teacher who uses media texts, as, well, texts in his classroom, I knew I had a great piece to use in my classroom.

I want to have my students do the kind of writing about media texts that they’ve traditionally done about books. I want them to look at these texts critically, to analyze their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their cultural relevance, and to express that using their voice.

This is what Rabin mentors very well in this piece. Continue reading

Conferring as Prewriting

I was reminded the other day of the work of Don Murray (who, with Don Graves, I affectionately refer to as “the Dons” in my head). “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time,” Murray wrote in his wonderful essay, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product.”

As my students begin work on one of their first major essays this year, I keep coming back to Murray’s words. 85% of writing is prewriting. I remind myself of this fact as I panic a little, worried that it’s already October and my students are only just beginning one of their first major essays this year. What have we been doing for the last few weeks? I ask myself. Students need to write, and write a lot, in order to become better writers, so why did it take so long to get to this first essay? It’s already October! I panic a little more. It’s almost November! I start to hyperventilate.

And then I take deep breaths and remember Murray: 85% of writing is prewriting. And then I remember that it’s not as if my students haven’t been writing, writing, writing for the last seven weeks. “Never a day without a line,” another Murray quote, is our class mantra. We’ve been writing every day—filling our writer’s notebooks, creating lists, making observations, drawing heart maps, reflecting on memories, asking questions, lifting lines, recording wonderings, sorting through worries, playing with language, exploring writing territories, and most of all, finding voice. By doing all these things and more, students can begin to unearth those “moments worth writing about” that will carry them through the rest of the year as they become writers.  Continue reading

Reader Mail: How do you balance writing and reading instruction?

“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”

The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).

“Writing. Hands down.”

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.

Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.

Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?

It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).

When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:

I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.

Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:

How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?

So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.

This question has two answers:

  • When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.

I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.

Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.

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Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners

In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.

As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:

  • to add detail to their writing
  • to structure their writing
  • to put voice into their writing
  • to write powerful leads and endings.

Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:

  • punctuate their writing
  • use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.

In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.

The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:

  • We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.

When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.

And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.

Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.

  • Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading

In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”

–       You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester

–       Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)

–       The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)

–       In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)

–       In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing

–       In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)

–       If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading

–       If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…

  • Devote a few days a week to each subject

In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue!

–       Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day

–       Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day

–       You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year

–       If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject

–       If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it

–       If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again

–       Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting

–       One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)

–       Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study

  • Alternate full writing and reading cycles

When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.

Pros

Cons

·      No more decision fatigue!

·      You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time

·      Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm

·      You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end

·      During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)

·      During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing

No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:

In a reading day/semester/cycle:

In a writing day/semester/cycle:

·      Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas

·      Invite students to work in their notebook for homework

·      Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read

·      Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading

 

·      Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s

·      Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night

·      Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion

 

In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.

While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.

~ Allison

Scores – A Sounding Board for Inspiration

In the madness of prepping to present at our provincial PD day, I almost forgot to write something this week.

Luckily, one of my presentations is about using the things you really like in the classroom, specifically pop culture. Reading my contributions to Moving Writers, that’s not a surprise at all.

This summer, like many people, I got pulled deep into Stranger Things on Netflix. I could go on about so many aspects of that show, and am getting ready for a second viewing. An element that popped out for me, as well as many others was the score.

As a movie buff, and former teacher of a media studies course, the use of music in filmed entertainment fascinates me. I mean, John Williams’ Star Wars score resonated with me early on, and the notes of the Imperial March never fail to raise the hairs on my neck.

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Promo art via Netflix

A lot of my writing this fall has actually been accompanied by Netflix scores, Stranger Things, and more recently, the Luke Cage score. Each contributes such atmosphere to its respective show. The duo Survive created such gorgeously ominous music for Stranger Things, recalling the creepy sci-fi of my 80’s boyhood. The 70’s inspired, hip-hop infused tracks on Adrian Y0unge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s Luke Cage score vibrate with funk and energy. I’ve noticed an interesting impact on my writing while listening. I’ve been thinking about seeing if this impact replicates itself in my classroom. Continue reading

Beginning AP Argument Writing – Letter to the Editor

Today’s guest post is from our friend, Betsy Reid. Betsy is a colleague of Moving Writers founders Rebekah and Allison at Trinity Episcopal School, where she teaches AP Language and Composition
and serves as the head of the department. For the past 20 years, she has taught all grades and levels in both public and private settings in Virginia and North Carolina. Betsy graduated with a B.A. from Meredith College in 1995 and obtained her Masters in Educational Leadership from VCU
in 2008. Most recently, she was a contributor to
Argument in the Real World by Troy Hicks and Kristen Turner (set for November release.) Join her on Twitter @ReadBReid Wednesday nights for #APLangChat and follow her classroom adventures on Instagram @mrsreid_tes.

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Photo of Betsy & her writers courtesy of David Ready, Trinity Episcopal School

 

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you are a Moving Writers regular, then you recognize these words. Rebekah has made some of her most important teaching discoveries while repeating this mantra, and just a few weeks ago, I did the same.

Rebekah’s room at school is just like the kitchen at a party: It’s in the middle of everything, and everyone wants to stop in. I learn something new every time I walk in the door, and if it’s not busy-mom life hacks like online grocery ordering or kid dessert ideas, it’s something about writing.

I walked in one day early this year when I was struggling with making a fundamental change in the way I teach writing in AP Language. I had taken a good, long look at The AP Chief Reader report, and it spoke to my heart. I had been teaching with the College Board-provided sample essays and rubrics, and I finally realized that my student’s writing mentors were anonymous student essays from AP Central. They were developing arguable screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-8-37-09-amclaims, but few that they really felt passionately about. They were Integrating conflicting viewpoints, but they sounded inauthentic. The were explaining how rhetorical choices work but they were not making these choices for themselves in their own writing.

Basically, my students were seeing professional writing as something far-off; it was something to analyze, but not something they could ever achieve for themselves. I looked at Rebekah and said I thought it was time for a change, and some serious mentor texting. Of course, she said,

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

________________

Nothing makes my teaching day better than when I think of a lesson that will have students practice several skills in one shot. In my beginning AP writing assignment, I wanted them to show me all that they had learned since the first day of school:

  • To be able to access and read closely from national and local news sites
  • To have an opinion on something that matters to them
  • To defend it using the elements of argument
  • To demonstrate their knowledge of basic rhetorical strategies by employing them in their own writing

I decided to go big by starting small: The Letter to the Editor.

Here was my process: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Rewriting the Word Wall

Today’s guest post comes from Amy Heusterberg-Richards, a tenth-year ELA teacher at Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District, located just north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Amy currently teaches Writing 10 and IB English Literature HL Year Two. Connect with her on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR.

Mentor Texts:

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflecting on elements of craft
  • Creating voice

Background:

My fifth-grade Social Studies teacher had a head of hair that rivaled those of Michael Bolton and Kenny G (musical studs of the time), making him the subject of more than one conversation between my classmates’ mothers. He had an acoustic guitar on which he played historical ballads and an impressive collection of obnoxious ties. An apparent pioneer in flexible seating, he had a reading loft and colorful bean bag chairs, over both of which we students often fought. All these glorious items aside, though, the possessions I most remember from Mr. Weitzel’s school domain were his classroom walls, spaces filled with explorers’ names, vocabulary terms, and worldly locations.

At the beginning of the school year, the walls were unimpressive, white blocks spattered with grey smudges and sticky, tape residue. Come June, however, they transformed into an exhibition of all the learning we students had accomplished. I remember sitting at my desk those last days and feeling a proud satisfaction of all the terms I had acquired, all the people and places I could now discuss.  Mr. Weitzel, as primary school teachers perhaps best understand, knew the impact these Word Walls had on the development of his students. He used his walls to physicalize terms, to track concepts, and to serve as reference documents. He skipped posters to motivate and instead posted words to guide.

This school year in our tenth-grade Writing course, my teammates and I decided to re-write the seemingly elementary Word Wall concept at our secondary level. We knew we wanted to begin our class with an exploration of — to borrow language from Stephen King’s On Writing — the “tools” of effective craft. We selected five elements of voice (diction, syntax, imagery, inclusion/exclusion of details, and tone) which we felt we could use in all upcoming writing studies. We also decided, in the spirit of the Word Wall, to post visuals of each tool on our own walls for “Writing Well.”

How We Used The Mentor Texts:

For each writing tool, we asked students to define the device and study a teacher-selected mentor text whose purpose was twofold: The excerpt from King’s On Writing (chapter one of the “Toolbox” section) described how to select vocabulary, but students also discussed how King employed the diction tool himself; Anne Lamott’s “Short Assignments” from Bird by Bird advised how to include/exclude details, but the class analyzed how her writing gave/withheld information with intent, too.

After exploring such mentor texts by writers-on-writing, we asked students to discuss additional examples of each tool’s use in groups and practice writing these devices in pairs. Ultimately, we ended each two-day, tool study with an individual activity that prompted students to intentionally use the element of craft to write well and, at the same time, to produce a visual to adorn our Writing Well Wall.

  • For diction, each student selected words with similar denotative meanings and placed them on a spectrumed paint sample with consideration to connotation.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-07-pm
  • For syntax, each student selected an auditory sound and visually wrote syntax that mimicked its quality and color.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-12-pm
  • For imagery, each student selected a photograph and wrote the sensory experience of one of its human subjects.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-17-pm
  • For details, each student selected a topic about which to write a flip-book riddle that excluded enough details to confuse but not enough to stump.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-21-pm
  • For tone, each student pulled a page from a discarded library book, marked evidence that created a tone, and labeled/showed the tone word.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-26-pm

The entire study of these five writing tools took the initial two weeks of our course. In that short time, our Writing students studied, practiced, and mimicked the craftsmanship of strong writers at a wonderfully tangible level. They created a wall full of examples showcasing the tools used to produce effective craft. Greater even still, they developed testimonies to themselves that they can control, at this most focused level, the sometimes daunting tasks needed to write effectively. As we move on to more challenging topics, more developed essays, and longer revision periods, I hope my students feel a comforting satisfaction — not unlike the one fifth-grade me experienced — as they sit aside a Writing Well Wall that reminds them with each glance that they can use — and have used — the tools of powerful writers.

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Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
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