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.
“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 claims, 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:DAY 1
I dialed up cute Carl Azuz from CNN Student News, a 12-minute student-centered newscast. After watching the news stories, I had them write in the their notebooks about one news story they had an opinion on. Here are some of their claims:
- The G20 needs to follow through with their financial decisions.
- The electoral college should be abolished because it does not represent all voters.
- The electoral college should remain in place because the Founders knew that it was the most accurate way to count votes.
- Communities need to do a better job of supporting teens in foster homes.
- Video gaming should not be a recognized sport.
Students suddenly realized that from every interesting news story there can be a claim on one side or the other.
We then watched a segment from CBS Sunday Morning (a favorite resource for this class) titled Is Penmanship Being Written Off? The central question is: is handwriting still relevant? I take the opportunity to point out that everything can be seen and read on two levels; yes, this issue is handwriting, but it’s also about society’s values, the direction of early education, and the validity of hundred-years-old documents. Who cares if we can read them in their original versions or not? We discuss.
For homework, I assigned a current piece from the New York Times: “Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter.” We had been working on annotating opinion pieces and asking these three questions, borrowed from one of Kelly Gallagher’s tweets this summer: “What is the writer saying? What is he implying? How is he saying it?”
After a short 12-minute conversation, I threw up my hands and said, “WHO IN THE WORLD WOULD SIT DOWN AND WRITE A LETTER TO RESPOND TO THIS PIECE?” They had no idea what kind of person would actually write and submit a letter to the editor.
So, out came the letters in response to the piece. As we read them aloud, we marked interesting noticings: the background of the writers, the figurative language, the short, concise form, the careful word choice. The students chuckled at the passion this seemingly-bland topic brought out in the writers.
I asked them, “What about you? What do you care enough to sit down and write a letter about?”
Next, I distributed a set of six letters that were from our local Richmond Times-Dispatch. (I searched their site for the high-interest Correspondents of the Day) The topics included the expense of school supplies, disenchantment with our city’s hosting of the 2016 World Cycling Championships, and the Civil War statues standing on Monument Avenue. In small groups, we noticed more. A letter to the editor:
- Has a purpose: agree with something, disagree, or add information that the article left out
- Has a summary or mention of the article it refers to
- Highly edited: every word has a purpose
- Includes all of the elements of argument, just not so obvious
- Facts and stats to back up claim
- Rhetorical questions
- Specific details
- parallel structure
- Persuasive appeals (ethos, logos, pathos)
- Has a call to action
- Has a specific tone appropriate to its purpose
At long last, they had seen real writers go from having a pet peeve (“Why do they still teach handwriting?”) to developing an argument, to writing a commentary piece for the New York Times, to responding in a letter, and to making that letter good enough with all of the elements above that it would be published. From idea to publishing: That’s what real writers do.
I started the next class with another news item: Collin Kaepernick. We watched a quick NBC clip from the Nightly News, where Lester Holt outlined for us Kaepernick’s argument. I put my new desks-on-wheels to work and had students slide to the left of the room (intentional?) if they agreed with the football player and to the right if they disagreed with his actions. Conversation ensued. Opinions abounded. It was now time to roll out the Letter to the Editor Assignment.
In pieces and parts, fits and starts, the students:
- Read the local paper
- Developed an opinion based on news and opinion pieces there
- Outlined their argument
- Wrote their own letter
- Conferenced with me and with each other to make it better
- Revised it again
Then came #7…Submit to the paper. The idea of doing this had the kids all kinds of worried that their work wouldn’t be good enough for publication. These fears gave me magical teaching moments. Examples:
“This is a sensitive topic. What if someone reads this and judges me for it?”
Argument is the language of leadership. You feel there is something wrong in society? Step up and say something, regardless of what people may think.
“What if the RTD sees a bunch of errors?”
Make it perfect. I’m here to help!
“Why would they publish my opinion? Who cares about what a student thinks?”
You are a senior, and you’d better start believing that you matter in this world!
After promising them extra credit, mad respect, and homemade baked goods if their letter were actually printed in the paper, they pressed the red submit button. One student was so nervous about pressing “the button” that he made me do it for him!
I also had them complete a self-assessment of their work on their letters. I asked:
What did you learn about rhetoric, writing, and revision through this experience?
I learned that although using figurative language is hard, it makes writing much more powerful.
I’m starting to be more concise. My letter started out as 500 words, but I cut it to 300.
Rhetorical strategies help you connect more with the reader.
A week later, I poured my coffee and broke out the front page. Beaming at me from the Editorial page was not one, not two, but three printed letters. One starred the the famous Colin K, one was about transgender teens, and one, that days’ Correspondent of the Day, was about the cost of health care. A day or two later, a fourth letter was printed from one of my soccer boys, this one about the effects of concussions. Real teenagers, real opinions. Real writers.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
Well, now that my four kids pictured here have extra credit and mad respect, I have some serious baking to do.