Helping Students Think Before They Write

Helping STudents Think Before They Write-2

Have you ever considered how many aphorisms there are for good writing?

Show, don’t tell.
Write what you know.
To write well, read.
First drafts are crap.
Adverbs are the devil.  

And so on.

But there’s one tidy little truth that haunts me over and over and reminds me that my job is not only to teach writing, but to teach thinking. And as you’ve probably heard dozens of times before, “clean writing is clean thinking.”

Or, as I say to my classes: clear writing is clear thinking, interesting writing is interesting thinking, quality writing is quality thinking.

But students struggle to find ideas for their writing. I’m sure you’ve seen the double handed head clutch when it comes time to set pen to paper.

I stress to my students to do their thinking up front. And this is where it comes in handy that I practice writing myself. Whenever I am under a tight deadline, I try to take my own advice. I go wash the dishes or tidy a drawer, I take a walk or make a cup of tea, I prep for dinner or fold a load of laundry. There’s a special writerly magic in freeing your mind enough to happen upon an idea.

When it comes to the students in my class, we talk about our “shower idea” or our “cross-country idea” and how it’s in these moments of tacit boredom and busyness — like food that is both too salty and not salty enough, we find an idea compelling enough to put down on paper. If we’re lucky, we might find an opening line or analogy, or maybe even a vignette we can weave in.  

Another, more reliable way into “clear writing is clear thinking” is conversation. Because most students aren’t quite practiced enough in trusting their instincts and sussing out the good ideas from the bad, having conversations with classmates can generate ideas and illuminate or capture that elusive “thing” they’re trying to say.

Below are five strategies for how you might cultivate conversation in your classrooms to help your students do their thinking up front:

1. Flipgrid

1511892437446There’s a lot of buzz out there about Flipgrid and for good reason. The possibilities of embedding Flipgrid into lessons seem infinite, and although I’m still experimenting, the four or five strategies I have tried — flipping Socratic seminar, reflecting on essential questions, explaining a process, reading a poem or narrative, “free-writing” and riffing on an idea — make this app is worth its weight in gold.

Idea:

Introduce the writing task and purpose, and have students plan, prepare, and record their response to the prompt. Chances are, they’ll sharpen their ideas as they plan, and when they hear the playback of their response (and others), they’ll begin revising. What I like about Flipgrid (besides everything) is how easy and adaptable it is.

2. Voxer

It’s no secret I’mVoxer_Logo_Horizontal a serious Voxer fan. This new-fangled walkie talkie has made a significant impact on my professional life with a nearly ongoing conversation with my PLN fam. But Voxer isn’t just for teachers (or for sending spouses to the store after work). It’s an app that can leverage student conversation, feedback, and reflection.

Idea:

Organize students into focus groups (think teacher PLNs except for students), and have them “brainstorm” or “prewrite” via Voxer. What I like about Voxer is that you speak and listen without interruption, which forces you to process and think about your response before you continue or contribute to a conversation.

3. Tea Party

Yes, I mean an actual, literal tea party. Similar to how boredom is useful for generating ideas, tea parties can kick start even the quietest classroom crowd.

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Idea:

Pre-arrange your room. Think pods, large circle, or banquet style tables. Ask your Family and Consumer Science teacher for a hot water urn, grab some tea (and cookies if you’re feeling crazy), and let students relax a bit. It might help to provide conversation starter cards that scaffold to your prompt or task. What I like about actual tea parties is the opportunity to build community and generate conversation in a low stakes enviornment.

4. Speed Dating

Speed dating is a versatile activity that allows students to “date” books, ideas, and topics. Like the name suggests, students spend only 4-5 minutes exchanging ideas with a partner. When the time is up, students move on to the next “date.”

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Idea:

Have students bring notebooks and brainstorming notes to speed dating, and ask students to talk through their ideas to their conversation partners. Students should treat this as an opportunity to take an idea for a test run, or to walk it around and see how far it will go.

You could challenge students to tell stories for narrative, present claims and evidence for argument, or identify strong textual support for analysis. Like Flipgrid, students will notice the strengths and limitations of their ideas through their explanations. What I like about speed dating is its quick pace and flexibility.

5. Moving to Music

This is a personal favorite. First off, Moving to Music is simple, requires almost zero prep, and is perfectly student centered. Like speed dating, students have an opportunity to test run ideas with partners or small groups, but this time they have a bit more say-so in their groupings.

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Idea:

Hit play on your playlist and have students work the room. When the music stops, give them one part of the writing task or prompt to discuss. Repeat until all parts of the task have been covered. After the last round, provide students with the task in its entirety and have them flash draft.

What I like about Moving to Music is that it gets students up and moving and it frees up the teacher to guide and coach individual groups.

 

How do you cultivate conversation in your classroom? How else can we encourage students to think before they write? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Creepy Pair of Underwear!

Today’s post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.  She writes comic book reviews for noflyingnotights.com and blogs on books and teaching at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

Mentor text:

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown

Writing Techniques:

  • Elaboration
  • Story Structure
  • Effective Repetition

Background:

Whether it’s Goosebumps or Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, readers love creepy stories.  Creepy stories seem just that — designed to entertain and delight readers, not to Teach Something Important or Convey an Idea.

Spoiler alert:  The picture book Creepy Underwear isn’t all that creepy.  And it Conveys an Idea.  But it also provides several entry points for older readers and writers.

Elaboration: I asked students to brainstorm possible objects that would make good “creepy” stories.  Their responses: apples, pencils, fidget spinners, toys, coffee, books, and more.  After some brainstorming, I shared my own creepy story-in-progress with them:

Yeah…. I wrote a story about a creepy fidget spinner.

I showed students how I was inspired by the details about the Creepy Underwear (not to give too much of this story away, but let’s just say Creepy Underwear has a talent for glow-in-the-dark and reappearing in strange places) to make sure I centered my creepy fidget spinner in my story.  I even borrowed the phrase “ghoulish, greenish glow” from the story.  I also gave students a list of questions I had considered while I was writing my own creepy story:

  • What does my creepy object look like?
  • Does it talk?  If so, what does it say?
  • How do others react to seeing or hearing the creepy object?
  • Does my creepy object have any best friends? Worst enemies?
  • Where did my creepy object come from?

We can inspire students and ourselves to give these figments of our imagination developed histories.

Tone: This story is wonderful for teaching and discussing the slippery nature of tone.  At one point in this story, Jasper Rabbit determines a second creative way to dispose of the Creepy Underwear, and the narration says, “He was still a big rabbit.  He wasn’t scared or anything.”

A younger reader in a read-aloud shouts at this page, “No, look at him!  He’s still scared of the underwear!” while a more mature reader might parse this moment for analysis, since the image and gestures in the illustration suggest the opposite of the text.  I’d also pay attention to voice and word choice here, since the inclusion of words like “still” and “or anything” suggest the kind of “Am not/Are too!” defensiveness that younger children are known for.

Writers can practice using this tone by mimicking the sentence structure  and substituting in examples from their own lives, like:

“Sally was just going to check her Snapchat for a few minutes before starting her homework.  She wasn’t going to start obsessing over her followers or anything.”

“Brian was late to school for the fifth time this month.  The line at Dunkin Donuts was longer than usual — it wasn’t his fault or anything.”

Effective Repetition: This book uses repetition, symbolism, and place to show how Jasper Rabbit’s grows up  and how his attitude towards the Creepy Underwear change over time.  At the beginning of the story, Jasper goes to the underwear store with his mother.  At the end, he returns by himself with his own allowance money.  At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the underwear’s “ghoulish, greenish, glow.”  At the end, the underwear has a “gentle, greenish, glow.”

We see this kind of trick in music all the time – in Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” the last repetition of the chorus layers in beats that were present elsewhere in the song.  (In classical music, this moment is called a fugue, but I hesitate to bring up classical music and Taylor Swift in the same sentence.)

In writing, it’s a little trickier, because we have to be intentional about what words we’re repeating and why.  Perhaps the easiest way to practice this technique is to have writers make their last sentence the same as their first sentence, but with one small change.

I hate to break it to readers that Creepy Pair of Underwear isn’t actually *that* creepy, but readers young and old will get a kick out of using this story to improve and reflect on writing.

 

 

Researching the Future

My colleague had a rather weird experience this fall when a recent grad came back to visit.  She was one of those students who barely made the finish line but managed to get herself on a wonderful path to success at a local community college.  These are the sorts of victories all teachers root for, but if you’re a teacher, like me, who teaches entire classes full of learners who are significantly below grade level, these sorts of success stories become especially meaningful.

Which is why my colleague’s guest–and her surprising, unprecedented “news”–became an unexpected warning that led me to revisit my research writing with that exact crew of writers this year. Continue reading

3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

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Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.

Steps:

  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

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    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.

Mentor Text Wednesday: Revisiting ‘Superman and Me’

Mentor Text

Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflective Writing
  • A Deliberate Shift
  • Making Connections

Background: 

A funny thing about teaching is how we revisit things. Sometimes, it’s because we teach the same texts or units of studies, the same courses. We revisit things because we need to refresh or remix them.

This week, I pulled out my collection of teaching notebooks. I was looking for a sheet I knew I had tucked into one of them, one day, long, long ago. That sheet was going to be the bones upon which my awesome team and I built a new unit for our Grade 9s. I didn’t find it, and we’re just going to build off of something else instead.

I did, however, come across this week’s mentor text, which was actually the first thing I really used as a mentor text in the manner we talk about here. We read it as a class, we discussed it, and used it as inspiration for a piece of writing. I had a fist pump moment, because in a pretty tumultuous week, I had figured out a really good mentor text to share with folks.

This is a good piece that I’ve seen shared a number of places, so I wanted to do due diligence, and make sure that it hadn’t been shared by the Moving Writers team.

And I discovered that it had been.

By me. Continue reading

Teaching Argument with a Side of Mental Health

teaching from twitter pic

 

Our school has committed to working on addressing mental health issues with our students this year. Our students are carrying heavy burdens and we–the adults in their lives–need to figure out ways to help them cope with them.  So, when this popped up in my Twitter feed last night, I naturally thought of my students:

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Big shout out to @bymariandrew for providing a teaching text yet again!!

It’s not a tough image to understand, but we squeezed quite a bit out of it in 20 minutes of  AP Lang today.

Continue reading

Mandatory Reflection Time (or The Day After #NCTE17)

It’s hard to imagine that anything could be missing from the English teacher extravaganza that is NCTE. But if anything is missing, it is mandatory reflection time — time away from the learning and the exhibit hall (and the cheerleaders), to process. To be still. To think. To make a plan for the future.

Right now, I desperately need mandatory reflection time.

I have pages upon pages of scratchings in my notebook, but they all pretty much come down to one thing. In the immortal words of Nwanda in Dead Poets Society, here’s what I walk away with:

“Gotta do more. Gotta be more.”

Whether or not you were with us this weekend, Thanksgiving is the perfect moment in the school year to pause, figure out where we’ve been, and make a plan for where we are going to go.

So today instead of a post in which I pontificate on my own NCTE17 takeaways and instead of sharing our Moving Writers NCTE presentation with you (we promise we’ll have that ready for you December 1), I offer you some mandatory reflection time. Here are some questions that might help:

  • What’s going well in your class so far this year that you can build on (and if you were at NCTE, what strategies did you get that will help you build on it)?
  • What’s not going as well? What can you do right now that will make that element of your class 5% better? (And, NCTE participants, what tool did you find at the convention that might help you do that?)
  • Who could you partner with to help you teach 5% better. At NCTE, what relationship did you form or cultivate that can help you achieve some of your classroom goals?
  • What questions are you wrestling with? As Cornelius Minor asked teachers, what seems impossible in your classroom or in your context right now? And what questions can you ask about that impossibility? This is where classroom action research (and, I would add, professional writing) come from!

Don’t comment today. Take a nice deep breath. Do some thinking. Take the next little, tiny step toward progress.

Recommended Reading: Intention

One of the greatest things about being active online as a teacher is that you get to interact with, and learn from, a lot of different people. I would never go as far to tell anyone that they absolutely have to be on Twitter to be a good teacher, but I can comfortably say that it’s a good way to engage and learn.

A pair of my favorite Twitter follows, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder regularly drop bombs of goodness into my feed, and have had positive impacts in my classroom for the last few years. Dan gave me one of my favorite student response formats, and Amy has inspired so many creative activities in our work.

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My copy of Intention, proudly on my desk

 

Naturally, when I found out they had written a book together, it became a must buy. Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom has taken a place of honour on my professional bookshelf.

 

The core idea of the book is that we work to focus on the intent behind the things that we do in our classrooms. It is not necessarily the what we do that matters, the products, but rather the why we do it, the intention. This focus allows us to explore things more deeply, and allows us to let students create new things, hopefully breaking the cycle of reading and writing in response.

This book was like reading something that my heart wrote without me knowing it. Continue reading

“Word by Word”: Thinking About Close Reading, Revision, and NCTE

The title of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, comes from a family story that a favorite colleague of mine also liked to tell when she was helping students get started with their writing. As Lamott tells it, when her father saw her brother overwhelmed by the task of a report on birds that was due the next day, he sat down next to his son and told him to take the work “bird by bird.” Similarly, Lamott suggests that writers use short assignments (think about a paragraph rather than a chapter, a description rather than a character’s whole story) to overcome writer’s block or dispel writing fears.

This fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about taking writing and life bird by bird. As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, I made a big move in August, and life in a new city and a new school often forces me to live and work from moment to moment. I can’t do the kind of long-term planning I used to because I’m living a new routine for the first time. And in the classroom, I’ve recognized that my savvy students are very good at seeing the big picture–the “flock,” if you will–but they need more practice with recognizing and appreciating the finer points of a writer’s style, so I’ve started to implement some strategies that help my students read and write “bird by bird,” or, more accurately, “word by word.” Serendipitously (I mean it! This synergy wasn’t planned–such is the “bird by bird” life!), these strategies will also be on my mind and my presenter’s podium at NCTE later this week!

Words in Action: Learning with the Body

When I attended the Folger Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 2014, one of the most surprising and exciting lessons I learned was how I could engage my body to learn language. I am not an athlete, nor am I very coordinated, so my feelings about my body were a lot like those that Shonda Rimes describes in her encouraging memoir The Year of Yes (if you need a boost, I highly recommend it!): my body was “just the container I carry my brain around in.” But then Caleen Jennings–a professor, playwright, and actress from American University and one of the best teachers I’ve seen in action–challenged our cohort to learn a monologue. She gave us strict instructions to learn the first five lines by creating a different, deliberate action for every word in every line–even the articles!

At first, I felt like a goofball, walking the campus at American University, my home during the institute, and reciting my lines while flailing about, but soon I could put my script away and recite my monologue easily as my limbs moved slowly and carefully through each action! As Caleen had promised it would, my body knew the words; they had been sculpted into muscle memory. And physicalizing the words made them realer to me. I could physically feel the difference between Juliet’s “joy” in Romeo and her fear about his “rash” and “sudden” vows of love at her balcony.

With memories of that miraculous memorization in mind, I’ve incorporated similar strategies into my Shakespeare lessons. This week, I started a study of Hamlet’s act four soliloquy by handing out some of the “juiciest” words and phrases from the speech to my class. First, students spent a minute or two walking around the room saying their words with different tones and pitches. Then, I asked students to create an action to represent their words. They could also take a moment to look up their words in the dictionary for clarification. Finally, we stood in a circle and spoke our words while performing our actions. After we had shared around the circle twice, I asked students to reflect on how it felt to say their words out loud and how this collection of words shaped their understanding of the context of Hamlet’s speech and their perceptions of his character. As we read the whole speech together, I saw students sit up a little straighter or repeat their actions when their words and phrases were spoken. The words anchored them to the text.

In retrospect, I wish I’d done this activity earlier, because my students had just handed in a writing assignment that also asked them to approach the play “word by word.” In that assignment, students wrote a defense of a particular performance of Hamlet or a “mash-up” soliloquy script of their creation by grounding that defense in specific evidence from the text. It’s easy to get swept up in the plot of Hamlet, so I wanted students to dig deeper and think about how particular words (rather than melodrama) shape an actor’s performance. I’ve been delighted by a number of their essays so far, but I think earlier physicalization could have made thinking “word by word” even more natural for them.

In the future, I’d like to incorporate more word physicalization in my senior class and freshman writing workshop. Here’s what I’m thinking about trying:

  • Repeating this “words in action” activity with words and phrases from poems before reading the whole poem
  • Asking students to physicalize a word they’re currently using and an alternative word or phrase; when they compare the two actions, which is more robust, more exciting, more engaging? Use that word.
  • Asking students to assign an action to each vocabulary word–I’ve tried this before, and it has worked really well for some students! Perhaps I could pair this with Hattie’s fun word nerd work!

Want to see this lesson in action? If you are headed to NCTE this week, come to the session I’m presenting with Jacqueline Smilack and Corinne Viglietta on Friday, November 17, at 3:30: “Students Close-read Hamlet by Putting It on Its Feet.”

Words in Transition: Revising with the Stars

While my seniors close-read Hamlet, my freshmen in Reading Writing Workshop are shifting toward nonfiction and continuing to close read their own writing. They are a very talented and imaginative group of writers, so my challenge will be teaching them new ways to revise their work (my seniors could use practice with revision, too). I would like them to recognize how a word or phrase can reshape a draft.

Since my freshmen are learning new writing moves from mentor texts, I thought I would try to gather some mentor texts with revision moves. A quick Google search can yield a wealth of resources, like this draft from Gary Soto (his “Oranges” was a favorite during our poetry unit), or this list from LitHub, or a teacher Twitter favorite from August, The New York Times Book Review special feature on “Poetry in Action.” (Another great resource I can’t wait to check out? The NY Times headline-charting Twitter feed Michael mentioned in his recent “Teaching from My Twitter Feed” post.)

The Soto draft, like the “Aha! Moment” column from Poets & Writers Magazine shows on paper how a writer’s work interacts with the reader.

screen-shot-2017-11-14-at-6-18-52-am-e1510658653320.pngSoto’s draft includes edits made by a good friend who is one of his favorite first readers. The draft offers an opportunity to talk about the difference between a “chum” and a “comrade,” or “remarkable strength” versus “overwhelming duty.” Also, how can adding one ingredient like turkey to a “dry sandwich,” suddenly render a more vivid scene?

Putting a draft up against a final copy shows students that revision is more about word work than fixing spelling or punctuation. (At NCTE, I’ll show you how you can compare Shakespeare “drafts,” too!) Once students study these revision mentor texts, we can try mimicking some of their moves:

  • Change or swap a word
  • Cut or move a phrase
  • Remove a paragraph from an essay or a stanza from a poem
  • Rearrange stanzas
  • Cut more small words
  • Delete a favorite line (ahhh!)
  • Expand analysis/condense evaluation

If you’re interested in learning more about “Revising with the Stars” and are going to NCTE, don’t leave St. Louis without attending “Bust a (Writing) Move,” the session led by the Moving Writers team on Sunday, November 19, at 12:45.

How do you encourage students to read and write “word by word”? How do you remember to take life “bird by bird” amidst the zaniness of second quarters and holidays? I’d love to hear your ideas and examples in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. Hope to see you at NCTE!