Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

Last year, Rebekah and I committed to opening our classes with “notebook time” — ten minutes at the beginning of every class period for our students to write and think and sketch in their notebooks. Best decision ever! But let’s be honest, sometimes we’re still searching for the perfect writing invitation seconds before our students walk in the classroom. It’s good to have a few go-to back-up options for days like this, which Tricia presents in today’s post. Thanks, Tricia!

I have a confession. I didn’t always use a writer’s notebook, either as teacher and especially as a student. It’s hard to remember what that was like—Where did I keep all my thoughts? How did I keep track of it all? Writer’s notebooks—or journals—were something I remember learning about in graduate school, and while I tried a bit of it when I first started teaching, I quickly abandoned the practice in favor of the neat, clean handout I could create (and control).

I think it was the open-endedness of the writer’s notebook that intimidated me: What prompts would I use? How would I know what prompts would work? And for what texts? Do I even have time for this?

Fast forward 15+ years, and I can’t imagine teaching without a writer’s notebook. That is not to say that I use them in all my classes. I’m still working on using them more deliberately and consistently in my literature-based courses. But writing? How do you teach writing without a writer’s notebook? I can’t imagine.

Instead, I’ve learned to embrace and celebrate the opportunity that writer’s notebooks offer. My own notebooks have changed over the years, too, as I moved from small, lined notebooks to bigger, unlined versions (my current notebook, and so far my favorite, is a Moleskine with dotted pages—dotted pages!).

I used to worry that every notebook prompt had to tie in with what we were reading or currently writing. While that’s still true most of the time, I’ve also found that sometimes a good notebook prompt doesn’t just reflect what’s in the curriculum, but also opens the way to new thinking and reflection, which then leads to new reading and writing. A good notebook prompt is generative.

So in no particular order, I thought I’d share three of my favorite writer’s notebook prompts from this year (so far). Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Three Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers

Learning to read like a writer is a skill that takes time and practice, but there are some simple scaffolds for moving our writers towards this special way of reading that can help. In this post, I offer three try-it-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas for helping your writers understand how a piece of writing was put together, so they can bring these ideas back to their own work.

Imagine you’re eating at your favorite go-to restaurant, that small table for two in the back corner by the window. You place an order for dinner without the menu. You have been here more times than you care to count. You don’t need a menu!

Now imagine that the head chef at this restaurant has invited you to cook alongside him in the kitchen. You’ve been eating at this restaurant for years — you know the menu like the back of your hand, but as you enter the steaming kitchen, your body seizes up. You know the food by heart, but you don’t know the first thing about making it. “Just watch,” the chef says to you, pushing you into a row of line cooks. He smiles, assuming you’ll be fine since you frequent this restaurant so often. But eating the food and cooking the food are two very different things, and the cooks are moving so quickly. Even though this restaurant has always been dependable in the past, suddenly you find yourself wishing you hadn’t come here tonight.

This analogy is my best attempt to describe how our students might feel when we first introduce the idea of reading like writers. As in the scenario above, our students have been eating at the same restaurant for years: they are experienced readers, and they have been “eating” books and texts like readers for a while. But for these same readers, the concept of reading like writers–or reading to identify writing techniques–is brand new.  It’s hard to “cook up” techniques when you don’t know what to look for.

To grow, young writers must be able to recognize craft in professional writing and bring it back to their own work. But this kind of reading does not come easily. At the end of a year, we still have students who struggle to read a text in this way. Continue reading

Best of 2016-2017 School Year: “Teachable Alternatives” to the 5-Paragraph Essay

It’s no secret that the five paragraph essay is dead.  But what goes in its place? In this post, Tricia examines several ways of moving beyond the contrived essay formulas of the past and into new writing territory that ultimately lets our students write what matters and find the forms that best showcases their ideas.

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On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades. 

Part of the reason writing doesn’t matter to most students is because they know, as we do, that the assignments we give are contrived, and that there is no assignment more contrived than the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve written about the tyranny of the form on Moving Writers here and here. And while I’ve committed myself to freeing myself (and my students) from under the form’s weight, I continue to struggle with the how.  Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

Each summer we press pause for a few weeks to tackle new writing projects and plan for the upcoming school year. And we reflect on where we’ve been by sharing with you the most popular posts of the past school year. We will share these with you over the next ten weeks, beginning with today’s post — one Megan wrote in August about suppressing the urge to cover your classroom walls with stuff, and instead saving room for instruction.

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

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My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: My Three Go-To Personal Essays

Today’s guest blogger, Christina Gil has written for Moving Writers before. You can read her post about using satire writing as a tool for self-discovery here. Christina is a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. 

Mentor texts: “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan; “The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders; “Us and Them” by David Sedaris

Writing Techniques:

 

  • show don’t tell
  • vivid imagery
  • essay structure
  • grabbers
  • main ideas

 

Background:

I’ll readily admit that my students don’t have the longest attention spans.  The old style of long meandering essays, in which the author slowly and eventually stumbles upon some meaning after pages and pages of rambling and digressions, just won’t work with them.  So what I am looking for when I choose mentor texts is the most bang for my buck.  On the other hand, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  I also want to push my students—to read about people who are not like them, or to take on an idea that challenges their assumptions, or to see that personal essays don’t have to be about a set list of pre-chosen topics.  

I have three go-to personal essays that I have read to literally a thousand students at this point, and I use them extensively in my personal narrative unit.  Just the fact that I can continue to enjoy these texts after reading them hundreds of times speaks volumes.  

How We Might Use These Texts:

If I were to choose just one essay to read to my students as a mentor text when we do a personal narrative unit, it would be “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan.  I often joke that this essay is probably one that my high school seniors already read—in seventh grade.  It’s very short and so simple.  And yet I also call this essay “the perfect personal essay.”  

My favorite take-away from this piece is the way that authors can show rather than tell with vivid description and detail.  I always ask my students to describe the emotion conveyed throughout the essay, and they always answer “embarrassment.”  When I task them with the job of finding the word embarrassed or even a synonym of that word, they can’t find it anywhere in the essay.  And what I most love about this piece is that when I ask students how the author conveys the feelings of the narrator, which details go the furthest in helping the reader to share in the embarrassment, they realize that it is the vivid descriptions of the food that really help them to share in the experience.  When you find an essay in which the author conveys the universal teenage feeling of being uncomfortable with your parents via a description of cooked squid, you know you have found a masterful writer.   

For me, the other key pieces in this essay are the way that the author grabs the reader by giving a small piece of somewhat uncomfortable personal information but leaving some details out, and the way that the main idea of the essay is expressed via dialogue at the end of the piece.

“Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders is a favorite among a few students who appreciate its realness, its seriousness, and its honest discussion of blue collar values.  This is the one essay that breaks my short-as-possible rule.  It probably takes 15 to 20 minutes to read out loud in class, but it feels like it meanders much more than the others.  This essay is also a tougher sell for many of my students.  It deals with a middle-aged man’s reflections on tools, building, life-lessons, and death.  These are not subjects that are obvious choices for teenagers.  And yet, every year when I think about dropping the essay and finding something shorter and more relevant, I have students who tell me that it was their favorite essay of the bunch.

What I most utilize in this essay are its beautiful first line, its structure, and one especially complex and important sentence.  The essay starts in the middle of things with a vividly descriptive sentence (that also uses figurative language to grab a reader): “At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer.”  I could teach an entire lesson on that sentence alone.  The essay then goes back in time to discuss the ideas and memories that lead up to that day, and ends where it began but with more insight on the day in question.  This structure is a great one for students to and they often incorporate it into their personal narratives.  The sentence that I use for imitating, but only after students have some practice with simpler sentences, is this one: “For several hours I paced around inside my house, upstairs and down, in and out of every room, looking for the right door to open and knowing there was no such door.”  It’s complexity is impactful, but it is also something that students can incorporate into their own writing.

My wild card, my test of students’ understanding of irony and understatement, and my little treat to myself every year is to read “Us and Them” by David Sedaris.  I’m a big fan of Sedaris’ work, but it’s not exactly easy to find essays of his that are appropriate for school.  In this subtly hilarious piece, Sedaris does what all great satire does—he makes fun of society, and ultimately, most importantly, he makes fun of himself.  I should admit upfront that many of my less sophisticated readers miss the humor in this essay entirely.  And yet, the ones that get it really get it.  

My favorite aspect of this essay as a mentor text is the way that it makes a point—about conformity and insecurity and TV and Halloween candy—without ever really stating that point at all.  In fact, because of the dramatic irony in the essay, the reader is left completely to their own devices when it comes to finding a theme statement.  I like to push my students to work a little, and getting them to articulate not just what the author says but how he conveys that meaning to a reader is challenging but also doable.  

I also love this essay because of the way that it reinforces the requirement that the biggest take-away of a piece, the scene or line or image that readers will remember long after they have finished reading, should be the part that most strongly conveys the main idea of the piece.  And Sedaris’ image of a younger self stuffing his face with candy so that he doesn’t have to share it with someone else is about as memorable as scenes can get.

I do like to change things up on occasion, using new essays that I find or essays that I haven’t read in a while, but it’s also so nice to have my trusted pieces, ones that I know will help me teach the lessons that I want to teach about what makes good writing and how we can learn from mentor texts.

Books That Move Us: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

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Today’s guest writer is Chasidy Burton, who teaches English to juniors and seniors in Nashville, TN. Chasidy loves to teach writing for the empowerment students experience with getting words on the page and the discovery of their own voice. She is constantly seeking to better her teaching practice, and she enjoys reading about unconventional approaches to teaching and literacy. Today, Chasidy shares about a professional development book that has shaped her writing instruction. 

How long does this need to be? How many paragraphs? How many words? How many pages? Then I ask, did Ernest Hemingway ever ask these questions? My response to my students when they bombard me with questions about guidelines and page length is not always well-received. I would love to unleash them and tell them to channel their inner “Papa”, but that just doesn’t seem to work that well with my students. I am usually met with blank stares and sometimes evil eyes.They want structure. They want a framework. They want a mold. Following the rules is so easy, but I have had trouble finding authenticity in my students writing. I don’t know about you, but if I have to read one more five paragraph essay detailing Hamlet’s three stages of indecision, I may spiral into madness like Ophelia and start passing out imaginary flowers. We need a change in my senior English class. And after reading Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay by Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer, I am inspired to conquer my own fears of breaking a mold.

60 Second Review

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Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer focus on the fact that research proves that the five- paragraph formula hinders writers. Their book equips teachers with strategies, skills, and insight in teaching students how to write authentically and thoughtfully. The book is organized by skills ranging from combatting formulaic writing, to establishing reading and writing routines, to reading and writing like writers and explorers.

There are loads of activities that will stimulate students’ thinking and challenge students to approach writing not in a formulaic way, but through the use of model texts, scaffolded assignments, and creativity. This book uses  activities that are centered around literature, which helps the strategies and methods implement seamlessly into an established literature-based curriculum.

My Big Writing Takeaways

  • My students can expand their writing skills and writing structures through the power of narratives.

I am expanding my notions of the power of narrative voice. One of the lines that really grabbed my attention in this book was that “all students should have the opportunity to discover that their ideas matter and are worthy of exploration and shaping to meet the needs of readers – not a formula.” This struck me because for years I kept forcing my students into a box – a box that I didn’t really believe in. Why? I kept hearing teachers preach about structure. Yes, structure is important, but what if we start with the most important thing first? To me, it is the idea. The ideas are what I want them to remember long after they walk out of my classroom. Great thinkers, writers, and leaders rarely start with the structure. They start with the idea. I cannot recall one time when I read something and thought, wow, that structure really inspired me. Of course we know that structure matters, but I want my students to experience more than that.

This book inspired me to create more narrative writing opportunities for students — because students are more naturally inclined to begin with strong ideas in this genre, and teachers are less inclined to assign a structure.  Instead of spending so much time on form, we are spending more times on genre, purpose, style, and voice. So many writing conversations this year are revolving around what best fits their purpose. This book is offering me tools to create these experiences for my students.

  • Students are scared to take risks, but we can provide a safety net within our classrooms for them to experiment.

One of my fears as I am trying to move away from formulaic writing is trying to allow students to explore writing in unconventional ways. The book advocates that this doesn’t always have to look like an essay. Essays are MY comfort zone. Like most teachers, I always have that overwhelming need to control, and it is easy to control a five-paragraph formulaic essay, especially with a rubric.  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay has helped me create some “low-stakes” activities that get my students writing as a way to prepare for the big assignments.The appendices at the end of the book  have several examples of activities that can be modified for all sorts of texts. One activity that I really like is allowing students to create a soundtrack for a text. Students love movies, so this is a fun and creative writing assignment that I feel like is low-stakes to get them thinking for a more significant piece later.

This activity can modified in a number of ways, but allows a different take on the standard five-paragraph literary analysis, and students enjoy it!

My students are scared of writing – I am too most of the time. Mine have trouble finding any authenticity in the formulaic models and so do I, but that is what we lean on because we haven’t tried anything new. This book allows teachers to begin to slowly implement creative changes that can lead to those bigger changes – the ones where we really see students’ writing shine –  we are longing for. These small changes allow for those moments.

  • Exploration can and should be a framework within our writing classrooms.

When I think about what inspired me to become an English major and ultimately an English teacher, I always come back to the words. How the words were arranged on the page. How I felt after reading the words. How the words had the power to shift the world a little. Exploring words and ideas are the roots of thinking, and students need a place to establish roots. There is a chapter in the book titled “Writing to Explore” and I love this notion. Exploring is fun. Exploring is dynamic. Exploring is empowering. Exploring can be scary.  If students are just expected to fall into a mold when writing, they lose their voice. This chapter begins with questioning techniques and then describes different types of essays such as exploratory essays, formal journal entries, mini-essays, focus essays, question essays, and collaborative essays. These descriptions of how these work in a classroom has been essential for me as I attempt new strategies. They are easily adaptable, and allow students the opportunity to explore ideas without the confines of a rigid structure.

  • Unleashing The Power of My Sofa in My Classroom

I read this book over the summer but some of these ideas really made sense to me when I began conferencing with students about college essays. I am fortunate to have an office in my classroom with a nice comfy sofa. My seniors come in and conference with me while sitting on the sofa and this is where I hear about the most candid details of their lives. For some reason, that sofa creates an atmosphere of sharing and truth. The conversations this year have ranged from difficult parent relationships, to eating disorders, to depression, to insecurities, and ultimately how to write about these complex issues. These kinds of ideas don’t fit into a formulaic model. These issues are raw, blunt, and vulnerable. As my students talk, I keep finding myself making connections to Hamlet, The Color of Water, or The Great Gatsby. As I continue to think about this idea, the Writing with Mentors chapter in this book keeps coming to mind. This chapter is divided into 2 sections, Literature as Mentor and Literature as Inspiration.  I love this chapter because of the overlap of utilizing the classic literature that I love and currently teach alongside more authentic forms of writing such as memoirs, eulogies, pastiches, letters, character conversations, business letters, interviews, podcasts, book trailers, and recipes.

As my students talk about their own insecurities, failures, and successes with me, I want them to see the connection between themselves and our literature. This chapter has given me some great ideas of how to implement these types of experiences within my current curriculum, all while offering my students an opportunity to foster their own writing voices – I want to hear the voices from my sofa in their writing in my classroom.

How I Hope to Use It

I am currently using this book in my classroom to begin to build a more legitimate writing workshop environment. Instead of assigning five-paragraph literary essays for them to complete at home, I am leaning more towards the ideas presented in the book – particularly the exploratory writing experiences. My students have already demonstrated a new energy about their writing experiences. Some are energized, some are frightened, some are always going to be apathetic. As I attempt to work towards more innovative writing experiences, this book offers a framework to get started. The ideas presented are clear and concise, which is allowing me to adapt my content easily.

Should You Buy the Book

Yes! I want to be a risk-taker in my classroom. That is a scary place to be at times, but this book is helping me find the courage to try new things.

What if I let things get messy this year? What if I feel liberated with my teaching and challenge my students to think like writers instead of students who write?  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay is helping me pursue this. So instead of wallowing in 85 essays that just sing the same old song, I am dreaming of unique voices singing their own songs.

Here’s a bit of inspiration. One of my students told me this semester that “it’s nice to know that our teacher cares about what we think rather than a rigid structure.” For me, that’s a victory.

So here goes. Leaving my comfort zone, but inspired.

 

The Heartwork of NCTE 2016

How do you begin to process the wonderfulness that is NCTE 2016? All the people you met, the sessions you attended, the Uber drivers you shared conversations with, the authors’ hands you shook?

In the past we’ve offered a top ten list, but this year we are going to share our NCTE heart maps. Underneath the NCTE’s first theme of advocacy was a second theme that emerged: bring love into the classroom. With the release of one of our mentors’ new books Heart Maps, we felt that heart mapping would be the most inspired and inspiring way to share what resonated most with us this past weekend.

Allison’s Heart Map

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In her presentation Leading to Raise the Level of Writing, Lucy Calkins said, “Reading and writing workshop exist so we can be there, in the moment, with students. So we can be people together.” I carried these words with me to every session, during every Uber ride, to every dinner with my colleagues. Teaching is about being together with people. November has been a rough month. I find myself thinking, “I just want this day to be over.” But teaching — and the reminder that teaching is about being together, in the moment — helps me slow down, stimulates my senses, and keeps me grounded in our humanity. The men’s names you see on the left of my heart — those are the Uber drivers who took us around Atlanta. The oval-shaped table surrounded by happy faces at the bottom — those are my students. Teaching is hard, busy, exhausting, overwhelming, disorientating. But it’s also as simple as taking the time to listen to someone’s story and sharing a piece of yours — of being together with one another.

Rebekah’s Heart Map

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At every turn, NCTE brought together two big ideas for me — being present and taking action. And maybe those two ideas are really the same. Because when we fully engage with the people who walk into our classroom each day, we ARE taking action in the world. To quote Kwame Alexander, “Teachers ARE the army — manufacturers and purveyors of hope every single day.” As I leave Atlanta and walk back into my classroom, I am full off fresh resolve to take a step back from my plans, my units of study, my to do lists. To look into my students and use the predictable structures of reading writing workshop to fully be there.

Sketch Noting: Another Way to Capture the Inspiration

Kate Baker (@ktBkr4) tweeted this incredible sketch note of one of our sessions, I Kissed Grading Goodbye.

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Like the heart map, sketch noting encourages the maker to distill an experience, a text, a presentation into its essential pieces — to identify the heart of the thing.

Can you imagine using heart mapping and sketching noting with your students? Could they create a heart map of their experiences in English this week? What truly resonated with them? What moved them in your class? Could they create sketch notes of the questions still bouncing around in the brain — the main takeaways they want to carry with them?

Before the craziness of Thanksgiving week picks up, we invite you to take a few moments to heart map or sketch note your NCTE experience, to remember the things that are most important to you — the reason you came to NCTE, which is quite possibly the same reason you teach.

Love.

See you soon!

Now that NCTE has passed, and we’re rapidly hurdling towards 2017, Rebekah and I are going to be signing off from the blog for a little while. We need to finish writing our book! But fear not, we’ll be around, and our amazing team of bloggers will continue to churn out brilliance for you to take into your classroom tomorrow.

We wish everyone a wonderful thanksgiving!

Allison & Rebekah

 

 

 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Lifetime of Secrets

Today’s guest post comes from Anne Wolter, a 6th grade English teacher at Western Heights Middle School in Washington County, Maryland.  Anne has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, and has been teaching for four years.  She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young children.  You can connect with her on Twitter @wolteann.

Mentor Text:  A Lifetime of Secrets (personal, reflective, arts integration)screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-10-00-am

  • Writing Techniques:
  • Elements of memoir writing
  • Incorporating art with writing

Background:

Before I was a teacher, my best friend gave me a book.  I have always been a reader, and have kept a journal since becoming an adult, and I guess the book reminded her of me.  The book is A Lifetime of Secrets by Frank Warren and contains hundreds of pages of people’s deepest, darkest secrets, anonymously sent in on postcards or other artistic backgrounds.  Since receiving this book, I’ve read it, and read it, and read it again.  It’s amazing and sad and beautiful and inspiring.  People still send in secrets to the website and Facebook page. There is something so empowering and exhilarating about leaving your secrets for others to find – knowing that strangers know you better than those who are supposed to know you best, even if the strangers don’t know your name and could never pick you out of a crowd.

I’ve always tried to find ways to incorporate PostSecret into my teaching.  Sometimes I’d pick one and share it as a warm up.  I’ve used it for characterization lessons.  But I’ve never felt it was getting its due.

Enter Mentor Texts.

I was teaching a memoir unit to my sixth graders and started with 6 Word Memoirs to get their feet wet with memoirs.  After that, I wanted to give my students some choices of another type of short memoir text before moving into longer memoirs.  After reading Writing With Mentors, I decided to use NYC in 17 Syllables, excerpts from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Rosenthal, and while searching for my third choice, I saw my book A Lifetime of Secrets on my shelf.  PostSecret would be my students’ third option.

How We Used the Mentor Text:

I first had a discussion with my students about what a mentor text is and how they can use it to guide and inspire their own writing.  I told them I would give them three choices and gave them a quick blurb about each choice.  With PostSecret, I explained that the secrets are anonymous (and some are inappropriate!), so I carefully selected and took pictures with my iPad of 15 secrets from the book that were appropriate, and posted them to Google Drive, giving my students the QR code to access the folder.  I also explained that if they were to choose PostSecret, theirs were NOT anonymous and they should know their boundaries of what is okay to share.  

We looked at the secrets and talked about what they noticed. Students noticed that:

  • they were all written in the first person, were personal, and reflective
  • none of the secrets were more than one or two short sentences
  • the picture that was the background of the secret was always related to the secret – the art was relevant

Once we had this discussion, students were ready to get to work.

The students embraced this mentor text and ran with it.  Some used Skitch to take an image from Google that represented their secrets, and then wrote their secrets on the image.  Others drew pictures that represented their secret.  In both cases, the students work reflected the mentor text.  Now I have finally found an inspiring way to use PostSecret in my classroom for years to come!

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Student work

The Only Four Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask Your Writers

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Carl Anderson taught me to begin every writing conference with the simple question, “How’s it going?”

I love this question for two reasons: it’s a question we ask our colleagues, our friends, and our family members when we want to know how they are doing. In other words, it’s an authentic question that shows we care. Secondly, it puts the onus on students to determine the focus of the writing conference. There is no hidden agenda behind the question, “How’s it going?” It simply means, “How are things going for you in your writing?”

I typically ask this question at the beginning of a writing conference. I pull my stool up to the writer’s desk and lean in: How’s it going? 

It can also be useful on mid-process writing reflections. Sometimes, in the middle of a study, I ask my students to spend a few minutes telling me about their writing. I want them to share what they are currently working on in their notebooks, what their next steps are, and in general, how their writing is going. This question invites them to say anything – anything – about their writing. What a student chooses to talk or write about can be very telling.

Recently I have been thinking about the other questions I ask my student writers and which ones are the most fruitful. Here they are:

2. Can you say more about that?

Why it’s a great question:

I use this question all the time. From writing conferences to Socratic Seminars, this is the best way to help students elaborate. For example:

Teacher: How’s it going?

Student: Good.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: I’m working on my ending.

Teacher: How’s the ending going?

Student: It’s okay.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: It’s not very strong right now. I don’t know how to end it. 

Teacher: Can you read a little of your ending out loud…?

 

This question is like a gentle prod in the writer’s mind. It’s much gentler than, “Can you elaborate?” but more effective than accepting a writer’s one-word response (Good.) and moving on. It invites the writer to step back from his work and reflect on what he’s doing.

When to use it:

  • When a student gives one-word answers or is having trouble talking about his writing.

What it can do for students:

  • It holds students accountable for being able to talk about their work and explain why they are doing something.
  • It emphasizes the skill of elaboration in communication — not just in writing, but in verbal communication, too.
  • It cues the student to talk while still allowing the student to decide what to focus on in the conference.

3. Would you consider trying [x technique]?

Why it’s a great question:

I’m not sure where I picked up this question stem, but in my experience, it’s the nicest way to suggest to a writer that she try something in her writing. It’s the way I teach my students to give each other feedback on their writing.

Teacher to student, it’s much better than:

  • I’d like to see you [insert x technique].
  • I think you should [insert x technique].

With these questions, the teacher has an idea about the student’s writing, and s/he would like him to try it. The student doesn’t really have a choice. The teacher has the power. Is this how it should be?

When to use it:

  • When the student is struggling with something in her writing.
  • When the student needs a specific strategy in his writing.
  • When a student is ready for a challenge outside of the general class lesson.

What it can do for students:

When we ask a student to consider trying something, we are giving that student a concrete strategy, but the student holds the power. The feedback is framed as a choice, and sometimes students are more willing to try something in their writing when given a choice. When forced to try something, students tend to push back.   It’s important to remember that the writing belongs to the student – he ultimately decides what happens to it.

The word “trying” is important too — it suggests that writer sometimes make revisions that don’t work. In other words, the writer can try something, but if it doesn’t work — if the writer isn’t happy with how it affects his piece — he can go back to a previous version.

 

4. Are you ready to try this?

Why it’s a great question:

I came across this question while reading Carl Anderson’s book on assessing writing. I instantly wrote it in my notebook and pledged to use it during conferences the next day. It made what used to be an awkward moment for me (the goodbye at the end of the conference) fruitful and positive.

When you ask this question, the answer will reveal two things to you: 1) If the writer was listening during the conference and 2) If the writer is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference.

1. If the writer wasn’t listening, she’ll say, “Try what?” And you’ll know that you have more work to do. That the conference isn’t over.

2.If the writer was listening, and is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference, she’ll say “Yes.” And if you coach her a little more, she will often follow up with a specific step, as in, “Yes, I am going to do a little writing in my notebook to find an image I can put at the end of my poem.”

If the writer says, “No,” you have more work to do. The conference isn’t over.

~

There are myriad questions writing teachers can ask their students to learn more about their process. Rebekah wrote an incredible post a while back about the power of the question, “What did you discover today in your writing?”

But it seems that most questions lead back to one of the main four.

And some day, with enough practice under their belts, our students will only need one question: How’s it going?

Because this question seeks everything we need to know about our students as writers — and as human beings.

 

What questions help you communicate with your writers? What questions shut them down and what questions open them out? Please leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy

Today’s guest post comes from Brian Kelley, co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. He teaches at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and produces the podcast “The Classroom,” where he confers with students about writing. you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or at brianjkelley.net.

Mentor Text

Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Judd Apatow

Writing Techniques

  • Developing ideas
  • Identifying mentors

Background

From books to blog posts, writing teachers recognize possibilities for mentor texts everywhere. My radar is up as I look at Instagram, Twitter, and roadside billboards. I listen to podcasts and watch videos not only for pure enjoyment and personalized learning, but also for crumbs to bring into the classroom.

I found a breadcrumb trail worth sharing–mentor texts drawing attention to the act of writers doing writerly things outside of the classroom–where the real prewriting happens.

When Donald Graves wrote about a child’s control of the writing process, a piece of his interest was in what children did away from the classroom. When and where were children in a constant states of composition? Graves knew, in this state of constant composition (thinking of ideas), writers can glow like jack-o-lanterns.

A text in my reading pile, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Lessons about Life and Comedy, filled my writer’s notebook with ideas for focused free writes on our lives outside of the classroom.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-7-08-11-am

Sometimes, students don’t know how to chase their curiosity when an activity, idea, or person absorbs them. Their life outside of the classroom does not always feel welcome or accessible inside the classroom. Our students need the mentor act as much as they need the mentor text. Often, a good first step is our sharing writing of writers doing writerly things outside of a classroom, on their own, because of a relentless curiosity.

Apatow tells comedian Marc Mahon that as a teenager he “used to transcribe Saturday Night Live. I would record it on an audio cassette…I think that I was in some way trying to figure out how to get into that world–how does it work? I wanted to break it down somehow (306).”

I wonder what our kids sink that much curiosity into? I also wonder…why I have never asked? You bet your ass I am asking now.

How we might use this text

I am offering several ideas for focused free writing to help students:

  1. identify ideas absorbing their attention.
  2. develop & write their thinking.
  3. reach out to mentors.

Could our students’ lives and thinking outside of school feel welcome in our classrooms? Could they write for themselves first and not for me? Could what I offer inside the classroom inspire action outside the classroom? Can I help students reach a constant state of composition about an element of joy and curiosity?

Each of the following ideas could be used as focused free writes in isolation or as a series.

Our mind

What is something that absorbs your attention so much that time spent with it is pure joy? Write about it so that you might share that joy with a reader.

When Apatow spoke with the team of Key and Peele, Jordan Peele said:

“…you can take all the classes you want and learn and practice and get all the advice from other people, but it’s really like learning an instrument that never existed until you were born. No one can tell you how to play that instrument. There’s a part of the journey that you have to figure out for yourself” (250).

What do you want in your life that would be worth the journey?

Our heart

What are the challenges of …? an older sister? being an only child? a dancer? being a perfectionist? living with a grandparent? caring for a sick pet? Perhaps Harold Ramis says as much about developing ideas as any mentor text:

“Maybe it would be better to do something you’re actually interested in, like an issue in your life…there’s got to be something going–what are the challenges of being a [fill in the blank] in the world? Start with something that’s important or of interest to you…” (125)

Write about the challenges of any truth you know. Share your truth until a reader owns it too.

Our belly

Seth Rogan began writing the script for Superbad when he was thirteen years old. When asked if he just kept rewriting it over and over again, Rogan said:

“Yeah, for around twelve years. If they made it when we were twelve–I mean it would be pathetic…What’s sad is that a fair amount of the jokes in the movie were in the draft we wrote when we were twelve years old…”(421).

What funny ideas do you have for a movie? What makes you laugh so hard that you feel it deep within? Don’t hold back–share ideas where laughter just pours from you and your friends like water from a jug. The odds are in your favor as a writer–if something makes you laugh, it may make your readers laugh.

Our feet

Apatow notes that mentoring comes from being in a place where you want to learn. As a teen, Apatow interviewed comedians. He went to comedy clubs. He made phone calls. And most often the George Carlins of the world were surprised to see a teenager when they finally met. But every comedian answered Apatow’s questions–and then they encouraged and mentored him.

I asked students to read this quote about Judd’s experiences and apply it to themselves:

“I needed to become one of them. The question was, how to do that? And the answer seemed clear: meet them. Talk to them. Get to know them. Learn their secrets (xii).”

Write about who the “them” is in our lives…who or what is it that we “need to become?” Framed another way, if you did not have to come to school for the next month, but you had to go someplace to learn something, where would you go?

Our soul

How can we create conditions so students feel as though they are in a place deep inside of themselves where they want to learn–bigger than the classroom–bigger than school–a mindset where they want to illuminate the page with writing that is like a grinning, toothy, jack-o-lantern inviting us closer to knock on the doors of their texts?

A good start is, of course, a teacher sharing what is deep inside himself; however, another move is finding other people in the real world (outside mentors) who feel so much love and curiosity for an idea that they share it through writing, sketching, digital mashups, music, and through multiple forms that transfer the glow of an idea to the eyes of a reader.

We can’t let this insight get away, can we? I so often see myself as the mentor, but Apatow pulls the rug out from underneath me. What about the push to bring more mentors into our students’ lives (inside and outside of the classroom) through local connections, writing letters, Google Hangouts, and social media?

Students can only be mentors themselves or get the most from a mentor if they care about what they are doing–if the writing is for them from the beginning–and if they are in a place (inside of themselves) where they want to learn. This is about a state of mind more than any physical space. Student writing does not begin or end by the light of a teacher’s dwindling candle.

Students must touch the flame to their own wicks. Yet teachers, as mentors, encourage that act.