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

Ask

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

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia, Continue reading

A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

#socialmediaday

Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

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Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.24 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.30 AM

Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner). 

 

 

Adapting Mid-Stream: A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School

One of the very best parts of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with inspiring educators across the country. This week, we are sharing a two-part guest post from Cincinnati teacher Beth Toerner (btoerner). We connected this year through a mutual professional friend and spent months corresponding about her 8th grade classroom and her desire to move them toward more authentic writing experiences and products. What you will read today and on Wednesday represents one of those experiences that changed the shape of her classroom and her students’ writing lives. Not only are Beth’s experiences and student work amazing, but so is her reflective spirit and willingness to change her plan mid-stream when she realized her students needed something different. Something more. We are SO excited to share this with you.  – Rebekah

#socialmediaday

Last year, I started using essential questions to help my students connect our whole class novels through a focus on universal human issues. This year, I attempted to transition these questions into literary essays about the topics using mentor texts as guidance. My plan did not unfold as I imagined, but the course it took produced more authentic and thoughtful writing than I have seen from my eighth graders all year. In the following posts, I will work through the steps that this process took in class and share what we learned along the way.

Overview:

Whole class reads: Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do differences make us uncomfortable?
  2. What is empathy? Why is it an important human characteristic?
  3. Why is it important to be connected to others?

Before reading, students write short, informal responses to these questions to get them thinking about the ideas. During third quarter, we read the texts above in the order listed, frequently circling back to our essential questions for discussion and reinforcement of the guiding ideas.

After we had read all three pieces, we did an activity to help students specifically connect their thinking about these questions to text-based evidence from the pieces that we had read together. This activity (Allison’s brainchild), called “Inside/Outside Brain,” required students to organize their “inside brain thoughts” by writing them inside a giant face and the matching them to their “outside brain” supporting evidence. I modeled on the board and they wrote in their writer’s notebooks.

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After completing this activity, my goal for students was to write a literary essay in which they responded to one of our three essential questions in a lengthier, more detailed response. I planned for them to use our common texts (Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl)  to support their thinking. It seemed like I had it all in order: I gave them questions to help them trace the development of ideas as they read, we brainstormed examples together, and I had three wonderful mentor texts to help them discover ideas for crafting and organizing masterpieces.

However, as my students brainstormed ideas, I started to feel uneasy. Although my students were doing a perfect job sharing examples to support our essential questions, like the idea that Stargirl’s shunning at Mica High School and its impact on her emotional state showed the importance of human connection, I also noticed that they were eagerly sharing examples from books we had read in seventh grade, as well as books they had read on their own. Would requiring them to write about the three texts that I had chosen squelch their creativity? Would limiting them to one of three teacher-generated questions limit their thinking?

I took some time to reflect. My students were doing something much more important than what I had planned for them: they were thinking beyond our classroom lessons and analyzing the impact that reading has had on them throughout their lives. And of course, each student had a unique experience with reading. Different books, different life experiences, different lessons gleaned. I needed to create an assignment that allowed them to express these thoughts.

So, we changed the plan. I told my students that their ideas had changed my idea, and we started with a new assignment: a literary essay that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” We were able to use the same mentor texts that I had originally planned, and in fact, they were a more natural fit for this piece than for what I had previously developed. We centered our study around three mentor texts:

“Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”

“Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later”

“How Judy Blume Changed My Life”

Each of these mentor texts has its own strengths in modeling the writing that I wanted my students to do. I was looking for writing that showed a deep understanding of literature but also shared a more personal element; I wanted students’ essays to have a conversational tone that zoomed in on a discussion of the subject (a book, author, or characters) through a very personal and reflective lens.

The first mentor text with which we worked was “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”. This text functioned well to start this project; its length was accessible, the highly structured list format gave both an approachable model for organization, and it was a jumping off point for a brainstorming activity.

First, we read the article as a class and had a quick discussion of the general plot and themes in Catcher itself. Even though my students hadn’t read it, the fact that it focused on universal lessons made it accessible. Next, we made a list of what we noticed as writers. My students noticed all kinds of stuff:

  • The article has a short introduction that explains why the author wrote it
  • The author made a list of five life lessons the book can teach
  • Each lesson is followed by an explanation that uses an example from the book
  • Each explanation is followed by a direct quote from the book that supports the example
  • The sections a numbered and each life lesson is in bold
  • It goes from universal —> more specific (explanation from the book) —> very specific (direct quote)
  • Each item on the list has the same structure
  • Even though it’s about a specific book, the lessons apply to everyone

I thought that this structure could be a great one for my students to imitate in their own pieces of writing, as the outline was clear and consistent. But first, I gave students a chance to collaboratively practice some of the thinking it would take to get there. I gave them some time to brainstorm other “Five Things ____ Can Teach You About Life” lists in their writer’s notebooks. Then, I had students get together in small groups to share their ideas. They chose one idea for a list and wrote it out on the giant sticky notes that I have in my room. They came up with a range of ideas, some of which drew on our preceding essential question work, and some of which did not:

  • Five Reasons Differences Make Us Uncomfortable
  • Five Things Reading Can Teach You About Empathy
  • Five Things Realistic Fiction Teaches You About Life
  • Five Things Book Can Teach You About Connections
  • Five Things Stargirl Can Teach Us About Human Connections
  • Five Ways to React After Losing Someone Close to You

After they made their lists, I armed them with normal-sized sticky notes and had them circulate the room, reviewing the lists that other groups made. Their job was to put at least three sticky notes on other groups’ posters showing examples from our common texts that supported one of the reasons on the list.

Here are some of the final products:

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.34.22 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.34.29 AM

 

Although my students used this as a jumping off point for essay writing, this activity itself served as a collaborative way to review common themes among our three class texts. In the future, I think it would come in handy as a way to review at the end of a novel unit or practice writing “Listicles,” which seem to have taken over the internet these days. Later this week, I will be back to share how we moved from these lists into polished literary essays.

You can connect with us by leaving a question or comment below, finding us on Facebook, or Tweeting Beth @btoerner! Stay tuned Wednesday for Part 2 of her series! 

Fostering Reflection in Narrative Writing

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Today’s guest post is from Liz Matheny (@matheeli)

I like to open and close the year with reflective, narrative writing. I do this for two reasons: to help my students explore themselves and their experiences, but also to help them see the growth in their writing. One of my favorite ways to do is to have my students reflect on personal change through the lens of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”.

Becoming an adult is tricky, especially for my juniors and seniors. They have one foot planted in adolescence, but want the independence and confidence of adults. That duality is exactly why White’s essay works so well with older high school students.

Just like my students, White yearns for summer. He recalls sweet memories of vacationing at a lake in Maine every August with his family. He recalls the sights, the sounds, the little intricacies one only notices in the sweltering heat summer solitude. Eventually his nostalgia gets the best of him and he revisits the lake as an adult with his son. White’s new experience–visiting the lake as an adult– is all consuming. He tries to enjoy all the things he once did as a boy, but realizes he no longer fits in. It is his son that must enjoy the subtle nuances of this magical place.

When I introduce the essay to my students, I give very little context other than they probably know E.B. White as the writer of Charlotte’s Web. I request that as they read they mark up their noticings. What moves does White make that make the essay work?

Once they finish reading, I see students caught up in their own daydreams, lusting for summer or the past. I ask them to form a small group (no more than 4 people) and share out their noticings. I want them to talk it out and pick up on noticings they may not have recognized.

After their 5-minute conversation, we compile a class set of noticings on the board.  As they share their noticings, I request that they add noticings from other groups to their own annotations. As they contribute various noticings, I ask them to explain the impact of that move on White’s essay. How did it impact the reader’s experience?

Here’s a sample of what my 6th period class noticed:

  • Varied sentence structure and lengths (to create intensity and emphasize certain emotions).
  • Repetition (to create rhythm)
  • The use of contrast (to help the reader see his “a-ha” moment)
  • Tone shifts (to contrast before and after)
  • Imagery (symbolism of lightning; keen attention to detail and description)
  • Duality of experience (past vs. present comparison)
  • Organization: before/after, past/present, compare/contrast (to show his own growth and awareness)
  • Concluding recognition (the realization his experience at the lake will never be the same and he will have to live through his son’s experience)

I then ask my students to talk within their groups and select the three or four most meaningful moves White makes. We reconvene, and the groups discuss and whittle away at our master list. My mod 6 determined these moves as the most significant, meaningful moves:

  • Varied sentence length
  • Detail & description
  • Repeition
  • past/present organization

We spend a few minutes talking about what they liked about the essay: their favorite lines, if they could relate. I share some of my favorite lines (“…sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”).

I close our conversation by talking about the reflective nature of personal narratives. How these essays often reflect human nature and experience more authentically than any other form. Then, I give students the following prompt:

Use White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a mentor text for your own reflective narrative.

  • Incorporate at least 3 of White’s moves that your class selected.
  • Pick an approach:
    • Tell about an occasion when you revisited a place that you no longer “fit” into.
    • Consider a belief you once had that changed or developed. Tell about the experience prompted the change?

My students spend the rest of class brainstorming and writing. I encourage them to go back to White’s essays frequently to study the moves so they can play in their own writing. I tend to give them about 48-hours to compose their narratives.

Over the next two or three class periods, we work on the essay by re-reading White’s moves and sharing their writing with one another. They label the top of their essays with the moves they incorporated in their own essays. This helps their partners give feedback about the success or limits of how the move is used. They consult their copies of “Once More to the Lake” again and again, deeply analyzing how White’s moves function. They compare White’s writing to their own and their peers’. They see how they’ve used the same moves similarly, or in unique ways.

Our final step is to use White’s title as inspiration. Over the years I’ve read essays entitled  “Once More to the 1st Grade Classroom”, “Once More to the Church”, “Once More to the Soccer Field”. Just as my students learn so much about themselves and each other through this process, I also learn about them, too. I learn about their experiences as people, but I also get to see my risk-takers when it comes to writing. I get to see who put themselves out there and who kept guard. I get to know them as people and as writers.

Teachers (especially high school teachers!)  love “Once More to the Lake” — how have you used this text to spark writing in your classroom? Are there other texts you use as mentors for reflective narratives? Leave us a comment below! 

The Wonder of Whipstitch: Poetry as Literary Analysis

The Wonder of Whipstitch-.png

We are delighted to share a guest post today from middle school teacher Elizabeth Oosterheert. You might remember her from a post earlier this year! You can connect with her on Twitter @oosterheerte. 

Ah, spring. It’s that vibrant time when my “garden” of students begins to blossom beautifully, and the seeds planted earlier in the year stretch toward the sun as students gain a stronger sense of voice and begin to take more ownership of their writing. That’s the sweetness of seasons changing.

Another end of the year splendor is celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and flowing into May with more reasons than ever to incorporate poetry into my writing workshop. After reading Karla Hilliard’s post earlier this year about whipstitch poetry, and Rebekah’s challenge to strive for authenticity in literary analysis, I began to wonder what it would look like to use whipstitch poetry as a whimsical frame for everything from character study to thinking about more abstract concepts like theme and mood.

When I first explored this idea, my students were reading in coming of age book clubs that we called Voyages. As Karla suggested in her post, I began my workshop one day by inviting students to make a list of objects or natural forces  they noticed in the books they were reading. We visited Randi Ward’s website and read examples of whipstitch poems, carefully examining the way that she used word choice, brevity, line breaks, and breathtaking photography to enhance her poetry. We discussed how vital the right image can be to inspiring excellent writing.

After using Ward’s poems as mentor texts, my students experimented with writing whipstitch poetry as an analytical response to their book club reading.

Tessa, one of my eighth grade writers, composed these poems after reading the novel Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt. Her poems invite readers to consider the natural forces at work in the story such as the ice that eventually leads to a character’s death, and also to think about Joseph, the protagonist, and his search for his daughter, Jupiter.

Orbiting Jupiter Whipstitch PoemsScreen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.50 PM

  1. Ice

I am the ice

I climb with the cold

And fall with the heat

Do you not think I feel you Joseph?

I try to warn you with splinters on my surface            

But you go too far

I fall, taking you with me

You escape the cold waters the first time

But your life seeps from you the second

You sink to the bone chilling cold beneath

I am the ice

 

  1. Jupiter

I’m looking for you Jupiter

Gazing at the planet in the sky

Every night, gazing

I am alone with Silence

I let it have my heart

But I can’t make it breathe

Yet it grows, it grows big around me

But I am growing too

  1. Will.Find.You.

 

  1. Rosie

Warped stall doors creak

Bright motes of dust swirl between sinking beams

Streaking the spindly hay string loft

Careful hands squeeze and release my udder

Creating a steady stream of milk

The circular rubbing of the coarse hide on my rump

Makes my backside waggle

I moo a sigh of contentment

Chiming a melody with the steady thumping of milk

I love you, Joseph.

 

  1. Church Bell

Snowballs explode against my sturdy frame             

Joseph seems to find it fun to strike me with snowballs

I scream loudly, clanging my tongue against my exterior

But no matter how hard I try, he doesn’t stop.

He shows up every day after school, tackling me

with an onslaught of snowballs.

Later, we read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, as a whole class text and the “banner” story in our study of World War II.   An exemplary novel for examining characterization and voice,  Sepetys’ haunting tale is told from the perspectives of four young refugees trying to escape the relentlessly advancing Russian army.

Working with coauthors, students were invited to compose whipstitch poems that explored characters’ motivations, fears, and questions. They were also encouraged to create their own artwork to accompany their poetry, or to import images that enhanced their message.

We shared our work in the context of a class poetry reading, and discussed what we had learned about characterization and other elements in the novel through the lens of whipstitch poetry.

Salt to the Sea Whipstitch

By Kayla, Maria, and Grant

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.13 PM.pngEmilia—- Maria

I walk through the snow.

With every step I take my feet sink beneath the coldness.

I had nowhere to go, I could only follow.

Florian, he is much like August, my knight.

I carry him inside me wherever I go.

I look up to the nests in the trees.

Beautiful baby birds soon flying free.

No one is free.

No one is safe.

Shame is a hunter.

 

Eva—- Maria

Sorry, but it’s true, we are nearly gone.

War is destroying everything around it.

No one is safe.

Soon we will all vanish, whether we are killed

or we starve.

The only thing we are fed is lies.

These people all around me have no hope.

Those who do soon will be swallowed by

the grave they dug for themselves.

 

Wandering Boy—- Grant

I follow life, just wandering

Wandering away from pain

Wandering toward freedom

Wandering home.

 

One-eared Bunny—- Kayla

One hope lost

A new one found.

Like everyone in my sad story

I am just looking for someone to love me.

 

Joana—- Kayla

Everyone seems to forget-

War does not justify inhumanity.

Currently,  to conclude our study of World War II, my students and I have been reading the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and we’ve chosen to revisit whipstitch one more time, but broaden the ways that we employ it as an analytical tool.

Today, my students received this invitation to engage with our shared text using a poetic lens:

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.14.02 PMWhat would it look like to frame the events in Unbroken as whipstitch reflections?

You might use whipstitch poetry to:

  • Analyze decisions and the resulting actions/consequences
  • Compose an apology from one character to another
  • Capture one event from the book, such as one day on the raft, or one day in a japanese pow camp.
  • Reflect on a word that has special meaning in the story such as: glory, courage, determination, champion, villain, faith, etc.
  • Ask questions
  • Emphasize an important conversation (what is being said, and what is implied, but left unspoken?)
  • Focus on a definition
  • Express a big idea

 

Your Invitation:

 

  • Choose a theme you’ve noticed in unbroken, and frame a series of four whipstitch poems around your big idea.
  • Example: “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” If you choose these words spoken by pete zamperini, your four poems could be about the following topics: Pete’s influence in Louie’s life, the determination that louie shows while training for the olympics, a reflection on louie’s time on the raft, or a day in louie’s struggle against the bird.
  • You may work individually or collaboratively on your poems.

 

 

The final weeks of school are a perfect “garden” for growing student writers, an opportunity to engage students by using poetry to celebrate language and promote authentic analysis in your classroom. My students also enjoy writing narrative poetry and poetry in two or more voices.  How do you use poetry with your students? What are your favorite poems?

Connect with me on Twitter @oosterheerte, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net to share your ideas!

Ask Moving Writers!

Ask

As we all head into our summer vacations, we are full of reflection about this year (“Boy, that was the worst lesson I’ve ever taught” and “I can’t believe that worked so well!”) and dreams for next school year.

We are also full of questions! We bet you are, too.

This summer, the Moving Writers team will be answering your burning questions about secondary writing instruction! What do you want to know? What do you need to know more about before fall? How can we help?

Leave your question here! We will start answering them on the blog in July!

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !

3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

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Teachers from Farmington High School in Farmington, CT, armed with authentic literary analysis mentor texts and a game plan for bringing it to their classrooms!

Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does?

As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement.  Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading

a Writing With Mentors Webinar!

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Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.

But what does this look like in your plan book?

How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?

How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?

And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?

We’ve got a webinar for you!

Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!

Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.