An Alternative Assignment and What I Learned

Before I began my critical reading unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth, I designed a literary analysis final product that would serve as guidance for the unit as a whole. We would read the play through a critical lens in an effort to collect evidence for our essays. In short, reading with the final product in mind would allow students to be deliberate about their reading choices while paying close attention to specific literary devices that are used throughout the text.

The issue with the notion of a backward planned unit with a summative writing assessment like this is that the product itself is not differentiated. I differentiated the reading process for many students, and the content of the unit was made approachable to each learner with tiered companion texts. However, in terms of creating multiple avenues for a successful product, the assignment was lacking.

One of my students fancies himself to be a hip hop artist and a rapper. Normally a difficult student to motivate, I sat down with him and discussed the possibility of creating a final product after reading Macbeth that would motivate him to engage in the reading process while also appealing to his interests.

This student has released several mixtapes and has demonstrated a legitimate skill in songwriting and producing. We agreed that, rather than writing the summative literary analysis that his peers were assigned, this student would write and produce a song about Macbeth, his tragic flaw, and details from the play. This mirrored the content of the literary analysis paper while providing the student with the room for agency and creativity that he craves. Continue reading

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Blending Genres with Narrative Journalism

Years ago, my PLC adopted the “I-Search” paper as a piece of informative writing that now feels like a relic from another age.  It was a sort of “meta-writing” wherein the students undertook a research project and then wrote a paper not about the research topic, but about the experience as a writing process.

It was a failure, but at least it had noble intentions:  To get students to think about their writing process and roles as authors.  

For us, the failure was a blessing in disguise.  Once it was clear that the assignment was something of a dumpster fire, we were forced to revisit our entire unit.  And from the ashes of the I-Search emerged our favorite writing piece of the year:  The Narrative Journalism Experience.  

What’s Narrative Journalism?

Many people know the genre as “Longform Journalism”–indeed, your best resource for mentor texts would be the outstandingly curated site www.Longform.org, which compiles the best in the genre and even sorts it by subject matter.  Students are more drawn into the genre when I can point them to entire collections of mentor texts thematically sorted around topics like “Imposters” or “Sad Retired Athletes” (the collections get VERY specific!).

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image via http://www.longform.org

While styles vary, the core of this type of writing is the conveyance of non-fictional information through a narrative structure–often, the narrative is about the journalist’s experience in investigating the story.  In fact, that’s the narrative perspective the students end up adopting when we turn them into amateur journalists later in the unit.  More on that below… Continue reading

Planning

As I write this, I’m in my last full week of classes in the first semester of the year. The exam is written, and copied, sitting in a drawer. My students are putting the finishing touches on the last of their work.

And my head is pretty firmly a few days ahead in second semester.

Though I’m tired and stressed, this is actually one of my favorite times of the year. I’m finishing up with my Grade 11 and 12 students, getting ready for my 9s and 10s. I’m hyper aware of where I want the students I’m about to teach to be in two or three years’ time.

And that makes midyear planning so awesome. Especially exciting for me this year, as I plan, is that I’m working with a whole new team, and we’ve got a semester of working together under our belts, and have figured out how we work together, and collaborate. Continue reading

Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

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image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

-Karla

Mentor Text Wednesday: My Three Go-To Personal Essays

Today’s guest blogger, Christina Gil has written for Moving Writers before. You can read her post about using satire writing as a tool for self-discovery here. Christina is a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. 

Mentor texts: “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan; “The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders; “Us and Them” by David Sedaris

Writing Techniques:

 

  • show don’t tell
  • vivid imagery
  • essay structure
  • grabbers
  • main ideas

 

Background:

I’ll readily admit that my students don’t have the longest attention spans.  The old style of long meandering essays, in which the author slowly and eventually stumbles upon some meaning after pages and pages of rambling and digressions, just won’t work with them.  So what I am looking for when I choose mentor texts is the most bang for my buck.  On the other hand, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  I also want to push my students—to read about people who are not like them, or to take on an idea that challenges their assumptions, or to see that personal essays don’t have to be about a set list of pre-chosen topics.  

I have three go-to personal essays that I have read to literally a thousand students at this point, and I use them extensively in my personal narrative unit.  Just the fact that I can continue to enjoy these texts after reading them hundreds of times speaks volumes.  

How We Might Use These Texts:

If I were to choose just one essay to read to my students as a mentor text when we do a personal narrative unit, it would be “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan.  I often joke that this essay is probably one that my high school seniors already read—in seventh grade.  It’s very short and so simple.  And yet I also call this essay “the perfect personal essay.”  

My favorite take-away from this piece is the way that authors can show rather than tell with vivid description and detail.  I always ask my students to describe the emotion conveyed throughout the essay, and they always answer “embarrassment.”  When I task them with the job of finding the word embarrassed or even a synonym of that word, they can’t find it anywhere in the essay.  And what I most love about this piece is that when I ask students how the author conveys the feelings of the narrator, which details go the furthest in helping the reader to share in the embarrassment, they realize that it is the vivid descriptions of the food that really help them to share in the experience.  When you find an essay in which the author conveys the universal teenage feeling of being uncomfortable with your parents via a description of cooked squid, you know you have found a masterful writer.   

For me, the other key pieces in this essay are the way that the author grabs the reader by giving a small piece of somewhat uncomfortable personal information but leaving some details out, and the way that the main idea of the essay is expressed via dialogue at the end of the piece.

“Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders is a favorite among a few students who appreciate its realness, its seriousness, and its honest discussion of blue collar values.  This is the one essay that breaks my short-as-possible rule.  It probably takes 15 to 20 minutes to read out loud in class, but it feels like it meanders much more than the others.  This essay is also a tougher sell for many of my students.  It deals with a middle-aged man’s reflections on tools, building, life-lessons, and death.  These are not subjects that are obvious choices for teenagers.  And yet, every year when I think about dropping the essay and finding something shorter and more relevant, I have students who tell me that it was their favorite essay of the bunch.

What I most utilize in this essay are its beautiful first line, its structure, and one especially complex and important sentence.  The essay starts in the middle of things with a vividly descriptive sentence (that also uses figurative language to grab a reader): “At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer.”  I could teach an entire lesson on that sentence alone.  The essay then goes back in time to discuss the ideas and memories that lead up to that day, and ends where it began but with more insight on the day in question.  This structure is a great one for students to and they often incorporate it into their personal narratives.  The sentence that I use for imitating, but only after students have some practice with simpler sentences, is this one: “For several hours I paced around inside my house, upstairs and down, in and out of every room, looking for the right door to open and knowing there was no such door.”  It’s complexity is impactful, but it is also something that students can incorporate into their own writing.

My wild card, my test of students’ understanding of irony and understatement, and my little treat to myself every year is to read “Us and Them” by David Sedaris.  I’m a big fan of Sedaris’ work, but it’s not exactly easy to find essays of his that are appropriate for school.  In this subtly hilarious piece, Sedaris does what all great satire does—he makes fun of society, and ultimately, most importantly, he makes fun of himself.  I should admit upfront that many of my less sophisticated readers miss the humor in this essay entirely.  And yet, the ones that get it really get it.  

My favorite aspect of this essay as a mentor text is the way that it makes a point—about conformity and insecurity and TV and Halloween candy—without ever really stating that point at all.  In fact, because of the dramatic irony in the essay, the reader is left completely to their own devices when it comes to finding a theme statement.  I like to push my students to work a little, and getting them to articulate not just what the author says but how he conveys that meaning to a reader is challenging but also doable.  

I also love this essay because of the way that it reinforces the requirement that the biggest take-away of a piece, the scene or line or image that readers will remember long after they have finished reading, should be the part that most strongly conveys the main idea of the piece.  And Sedaris’ image of a younger self stuffing his face with candy so that he doesn’t have to share it with someone else is about as memorable as scenes can get.

I do like to change things up on occasion, using new essays that I find or essays that I haven’t read in a while, but it’s also so nice to have my trusted pieces, ones that I know will help me teach the lessons that I want to teach about what makes good writing and how we can learn from mentor texts.

March (Madness) to Determine Significance

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March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Eulogy

Mentor Text: 10 Inspiring,Confusing and Humorous Eulogies of the Famous via The Atlantic

Writing Techniques:

  • Specific Form
  • Considering Audience

Background:

This is actually a post that should be subtitled “What I’ll Do Better Next Time”

My Grade 11 students are in their final weeks of classes, and we’ve been working on MultiGenre Projects based upon research that we’ve done. I’m actually blessed with a group of students who will willingly follow me down any path I choose to take us down, which is making it a pretty rewarding time.

Our first week back from Christmas break, our Grade 12 students write a provincial exam for four days, and they kind of become my focus. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of resources and experience, so I’ve been able to give good stuff to my Grade 11s. They’ve been writing a lot of MGP pieces, and I’ve got mentor texts and guides to support them.

I got my mind set on having them write eulogies. In the past, I’ve seen students write really great pieces eulogizing all kinds of random things, so I felt like it was a great fit for my 11s.

Teacher isn’t my primary function. I’m a dad too, with two awesome daughters, and the husband to an awesome lady, who happens to be an early years teacher. This often means chaos reigns supreme. Which sometimes means I’m sending the stuff I need for my first period to the printer as the bell goes.

Which made it pretty frustrating to discover that I didn’t actually have any material to teach eulogy writing.

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A eulogy scene from Arrow because I’m a geek via The Geektified Blog

I stubbornly pushed ahead, and we talked about what is in a eulogy that we needed to include in our pieces. We made a pretty good list, but I knew that I could do much better. Once I found a bit of prep time, I did some googling, and came across the link I’ve included, full of excerpts from notable eulogies.

How we can use this text:

Specific Form – A neat thing about teaching something like eulogy is that there is a specific nature to the form. The purpose for the piece impacts the writing, which in itself is a great lesson.

However, what can be seen from the variety of excerpts on the site I linked is that the purpose can be met in different ways. This is where a collection of mentor texts is valuable. There are pieces that are solemn, and pieces that are humorous. There are pieces where the writer knew the deceased very well, and those where they didn’t. The variety shows different ways to meet the requirements of the form.

And perhaps this is why I want to build  a set of mentor texts for eulogies. This is my favorite kind of writing task for a class of varying abilities and interests. They are given a form, one that specifies that certain things should be included, and meets a specific purpose. Yet there is a lot of freedom in this form, a variety of ways to meet the “requirements” that allows for our writers to explore and experiment. This, I feel, is where we can do the best for our writers – they have a structure to guide them, yet not one so rigid that they write like automatons.

Considering Audience – This form, as I’ve noted, serves a purpose. In doing so, it actually speaks to an audience. This means that we can give our writers a piece in which audience is a serious consideration, which is, I feel, a pretty important lesson. (Truth be told, I’m marking that provincial test I referred to this week, and there’s a question that always troubles students that this lesson addresses!)

It’s a conversation that encapsulates many elements of writing. Tone is important. One must be reverent, but if you’re eulogizing a comedian, shouldn’t humor be considered? If you’re a comedian eulogizing someone, do you use the humor people expect from you? Is a place to express anger? A eulogy is celebratory, but do you, as a writer, take a moment to highlight moments of imperfection?

And what is included? If you’re including an anecdote, how personal do you go? Do you tell the story only two of you know, or do you go for a larger inside joke, that everyone would get? Do you write something intensely personal, or do you write something for a much broader audience, as Reagan did in his eulogy for the Challenger astronauts?

My use of the eulogy was a bit different. I wanted the students to eulogize something in their research. As I moved around and talked to people, I was glad I persevered with this lesson. We had great talks about what it was from their research they wanted to present to their audience, as well as how they wanted to present it. The student discussing obesity eulogized the gym. Another discussing climate change and its effect on farmers eulogized the trustworthy weatherman. Once they figured out the subject of the eulogy, they considered the impact on an audience as they wrote.

So as for this being a post about what I should have done, I should have collected my mentor texts earlier. Had I had this link to share with them, many students might have moved ahead faster. I share this this week however, to highlight how useful mentor texts are. Having examples of the form, examples of how other handled various aspects of the piece for students to look at is important. Yes, our students can write well without mentor texts, but access to them makes a difference. It’ll be better next time in my room.

Flat out begging – do you have any good eulogies you use as mentor texts? I used them in the multigenre project, how have you used them in your classes?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

 

 

From Babylon to New Hampshire: Tiny Writing Lives Large

 

Today’s guest post is from Elizabeth Oosterheert (@oosterheerte). Elizabeth currently teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She enjoys leading sectionals on young adult literature and writing workshop at the Iowa Reading Conference and the Heartland Teacher Convention. Her passions are writing beside students and encouraging students to use their gifts on stage.

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“Scientists seem to think there are no living beings up there…just chalk, or fire.”

Thornton Wilder

Memories & Miracles: An Autobiographical Journey

Reading Rebekah’s post about tiny writing and the necessity of publication for young writers at the end of October  inspired me to adapt some of her ideas for my eighth grade writing workshop. My students and I are engaged in a year-long autobiographical writing project that culminates in the publication of a class book featuring student photos and compositions. This year, our autobiography is entitled “Memories and Miracles,” a reference to our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe production of The Secret Garden. The goals of the autobiography are to engage each student in writing that is personally meaningful and fulfilling to him or her, and to encourage student growth as speakers, writers and thinkers as they prepare for the rigor of high school.

The autobiography consists of the following introduction and five chapters:

  • Introduction: A Room Called Remember: -Students compose place narratives framed around favorite childhood memories.
  • Chapter One: Encyclopedia of an Extraordinary Life: Using mentor texts by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Langston Hughes, students compose their own “life encyclopedias” and personalize Hughes’ classic poem, “Theme for English B,” so that it reflects truths about their lives.
  • Chapter Two: Youth, Joy, Adventure: Students explore mentor poems and narratives that I’ve composed as well as texts by professional authors like Billy Collins, and compose narrative poetry, poems for two voices, and snapshot narratives that tell the stories of favorite possessions or photos. Students have agency as far as which pieces they choose to write.
  • Chapter Three: In Spite of Everything, the Stars: In this chapter, students explore multigenre writing, experiment with writing editorial/opinion pieces after reading mentor texts by Rick Reilly, and with thanks to Penny Kittle, consider the songs that “live in their hearts” and write narratives about their life songs or life soundtracks. Finally, students dabble in composing Spoken Word poetry using mentor texts by Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.
  • Chapter Four: Words for the Journey: Students write commentary after reading several mentor pieces by Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts, and others. Students frame a research based commentary around an essential question of their choice, and are able to reference a folder filled with professionally written commentaries.  I also write a commentary with them as they draft theirs.
  • Chapter Five: Leaving a Legacy:  Students compose a Legacy Speech that reflects their life journeys. Students decide whether they wish to focus on their spiritual or academic growth, or some other aspect of their lives.  These speeches are drafted during our workshop time during the last month of school, and are presented at a local church.  Students also design websites featuring their compositions and we publish a hardcover class book showcasing our writing and photos using Shutterfly.

 

 

 

Tiny Writing with a Big Impact…Letter to My Younger Self

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The Chanie Project

I’ve written about this before, but this year, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip fame has had an impact in my classroom.

Long story short, The Hip is largely considered to be Canada’s official band. Their songs, with Downie’s lyrics, are frequently poetic ruminations on our country and identity. In May of last year, Downie revealed that he had terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked on what was expected to be their final tour.

During prime time of the Olympics, CBC, our national broadcaster chose instead to air the final show of that tour. With the nation gathered to watch, our Prime Minister in attendance, Downie took a moment to address issues related to First Nations people in our country, and the Truth & Reconciliation movement, aimed at acknowledging and healing the legacy of residential schools in Canada. The country listened.

SecretPath-BookAnd, shortly after that concert, Downie revealed that he had a solo album coming out, called Secret Path. In actuality, it was much more than an album. There would be a graphic novel, illustrated by Jeff Lemire, accompanying the novel, as well as a film, that would also be aired on CBC.

Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. In 1966, Chanie fled the residential school that he had been taken to, and attempted to walk the hundreds of kilometers, or miles, to his home. He didn’t make it. Woefully unprepared for the journey ahead of him, he froze to death. It was his story that first called attention to the deeply flawed residential school system.

Continue reading

The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: Continue reading