Analyzing Audience with the College Essay

Today’s guest post is from Paige Timmerman, a high school English teacher in Salem, Illinois. You can connect with her on Twitter at @pbrink12 or via e-mail at timmermanp@salemhigh.com.

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When I decided to take the plunge and try writer’s workshop over the summer, I knew I wanted a unit on college application and scholarship essays for the simple fact that I knew my students would crave it.

I also couldn’t help think about how rare and valuable it is to have a unit for a potentially “real” audience.  Students spend much of their time writing hypotheticals for teacher eyes only, but this unit is an opportunity to really analyze the audience and think critically about what might impress them.  I also viewed the unit as an opportunity for students to think very deliberately about craft, as they usually only have about 500 words to convince a group of people they don’t know to contribute to their education.  It’s a tough feat!

Planning

I began by scouring the internet for mentor texts of successful college admittance and scholarship essays, and I came across the “Essays that Worked” page on the John Hopkins University website.  What I liked most about this page was that each winning essay was accompanied by a “review burst” written by the selection committee, which detailed why the essay impressed them.

After I selected four mentors and examined them, I noticed they each possessed interesting textual features (dialogue, rhetorical questions, etc.).  There also were a variety of structures; one winning essay was even structured like an instruction manual for how to “handle” millennials.  These techniques, I realized, were why they won- they stood out amongst a swarm of simple sentences in long paragraphs.  Therefore, I wanted to make sure I taught these features at the beginning of the year through a narrative unit and an informative writing unit before encouraging students to apply them to their college pieces.

Here are the mentor texts we used:

Just Keep Folding

On and Off

AdmissionsSaving the Manatees

The Palate of My Mind

Pre-Writing

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This is the anchor chart that was chosen to be displayed during the unit and served as a basis for how the essays were assessed.  An example of a cumulative discussion over the mentor texts (featuring Jack, Grace B., Tina, and Nick) can be found here.

We spent four days in class analyzing four different mentor texts.  Just as I had hoped, the “review bursts” from the selection committee deepened our discussion by causing students to consider audience.  Next, I had students mine the mentor texts for commonalities in groups, each of which submitted a 3-5 minute video of its discussion and created its own anchor chart.  With new knowledge of the unit in the back of their minds, students then developed questions they would ask members of a college scholarship/application selection committee if given the opportunity.

I asked two of our counselors, both of whom have been part of the selection process for

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Mrs. Knapp and Mrs. Kessler impart their most valuable piece of advice: the best essays tell a compelling story.

local scholarships, to select the anchor chart they thought best captured the spirit of the unit, and they came into my class the next day to explain their choice.  After that, they answered questions about the genre, which helped students “get inside the head” of the audience.

 

Pause

While I needed students to write at least 1,000 words for a dual credit requirement, I considered that many prompts are 500 words or less.  Therefore, I decided to have them complete two essays instead of one.  Prompts were chosen authentically from real scholarships or college websites, or they were chosen from “general prompts” from The Common App.

Once the first essays were in the rear-view, I decided to facilitate mock “selection committees.”  Students returned to their discussion groups and received a packet of three student essays, each of which had an “alias” to replace the name for anonymity.  They read the essays quietly first, annotating pros and cons in the margins as they went along.  Each group member used a different color of colored pencil so I could see the progression of their silent discussions as each essay was passed from person to person.

 

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Logan, Max, and Grace H. judge three anonymous essays.  Click here to view their discussion.

Group members then discussed what they noticed in each piece, and a criteria was determined for selecting the “best essay.”  They then submitted a 2-3 minute video that explained which essay they believed was most deserving of the desired award and how they came to that conclusion, citing specifics in each of the three essays for support.

 

What I liked most about this activity was that students were no longer thinking about the audience; they were the audience.  They got the opportunity to “try on” the selection committee’s shoes for an hour or so and walk around, which helped them understand what it takes for an essay of this style to stand out.  Additionally, it allowed them to understand the impact of the specific textual features we had studied with the first two units.  

Present

As my students are currently wrapping up their second pieces of the unit, I am reflecting back on what I have been seeing as I have been conferring with them.  I’ve seen less “I am a really hard worker and deserve this scholarship” and more unique textual structures and craft techniques introduced in class.  I am confident my students are entering the sea of paperwork known the college application and scholarship process armed and ready to give their competitors a literal run for their money, and I know this is due largely to the fact that we spent so much time considering audience.

While this unit encouraged my students to think about their futures, it also allowed me to continue considering my own future as a writing teacher.  As I think back to common comments I made during conferences, I remember saying frequently: “You should incorporate some of the techniques we talked about in the memoir unit or the informative writing unit!”  Although hypothetical, those units at the beginning of the year served as building blocks for the authentic piece constructed in this unit.  This is leading me to believe students’ college essays could be even better if I added another unit into the mix before the college essay unit to give them even more tools in their toolboxes before constructing an essay they want to push out to a real audience.  With this in mind, I plan to go forward next year by cutting the college writing to one paper rather than two in order to make room for another “building blocks” unit to precede it.  With newfound knowledge that acting as the audience improved student writing drastically, I am saving a few student pieces and plan to kick off the unit next year by placing my students in the judge’s seat.

While the college writing unit may not have been as exciting as some of the others, the experience of having an authentic audience proved to be unique and invaluable.  That said, as I go forward and continue to dabble in writer’s workshop, I am left with one main lingering question: If knowing a real audience will read students’ work pushes them toward more deliberate thinking about their writing craft, how can this phenomenon be replicated in units of writing where students do not feel authenticity from the audience?

What are you thinking, teachers? How might you use the analysis of audience in a different writing study? How have you used the college essay to teach more than just the college essay? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find Paige on Twitter @pbrink12. 

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A Teaching Lesson from the Dance Studio: Crash and Learn

If you read the #NCTE17 recap, you know that the Moving Writers team has busting a move on the brain, especially me, since I am currently taking a second round of swing dancing lessons (so maybe it’s more like I’m “cutting a rug”?). This dance class crosses a long-existing item off of my bucket list, and I’m having a blast (and not crushing too many toes). While I expected to enjoy learning how to dance, I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy watching my dance instructors teach. Both are just plain great teachers–they are patient, kind, and encouraging; they are clear communicators; they break steps down into pieces their students can handle; and they always explain why leads and follows move the way we do in each step or sequence. I leave class happy to have learned new steps and happy to have watched two great teachers in action!

One of the strategies my instructors like using most is “crash and learn.” When they start to teach a new step, they will demonstrate it once or twice and then let the class just go for it to see what happens. The result is usually pretty messy. Limbs tangle, laughs ring out, apologies are mumbled. Then, the instructors share what they noticed and take the step apart so we can make it work. As my first semester at a new school nears its end, I’m realizing that “Crash and Learn” could very well be the theme of my half-year. A few years ago, the perfectionist in me would have been mortified by tiny missteps or wonky lessons, but a few months of “crashing and learning” has taught me a lot about the joy of risk and the knowledge that can only come from making a mistake first. And as I “crashed and learned,” I realized that the process was one my students ought to get comfortable with, too. As you look forward to Christmas break and perhaps make some classroom resolutions for the new year, here are some tips for how to make the most of your “crash and learn” moments.

Hang on, Ginger Rogers! That’s a clever title, but what does “crash and learn” actually look like in the classroom?

Good question! “Crash and learn” could mean handing students a poem for a cold read and asking them to make some sense of it alone before you read it together. “Crash and learn” could mean giving students a mentor text the class hasn’t annotated and asking students to write a draft of something like it. It could mean–as it did for my seniors this week–completing a mock assessment of a poem students had only read alone. It’s not a strategy for every day, but it’s something worth trying a few times each year.  I’ll share some more specific details about recent “crash and learn” moments in my classroom below.

“This is my dance space; this is your dance space.” DanceSpace

Johnny Castle was right. Dancers need to know their places (but nobody puts Baby in a corner), so make sure to set some guidelines for all who will be crashing and learning. Let students know when you’ll step in and when they will have to navigate on their own–and hold yourself to those guidelines, even if you start to see struggle!

For example, as I fielded some seniors’ frustrations about recent assignments, I realized that they were expecting more guidance from me about which writing topics to choose and what exactly they ought to say about those topics. While I don’t plan on dictating that much of their writing (our goal is authentic thought and personal response, so I keep prompts as open-ended as I can), I could be more explicit about what students can expect from me, what I’m expecting them to do on their own, and why those are the expectations of the assignment and the course. I will start next semester with a similar conversation.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and…” well, you know the rest…

footloose_04

If you’re going to crash and learn, make sure you’ve allotted enough time for students to retry the activity a few times. For example, my freshmen are currently writing a collection of digital texts, and our schedule is such that they’ve had to “crash and learn” a few of the digital genres on their own. They have had five chances to try the “read a mentor text/mark your noticings/use the mentor as model” method, and their work has improved with each new attempt. Any “crashing” that happened with the first two attempts–sentences that bordered on plagiarism, sources that were too weak (or pieces without sources), pieces that didn’t use mentor text moves at all–led to a lot of learning that has produced better, stronger texts on the third, fourth, and fifth drafts.  

Cue Tom Bergeron…

Even Dancing with the Stars makes time for reflection. Every time dancers finish their numbers, host Tom Bergeron is there to ask them how they feel about their performance. I realize that “crash and learn” can look and feel a lot better for a teacher than it may to a student, since I might register students’ progress or the way they’re building scaffolds before they do. Thus, I’ve tried to follow each “crash and learn” experience with time to reflect as a class or individually. When my seniors performed a mock assessment of a cold-read poem yesterday, I made sure to carve out time for a discussion of what they observed, what questions they had, and what they now knew they needed to feel ready for the actual assessment. Now I know that learning new strategies for organizing our analyses should be our top priority.

As a semester of “crashing and learning” comes to a close, I’m also asking students to fill out what would normally be end-of-the-year course evaluations so that I can recalibrate for the new semester.  
Find a Partner!

Dance-Marathons

And with course evaluations inevitably comes some constructive criticism. I’m grateful for new buddies in my department who have helped me to process the survey results and find new ways to meet students’ needs. “Crashing and learning” can leave some bumps and bruises, so make sure you have a partner or two who can keep you on your feet and ready to get back on the dance floor!

When is the last time you “crashed and learned”? Have any other tips for how to learn from diving into the deep end first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. And if you need a little boost as the holiday craziness sets in, here’s a great dance montage

3 Strategies for Students Who Say, “I’m Finished” After Writing a Paragraph

 

I grew up in Connecticut, so the old southern phrase “Bless your heart” isn’t a part of my everyday vocabulary. However, I’ve caught myself saying it a few times, in identical situations. Here’s the scenario:

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I’m finished.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts            we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

OR

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I have nothing else to say.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts           we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

My southern friends have taught me that “bless your heart” is the phrase you say when  you’re trying to be nice. But there’s an edge to it. A bit of sarcasm or exasperation or maybe even pity. It’s the phrase that comes to mind when a student thinks she’s done writing, but I know she’s only just begun.

How do we help these writers — the ones who honestly believe they’re done, that they’ve written into all of their ideas, that they can call it a day? How can we literally bless their writing hearts and help them along on their cut-too-short writing journey?

There have been times when I’ve pointed to a sentence or paragraph and said, “You need to add more here” and left it up to the student to figure out what that means. These are not moments I’m proud of. I’d rather look back on the times when I’ve given the student a strategy to try, one they can use not-just-this-time but over and over again, whenever this problem of “I’m finished” presents itself.

Here are a few techniques I’ve shared with students that have helped coax them back to the page to do some more thinking and writing — to help them deepen and extend and thoroughly develop their ideas.

Strategy #1: Explode the Moment

I first learned about this Barry Lane technique at the Writing Project Summer Institute. The idea is simple: take a short phrase, sentence, or paragraph and explode it into more short phrases, sentences or paragraphs.

Here’s an example I wrote together with my students a few years ago. We pulled a sentence from a student’s draft and imagined all of the things happening in and around that particular moment; then we fleshed it out.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.47.10 PMExploding the moment is typically used to help students flesh out a piece of narrative writing, but it can work just as well in informational or analytical writing; a lot of informational and analytical writing depends upon a strong narrative introduction or thread anyway to hold the reader’s interest and add texture to the piece.

Strategy #2: Mirror a Mentor Text

Whenever I can, I use mentor texts to help my students work through writing problems and puzzles. I like to ask the question, “What did the mentor do?” and help my student describe the work of the writer so he can try it in his own piece.

In this technique, you help the student find a mentor text that is like the writing they are doing, and you invite them to see what content the writing has that their piece may lack.

I love the example Rebekah shares in some of our workshops about her student Josef, a 9th grader, who was writing a persuasive piece about “must-see” bands in 2016. His draft looked a little something like this:

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Josef had written 10 nearly identical paragraphs for the different bands he had chosen for this piece. And for Josef, ten paragraphs was a big accomplishment — surely he was done. But they all lacked something major, something that held his writing back from being a substantial piece of analysis. Each paragraph lacked the reasons and evidence needed to support the claim that the band was worth seeing live!

So, Rebekah shared a tiny excerpt from the mentor text 25 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo.

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Then she asked Josef, “What does this mentor include that isn’t yet in your piece?” A light bulb went off. Josef immediately realized that he had failed to talk about the music itself. So he went back to the drawing board and added another paragraph to each section. Here’s the paragraph he added to the bottom of his Catfish and the Bottlemen section:

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With longer mentor texts, it can be helped to have students create a true mirror in their notebooks by cutting the mentor text into chunks — chunks that represent different sections or topics — and pasting them onto the left side of their notebook. Then, on the right side, they can experiment with adding similar sections to their own writing.

Strategy #3: The Braided Paragraph

The Braided Paragraph is a variation of the Braided Essay in which writers weave together different “threads” of a topic, resulting in a beautiful and nuanced mishmash of genres and thinking and moments of revelation. Here are the directions I give my students for trying the braided paragraph:

  • Draw a line down the middle of a fresh sheet of notebook paper. On the left side, copy what you have written, putting one sentence on each line (or skipping lines in between sentences).
  • On the right side, create new but related content by trying one of the following:
    • Write the opposite of the line on the left.
    • Write a related detail, fact, or piece of evidence.
    • Write a surprising line to go with the line on the left.
    • Write the word “but…” and continue the line on the left.
  • After you’ve written a new line for every original line in your piece, braid these two columns of writing together into something bigger, better and more interesting than what you had before.

Sometimes the Braided Paragraph technique produces amazing results. Sometimes, like a good exquisite corpse, it makes for really wacky writing that sometimes inspires something new in the writing and sometimes dies right there on the page. What matters is that you’re inviting students to write in and around their original thinking, to play with it, stretch it, and contort it into new possibilities.

How do you help your writers move past a paragraph into more developed writing? How do you entice the writer who says “I’m finished” back to his notebook? 

 

 

 

 

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: We Were Liars

ds are the luckiest.

Text: 
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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

 

 

 

Audience:

Later middle school – high school (Perhaps 7-12?)

Book Talk:

Every summer, members of the incredibly wealthy Sinclair family gather on a private island. Everything appears to be perfect — perfect children, perfect relationships, plenty of money. But, of course, you know that things are almost never the way they appear from the outside. This book takes place over two years in Cadence’s life as she tries to piece together what happened two summers ago when she had a mysterious accident and most of her memories were wiped away. What was the cause of the accident? What really happened? And what secrets is this family trying to protect? This book is part Gossip Girl, part mystery, and completely a page turner that will suck you in as you — and Cadence — try to put all the pieces together.

Sentence Study:

“It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.

It does’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.”

This passage can help writers …

  • Use repetition effectively (specifically anaphora, if you want to throw in a fun literary term!)
  • Write using symbols
  • Make a dramatic shift.

Together, the class might notice

  • The repetition of “It doesn’t matter” at the beginning of each sentence.
  • The repetition of the word “desperately” in the last sentence — this kind of repetition feels different than the anaphora of “it doesn’t matter”.
  • The dramatic figurative language — “divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so they hardly beat without a struggle”
  • Symbolism of credit card bills and pill bottles to represent problems and pain within the family.
  • The single-sentence paragraph at the end of this passage that creates a twist

Invite students to try it by saying …

In this passage, Lockhart is describing a family. And certainly we can use these techniques to describe a group of people. But we could use these techniques in any piece of writing where we want to strongly emphasize an idea (using anaphora) and then twist that idea (by using a different kind of repetition, a separate, short paragraph, and a surprise). In your notebook, either devise a new description in which you try these techniques, or, better yet, find a place in your notebook work that could benefit from emphasis and a dramatic twist. Try it out. 

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Seven Matches

Mentor Text

Seven Matches – Gord Downie

Writing Techniques:

  • Ambidextrous Lines
  • Developing Symbolism

Background: 

I had another piece in mind for Mentor Text Wednesday this week.

 

However, we were listening to Gord Downie’s Secret Path album as we studied the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve year old First Nations boy who died trying to get home after he fled a residential school in Northern Ontario in 1966. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Gord here, and I’ve shared our work on what I call The Chanie Project as well.

 

We did things a bit different this year, and were reading Downie’s lyrics in the Secret Path graphic novel as we listened. We stopped and had a brief chat about the lyrics and music of each song as we went.

I’ve listened to both the album, and read the graphic novel a number of times, but it never fails to amaze me what a group of students can pull out of a text when we’re looking at it together. It is perhaps one of the coolest things about working with mentor texts.

The third track on the album is called ‘Seven Matches.’ Like many of the songs, it is told from Chanie’s point of view. In it, he is talking about the small jar of matches that he had been given by a relative of the two boys he ran away with. These matches are important, and symbolic, because they represent the promise of fire, which could help him survive.

I’m pretty open about my admiration for Gord Downie’s songwriting. His lyrics read like poetry, making him seem more like a poet fronting a rock band than a traditional songwriter. Getting to share this with my students, and discussing his work id fantastic. It was in this discussion that I saw the merit of these particular lyrics as a mentor text. Continue reading

F.A.R.T.ing Around With Research

I came home from #ncte17 full of ideas, but one common theme from the weekend was…..farts. In my first session about engaging boy readers and writers, Jon Sciezka gleefully told us that he loved fart jokes and writing about silly things. Then, I stood in line to a get a book for my 8 year old–The Unflushables–and discovered it was exploding (sorry) with fart jokes.  Later I thumbed through Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write  and there on page 61? Farts. When I got home Monday, I saw this tweet pop up on twitter:

fart

Either I was slap-happy from the weekend or the universe was trying to tell me something. I was working on a research reading lesson with a ninth grade teacher and this FART annotation thing seemed like just what we needed.

One of the biggest impediments to students embracing research reading and writing is that we don’t give them a way in–an on-ramp.  It seems so daunting, so intimidating, that many turn away before they even start.

Perhaps a F.A.R.T. strategy would be silly enough to be an on-ramp.

 

Continue reading

Toward Better Writing Conferences & More Independent Writers

Writers work toward independence when they...

Conferring with writers has always been the hardest part of workshop teaching for me. When it goes well, a writing conference is where the energy is, where the lightbulb turns on, where the writing and the writer move forward.

But it takes a lot of work to train writers to have a meaningful, energizing writing conference.

My students — whether they are in seventh grade or in twelfth — instinctively default at the beginning of the year to one of two conferring positions. My most-confident writers never ask for a writing conference, explaining later in their author’s notes that, “I didn’t think I needed a conference because I didn’t need help.” My less-confident writers ask for a conference every class period (at least once!), but their conferences are less a conversation and more a panicked gasp of, “Help!”

Neither is ideal. The writer who never confers is working in isolation with limited resources — whatever they already know how to do on their own. The writer who always confers but needs constant handholding isn’t articulating their needs. Both writers need more.

You see, the goal of writing workshop has never really been for students to produce sterling pieces of writing. Rather, the goal is for students to experience a writing process that, over time, builds their writing skills, their confidence, and, ultimately, their independence as writers who can move through an independent writing process on their own out in the world. This is why we allow student writers to make so many choices.

And part of independence is knowing what you need and when you need it.

Recently, I circled back to the lesson I taught in September about what a writing conference is and why a writer might have one. My students were missing that conferences aren’t just for help. In fact, I hope they are usually for more than just help. They are also for having a conversation about work, for talking it out, for getting another set of eyes on a piece of writing, for feedback.

 

help feedback

First, I told students that moving forward, in order to ask for a conference, they needed to be prepared to lead it by asking for help or asking for feedback. No more, “Can you look at this” or “Uhh….I just ….could you…?” leads.

There are really two different kinds of writing conferences, and both are very important for writers.  Help conferences…. ask for help. They usually sound like a statement. They are broad and general and typically occur when a writer has hit a roadblock they cannot get around without assistance.

Feedback conferences, on the other hand, ask for advice about a particular part of the writing. They usually sound like an open-ended question. They are aimed at making part of the paper better, but don’t necessarily happen at a point of writing crisis.

I gave them a small glue-in of the chart above for their notebooks.

That was about it. But the impact on my writing conferences was enormous.

  • Confident writers now understand that there are ways for them to talk about their writing, too. And that the conversation might truly make their writing better.
  • Struggling writers have more specific ways to articulate their needs when they are stuck at a dead end.
  • Writers have a schema to help them figure out what they need most at any given moment in the writing process.
  • Everyone has language that can help them start a discussion with a teacher or peer.

Giving students ways to discern what their writing needs, articulate it, and get the help they need builds their independence. In fact, it builds their confidence just as much as giving them the latitude to choose their own topics and find a unique writing process that works for them.  Real writers know what their writing needs. They know when they have a weak paragraph that needs another set of eyes. They know when the structure is just off … even if they don’t yet know how to fix it. They know when something is just missing. Helping students distinguish between help conferences and feedback conferences moves writers toward this independence.

How do you help students become more independent in and through writing conferences? What tips, hints, or conference starters do you offer to students? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or send me a Tweet @RebekahOdell1! 

Bust a (Writing) Move — An NCTE17 Recap

Says she wants to dance to a different groove

Now you know what to do G bust a move

– – Young MC

 

Among my all-time NCTE highlights came this year as members of the Moving Writing crew gathered in real life to share some of our favorite writing moves to support writers throughout the writing process.

 

THANK YOU to all of you who hung around St. Louis until the bitter end with us. For those who couldn’t be with us in person, we thought we’d share a little bit about our favorite moves — along with our slides and resources — to energize your writing instruction as we head into the winter!

Sit back, crank up some ‘90s dance jams, and bust a writing move.

Continue reading

Memoir Study Remix: The Broken Piece

One of the best things about the Moving Writers community is the open sharing that happens here, as well as the sharing and discussion that occurs in our Twitter PLN. People ask questions, have them answered, find inspiration and share ideas and resources on a regular basis. It’s quite remarkable, and shows the importance of reflection and revision of what we do in our classrooms.

I’m also blessed to work with an amazing gang of English teachers in my school, and we have a very similar approach in our department.

This makes it much easier to look at something that isn’t working the way you really want it to, and figure out a way to do it better.

For a long time, my Grade 12 students have worked with memoir, reading it and writing it. I am a big fan of reading memoir, and as we focus on a theme of Independence, Identity & Individuality, it’s a natural fit.

But it wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Our reading of memoir was reduced to a pretty typical essay, and our writing was kind of scattershot, lacking any real focus. These things lay at my feet, and as I finished it last fall, I knew it was time to do it better.

In the next few Friday posts, I’d like to share what we did to fix the memoir study in our classes. Continue reading