Mentor Text Wednesday: Studying Structure & Genre Mixing with Nicola Yoon

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Photo via The Guardian

Today’s Mentor Text Wednesday post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York.  She blogs over at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and tweets @HMX_MSE.

Mentor Text: “We don’t make princesses in those colours” by Nicola Yoon in The Guardian

Writing Techniques:

  • Structure

  • Craft

  • Genre mixing

Background:

The Guardian is one of my favorite online magazines for its English take on the world and, of all things, for its sports analysis pieces.  Nicola Yoon is a well-known author in my classroom, and I enjoy collecting stories of race-based microaggressions, like the story here, to share with students for reflection.

I haven’t used this one in a classroom yet, but if I do tie it into a unit on fairness, I want to make sure I let the piece breathe before I dive into a mini lesson.

How We Might Use This Text:

Structure – Nicola Yoon sets her piece by establishing her character as a protective mother first.  It’s an unusual choice, as most writers might want to start off by describing the birthday party or even with the announcement that she’s the first black female to hit #1 on the New York Times Young Adult list.  Why does she make that choice?  Why does the “story” only start halfway through the piece?  What would your piece look like if you established and described the characters first?

Craft – I used Yoon’s last sentence and did some sentence mimicking in my own notebook:

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and teens shouldn’t cyberbully each other.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and racism is wrong.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and global warming is a major issue.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and there are no such things as girl books or guy books.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

By using Yoon’s words I was able to think about the how she uses repetition to make her voice stronger, and her tone balances between a gently admonishing “c’mon you guys” and an outraged “I can’t believe this still happens.”  The “it’s 2017” gives the call to action a sense of urgency because we’re all writing in the here and now.

Genre mixing – Is this piece memoir?  A call to action?  Both?  Neither?  I’d say it uses the techniques of a memoir to serve as a persuasive piece to agitate and inform a mostly white readership about the realities of living as a Person of Color. Another writer might say it’s a memoir with flecks of a call for justice, because there’s a focus on Yoon’s personal growth.  Whatever we decide to call it or not call it, it’s a good example of how pieces in the real world don’t always neatly conform to elements of a single genre.

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How to Make Blogging a Core Practice in Your Writing Workshop

A few months after Rebekah and I started Moving Writers in 2015, I knew blogging was something I needed to bring into my classroom. I was undoubtedly behind the curve — lots of teachers I knew were already blogging with students, and every year at NCTE, I circled multiple blogging sessions in my program but never attended them. 2015 was going to be the year.

But I struggled. Only two years into using the writing workshop approach, I was still trying to find my rhythm — the perfect balance of depth and breadth. Writing studies took a long time, and I was trying to fit 6-8 studies in over the course of the year. In addition to these studies, how would I be able to successfully integrate blogging into the classroom? How could I make it MORE than a single writing study without sucking all our writing energy and precious time? Could I make it a core practice in our workshop — one that could magically run itself?

It took me a few tries, but last year I feel like I finally got into a groove with my eighth graders. Here are some considerations for making blogging a core practice in your workshop: Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: Organizing the First Weeks, Semester, and Year…It’s Not What You Think

1It’s the first faculty meeting of the year. A few teachers gather in a corner to show off their new Erin Condrin planners…and as they energetically flip through them, I can see that the first days, weeks, and months are penciled in with big ideas, writing studies, and lesson plans. Then I look down at my own planner and peek inside, expectant… its pages are bright white. Blank. Empty. I don’t even know what I’m doing on the first day of school, and it’s tomorrow…

This is the dream nightmare that plays on repeat during the last few weeks of summer. It’s a nightmare, but it’s also real, because I am faced with a blank planner and the same ginormous question every single August: Where do I begin? What comes first, and then next? 

The curriculum doesn’t answer this question for me. Neither does Common Core, or whatever standards are relevant, or pacing guides. What I did last year doesn’t help either. No. All of these resources are merely guides. The decision of where to begin and where to go next THIS YEAR is ultimately up to me.

Or is it?

Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: A Moving Writers Series for a New School Year

 

1Every August, when I enter my classroom for the first time I begin in the same way: I open all my cabinets, desk drawers, and shelves, and dump everything out into the middle of the room. Then I begin sorting. I organize, toss, refile, reshelve, donate, upcycle, recycle, declutter, reclutter, etc. You get the picture. Meanwhile my colleagues next door are lesson planning and making copies and putting finishing touches on their classrooms. And this is when it dawns on me, mid-sorting, that this might not be the best place to start. That there are 1,000 other jobs that need doing, and throwing everything into a giant pile Marie Kondo-style may not be the best use of my time. After all, I have a lot to do to get my classroom organized for a new class of writers!

So why do I do it? Beginning is scary. What to do first, next, last? The miles-long to do list begs to be prioritized but its length and depth overwhelm. So, this year I asked for a little help from my Moving Writers friends.

What’s the first thing you do to get your writing classroom organized?

That’s the question the Moving Writers team will answer over the next month as each of our writers takes us behind the scenes and shares ideas for organizing the classroom for our writers at the beginning of the year:

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We hope you’ll join us as we kick off a new year in the writing classroom!

~ Allison

 

 

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

There is a a common thread that runs through many of our most-popular posts from the 2016-2017 school year: authentic analysis.  We are all hungry for something more. For something more than poorly-crafted already-been-said-before five-paragraph essays about the same old topics. And if your and your students’ disdain for reading and writing these kinds of essays isn’t enough of a reason to abolish them, Rebekah explores three other reasons why the literary analysis we teach must be as authentic and real world as any other genre of writing we teach. 

 

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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? Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Mentor Texts for the First Week of School

One of the best ways to show our students the value that mentor texts have for their writing is to let it be the first thing they hear about on the first day of school — to put a mentor text in their hands, tell them that a mentor text is a piece of writing that guides and inspires us, and let them dig in. In this post, Rebekah offers some tried-and-true mentor texts for kicking off your writing year! 

Are you ready to start planning for the first week of school?

We use mentor texts in our classes from the very first day of school. We want to lay down a strong foundation and also some strong expectations that mentor texts will be our go-to source for inspiring our work, giving us how-tos, and answering our writing questions all year long.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have fun. The mentor texts we use the first week of school are visually engaging and meet our high school students right where they are as they walk in the door.

In our mentor text countdown this week, we are giving you a two-for-one: two very different approaches to using mentor texts in the very first week of school to help you students get to know one another while also learning the fundamentals of mentor text work!

Get out your planner! We are helping you get ready to get back to school! Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

It speaks volumes that three of our top ten posts in the 2016-17 school year explore the issue of abandoning the 5-paragraph essay in favor of structures that are more organic and authentic and favorable to our young writers. We have Tricia to thank for sharing all of her thinking around this issue. In today’s post, she delves into a magical form called the CFC, brought to her attention by a University of Oklahoma professor. As is the norm in Tricia’s oh-so-generous posts, she supplies an in-depth explanation of this concept, along with copious examples and bonus mentor texts at the end. Dig in!

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Have you heard of the CFC-The reason the five-paragraph essay has maintained its dominance in schools for so long is because of its clear structure. A clear structure, of course, is important in essay writing. However, when students sit down to write a five-paragraph essay, they too often start by thinking in terms of structure rather than thinking in terms of ideas. In other words, students’ ideas are crammed, retrofitted, and limited so that they can fit into five neatly organized paragraphs.

What I appreciate about the CFC, on the other hand, is that it requires students to leadwith their ideas. In order to effectively use this structure, students must ask themselves what is a common understanding or assumption about this issue? To answer that question, students need to have a sense of audience. Students then need to think about how that common understanding is supported at first glance by evidence. Finally—and most importantly—students must take a stance of curiosity and ask is that really true? Perhaps a closer look reveals that it is not. From this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.

Take this example:

  • A commonplace assumption is that our school education often provides our most valuable learning experiences.
  • After all, at first glance, we spend many years in formal schooling and billions of dollars on funding our public schools.
  • But are schools the only place that we can get a valuable education? If we take a closer look, we see that we can learn much outside the classroom.

The CFC structure I’ve outlined above is essentially the set-up of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ wonderful essay, “The Other Education”. Here is the opening of that piece:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

Likewise, the CFC appears in the marvelous long-form essay, “The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. Here is an excerpt from early in the essay:

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Walsh begins with the commonly held belief that being an introvert is often seen as a negative quality, especially because at first glance, America is a “land of the loud and home of the talkative.” Walsh includes additional evidence to support this commonly held belief, such as statistics about the physical benefits of being an extrovert and the societal prejudices against being an introvert. However, a closer look reveals the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.” From this point on, Walsh’s essay digs deeper to examine those benefits.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here are five benefits to the CFC:

Structure. While the five-paragraph essay is structured, it is a structure that is limiting. The CFC, on the other hand, offers a structure that is a meaningful starting point for students as they write and explore a topic.

Large and Small Scale Organization. Speaking of structure, the CFC can offer a method for global organization where the entire essay is loosely organized into these three parts. But it can also be used as a smaller craft move within an essay. Take, for example, this paragraph from “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmes in the New York Times:

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Above, Holmes uses the CFC to pivot from some background information earlier in the essay to his claim that teaching ignorance has value.

And below, in Kathryn Shulz’s Pultizer Prize winning feature essay—“The Really Big One” published in The New Yorker last year (and among my absolute favorite essays of all-time)—the CFC is alive and well:

Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.

Notice how Shulz begins this section (which is actually the narration part of the classical argument structure) with what “most people in the United States” first associate with fault lines: the San Andreas. Shulz then shifts to take a closer look at the fault line of more pressing concern—the one found a few hundred miles north in the Pacific Northwest.

Authenticity. As I hope I’ve shown in the example above, the CFC can be found in many professional essays and mentor texts.

Focus on Reasoning. To pull off the CFC, students need to think through the assumptions behind commonly held beliefs. Then students need go further—to consider opposing or alternative views to those beliefs. They learn to ask questions and look at an issue by taking another stance. They learn to be curious.

Motivating. When I asked my students what they thought of this structure, one student replied, “I like it because it makes me feel like I’m proving someone wrong. I’m taking something that a lot of people believe and showing them how it’s not that simple.” Rather than write an essay that simply answers why I’m right (isn’t that what all five-paragraph essays do?), the CFC asks students to consider what if we’re wrong?

Of course, all this said, the CFC isn’t always the best organization for all types of arguments. Students need time and practice experimenting with many different types of organization and then choose the one that best fits their ideas.

What do you think of this method? How do you help students find a way to structure their ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.

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As a bonus, here are a handful of additional essays that also use the CFC form in some capacity:

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Whether we are teaching poetry or memoir or literary analysis, the requirements for mentor texts are the same: they must be accessible and relevant for students, and they should be richly crafted. And while poetry and memoir texts are ubiquitous, many of us struggle to find literary analysis mentor texts that are developmentally appropriate and engaging for our students. In this post, Rebekah gives two ways of thinking about the mentor text search for literary analysis that will leave you eager to get your hands on some of the great analytical writing out there.

 

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Ten Ideas for Notebook Time

This post by Karla is kind of like a really great Oprah episode in which everyone walks away with an amazing goody bag. YOU WIN A PRIZE! YOU WIN A PRIZE! EVERYBODY WINS A PRIZE! Yep, everybody’s walking away with ten amazing notebook time invitations that you can use with your students in the first weeks of school. It doesn’t get much better than this.

10 Notebook Time Ideas (1)

Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.

Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.

No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.

The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.

So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

I love this exploratory, confessional, honest narrative in which Tricia invites us along on her journey to her discovery, along with her students, that five paragraph essays were not only not serving them as writers, but were actually limiting and caging them. Tricia shares resources for thinking beyond five paragraphs, but more importantly, she opens up the dialogue for thinking through and talking about and searching for what else is out there for our writers.

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading