Student-Led Mentor Text Talks

We have officially arrived at the point in the year where panic ensues. The fourth marking period is here and there is still. so. much. to. do. And with the additional pressures of AP and state testing season, to say I’m feeling overwhelmed would be an understatement.

The truth is that it’s when the going gets rough that I tend to slip back into a more teacher-directed instructional style. It makes sense, after all; as the sage-on-the-stage, I can control the pacing of the class and how much time we spend — or don’t spend — on any particular activity. Free-flowing conversations? Write to explore? Who has time for that when the clock is ticking?

But that’s when I take a deep breath and remember that any heavy lifting I’m doing at the end of the year is only heavy when I’m the one doing all the work. More than ever, it’s time like this that I need to engage students as active learners — to get them up, moving, talking, walking.

So here we are with only a few weeks to go, and in my AP Lang class, there are still so many wonderful essays and mentor texts that we have yet to read. Ideally, with more time, my students and I could spend 1-2+ days discussing each text. So my dilemma was this: how could I maximize the number of high quality mentor texts they could read but also give them the time needed to dive into a deep study about craft and style?  Continue reading

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Leaning into Difficult Topics: Toward an Informed Stance

After the Parkland school shooting in February, we witnessed something tangible shift in our discourse about school safety and gun regulation.

Nationally, we saw and still see young people like the Parkland student survivors stand up and make their voices heard, including the CNN sponsored town hall with Florida politicians and a coordinated student-led walkout on March 14 in schools across the country. With the increased attention to issues related to gun control and gun rights, we’ve also seen some (though not enough) discourse around the history of activism among students of color regarding school safety and gun reform.  And this weekend, millions are expected to gather for March for Our Lives events around the country to advocate for gun reform.

But something shifted, too, among my students. All politics is local, and the fears and challenges that have increased in the wake of the Parkland shooting has become personal for many of my students. In fact, shortly after the shooting, several of my own students asked me to sponsor a new club, Students Against Gun Violence. They hope to not just increase awareness through greater education on gun control issues, but to also advocate for change that will keep students safe in schools. They want change, and inspired by their fellow young people at Parkland and across the country, they don’t want to wait for the change to happen—they want to do something.

Yet in my actual classes, students didn’t bring up Parkland and many seemed content to go on with class, business as usual. But as a teacher, it seemed strange to continue with the lesson of the day with so much happening in the world affecting our students’ lives. Perhaps it was me: maybe students feel comfortable with me leading us through these messy conversations. I know the routine and ritual of school can also be comforting for kids. Or perhaps it was a lack of awareness or disinterest. But no, I knew that wasn’t true. You could hear their conversations in the hallways, on social media, and in the library. Students were already talking about these issues, which made me wonder: How? Who was leading them through these difficult conversations? If school is any kind of reflection of the outside world, I wondered, how many of their conversations included multiple perspectives? How critical was their media consumption? How were they processing the endless stream of noise? How were they distinguishing the shouting from the dialogue? Continue reading

On days like these, write. Just write.

EACH MONTH ON MOVING WRITERS, I try to share something writing-related happening in my classroom that might be interesting or helpful to fellow teachers. As I sat down to write this month’s post, however, news of the Parkland school shooting was just breaking—how 17 individuals died today in yet another mass school shooting.

Suddenly the ideas I’d brainstormed for this blog post didn’t seem appropriate or enough or, well, anything. Tips about conferring, strategies for prewriting, scaffolds for organizing ideas—while all these are valuable and important components of the writing process, I know that none of them are as important as the most valuable component of all—our students.

What do our students need from us right now? In challenging times—and unfortunately, there seem to be many more these days—what can we do as teachers in our classrooms to help students find their way? How do we help them find answers that we don’t have ourselves? As teachers, we often pride ourselves on being professionals, experts, the ones in the room with the answers. We think students look to us for answers, but the longer I teach, the more I think that’s wrong.

I don’t think students look to us for answers—at least not for the most deeply human issues we face in life, like love, grief, sorrow, pain, or anger. I think they look to us for the questions—to ask questions and to give them time and opportunity to ask their own, to process, to think, to wonder, to talk, to stumble, to discover, to figure out for themselves. Continue reading

3 Tips for AP Lang Test Prep

Like most teachers, I’ve had a estranged relationship with the AP exam—and any standardized test. Do we have an obligation to prepare students for the “test”? I think so. But that obligation can never supplant the greater responsibility we bear to build our students’ literacy lives in an increasingly challenging world.

Or put another way—do we want to students to do well on a three-hour exam on a single day in their lives, or do we want to prepare to think critically and responsibly for the rest of their lives?

So after years of relentless trial and error, the tweaking of steps forward and steps back, my approach is this: My goal is help students find their voice, to become better, lifelong writers and deep thinkers. If I center my teaching on practices towards that end, then the test will (mostly) take care of itself.

That said, I understand that test prep and lifelong skill building aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In the last decade I’ve been teaching AP Lang, I’ve done lots of different types of test prep, from direct and explicit—timed writes and mock exams (so that students are familiar with the task and understand that that’s what it is: a task v. the way to write)—to embedded, everyday skills-building. This month, the Moving Writers team has shared authentic ways to prepare students with the skills they’ll need on any test; below, I share three things to prepare students for the three writing prompts on the AP Lang exam. While I’m confident these strategies prepare students for the exam, I know that they also, and more importantly, prepare them for the real-world texts they’ll navigate beyond any single test. Continue reading

A (Writing) Library of Possibility: Structure and Freedom

In recent years, I’ve moved further away from assigned writing prompts to a more open workshop model. It’s been a hard shift, though, and it’s messy. Really messy. Like many teachers, my planning for writing often goes one of two ways: 1) read mentor texts and then develop a writing prompt, or 2) develop a writing prompt and then study mentor texts. With so much beautiful writing in the world, it can be difficult to keep up. I want students to read and write all of it, but because that’s impossible, choices have to be made and then we dig in.

How to decide what to write comes down to a number of factors. Faced with time to do only one essay, for example, should we do a narrative or a process analysis piece or a definition essay? Of course, the most important thing to consider are the kids currently sitting in our classroom, kids who may have different needs and interests from the students who sat in those seats last year. Flexibility is key.

But just like we need to balance whole class novels with choice and independent reading, we also need to think about what opportunities for choice we give our students in writing. Yes, students can always choose how to respond to a prompt, and we can create prompts that are open-ended enough that no two students will ever have the same response. But what about choice in the prompts themselves? Or what about allowing students to find their own mentor texts, choose their own modes and genres, write their own prompts? How can I use a balanced writing approach that allows students to study the same mentor texts as a community of writers but also give them space to individually find and study their own?  Continue reading

Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

Hi, Elizabeth!

First, thank you for asking this important question! We know how important it is to find ways to give meaningful and timely feedback to students. But we also know how limited our time is—there are only so many minutes in a day, in a class, during prep periods, after school, before school. Finding time for effective feedback is the holy grail of English teachers everywhere. 🙂

Second, just a warning that this response is much longer than I initially intended—but when it comes to feedback there is just so much to say! I’ll be going into my 17th year of teaching this fall, and in those years, I still haven’t found the answer when it comes to giving effective feedback. But every year, I think I get a little closer. So much of teaching is just a series of relentless tweaking, here and there, to make our practice just a little bit better from one moment to the next, all in the service of our students.

This (long) post is a result of all that relentless tweaking. Continue reading