Mentor Text Wednesday: Two Timberlakes

Mentor Text: The Selling of Two Timberlakes by Hanif Abdurraqib (via Pacific Standard)

Techniques:

  • Contrast and Comparison
  • Criticism and Analysis
  • Organization
  • Making Connections
  • Using Narrative to Make a Point

 

Background – Full disclosure. It’s taking a lot of self-control to stop me from turning Mentor Text Wednesdays into a Hanif Abdurraqib fan column. I discovered him as a poet first, via FreezeRay Poetry, a journal that focuses on pop culture inspired writing. I read what he shared via Twitter, and snapped up his collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us right away, returning a week later to buy the other copy in the store for a friend. His collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was one of my Christmas book gifts. He’s a powerhouse of a writer, combining identity, race and pop culture in such a way that you are inspired and heartbroken in one fell swoop.

 

This essay happened into my Twitter feed without my knowing it was Hanif’s writing. It was one of those beautiful moments when the subject caught my attention, and when I clicked through, I discovered I was about to read some new work by one of my favorite writers. I love when that happens.

One of the amazing things about Hanif’s work is how he writes about music. He writes about what he loves so passionately, you want to love it too. (Seriously. I am so not Carly Rae Jepsen’s kind of audience, but he’s got me curious.) He’s not afraid to be honest, and say what he actually thinks, but so articulately, and respectfully, making his writing perfect mentor text material for writing about music. When he writes about music, you feel like you’re part of a dialogue, that someone is working to help you understand why he feels the way he does, yet cares what you think, and wants to hear it. I kind of hope my students feel this, and work to answer him back in a manner approaching the way he writes. Continue reading

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Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: My Three Solaces

Mentor Text: My Three Solaces by Erin Fornoff

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetry
  • Brevity
  • Memoir

Background: As this post publishes, many of you are headed back into your classrooms after a break for the holidays. (Monday for me!)

It’s a new calendar year. This, combined with the holiday season, makes me reflective. The chaos of school before the break, the chaos of the holiday season, the cold weather – all of these things put me in a reflective spot.

As I look at a Twitter feed full of people sharing their resolutions, their #oneword and their hopes for 2018, I also see a flood of reflection, much like my own. We’re looking at where we’re going, and we’re reflecting on where we’ve been.

When this poem found its way into my Twitter feed, I earmarked it for future use. Initially, I saw it as a mentor piece for some memoir writing, but as I scoured my earmarked pieces for the first Mentor Text Wednesday of 2018, I saw a new purpose for this piece.

In those first classes of the new year, how many of us are going to have students write about their resolutions? Their One Word?

 

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A Solace for Jay – via Tumblr

Let me propose an alternative. What if they popped open their notebooks and wrote about the things that bring them solace? It could be as an act of reflection – 2017 was tough for many people. Looking at what brings us comfort is a good way to reflect on a tough year. 2018 will be a year that brings challenges as well. For our graduating students, there is much that will change, and a reminder of what brings them solace might be a good start for the year to come. Continue reading

Memoir Study Remix: Lessons Learned

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, my team and I decided we needed to revisit and remix our memoir study. In that post, I talked about what we did in regards to the lowest moment experienced by the subject of the memoir. This week, I’ll share what we did with the lessons learned from these memoirs.

One of the main reasons that I like having students study memoir is that there is teaching inherent in this pursuit. The sharing of a life is full full of the lessons that were learned in that life. Sometimes, as we’re all aware, the lessons are overt, while other times, there are lessons in there that must be uncovered. Most powerful of all, I think, are the lessons that a reader finds based upon their own experiences, and what they bring to the “conversation.” When we’ve studied memoir together, this is often what our conversation is based upon.

However, my Grade 12s aren’t necessarily reading the same memoirs. My goal is to have us all reading memoir (and biography) and looking for the common elements. There are often pockets of readers working with the same text, but it’s not something I can guarantee, as I work very hard to flood them with memoir choices.

As they read, I asked them to keep notes, specifically noting things they felt were lessons that could be learned from the memoir. We have a conversation about what these lessons could be – the things that are obvious, the things the author intends for us to learn as well as the things that we discover ourselves. I’ll be honest, the size of my school, and some of the decisions we make regarding class composition helps in these conversations. Most of my students have been in my class before, and we’ve done similar activities in previous courses. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Seven Matches

Mentor Text

Seven Matches – Gord Downie

Writing Techniques:

  • Ambidextrous Lines
  • Developing Symbolism

Background: 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Memoir Study Remix: The Broken Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mentor Text Wednesday: Revisiting ‘Superman and Me’

Mentor Text

Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflective Writing
  • A Deliberate Shift
  • Making Connections

Background: 

A funny thing about teaching is how we revisit things. Sometimes, it’s because we teach the same texts or units of studies, the same courses. We revisit things because we need to refresh or remix them.

This week, I pulled out my collection of teaching notebooks. I was looking for a sheet I knew I had tucked into one of them, one day, long, long ago. That sheet was going to be the bones upon which my awesome team and I built a new unit for our Grade 9s. I didn’t find it, and we’re just going to build off of something else instead.

I did, however, come across this week’s mentor text, which was actually the first thing I really used as a mentor text in the manner we talk about here. We read it as a class, we discussed it, and used it as inspiration for a piece of writing. I had a fist pump moment, because in a pretty tumultuous week, I had figured out a really good mentor text to share with folks.

This is a good piece that I’ve seen shared a number of places, so I wanted to do due diligence, and make sure that it hadn’t been shared by the Moving Writers team.

And I discovered that it had been.

By me. Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Intention

One of the greatest things about being active online as a teacher is that you get to interact with, and learn from, a lot of different people. I would never go as far to tell anyone that they absolutely have to be on Twitter to be a good teacher, but I can comfortably say that it’s a good way to engage and learn.

A pair of my favorite Twitter follows, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder regularly drop bombs of goodness into my feed, and have had positive impacts in my classroom for the last few years. Dan gave me one of my favorite student response formats, and Amy has inspired so many creative activities in our work.

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My copy of Intention, proudly on my desk

 

Naturally, when I found out they had written a book together, it became a must buy. Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom has taken a place of honour on my professional bookshelf.

 

The core idea of the book is that we work to focus on the intent behind the things that we do in our classrooms. It is not necessarily the what we do that matters, the products, but rather the why we do it, the intention. This focus allows us to explore things more deeply, and allows us to let students create new things, hopefully breaking the cycle of reading and writing in response.

This book was like reading something that my heart wrote without me knowing it. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Dead Game

Mentor Text: Dead Game by Andrew Vachss

Writing Techniques:

  • Using Story to Explore an Issue
  • Foreshadowing
  • Personification
  • Focusing a Narrative

Background:

I pulled this story out in my class this week, not as a mentor text, but as a tool to help us discuss our writing variables. There is a question on my Grade 12s’ upcoming provincial assessment that asks them to explain the writing variables they’ve chosen for their writing task. They need to explain how their central idea, form, purpose, audience and context are connected. In past years, students have faced some challenges in answering this question. My hope was that in discussing this story, we could look at Vachss’ variables, and discuss what the connections are, hopefully seeing how we could do the same.

And then I remembered how much I love giving this story to students, and watching them react to it. As we discussed it, we also talked about how a piece such as this one could be a good mentor text for them as they wrote their assessment. They’re asked to write a piece that explores a central theme, and this piece could certainly allow them to do this.

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Best Author Photo Ever via nndb.com

I used to read a lot of Vachss. He’s a very visceral writer, and pulls elements from his work as a lawyer in his work. It can be a tough read. He’s also an advocate for the “bully breeds” of dogs, and firmly believes that dogs are only a danger when they are trained to be. We talk about this belief as we talk about the story.

 

Though it may impact my ability to use this story to talk about the writing variables in the future, I plan to use this piece as a mentor text. Continue reading

I Love My Analog Marking Lists

Somewhere, in my busy week of Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, teaching and student led conferences, I found time to do some marking.

DNbHj1WVoAA1r91As I marked, I tweeted a picture of one of my marking sheets, sharing a couple of the reasons that I still use an analog marking model. I don’t do the math in the old gradebook any more, but I still have a stack of sheets that have the grades on them.

Other contributors on the Moving Writers team have shared their thoughts about the grading process, and I echo a lot of what they have to say. The last few years, I’ve moved away from putting the grade physically on their work in favour of comments and feedback. The numbers live in our LMS, and my students themselves decide which of the sources of feedback they want. Many look at the feedback, then the grade, while others only focus on one of those things.

As for my analog sheets, they’re part of my process. I don’t feel comfortable going to a purely digital method of recording grades. Even the best programs are prone to hiccups, and regenerating a whole class of numbers is a task I hope to never take on. I recently had a situation where a student’s program meant that mid-semester, he was put into his own class in the LMS, and in doing so, all the numbers I had entered for his assignments vanished. A few minutes with my sheets, and we were right back where we had been.

My sci-fi fueled distrust of machines isn’t the only reason I value my analog marking sheets though. Continue reading