Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.

 

This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?

 

Being Concise

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A Late Night Mentor Text

I’ve written before about lessons inspired by my Twitter feed and it happened again early this week. Sometimes, right when you need it most, the universe drops the perfect mentor text right in your lap.

My AP Language students are busy prepping for the exam and all of them need a little more work with rhetorical analysis. They’ve gotten pretty good at identifying a writer’s purpose or message. They can pick strategies that an author uses to achieve that purpose or convey that message, but they struggle with explaining why.  They want a formula that, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.

Why is something powerful? Why does it create a certain tone? Why does it work?

I needed a text that would help them see the why.  Enter Jimmy Kimmel.

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Making Research Flexible

My second grader came home the other day and announced he needed to do some research. He was working on an informational book about basketball, he explained. Who am I to stand in the way of a researcher?? He plopped down and got to work. Soon, he had a document filled with all of the things he wanted to know:

bball.charlie

(Oh, the sadness when his research revealed that Michael Jordan is retired.)

Once again, the power of choice and interest was on full display. He was highly motivated because he was researching with a clear purpose: he had lots of stuff he wanted to know about basketball.   But that’s not what this post is really about. Watching him, I realized I was watching a researcher at work. I was watching a writer who was using research as a tool to support his writing.

I think that’s a shift we need to help our students make sometimes in their writing. Depending on their experiences with research writing, many of them have learned to be students who write research papers or complete research projects. Instead, we need to position them as writers who use research to support their writing. It may not seem like a big difference, but I think it’s an important shift if we want them to leave our rooms ready to be adult writers who can apply research skills in different situations. The problem with that shift is that it takes a lot of flexibility on our part.

 

 

 

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Yes/No/So

Spring in AP English Language is always a little tricky. Stress levels rise among the students as the test looms, and they’re all desperately searching for the magical formula that will make it all click. It’s tough to keep them engaged in the hard work of revising and slowly improving their craft as writers when they want me to just tell them how to get a 5 already.

When I’m not working with those AP students in the afternoons, I’m working with struggling readers and writers as a literacy support coach.  I experienced some similar frustrations–and the same desire for a magical formula– when working with some ninth graders on a recent argumentative essay.

In both cases, the students were frustrated with building arguments logically. They knew they had to address a counterargument, but they weren’t really sure what that entailed. They knew they had to support their claims with evidence, but they didn’t know how to order their different claims in a way that made sense. They knew some of the evidence was stronger than other pieces, but they couldn’t wrap their brains around how to weigh one piece of evidence against another.

As I worked with all of them, I realized I did have a magic formula.

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Wonderfully Messy Notebooks

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a post about my plan for new notebooks in my AP Seminar class.  I was fired up. We were going to make them into bullet journals. There were layouts, there were intricate planning grids, and there were lots and lots of colored markers and pens involved. After I posted the blog, several people said, “Make sure you update us! Let us know how it’s going!” So here we are, warts and all, with my wonderfully messy, not-at-all-what-I-imagined-but-actually-pretty-awesome writer’s notebooks.

Keep reading if you’re curious about what I’ve learned about my students and their writing lives.

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Research Lessons From My Twitter Feed

I’ve been scrolling through Twitter a lot these past two weeks.  I can’t look away from the news and everything I read is prompting new questions and new things I need to research. Saturday, someone tweeted a poem by Naomi Shihab-Nye, Gate A-4. It’s a beautiful story of an interaction between two women in an airport, one helping the other. She ends with some words of reflection:

nye

Though I teach two classes that don’t traditionally use a lot of poetry, this text fit perfectly in my AP Seminar class because it’s nearly impossible to read it and not be left with some questions in your brain. 

In AP Seminar, a research and inquiry based course, I’ve found one of the best ways prompt curiosity and inquiry is giving my students completely un-research-y types of texts: poetry, music, paintings, etc.  The formula? Give them something high interest, let the questions fly, and then let them build the answer.  Continue reading

New Year, New Writer’s Notebook

I’m one of those New Year’s Resolvers. I love making lists. I love setting goals. I look at the New Year as a chance to reorganize my whole life. It’s a magical time in my weird little world. So, of course, I was immediately intrigued when I saw a mention of Bullet Journals on Facebook. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of lists and codes and layouts. Apparently these have been a thing on Instagram for awhile, and I’m a little late to game. Later in the day, I spied a Twitter convo between Moving Writers’ Allison and Rebekah about a bullet journal layout that would make for writing notebook time.  And, I’d been thinking quite a bit about Tricia Ebarvia’s Writer’s Workshop blog post and how that could help me better organize workshop in my AP Seminar class. The pieces started clicking together, and my second semester writers’ notebooks in my AP Seminar are about to get a big makeover.

nb1

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Writers Pay It Forward

A few years ago, after writing my eleventy-billionth letter of recommendation, I realized that the kids owed me. Perhaps not the most gracious response, but I had agonized over letters for a large group of past students, and I decided it was time for them to pony up. My current students were sweating buckets over revisions of their first essays and the line at my door for extra writing conferences was starting as early as 6:15am! I needed all hands on deck. In a moment of desperation (inspiration?) I dashed off a quick email to 20 former students:

Hey guys!  Any interest in coming to Academic Advisory on Wednesday to help out my current AP Lang kids with their first essays? By the way, all of your letters of rec are finished and submitted.

–Mrs. Maguire

Luckily, the thinly veiled guilt trip worked quite nicely and they all showed–some even brought friends. The next Academic Advisory, my room was packed with current and former students, paired up, perched on tables, huddled in corners, editing and discussing the younger students’ essays.

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Three years later, that email sent on a whim has proven to be one of my favorite traditions of fall in my class. Seniors pop by to ask, “Are you going to need us to come in and help like the seniors did last year?”  And after one go-around with the seniors, my juniors start asking, “When are they coming back??”  

Every year I’m surprised by how successful the mentoring is, but in the crush of fall and the holidays, I’ve honestly never thought that much about why it works so well. So tonight I’m thinking through some possible answers to this question:

What is it about peer to peer mentoring that makes it so successful?

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Helping Writers Listen

I split my teaching days between AP Language and Seminar and working one-on-one as a writing coach with struggling students. Two weeks ago I got to the spend the day at the AssisTechKnow conference to learn about how we can use assistive technology to support students. It was a great conference, but one session in particular has me thinking already about specific ways to improve my practice.

Presenter Craig Steenstra (@csteenst), an Ed Tech Specialist from Kent County ISD, encouraged us to think about ways we can help students “record the storm” of ideas and phrases and words jumbling around in their heads. So many students have a hard time getting their ideas down on paper and, unfortunately, get frustrated and give up.  Craig walked us through several examples of ways to use various audio recording apps on phones, iPads and Chromebooks, and I realized quickly that this was something I could apply right away. My students are willing to listen to me when I talk to them about their writing, but I’m starting to wonder how I can help them listen to themselves as writers.

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Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

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