Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time this year chatting with colleagues about Twitter and its usefulness to educators.  Mostly, we chat about the challenges of getting used to its format (it’s not fun to figure out–I almost gave up in my first week or so of fiddling with it), but sometimes the question is simply “What’s it good for?”

My answer is always the same:  Connections to great educators, incredibly fast news updates, amazing animal and nature videos…and the greatest comedy on the planet.

I could recommend some great follows for Serious Teachers or nature lovers out there, but for now I want to suggest to you that comedy Twitter is

  1. The best Twitter (as they say on Twitter) and
  2. A great resource for teaching students about writing structure with fun, playful mini-lessons.

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Reading Like a Writer in Troubled Times

We’ve been studying up on the idea of journalistic “angles”, in preparation for the writing of our big narrative journalism piece.  It’s an unfortunate and important time to be examining such things with high school students. Where we’d normally examining several models about random topics and attempt to uncover the underlying purpose or persuasive efforts of the author, we found ourselves this year understandably distracted by the terrible news of another school shooting.  

It didn’t at first occur to me to revisit such a tough topic as part of our ongoing study of narrative journalism.

Until I came across a terrifying and powerful article at The Atlantic about what AR-15 bullets do to human bodies.  It was gruesomely written for maximum impact on its readers–a master class in angle if I ever saw one.  While the author is a radiologist not a surgeon, Heather Sher’s intentions as a writer are as sharp as a scalpel.  She describes the results of an AR-15 on the human body thusly: “The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively.”  Having already described wounds from other bullets as nothing but thin gray lines on an X-ray, Sher leaves readers with a jarring realization–and we’re only eight sentences into the piece. Continue reading

Narrative Journalism and the Tricky Power of Voice

A while back, I wrote about the Narrative Journalism unit we teach in my PLC, and about how much I enjoy exposing kids to this lovely blended genre.  Well, as the snow crunched beneath my feet Sunday evening and I stared out across the frozen wasteland of my backyard, wondering how the time of year for that unit had arrived again already, it occurred to me that something had changed a bit since last year.  Something big, and culture-encompassing, and frightening.

And important for students to be prepared for.

So when I got to school the next day, in addition to pulling out the old familiar mentor texts, I dug into my iPad for some notes I’d taken at the NCTE conference back in November and found what I was looking for:  A guide to recognizing fake news.  

Recognizing is a first step–I also hope my modified unit will help my students refute and reject it. Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Fun with Maps

twitter feed

I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get lost in the weeds on Twitter–with all the wonderful educators and pundits and armchair comedians I follow, I can find myself miles from my original feed in just a few retweet-clicks.  Good thing Twitter is full of Brilliant Maps!

Or at least it’s the home of one lovely cartographical (I totally guessed about whether that was a word or not–no spell check squiggle!) feed that I’m excited to add to my classroom for both freewriting activities and some deeper context exploration this semester:  The aptly-named @BrilliantMaps .  This feed is the home of countless wonderful maps that do everything from highlighting current events and hot-button political issues to providing mind-bending perspectives about how we understand the physical (and sometimes psychological) spaces we exist in.

My students love visuals (actually whenever I say “visuals” they hope after the first syllable that I’m about to say “video” but the mildness of their disappointment tells me they like visuals almost as much).  They make for great writing prompts and spur class discussions that might otherwise dwindle after we’d picked apart a news article or story.  The subjects of the maps here are wide-ranging and not always practical, but man do they make for compelling conversation and writing opportunities.

Check out this one:  

brilliant maps adults living at home
image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

I’ve actually had interesting conversations with students the past few years about the topic of living at home with parents after college versus striking out on their own, so this map would be fascinating to show kids and ask them to reflect on.  What factors might have caused the change?  What implications are there for the country or regions of it based on these shifts?  Why would anyone collect this data to begin with?  The mere fact that the information is so unusual compared to the sorts of things we usually encourage them to examine makes it worth our time!

Here’s another favorite.  It reveals how the election would have turned out if “Did Not Vote” represented a candidate instead of just people staying home.  

brilliant maps did not vote

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Look at that map!  People staying home and not exercising their voting rights would have accounted for ALMOST 500 electoral votes!  An amazing stat, but more striking as a visual–especially if you have time to examine why a small handful of states actually have a more active voting population and escape the gray fate of the rest.

One of the coolest things about following @BrilliantMaps though is that it isn’t all heavy and serious.  Some of their maps are playful–and occasionally not really classroom appropriate, so be selective–and others take a crack at visualization just for the fun of mapping things never intended to be rendered into maps.  Like this one!  A map of every character’s travels throughout the first Star Wars film.  Yes they have one for each of the other original films.  Yes I’m going to make you go dig through the feed to see them for yourself.  

brilliant maps star wars

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Maps might not seem highly useful to an English classroom at first blush, but consider the number of skills involved in interpreting one–they carry unspoken and varying degrees of implication and require quite a bit of synthesizing if you want to apply the information they provide to your own view of the world.  And besides, aren’t you already imaging what student-drawn maps of the major characters travels in their independent novels would look like?  

Pretty cool, I’d bet.

If you’re looking for even more cartographical cookiness (that’s a word too!  English is crazy!)?  Check out the utterly impractical but often laugh-aloud funny @TerribleMaps which is exactly what it sounds like plus wildly uneven, but fun follow that might just prove useful every once in a while too.  Like this gem:

terrible maps
–Mike

 

Do you find yourself #tweaching some days? Connect with us on Twitter @TeacherHattie or @ZigThinks. We’d love to know what you’re up to!

Test Prep for Below-Grade-Level Writers

National Leave the Office Early Day!

If you’ve never proctored an extended-time room for one of the big, high-stakes standardized tests as a high school teacher, I don’t recommend it.  And yet I wish every high school teacher could have that experience at least once.  As a teacher who has invested several years in a co-taught English 11 class, I was lucky enough to get that chance a couple testing seasons ago.  It was perspective changing.

The idea of the modification is that for each section of the test, IEP students with certain accommodations are given double time to complete the work.  It’s logical, but for all but two of the dozen or so students I proctored the test for, it was utterly useless and actually worked only to extend their misery:  For each section of the test, the students gave up and closed their test booklets within 15-20 minutes–less than half the allotted work time for a normal test session, in most cases.  

They had internalized a belief that they weren’t going to be successful on a test like that, so putting in all of that time on it just didn’t make sense for them.   Continue reading

Researching the Future

My colleague had a rather weird experience this fall when a recent grad came back to visit.  She was one of those students who barely made the finish line but managed to get herself on a wonderful path to success at a local community college.  These are the sorts of victories all teachers root for, but if you’re a teacher, like me, who teaches entire classes full of learners who are significantly below grade level, these sorts of success stories become especially meaningful.

Which is why my colleague’s guest–and her surprising, unprecedented “news”–became an unexpected warning that led me to revisit my research writing with that exact crew of writers this year. Continue reading

Making Hot Takes Cool Again

In an effort to help pry our writers loose from the death grip of formulaic writing, my PLC went out on a limb last year.  We decided to see what would happen if we let the kids cut loose with their argumentative voices and throw caution (and, to some extent, evidence) to the wind.  

I’m talking of course about that most wonderful of all internet prose, The Hot Take.  If you aren’t familiar, the genre basically entails an excessively strong opinion piece about a hot button issue.  And it doesn’t usually entail much else!  It’s an impassioned, evidence-deficient perspective being shouted from some jagged rock of a blog by some bleating, bloviating pundit or opinionated amateur who just doesn’t have time for evidence, dammit, but if you’d only listen to how LOUDLY he’s shouting then you’d understand how right he is!

They’re delightful to read.  A few respectable voices on the internet have even embraced and defended them.  

Whatever your personal opinion of them, they certainly brought our more timid writers out of their shells.  The results were some of the most personalized and impassioned–and organizationally liberated!–writing we’d seen in years. Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Diction, Syntax, and the Gray Lady

teaching from twitter pic

One of my greatest hopes as a writing teacher is that my students will become conscious of the ways small moves can subtly shift the impact their words have on readers.  Unfortunately, what sounds easy in theory often ends up being cumbersome in the execution.  We discuss the significance of diction and syntax in their writing–one of my favorite mini-lessons is exploring the minefield of connotational problems when choosing synonyms for “beautiful”–but when it comes to closely examining the real impact of tiny moments in writing, I find that our conversations are too few and far between.

When we encounter a particular turn of phrase in a text, we might stop and chat about it, but there’s always something inherently hypothetical about the discussions.  “Why do you THINK this essayist chose such a strong verb?” Or “How would the impact have been different if Coates had chosen THIS phrasing?”  

When it comes to feedback on their own writing, I find such conversations to be far too infrequent as well.  Conferences about small moments and individual moments of phrasing tend to give way to larger-scale concerns like paragraph organization or problematic use of evidence or the like.  

In other words, my kids don’t talk shop about the actual raw power of words and sentences nearly often enough.

Enter Twitter!  Specifically, the fascinating, robotic magic of “Editing the Gray Lady”.  You’ll find this delightfully indifferent twitter feed at  @nyt_diff   . Continue reading

Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

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revision pic

Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

I love this question…although that might be because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  I wish that meant that the forthcoming answer was some magic bullet I’ve discovered, but alas, I’m fairly certain that no such bullet exists.  But there are some magic spells (I don’t like bullet metaphors–so violent!) that I’ve found work at least some of the time.

My overarching advice would be to be willing to cast lots of spells with any given piece of writing–one student may respond amazingly to one approach while another proves impervious to the same strategy.  There’s probably a Voldemort in every class too–that one kid who just doesn’t respond very well to ANY of your magic.   Continue reading