Today’s guest post is from Amy Heusterberg-Richards, an eleventh-year ELA teacher at Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District, located north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Just named Wisconsin’s 2018 NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence, she currently teaches Writing, Literary Analysis, and IB English Literature HL Year Two. She previously wrote a post for Moving Writers on rewriting the word wall. Connect with her on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR.
- Excerpts from ”Charmed Objects” by Nancy Eimers
- Definition writing
- Using imagery and analogies
Last year my high school ELA department bravely ventured into semester-long, skill-focused classes. Our previous survey courses — with their daunting challenge to know and grow students’ writing, speaking, and analysis skills — morphed into courses that, while still integrating all the English discipline, provide feedback with focus. With supportive teammates alongside of me, I now teach Writing to sophomores. The class is not writing about that one book, for that one speech, or on that one teacher prompt. It is simply and beautifully writing — guided by mentors, focused on craft, and about student-selected subjects.
Except, last week. Last week we wrote about parent-selected topics.
After a conversation with a department mate and fellow mom about the opportunities that our children’s elementary school provides parents to get involved, I paused. My son’s kindergarten teacher invites me to join her at holiday parties, in decorating gingerbread houses, in providing reusable Earth Day materials, and more. She weekly updates on class-happenings through a newsletter and periodically posts photos to an e-portfolio. As a mom, I’m eager to know and support my son’s learning. I’m excited to join in when able and know what questions to ask at the dinner table. As a teacher, I’ve realized, I’m not providing equal information and opportunities to my own learners’ parents.
Enter: the parent-selected topics. Having seen last semester’s students struggle to define physical traits and abstract concepts in their writing, I shared with and called on their parents. Like me, most were eager to support. Here’s the email I sent home:
As part of our expository writing studies in Writing class this semester, students will be composing practice definition paragraphs in which they capture the essence of an item/place/idea. To transition students from describing physical traits to analyzing abstract qualities, I would like to enlist your help. If you are able, please send an object or photo of sentimental value with your child to class. Items could include, but are not limited to: a favorite childhood toy, an award/trophy, an old outfit, a family tradition momento, a picture of a special place, etc.
Ideally, your son/daughter will not know what item you send until class. To maintain this secrecy, please place the item in a brown bag, seal it, and label with your child’s name and “Mrs. HR.” The bag can be dropped off at the front desk of the school or simply sent along with your student to Writing class. (Please keep in mind that these objects may not have the gentlest of travels, so it would be in your best interest to not send anything valuable/breakable.)
As we will be opening and defining the items on DATE, please send your item by DATE. Thank you for supporting our writing practices! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call (###-###-####) or email.
And the brown paper bags poured in. Students, equal parts intrigued and confused, delivered mysterious packages they were instructed not to open. The front desk, all parts wonderful and supportive, emailed “there’s another one!” more times than I had hoped. In the days before Opening Day, classes checked and checked again: when would we be learning about those bagged items?
As anticipation built, we practiced defining physical and abstract traits through small writing exercises, like this food approach and through this mentoring. We discussed writers’ inclusion of imagery to share tangible details and their employment of analogies to present abstract concepts. Reading and annotating the following excerpt about sentimentality toward a grandmother’s pin (from ”Charmed Objects” by Nancy Eimers), we observed that definition writers tend to first begin with denotative understandings, move to imagery of physical features, and conclude with sentimental abstractions.
…I remember a gaudy, jeweled pin worn by my grandmother. I say “gaudy,” but I didn’t think it was gaudy then. Costume jewelry is made of less valuable materials including base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetic stones, in place of more valuable materials such as precious metals and gems, explains Wikipedia helpfully. But I hadn’t read and wouldn’t have been helped by this sentence then. The jewels, their blue and pink sparkles, enchanted me. They seemed almost to say, there is this other world. The pin is lost forever, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers somewhere between Oz and Kansas. But I feel the pull of a former feeling, not subject to reason, proportion, knowledge of anything likely/unlikely to happen. In memory, where I am holding it in my hand, the invented and the real haven’t quite parted ways. You can’t get beauty. Still, says Jean Valentine, in its longing it flies to you.
I think this will not be an argument but a meditation—held together by asterisks, little stars—on how charmed objects, long lost, come back sometimes in poetry, present only as words, touchstone, rabbit’s foot, amulet, merrythought, calling us back, calling us forth. What are they, now that we’ve lost them?…
(From “Charmed Objects” by Nancy Eimers)
Finally, with the energy of young children on birthdays, the students opened their bags (or this one) in class. There were some giggles and tears. There were many smiles and stories. And, most importantly, there was much thoughtful, passionate writing defining physical traits and sentimental connections. With the permission of student Indira, here is one such piece on a childhood Bratz doll:
…I think back to the plethora of beautiful, cartoon-like dolls I owned as a child. Although beautiful, they were quite unrealistic, something I didn’t mind back then. Bratz Dolls are fashion dolls designed with exaggerated features, typically marketed towards children, explains a website helpfully. But this meant nothing to me back then. Their large eyes and large lips presented to me an inspiration of sorts for what I wished to be when I grew up. They dazzled me, made me believe that type of beauty was attainable. And more than that they allowed me to create a life so different from my own and in a way live through them. It was as if they spoke to me of a different life, they were the shooting star I never saw. Some of their makeup wore off from years of being in sweaty palms and most were without shoes. Now those dolls, however, are in some other child’s play bin, their wonders forever lost to me. But at times I do find myself yearning for that escapism. For me, they were a mirage in the desert, a happy distraction from the heat.They muted the glaring sounds beyond my door. People grow up, and I know that, but why must happiness be a childhood memory? As a young girl, they don’t tell you-you can’t keep your stuffed animals or children’s books or dolls. If I had been warned of this loss when I was younger I would have wished every night for a Peter Pan to appear at my window and whisk me away. So at times without reason or logic, my mind simply wonders through nostalgia whenever I find myself dreaming and cannot find an outlet for my thoughts.
I feel as if this is not merely a reflection but a remembrance of sorts, one pieced together by delicate words and dazzling descriptions, about the many things we lose in life yet still in some way maintain. Now those dolls give joy to someone else and I cannot help but wonder if they too cannot help but be enchanted by their beauty and the dreams they bring to life.
Like all early versions of compositions and classes, my team and I will revise our approaches to our new Writing course many times over. This activity, though — especially its inclusion of the authors of my students’ own lives — will be material I am sure to keep in the years to come.
Have you ever used objects to help students write? What tips can you share?Share your comments below or join the conversation on Facebook!