How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

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Poetry Mentor Text: “Raised by Women”

Poetry Mentor Text-

I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.

Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year. 

The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.

In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.

Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”?  Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?

Listen to “Raised by Women” by Affrilachian poet, Kelly Norman Ellis.

Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.

Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).

Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.

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10 Ideas for Notebook Time

 

10 Notebook Time Ideas (1)

Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.

Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.

No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.

The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.

So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition.

1. Page Number Game

Have students grab any book in the room and ask them to turn to a random page you choose. Ask students to write down the first sentence on a notecard. Collect their notecards, and then have students choose a new card. After students draw their new card, have them use the book sentence to begin their writing.

It never gets old watching students’ surprise and delight when reading their starter sentences and learning what they are to do with them. They enjoy the novelty and challenge, and I enjoy watching them work through their approach. Check out my student Katie U.’s example below with a special twist of an ending sentence:

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A disease ravished her. I saw it first in her eyes, the former light in them dulling away. Then it was her body, crumbling and falling and contorting itself into nothing. Then it was her voice, from soft to screams, laughter to sobbing. Finally, it was her mind. Her beautiful mind. Instead of her mind thinking through books and adventures and fresh brwed morning coffee and happiness, it became mad with fantasies of demons surrounding her, psychos waiting in her shower, all food poioned. My mother was gone. I knew she wasn’t going to come back. My last words to her were, “I hate you.” I shouldn’t have said them. 

 

2. Writing With Images 

Imagery sparks creativity, discussion, and writing. Susan Barber is a wizard at Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking, and this thinking and analysis lends itself perfectly to notebook time.

Also, check out The New York Times Picture Prompts for a wealth of interesting and vetted images, complete with prompts.  

3. First & Last Word

Choose two words—they could be words you love (“cellar door” anyone?), words you loathe, words you happen upon, or words you choose on a whim—and have students begin and end their notebook time with these two words.

As in life, the challenge is finding a way from point A to point B, the first word to the last word.

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4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

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Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

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image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

The Food Memory Narrative

If you’re anything like me, those few short weeks between fall and winter breaks are nothing short of an anxiety inducing shopping/baking/grading/wrapping/tying-up-loose-ends extravaganza. Each year, the time sandwiched between breaks seems like too little or not quite enough.

But a few years ago, I cooked up a new dish called Food Lit. Food Lit was inspired by the Navajo Kentuckians, one of the best sessions I’ve ever attended at NCTE . To offer you the Happy Meal version of this session, teachers in two regions educated their students on “good food.” Students learned about topics such as food insecurity, obesity rates, and food integrity. Students grew gardens, educated their communities, and even prepared meals with food they harvested. Some even studied food and nature-centric literature like Mark Twain’s “The Bee.”

After attending this session, I began cultivating an inquiry into food in my own classroom and savoring the delicacy of “between breaks” learning.

One assignment that fires up my students’ brains is the food memory narrative task. You can read more about what we’ve been up to in Food Lit here and from years past, here and here.

Food is such an important, driving force in our lives. We share and create some of our most important stories surrounded by food. It comforts us, nourishes us, and heals us. So far, I haven’t met a student who didn’t have one special dish or fond food memory to look back on.

That’s what the food memory narrative is about.

I first ask students to examine these mentor texts:

Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner from NPR

Memories of Meals Past from The New York Times

Jeruselem: A Love Letter to Food from NPR 

I remind them that they are reading (and listening) to expand their understanding of “good food” but also to read as writers who are sharing their connections to a special dish.

This year, I asked students to share their mentor text noticings in a Google Form. Here’s some of what they came up with:

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What I’ve found is that food is an easy sell with students – it is relatable, its appeal universal, and my students enjoy reflecting on their “memories of meals past.” Here’s an example of how one student made this writing her own:

But the cherry on top? Our Food Lit Family Dinner, the day everyone brings in their favorite, most meaningful dish to share with the class.

Some of the biggest hits this year? Pizelles (or as one student called them: “cookie waffles”), King’s cake (somebody gifted me the baby), “brookies” (a delightful brownie/cookie duo), pepperoni rolls (a unique West Virginia snack and my contribution), tried and true homemade mac and cheese (what’s not to love), and West Indian curry (which you can read about below).

For me, this assignment does at least two things: it encourages a different bite of the narrative apple, and most importantly it continues to build and strengthen classroom culture. And that’s one recipe that can’t go wrong.

What works for you in your classrooms in the weeks between breaks? What activities inspire student writing and build classroom culture? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

 

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

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The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

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3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

 

How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 

-Karla

 

Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voices

Mentor Texts

You might like these mentors for teaching…

Voice and style

Personal narrative

Detail, imagery, and description

Literary analysis

Writing dialog

What I like about the mentors…

  • All four of these mentor texts have one thing in common — strong and unique voices that reach through the page.
  • Each mentor is vastly different from the other, but all rely on fresh and vivid details and descriptions.
  • They are all thought provoking on some level.

So, how do you find your voice if you didn’t know you were supposed to be looking for it?

The problem isn’t that students don’t have a voice, it’s that they don’t realize they’re not communicating their unique and individual personalities on paper. My students tend to fall into the trap of the academic writing style or what I like to call “sounding smart and using big words” because I think they think that’s what I want. 

Helping students find their own writerly voice is worthwhile and rewarding. A strong and unique voice and style moves points on rubrics–separating the good essays from the great, the interesting from the intriguing, and the satisfactory from the sophisticated. But helping students develop voice isn’t all about the rubric and the score, it’s about empowering young adults to explore, create, and craft original and thoughtful writing that they can be proud of and to use their voices to express themselves and their ideas for the many years ahead of them. 

For me, voice is a strong indicator of a strong and creative thinker. I wonder if by simply allowing students to tap into their own unique voices, no matter the assignment, we get higher quality writing as a result. I’ve blogged before about some approaches I like to use to elevate student writing using repetition and narrative, and both of these activities encourage students to be intentional in their craft and approach. And Kelly has also written about teaching voice on the Moving Writers blog, which you can check out here.

But my motto for finding your writerly voice boils down to the 3 Ps: personality, passion, and persistence.

How to write a

  1. Write with personality.

I remember my mentor telling me that great student essays are conversational but not a conversation. I love this descriptor for students. Giving students permission to write in the voice in which they speak, describe, and tell stories is half the battle. Too often students are afraid to break out of formulaic structures, afraid of the perceived right way and the wrong way to write, and they are afraid of plain old failure.

Here’s one lesson to spark students’ curiosity about writing with personality:

  • Tell students they’re looking for the ways the writer conveys his or her unique voice.
  • Have them identify a short, interesting, and engaging passage from the mentor text of your choice.
  • Ask students what would sound similar or different if they were the ones narrating the passage. (For example, if my students were studying Holden Caulfield, they would probably say they’d never in a million years talk so much or use the word “phony.”)
  • Have students then write the passage in their own original voices, taking care to match the writer’s craft moves.

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