Talkin’ ‘Bout Some Organization

In the stack of marking that I took home, promising myself I’d do before Spring Break ended, sits a stack of Of Mice and Men literary analysis essays.

As we worked on them, we had a fair number of conversations about what we were doing, and why. We talked about how, often, exercises like lit analysis are purely academic, but the process of analysis, and thinking critically, are important.

Since I teach from a largely thematic perspective, we had focused our analysis around thematic elements of the novel, which we had discussed as we read. In short, we had talked through a lot of the what of these essays before writing. I really wanted to focus on the how.

This has become a focus for me as an English teacher, because there are folks that fill my students’ heads with very concrete ideas of what an essay is. There are Right Ways. If you’ve not heard of these Right Ways, then let me tell you, the fear of them runs deep in my writers. Actually, the fear of not conforming exactly to these Right Ways has them so paralyzed with doubt that they can barely write.

My message to them is simply that there are no Right Ways. Well, not official ones that carry throughout academia from top to bottom as they’ve been led to believe. Those that pound their fists on desks and insist that there are are misleading their students – there are right ways, conventions to conform to, but those are individual preferences that very well may differ from teacher to teacher.

So we focused on writing. I let them know what my expectations for the paper were, and made it clear that our goal was to write our strongest pieces. To that end, I wanted us to focus on ideas and organization. I gave them some ideas about structure. We worked hard on introductions, even going so far as to write a rough draft of one in our notebooks, removed from the essay itself.

Like many teachers, I have my bag of tricks that I rely upon. I have a sheet I call The Big Sheet, which I print off on 11×17 to make little booklets to help us organize our ideas. The outer pages are a handout I came across that compiles the rhetorical moves from Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say. Inside they have a thesis statement generator based upon the one that Jim Burke created. There is a page that is blank, but for a reminder of the structure of an essay: an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I also remind them of the mnemonic that I use to remind us of the things that should be in a body paragraph, SELECT.

SELECT

I also spent a class sharing the idea of using Says/Means/Matters with them. (I’ve written about using this strategy before.)

Says-Means-Matters image

Not only did we look at using it as a strategy we can use to develop our arguments, and better explain our ideas, but I was frank with them that they may, in their studies, face a writing assignment that asks them to achieve a piece of a certain length. I know that this stresses writers out. A SELECT paragraph gives them a basic, and potentially brief way to make their point using a quote. Says/Means/Matters allows them a way to expand on that one idea, which, if we’re being honest, is a tool that they can use to add length to a paper more effectively. We did the simple math: if, using only SELECT, we can write a baseline of a five paragraph essay, with three core arguments, then we can use Says/Means/Matters to stretch that same core to up to 12 paragraphs, possibly more than doubling the length of the paper, and that’s without resorting to choosing really, really long quotes!

The strength, I feel in showing them these two approaches is that I’ve now shown them two different ways to communicate their ideas in an organized fashion. I make it clear that another strength in knowing two approaches is that they can alternate between them, giving their writing some variety, less of a feeling of following a set structure than what I’ve seen from students in the past when they used only SELECT.

Basically, I want to spend as much of their time as academic writers giving them strategies they can use in that pursuit. It will work in my class because we’re playing as we learn, taking risks and figuring out how the tools work. I hope that it will work if they roll into a classroom in which there exist Right Ways, because they’ll have confidence in their ability to write, and can do so once they figure out the expectations they need to conform to.

What other organizational tools do you use? Do you have acronyms that you use in class for strategies? I need to build better models for teaching introduction and conclusion… what have you got?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

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10 Ideas for Notebook Time

 

10 Notebook Time Ideas (1)

Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.

Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.

No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.

The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.

So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition.

1. Page Number Game

Have students grab any book in the room and ask them to turn to a random page you choose. Ask students to write down the first sentence on a notecard. Collect their notecards, and then have students choose a new card. After students draw their new card, have them use the book sentence to begin their writing.

It never gets old watching students’ surprise and delight when reading their starter sentences and learning what they are to do with them. They enjoy the novelty and challenge, and I enjoy watching them work through their approach. Check out my student Katie U.’s example below with a special twist of an ending sentence:

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A disease ravished her. I saw it first in her eyes, the former light in them dulling away. Then it was her body, crumbling and falling and contorting itself into nothing. Then it was her voice, from soft to screams, laughter to sobbing. Finally, it was her mind. Her beautiful mind. Instead of her mind thinking through books and adventures and fresh brwed morning coffee and happiness, it became mad with fantasies of demons surrounding her, psychos waiting in her shower, all food poioned. My mother was gone. I knew she wasn’t going to come back. My last words to her were, “I hate you.” I shouldn’t have said them. 

 

2. Writing With Images 

Imagery sparks creativity, discussion, and writing. Susan Barber is a wizard at Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking, and this thinking and analysis lends itself perfectly to notebook time.

Also, check out The New York Times Picture Prompts for a wealth of interesting and vetted images, complete with prompts.  

3. First & Last Word

Choose two words—they could be words you love (“cellar door” anyone?), words you loathe, words you happen upon, or words you choose on a whim—and have students begin and end their notebook time with these two words.

As in life, the challenge is finding a way from point A to point B, the first word to the last word.

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Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

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Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading

Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

differentiation

Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

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A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally  got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading

3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

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. Continue reading

Short Inspiration

I had a meeting this week, during the school day, in my building. It meant prepping a sub plan, but, since I was in the building, something I could get going before running out to the meeting.

As often happens, this wasn’t the best time for my Grade 9s to be without me. We’ve just finished one things we’ve been working on, and we’re not quite where I want us to be for the to work on another thing without me.

We’ve been looking at monsters, and scary stuff like that, as a way to explore imagination and empathy. I needed a one and done activity.

Recently, a tweet came across my feed that featured “Tuck Me In,” a wonderful little short film about the monster under the bed. I watched it again, seeing if there was a way to use it. As I watched it on YouTube, as I often do, I scanned the other videos suggested. This led me to “Run.” This one minute short is a neat little piece of horror. It was great fun to watch with the students.

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Yes/No/So

Spring in AP English Language is always a little tricky. Stress levels rise among the students as the test looms, and they’re all desperately searching for the magical formula that will make it all click. It’s tough to keep them engaged in the hard work of revising and slowly improving their craft as writers when they want me to just tell them how to get a 5 already.

When I’m not working with those AP students in the afternoons, I’m working with struggling readers and writers as a literacy support coach.  I experienced some similar frustrations–and the same desire for a magical formula– when working with some ninth graders on a recent argumentative essay.

In both cases, the students were frustrated with building arguments logically. They knew they had to address a counterargument, but they weren’t really sure what that entailed. They knew they had to support their claims with evidence, but they didn’t know how to order their different claims in a way that made sense. They knew some of the evidence was stronger than other pieces, but they couldn’t wrap their brains around how to weigh one piece of evidence against another.

As I worked with all of them, I realized I did have a magic formula.

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiration From a Master

Mentor Text: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative Writing
  • Voice
  • Humour
  • Considering Audience

Background:

A beloved part of my day is right before my daughters’ bedtime, when we read. I have a six year old and a four year old, and each is currently obsessed with a different book. My oldest is in the early stages of Pottermania, as we read, for the second time, the beautiful new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our youngest, like her sister before her, has been repeatedly requesting Neil Gaiman’s gorgeous little novella Fortunately, the Milk.

If you’ve not read it, do so. It’s a hilarious little book. Left alone, without his wife’s support, a father goes to the corner shop to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast. He takes a long time. Upon his return, he spins a fantastic tale explaining his delay. Initially abducted by aliens, he escapes only to be caught by pirates, is rescued from them by a stegosaurus in a time travelling hot air balloon, which they take to a primitive jungle in the past, a land populated by vampires, meeting back up with the same batch of aliens, before making it home with the milk. The illustrations, by Skottie Young in the version we have, make it clear that Dad is likely making this whole tale up, using things in his sight in their kitchen. Yes, it’s essentially a kiddie version of The Usual Suspects, but it’s awesome. My girls love it, and I love reading it to them. Continue reading