Making Hot Takes Cool Again

In an effort to help pry our writers loose from the death grip of formulaic writing, my PLC went out on a limb last year.  We decided to see what would happen if we let the kids cut loose with their argumentative voices and throw caution (and, to some extent, evidence) to the wind.  

I’m talking of course about that most wonderful of all internet prose, The Hot Take.  If you aren’t familiar, the genre basically entails an excessively strong opinion piece about a hot button issue.  And it doesn’t usually entail much else!  It’s an impassioned, evidence-deficient perspective being shouted from some jagged rock of a blog by some bleating, bloviating pundit or opinionated amateur who just doesn’t have time for evidence, dammit, but if you’d only listen to how LOUDLY he’s shouting then you’d understand how right he is!

They’re delightful to read.  A few respectable voices on the internet have even embraced and defended them.  

Whatever your personal opinion of them, they certainly brought our more timid writers out of their shells.  The results were some of the most personalized and impassioned–and organizationally liberated!–writing we’d seen in years. Continue reading

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6 Halloween-Infused Writing Ideas for Tomorrow

Lately my son’s favorite activity has been our daily Halloween Walk in which we start at the top of our block and stroll from house to house snapping pictures of all the Halloween decorations we see with his Fisher Price camera. Today we saw spiders and pumpkins and ghosts and skeletons and scarecrows and orange lights and witches hanging from doorknobs. IMG_5930These afternoon walks have spawned two reactions in me:

1) We need to step up our Halloween decoration game big time…

2) We should do something fun and festive and Halloween-y with our students on Tuesday. If your school is like my school, only seniors are allowed to dress up. Aren’t 9th, 10th, and 11th graders entitled to some fun, too?

On Valentine’s Day last year I had similar feelings, and I found myself googling “Valentines’ Day activities” at midnight on February 13. This year, I’ve compiled a few Halloween-infused writing activities ahead of time.  Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: A Long Walk to Water

No matter how much we try, none of us can do it all; there simply aren’t enough hours in the classroom. So, whenever possible, I try to double-dip — pulling the learning from one area of our work to another. 

And that’s exactly my aim in this new column. To feed our students’ book love, we need to prepare book talks. We also know that the mentor-text centered sentence study that we do during Notebook Time often provides some of students’ richest writing experiences. This is exactly where I like to do one of my favorite double-dips:  sentence study and book talk in one. 

In this column, I’ll pull sentence studies from young adult and middle grades texts — give you a little book talk, show you the sentence study, and walk you through the way you might use it with students today! Let’s get started! 

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Audience:

Middle grades

Book Talk:

A Long Walk to Water combines fiction and non-fiction to tell two stories in Southern Sudan: the fictional story of Nya, an eleven-year-old in 2008 who must walk for 8-10 hours a day to fetch water for her family,  and the true story of Salva, and eleven-year-old in 1985 who is forced to flee home because of war and violence and walk to Ethiopia. Each chapter shares a part of Nya’s story and a part of Salva’s story. Students like trying to piece together how these two narratives will speak to one another by the end of the book.  A Long Walk to Water tells a simple story but asks big questions: How can we maintain hope and perseverance in the face of the unimaginable? What can one person do to make a difference? What is really needed to live? At it’s heart, it’s a survival story.

Sentence Study: 

I came to this text as the first in our series because A Long Walk to Water is the middle grades selection for the Global Read Aloud this year. Here’s the sentence I worked on with my students:

“There was always so much life around the pond: other people, mostly women and girls, who had come to fill their own containers; many kinds of birds, all flap and twitter and caw; herds of cattle that had been brought to the good grazing by the young boys who looked after them.” 

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Talking About a Text That Matters to You

Mentor Text: What Static Shock Meant To Me As a Young Black Boy by Jaylen Pearson

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About a Text
  • Applying a Critical Lens
  • Highlighting an Impactful Moment
  • Writing an Introduction

Background:

My Grade 12 course is tied to a theme based around identity, individuality and independence, which we call The Three Is. As a way of exploring these things, we read and write a lot of memoir based stuff. Since I let my own biases take the wheel at times, we often do this through the lens of pop culture. When I think of how deeply things in my world have been impacted by Star Wars and rock and roll, it just seems like a natural fit. Take into consideration the role that pop culture plays in our lives now, and it just makes sense.

 

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Image via Den of Geek

As a result, my social media feed is a cornucopia of teaching and the things I love, creating all these gorgeous confluences of work and play – my favorite thing to bring into my classroom. For example, this piece about Static Shock came across my feed, and I got excited. I never watched the show, though I was aware of the character’s origins in the comics. I grew up in a rural area, with pretty limited exposure to diversity, and that line of Milestone Comics was an interesting glimpse into a different world for me. (Milestone Comics was an independent imprint distributed by DC Comics that focused on minority characters, as they were underrepresented at that time.) As time has passed, I have come to appreciate how much those comics, the characters and stories must have meant to people. This will be the appeal for many in using this particular mentor text.

 

It is also a fine example of writing about how a text matters to you personally, which, in our classrooms, is a thing we want students to be able to write about. Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Diction, Syntax, and the Gray Lady

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One of my greatest hopes as a writing teacher is that my students will become conscious of the ways small moves can subtly shift the impact their words have on readers.  Unfortunately, what sounds easy in theory often ends up being cumbersome in the execution.  We discuss the significance of diction and syntax in their writing–one of my favorite mini-lessons is exploring the minefield of connotational problems when choosing synonyms for “beautiful”–but when it comes to closely examining the real impact of tiny moments in writing, I find that our conversations are too few and far between.

When we encounter a particular turn of phrase in a text, we might stop and chat about it, but there’s always something inherently hypothetical about the discussions.  “Why do you THINK this essayist chose such a strong verb?” Or “How would the impact have been different if Coates had chosen THIS phrasing?”  

When it comes to feedback on their own writing, I find such conversations to be far too infrequent as well.  Conferences about small moments and individual moments of phrasing tend to give way to larger-scale concerns like paragraph organization or problematic use of evidence or the like.  

In other words, my kids don’t talk shop about the actual raw power of words and sentences nearly often enough.

Enter Twitter!  Specifically, the fascinating, robotic magic of “Editing the Gray Lady”.  You’ll find this delightfully indifferent twitter feed at  @nyt_diff   . Continue reading

Managing Independent Writing

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I love a giant leap. A big swing.

I want to tell you that I carefully research, weigh, and plan each and every instructional decision that rolls forth from my desk. But I don’t.

More often than not, I don’t think all that much.  I come up with a wild “What if?”, jump, and see what happens. This is how “What If I Just Threw Away Everything I’ve Ever Done With Writing Before and Do This Writing Workshop Thing?” and “What If I Stopped Grading Individual Assignments?” were born.

(Note that these are particularly successful examples of this principle. These experiments are not always so successful. See: What If I Taught Pride & Prejudice To These Seniors? and What If My Students Wrote Letter Essays? and What If My Students Used Voxer for Book Clubs Across Classes? and What If I Wrote an Entire Chapter Comparing Literary Analysis to Both Pizza and Broccoli?)

This school year, in my brand new middle school classroom, there have been a lot of these giant leap moments as I feel my way through the days and weeks. I blame the biggest one on Colleen Cruz and Nancie Atwell. Last year, I read Colleen Cruz’s Independent Writing, and it completely knocked my socks off. (I very awkwardly and inarticulately told her so at a cocktail party. I hope she doesn’t remember.) This book reminded me that if students should be choosing anything they wish to read, they also need opportunities to choose anything they wish to write. As in, completely free choice writing. But, of course, not pages of random “free writes”. Rather the ultimate choice in writing workshops that are meticulously planned as the best genre study.

Of course, In the Middle has been on my bookshelf since college — the very first professional text I owned.  And Nancie Atwell is the best teacher in the world. So, when she assigns 20 minutes of outside-of-class writing to her students each night, who am I to argue?

And thus I made a giant leap, a big swing, and told my students that this year they would write independently for 20 minutes outside of class each day on completely free choice, independent writing.

They balked. I spent a week trying to generate good PR with parents and students about my writing plans. We generated lists and lists of 20-minutes-of-writing ideas. (Here you go: 20 Minutes of Writing- Ideas)

And then I panicked, wondering, “How in the world will I manage all of this writing?” Because beyond the simple and beautiful act of regular writing, there were some other things I needed:

  • I needed to teach the rest of my curriculum. Although throwing out everything and doing only independent writing all year is a little bit appealing, it’s just not realistic. (Yet.)
  • I wanted my students to share what they were writing — as publication, as community-building, as a source of ideas and inspiration for one another.
  • I hoped for positive peer pressure to keep writers on track and truly writing (rather than fake writing).
  • And if I was going to walk out on this limb, I knew I needed to do something with this writing. More specifically, parents wanted to know how I would assess it. So I needed a plan.

One day, after a lot of thinking and even more texting with Allison, I devised a plan:

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I went full A Beautiful Mind -meets –Tricia Ebarvia and wallpapered a white board with charts where students record their nightly writing work. This has helped accomplish a few things for me:

  • Students feel they are being held accountable — whether or not I’m carefully scrutinizing each entry (I’m not), students feel like they are “doing something” with their writing immediately. That is, recording it. Each week, students earn five points per night for writing. This adds ups to a nice little homework grade. If you miss one night, you lose 5 points. It’s very concrete, it takes me about 10 minutes tops, and both parents and students easily understand the “assessment”. (Students will soon use and develop this writing. But more on this later.)

Let me hasten to add that in order for this to work, I had to quickly let go of the same chest-tightening need-for-control that has so often threatened to consume their independent reading. Some kids will fake this. Even with a vigorous honor code, some students will lie. A handful will find clever work-arounds and loop-holes and fail to honor the spirit of the assignment. Just like they do with independent reading. To do what is right for all students, I have to be okay with knowing that I will not be able to micromanage every student.  We need to take a deep breath — it will be alright.

  • The charts let me do a quick check to assess student progress & make plans — Casually glancing at the charts last week told me that I probably need to chat with Mary (who has been writing a “log of my day” every day for the last three weeks) and Caden (who has missed at least two nights of writing each week). They could probably use some topic-brainstorming help or strategies for squeezing in time for writing.  It also told me that most of my students are writing fiction — short stories, novels, even a graphic novel — so, I did a quick mini-lesson on other genres (argument! persuasion!) to help them branch out if they are ready.  Six students are writing in partnerships! I know a little something about this, and Ways to Write with a Buddy might be great fodder for a mini-lesson down the road!
  • Students love spying on the charts & stealing ideas — Since we have not yet gotten to the point of polishing and publishing any of this work, these charts are as close as we get. But every day, I hear murmurs from the board: “Cool! I want to write about my soccer game!” and “Man! I didn’t know we could write comics” or “Oh yeah, I need to write some thank you notes, too.” Students are sharing ideas and running with the inspiration they take from the charts.

IMG_6229So, What’s Next?

Like Notebook Time, this rhythm of nightly writing would be good for my writers even if they never did another thing with it. The muscles built through regular writing are a worthy end in themselves. I hope that this will make writing such a normal part of each student’s day that they will find themselves a little bit lost without it when school ends. And then they’ll find their writer’s notebook and start again.

I’ve always thought about beginning the school-year with a brief Tour of Writing Genres. This little experiment has almost certainly given me the nudge I need to do it next fall.  But I have noticed that students don’t seem to know how many different kinds of writing are available to them in the world. So, I also intend to use this writing work as a reason to intentionally introduce students to different genres of writing. This can be a great way for students to preview genres we will hit down the road ( Op-ed, perhaps?) or explore genres that we just won’t get to this year (historical fiction or “how to” writing).  I’m planning a regular (every 2 weeks or so?) Genre Spotlight during which I can quickly introduce students to the purpose of a given genre, where it lives in the real world, and a couple of mentor texts to glance at.

But, of course, we are going to use this independent writing for something bigger. At least some of it.

Like Colleen Cruz, I plan to soon launch a whole independent writing study — helping students find their own personalized mentor texts and encouraging them to sign up to teach mini-lessons on techniques at which they are an “expert”. While I am not as brave as Colleen and don’t think I can yet manage whole class writing + whole class reading + independent writing + independent reading simultaneously, I do hope to punctuate our regularly-scheduled writing studies with independent writing studies throughout the year. In fact, I’m thinking this could make a great “exam” when I am forced to give one! (And if you haven’t read Colleen’s amazing book, you have time to read it while I tinker! I’ll update you on how this plays out.)

Do you assign your students nightly writing work? If so, how do you use it? How might you use the ideas shared here? How do your students engage with independent writing? Leave us some ideas (or questions) below, on Facebook, or Twitter @rebekahodell1. 

“No Dress Rehearsal…”

I do not hide the fact that I am a fan of rock and roll.

And, if you’re a Canadian of my age, that means being a fan of The Tragically Hip.

That means being a fan of Gord Downie.

Gord, as we all call him, in a very Canadian way, like we knew him personally, sort of way, passed away this week. About a year and a half ago, it was revealed that Gord had terminal brain cancer. As fans, we got to say goodbye. There was new music. There was a final tour. The last show of that tour was televised, and Canada pretty much stopped to watch.

And now, he’s gone.

It rattled me. I’m a big fan of music, and lately, that seems to mean dealing with loss after loss of artists who had given you songs that meant so much. Gord’s passing has hit the hardest of these.

 

Gord

The painting that hangs in my classroom.

A painting I did after catching my last Hip show hangs in my classroom. Gord watches over us as we work. I’ve looked up a number of times the last few days, and thought about what that means in my English classroom.

 

Like many of my favorite artists, Gord made rock and roll a literate pursuit. I’ve written here before about his lyrics and poetry. In many ways, Gord wasn’t a lyricist as much as he was a poet fronting an amazing band. The Huffington Post, this week, called him a pub-rock poet. In my classroom, he watches over young writers. As I encourage them to play with words, a master of the craft is there, I hope, in spirit. Continue reading

Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

A Tour of Mentor Texts for Middle Grade and High School Boys

On weekly visits to the library with my two-year-old son I often find myself browsing the periodicals in the children’s section. From there I can spy my busy toddler as he moves from the play kitchen to the dinosaur section to the puppet show.

Recently I found myself drawn to magazines geared for boys and threw a few in my bag to take home ans peruse: Boys’ Life, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Ranger Rick.

When my brother was a kid, he used to hoard issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids. I remember a distant aunt sending us annual subscriptions to Ranger Rick. But I hadn’t seen these ancient periodicals in years. In fact, I was kind of surprised they were still in existence!

Turns out they supply some pretty decent mentor texts for our students, texts that may specifically be of interested to the boys and young men in our workshop. Below I take you on a tour of the three magazines I toted home and a few of their regular features to get you started.

Unfortunately a lot of the content I describe below is not accessible online…so get yourself to the nearest public library and fill your bag with the gorgeous slippery pages of these beloved childhood magazines!

Ranger Rick

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What it is: A children’s nature magazine published by the US Wildlife Federation. 

Target readers: Ages 7 and up

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Ask Rick 

A question-and-answer column featuring questions from real readers about science and nature. The answers present information in a kid-friendly, easy-to-understand tone and format.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-driven study: Q&A Columns 
  • Summative writing assessment: At the beginning of a new unit, students might list wonderings they have in a KWL chart. At the end of the unit, students can study “Ask Rick” mentor texts and craft responses to their initial wonderings using the knowledge they gained during the study. Bonus: nwf.org/rangerrick offers an interactive Ask Rick feature on their website.
  1. The Buzz 

two-page spread featuring highly-visual blurbs about current science and nature events.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-study: Science-y current events writing 
  • Mentor sentence study. Here are a few sentences culled from the September 2017 column–note the interesting use of colons and em-dashes!

Here’s a creepy way to think about it: Pound for pound, [spiders] could eat every person on the planet. (Page 13)

Now here’s the happy truth: Spiders don’t eat people (Page 13).

But next summer, [the wild bison] will be released to roam free–just like their ancestors once did! (Page 13)

  1. Ranger Rick Feature Article

The main feature in each Ranger Rick issue combines a multi-paragraph introduction with a strong hook and a two-to-three page visual spread presenting the rest of the content. For instance, in the September 2017 issue, the feature article looked at the “super (small) heroes” of the ocean: plankton (14). The two-page infographic spread showcased craft-ful facts printed on colorful shapes against a black background with images of different kinds of plankton floating around the word bubbles.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre Study: Infographics
  • Mentor texts for Technique Study: Strong titles and captions
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Powerful leads. Here’s the lead from the September issue:

They’re not faster than a speeding bullet. And they could never leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yet all the living things you see here are superheroes, just the same (15).

  1. Ranger Rick Adventures

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A cartoon strip that explores a hot-button environmental issue using the beloved characters Boomer Badger, Ranger Rick, and Scarlet Fox. The three-page cartoon closes with a helpful sidebar: Ranger Rick’s Field Notes (shown here as “More Facts”).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Informational Cartoons
  • Mentor Texts for Purpose-Driven Study: Writing Our Way Through Problems to Solutions
  • For teaching a minilesson on using sidebars, pull-out quotes, and other text features

Boys’ Life

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What it is:  Magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.

Target readers: Ages 6-18

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Heads Up: Fast Facts

A vibrant one-page infographic presenting facts on a simple concept like “The Human Body” or “Golf.”

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Infographics
  • Mentor Texts for Technique-Driven Study: Presenting Numbers and Facts in an Engaging Way
  • Summative writing assessment: Students present information learned in a conceptual unit in a highly visual and engaging way.

2. BL Workshop

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Image from David J. Brooks’  (Illustrator) Pinterest page

A two-page how-to spread, featuring a range of DIY crafts and projects. Recent examples include “How to Make a Shoebox Solar Viewer” (August 2017, Page 44-45)) and “How to Make a Twig Number Sign” (September 2017, Page 56-57).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre Study: How-To Pieces
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Presenting information in a list

3. Gear Guy Update

A semi-regular column that offers short, blurb-y reviews of gear readers’ might want to take on their next backpacking trip, paddle boarding adventure, fishing excursion, and so forth. This column has an online version, but doesn’t have the same impact as the visually engaging two-spread spread in the actual magazine.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Short Critical Reviews of Products
  • Mentor texts for Technique-Driven study: Persuasive, concise language

Sports Illustrated for Kids

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What it is:  A monthly kid-version of the sports magazine for adults.

Target readers: 8-15

3 Features for Teaching Writing

1. Prime Time

A medium-length profile of an athlete with section headers and images.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Profiles
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on using section headers to break up a longer piece of writing into meaningful chunks

2. Freeze Frame

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A hot-off-the-press news-worthy image, accompanied by a caption and super-short paragraph explaining the photo.

How to use it:

  • Notebook Time invitation: Project a relevant, engaging sporty image, and invite students to caption it with bold, concise language.
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on strong caption writing
  • For writing about images

 

3. From the pages of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated for Kids used to print a multi-page insert with bonus material for older readers. In 2010, they scrapped this insert and replaced it with a carefully selected full-length feature article from Sports Illustrated.

How to use it:

  • For differentiating reading and writing in your classroom — inside this magazine, there’s something for everyone, including your more experienced readers and writers
  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven studies: Feature Articles & Profiles

With the ubiquity of digital texts, we may rarely finding ourselves looking for mentor texts inside books and magazines. But these gems are surely worth a trip to the library. Do you study magazine writing with your students? If so, which magazines have you found particularly helpful and inspiring? Which regular columns do you turn to for writing instruction? Tweet me @allisonmarchett.