“No Dress Rehearsal…”

I do not hide the fact that I am a fan of rock and roll.

And, if you’re a Canadian of my age, that means being a fan of The Tragically Hip.

That means being a fan of Gord Downie.

Gord, as we all call him, in a very Canadian way, like we knew him personally, sort of way, passed away this week. About a year and a half ago, it was revealed that Gord had terminal brain cancer. As fans, we got to say goodbye. There was new music. There was a final tour. The last show of that tour was televised, and Canada pretty much stopped to watch.

And now, he’s gone.

It rattled me. I’m a big fan of music, and lately, that seems to mean dealing with loss after loss of artists who had given you songs that meant so much. Gord’s passing has hit the hardest of these.

 

Gord

The painting that hangs in my classroom.

A painting I did after catching my last Hip show hangs in my classroom. Gord watches over us as we work. I’ve looked up a number of times the last few days, and thought about what that means in my English classroom.

 

Like many of my favorite artists, Gord made rock and roll a literate pursuit. I’ve written here before about his lyrics and poetry. In many ways, Gord wasn’t a lyricist as much as he was a poet fronting an amazing band. The Huffington Post, this week, called him a pub-rock poet. In my classroom, he watches over young writers. As I encourage them to play with words, a master of the craft is there, I hope, in spirit. Continue reading

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Poets Respond

Mentor Texts: The Poetry of Poets Respond, via Rattle Magazine

Writing Techniques:

  • Responding to current events
  • Finding Inspiration
  • Poetic Form

Background:

This post has been at the back of my mind for a while now. It’s not the first time I’ve written here about how our classrooms are places that we have to deal with the troubling things that our world puts in front of us. I openly advocate having poets and poetry journals in your social media feed. I do, and it’s a rich resource. One of my favorite follows is @RattleMag. There are many wonderful poems and poets peppered throughout my feed as a result of this follow, but there’s a wonderful strategy there that I want to mine as well.

 

Once a week, they publish a poem under the banner Poets Respond. The intention is that a poet is able to respond to events in the world within the past week. This is a concession to the “age of information” on their part, as they have a lengthy period of time between issues. I love their selection criteria, “Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome.”

 

I stand by my opinion that poetry, and other forms of writing are important ways for our students to work through their opinions and ideas about things that are challenging. Poets Respond is what this looks like in practice outside of a classroom, in the “real world” where our writers live. Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Lynda Barry

If you’ve taken note of my Twitter handle, you might be curious about where it comes from. I didn’t join Twitter as a teacher, and my initial avatar was a drawing I did of a stuffed monkey that used to travel with my wife and I wherever we went. Being drawn to artistic pursuits, and travelling with a stuffed monkey, it made sense to adopt the handle @doodlinmunkyboy and roll with it.

lyndabarrymys

A page from What It Is

It’s a different handle than most teachers have, as it doesn’t necessarily reflect my “teacher identity” as a high school English teacher. It actually speaks more to my artistic leanings, though I have taught art as well.

Some of my posts here at Moving Writers have highlighted my interest in focusing on the visual elements of the language arts. Though we often focus on reading and writing, viewing and representing deserve, in my opinion, development and practice. I’ve drawn quite heavily on my interests in art and design, as well as my experience as an artist and art teacher to make this happen in my class.

I am well aware that this notion is daunting for many teachers. If we don’t self-identify as artists, we feel ill-prepared to encourage our students to play and explore that side of literacy. I totally get that!

Recently, I dropped a quick recommendation of a book that I’ve used in my classroom recently. I’ve thought about that brief mention, and would like to expand upon it. There are two books that I use in my classroom that are invaluable resources in pushing the creative limits of ourselves as teachers, and the efforts of our students.

SYLLABUS.cover-web

Syllabus one of my favorite teaching books (image via Drawn & Quarterly)

Cartoonist, author and teacher Lynda Barry has created many wonderful things, but it is her teaching books that have become very important to me. I have read all three of them: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and keep What It Is and Syllabus close by, alongside my Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher books. Let’s be honest, someone who’s official title is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity absolutely has to have great ideas, right?

I recommend these books to my English teacher friends because they are a blueprint to helping students find a path to expressing themselves visually. Many of the core ideas about creativity and artistic attitude that I worked to instill in my art students years ago are laid out in these texts. Barry lays out exercises to help students develop, while also encouraging them to embrace their innate talents, whatever they may be. If you’re a teacher who wants to have students sketching as part of their writing process, and aren’t sure how to go about it, it’s a great blueprint. The drawing jam from Syllabus has been invaluable the last few years as we study graphic novels, and work on graphic storytelling. After running through a couple weeks of drawing to start the class, students develop confidence in what they can create, an acceptance that they can do something that works artistically, even if it isn’t necessarily of the caliber of the art they see in the graphic novels we study.

I recommend these books to English teachers because there are so many activities in them that are invaluable in the idea generating stages of the writing process. In What It Is Barry shares ways to get writers to (literally) draw from their own experiences. They’ll pay attention to their day for ideas, or reflect upon people they’ve known to find characters to write. These exercises combine visuals and text, giving them material from which to write. They are engaging ways to generate ideas, so much more lively than sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration.

I recommend these books for their mentor text potential. In What It Is Barry includes a collection of pieces in which she creates pieces that explore some big, rhetorical and inquiry style questions through a combination of art, collage and text. They’re engaging pieces that have students represent their thoughts and ideas. There’s no thesis, no body paragraphs, or the conventional features we expect when students work with these kinds of questions… there is simply the wondering, the exploring, the attempts to answer, presented in an interesting way. Much more interesting to mark!

I recommend these books because using them allows students to have fun. Have you broken out some crayons in a high school classroom lately? It takes the students right back. If you think asking students to draw a castle in two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, and finally 15 seconds doesn’t create a buzz… And that fun is engaging. We go from laughing about our castles to talking about how we established criteria for what makes a castle, and how we could express that idea succinctly. From fun to important learning in a single exercise. Maybe we do this a few times, with dragons, unicorns and portraits of our teacher before we have that chat. If we do, we’ve strengthened the connection between expressing oneself creatively and fun, which is also a big win.

Before I bought these books, I had discovered Barry online. Her Tumblr page is a treasure trove, as it is essentially the course website for ‘The Unthinkable Mind,’ the course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin. It’s loaded with activities, ideas and exemplars, and well worth a visit. I just took a look at the first page, as I haven’t been there in a while, and I noted a handful of things I’d like to try in my Creative Writing course next semester.

These texts are unconventional in many ways, which is what makes them, in my opinion, so important for us to have. I love handing them to someone to check out, and the conversation that comes afterwards. Creativity is an important part of what we do in our English classrooms, and they encourage that in a natural and holistic manner. They’re wonderful guides for visual expression and literacy, which can be challenging to teach. Most of all, they’re catalysts for fun in your classroom, a way to play as part of learning, which is very important in our work.

Have you used Barry’s work in your classes? How? What’s a go-to text of yours that we might not know about?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesdays: Let’s Rank The Things We Love

Mentor Texts: All 115 of Taylor Swift’s Songs, Ranked by Rob Sheffield

School Days and Parisian Nightsuits: Every ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Episode, Ranked by Jennifer Wood

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Considering Appropriate Length
  • Recognizing good writing

Background:

 

Freaks and Geeks.jpg

Love this minimalist Freaks and Geeks poster via Etsy

One of this week’s mentor texts was a total must read for me based upon the subject material. My Grade 12 classes study Freaks and Geeks as part of our look at Identity, Individuality and Independence. It’s a wonderful text, giving us lots to ponder, and explore, while being entertaining and engaging. There’s a reason you’ve seen it on so many lists of the shows you must watch.

 

The other was a must read for me as well, but because of the writer, not the subject material. I am a huge fan of Rob Sheffield’s writing, having devoured his memoirs and beautiful book on David Bowie in the last year or so. He’s a music fan, and writes about it so unabashedly that I will gladly read any of his writing about music. This is significant, because I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I do enjoy her songs as performed by others, and I’m listening to Ryan Adams’ wonderful full album covering of 1989, but her music doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve long been fascinated by these epic rankings of the creative works of people. Every special edition that Rolling Stone publishes featuring an artist I love has one of these features. I read the lists fanatically, in my head reordering my own personal list. I’ve never actually taken the time to put pen to paper, but I’ve solidified a few Top 10 lists while killing time.

We live in a pop culture saturated world, as well as a world which is constantly ascribing value to things. Top 10 lists are standard fare, and there are those among us who may still apply Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to our appreciation of music. If you’re a fan of anything, you are expected to be able to name the favorites – songs, albums, episodes, seasons, games, levels, novels, scenes, comics, artists, or whatever it may be. Continue reading

Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

reading2

via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Poetry of Small Moments

Mentor Text: The Taco Boat by Al Ortolani

Writing Techniques:

  • Idea Generation
  • Memoir
  • Poetic Form
  • Voice

Background:

In  Twitter edchats, I’ve been part of discussions about what should be part of a teacher’s Twitter feed. One of my go-to recommendations is always poetry. Following poets, literary magazines and other sites that focus on poetry. The wealth of poetry this puts into your feed is good for your soul as a human, and a vital resource as an English teacher. My screens feed me poetry daily.

I’m a huge fan of poetry as a mentor text, as the texts I’ve shared on Mentor Text Wednesday would attest. Often, it is my Twitter feed that puts these poems in front of me, such as this week’s poem. Al Ortolani’s The Taco Boat was one of those poems that you read and instantly know has a place in your classroom.

Whaaaaat

The poem, as retweeted by Rattle magaizine, in which it appears

Continue reading

Behind The Scenes: Considering The Big Picture

On Monday, Allison wrote about the nightmare of the blank planner.

I started this week with that nightmare as a reality for one of my classes. I knew exactly where I’d be starting with my Grade 11s and my Grade 12s, but I was kind of blanking on what my Grade 9s would be starting with. It kind of freaked me out.

And it kind of seemed like the right thing to do.

I have the luxury of working in a smaller school. Aside from a few changes, my 11s and 12s are groups of students that I know well, and have built a culture with. There are some programming pieces that I’ve used in those courses that are a perfect fit for them.

Those 9s though, I don’t know them yet, and I can’t decide what things I’ve got in the bag of tricks are going to work best for them. It’s a different situation for me – usually, I don’t see Grade 9 students until second semester, and by then, I have a sense of who they are. This year, I’ve got them in my classroom on the first day. I have an opening piece all figured out, personalizing our notebooks. I’ll be scrambling, trying to get some quick reads on who my new students are.

But here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty confident about things, because I’ve thought about what the Big Picture is in the course. I’m not sure exactly what the path will look like, nor have I figured out exactly what we’re going to do, but I know where I’d like us to be at the end of it. Continue reading

The Important Thing

After the Labour Day weekend, my school year officially starts. Staff only on Tuesday, Grade 9 orientation on Wednesday and the full meal deal on Thursday.

It’s exciting, and daunting, and a million other things.

I spent two days in my school this week, in sessions about literacy, anxiety and even math. Three out of four of them were in my classroom, where it was interesting to take the students’ seat and be a learner. It looks different from the back corner.

I also spent some time with our LMS open, looking at the little pictures of my students’ faces.

It’s exciting, and daunting, and a million other things. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Memoir on Wax

Mentor Text: Coat of Many Colours by Dolly Parton

Writing Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Symbolism
  • Allusion
  • Revision

Background:

Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, the woman I love fell for Dolly Parton. I know it wasn’t a childhood thing, because that’s not really what her folks listened to. But she’s a fan. And I get it, Dolly is an amazing songwriter, and just comes across as such a genuine person. As teachers, her support if literacy is something we admire greatly.

IMG_4140So, for the past few months, as I dig in record crates for myself. I’ve kept an eye out for some Dolly records for her. While we were in Nova Scotia, I found myself in one of those awesome, and terrifying, small used bookstores. You know, the ones that seem to have a little bit of everything crammed into a space that’s about half the size it should be. And I came across a copy of Dolly’s 1971 album, Coat of Many Colours.

Now, we’re home, and as we settle back into routines, my wife is doing stuff around the house, and I’m looking for inspiration to write. That Dolly album has been our soundtrack for the last few days, as stuff gets done around the house, and I find this week’s inspiration. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Structure

AMW Jay.pngWow, Brendan, that’s a great question.

I can start with a somewhat facetious answer, in that I find a mentor text that the students can emulate. I channel the spirit of Austin Kleon, and tell my writers to be on the lookout for what they can steal for their own writing.

I use this approach most frequently with poetry, giving students a piece that highlights a specific form, or style, and having them write a version of it about a different topic. In my Grade 10 class, I try to make this a weekly occurrence as we work on our OUPAs.

Sometimes, I use the structures that exist in literature as aguide. The narrative arc diagram is useful for story writers as they plan. Once we know it, we can subvert it for effect as well. Often, in studying a genre we look at the tropes of that genre, as they can influence the structure of pieces written within that genre. Something like the Hero’s Journey gives us a ready made structure for adventure stories and I’ve used it to guide students as they write epic poems.

The most frequent request for structure lessons, from my writers anyway, is based around the essay. By the time I get them in their first year in our building, my Grade 9s have been given the list of Correct Ways To Write An Essay tips that seem rigid, and adhere to one particular kind of essay. They’re a bit intimidated that they’re going to be facing at least three and a half more years of that joyless exercise.

So, this year, with my Grade 9 and 10 students, I made a concerted effort to teach essay writing in a way that I hoped would allow them to write, exploring the idea that writing should be structured, but that there can be freedom within that structure. Continue reading