Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

I love this exploratory, confessional, honest narrative in which Tricia invites us along on her journey to her discovery, along with her students, that five paragraph essays were not only not serving them as writers, but were actually limiting and caging them. Tricia shares resources for thinking beyond five paragraphs, but more importantly, she opens up the dialogue for thinking through and talking about and searching for what else is out there for our writers.

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading

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Ask Moving Writers: How do you authentically support and assess vocabulary?

AMW Allison

Dear Noel (and fellow readers!),

In a recent webinar, 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling posited an idea that really rocked my world. It was at once so simple and so profound:

Vocabulary is not a task or a thing, it is a literacy practice.

Not so much a skill, but a habit that readers, writers, and thinkers cultivate.

My immediate reaction to this statement: Yes, of course! How could it be anything else?

But my actual classroom story says otherwise.

Like most of us, I have tried everything when it comes to vocabulary instruction. School-issued vocabulary books. Self-made quizzes based on internet SAT word lists. Choose-your-own-vocabulary-words vocabulary quizzes. 10 random, teacher-selected-words-at -a-time vocabulary instruction. And worst of all: no vocabulary instruction.

But as Sarah reminds us, good vocabulary instruction is not about finding the perfect vocabulary system or website or book. It’s about treating vocabulary the same way we treat writing and reading: as a habit we want to cultivate in our young learners.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student. (2)

So the real question is: how do we authentically support (& assess?) the vocabulary student?

If we want to be authentic, we have to start with what real people do.

What do real logophiles do?

  1. They look up words they don’t know.
  2. They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing. 
  3. They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
  4. They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
  5. They learn how to say words in other languages.
  6. They research the origins of words.
  7. They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
  8. They have favorite words.
  9. They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
  10. They write & they read… a lot.  

So, what does this look like in the classroom? How can we help cultivate these practices in our students? How can we hold them accountable as we do in their writing and reading?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities I’m thinking about:

  • Word Notebooks. Students keep word notebooks, or a section of their writer’s notebook, devoted solely to word collection from their independent/whole class reading, thinking about words, and trying on new words. They share pieces of their word notebooks in Notebook Spotlights or Padlet Walls or Writing Groups, just they like they share pieces of their writing with one another.
  • Word Podcasts. Students partner up to create monthly word podcasts in which they talk about some of the words they’ve discovered that month, the origins of the words, how the words have impacted their reading and writing. Here’s a great lists of podcasts for logophiles that we might use as mentor podcasts!
  • Vocabulary Resources that are accessible 24/7. A digital dropbox of lessons that help vocabulary students cultivate some of the habits listed above. Lessons might include:

                 Dictionary 101

                 How to Use a Thesaurus & Avoid Sounding Ridiculous

                 What Etymology Is & Why It’s Awesome

                 Word Parts: Prefixes & Suffixes and How They Can Help

                  How Do Ya Say It?: A Guide to Pronunciation

                 Twitter Handles & Email Lists to Subscribe To

  • Keep at writing and reading workshop…because that’s honestly the best way to cultivate word love.

Okay, last but not least: the more complicated second half of your question. How do we assess vocabulary? For the record, I am so, so, so glad you used the word assessed instead of graded.

Because it makes my job here much, much easier 🙂

I’m thinking about the questions I might ask my students at the end of the month/quarter/semester year as they reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. I might ask questions like:

  • How has your vocabulary grown this month/semester/year? What evidence can you show me of your growth?
  • How have your vocabulary studies impacted your reading and your writing?
  • What vocabulary practices that you formed this year do you plan to continue in the future?

I think the assessment of vocabulary can be this simple so long as the feedback we give our students is timely & relevant. My teacher feedback checklist might look something like this, and I might use it once or twice a quarter to assess their growth as vocabulary students:

Student’s Name__________________   Date_____________________

         Is the student:

__ able to use a dictionary and thesaurus to research an unfamiliar word?

__ showing word curiosity through:

         Word notebooks

         A section of their notebook

         Word Pinterest board

          Other

__ actively “trying on” new words in their speaking & writing?

__ showing word discrimination in their writing — especially in poetry?

__becoming a student who loves words?

This last item was inspired by the children’s book The Boy Who Loved Words, which currently sits on my son’s nightstand. He’s a little young (okay, way too young…he’s 2) to really appreciate its message, but I can’t help but at least show him the vibrant pictures and sing aloud all the words that float ethereally across the pages.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 8.18.22 PM

Image via Amazon.com

The main character Selig is a boy who collects words and seeks joy in sharing these words with others. On the last page the narrator reveals that Selig is in all of us: You too may find yourself lucky if, one day, while you are thinking or writing or simply speaking, the perfect word just seems to come to you.

As I rethink vocabulary instruction thanks to your question, I’ll keep Selig close. For what better gift to give my students than to help them find, through their writing and thinking and speaking, “the perfect word” to express what’s in their minds and on their hearts…

Thanks for asking this question, Noel. It’s definitely one that will keep me up at night, in a good way.

Warmly,

Allison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask

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

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

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

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

adobe-spark-48

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

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

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