Google it: 3 Ways to Turn Students into Vocabulary Explorers

So, I’m about to make an argument that we should take a cue from Google when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but before you roll your eyes and click ahead to the next post, hear me out for a second:

A few years ago, if I were to use Google as a metaphor for vocabulary instruction, we’d probably be talking about the lowest level of learning when you analyze it with Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’d be talking about running into a word you don’t know, googling it to find a definition, then moving on. Not ideal when we equate that to our vocabulary instruction.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the past few years, Google has become much more than an answer-finding machine. Sure, we can still google a quick answer. But we also use it to compose emails, host virtual meeting spaces, and collaboratively design presentations. Google’s very mode of existing has extended beyond the lowest level of understanding upward through the levels of understanding to help us create.

Vocab SnipEarlier this year, as I was typing away in a Google Doc, I noticed that even their approach to vocabulary is moving upward in its depth of knowledge. Try it: Right click on a word that you’d like to look up. You get two options: define or explore.  

As teachers, we need to take this cue from Google and teach vocabulary with a similar approach. Sure, there are times when we should teach our students to find a definition, but we must also shift our instruction to really explore vocabulary in our classrooms.

How do we teach our kids to be vocabulary explorers?

Continue reading

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But how do you start a unit of analytical writing?

SunshineOne of my colleagues just went out on a limb and had her sixth graders compose graphic essays. I’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t had the nerve; I had a million questions! She gave me her rationale, her goals for the unit, the methods she used to scaffold the work for her students, the final products.

And yet, I still had one more question: “But what words did you say to start this?”

A reader had a similar question for us recently — “How do you start a unit of the kind of analytical writing you advocate for in Beyond Literary Analysis?” —  and it’s a really good question. How do you start? What do you say day one, minute one? What language do you use to communicate to your students what they are about to do — especially when jumping into something as challenging as analysis and as wide-open as Analyze-Anything-You-Want-In-the-World.

Although we spend the biggest chunk of Beyond Literary Analysis providing lessons for your class, we never do address the very first day or what a unit of analysis study might look like. We made this choice in part because it looks very much like the way we proceed in any unit of study (I’ve written about it here, and it gets a whole chapter of Writing With Mentors). Where our mini-lessons typically go, I use mini-lessons on passion, ideas, structure, and authority from the book based on what I think my students need most at that moment.

But I thought it might be worth spending a moment talking just about gearing up and getting going, including the language I use to explain to students what they are about to embark upon when they are writing free-choice, wholehearted, passion-driven analysis.

Continue reading

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

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

Memoir Remix: The Last of the Reading Work

A nice thing about sharing our remix of our Memoir Study here at Moving Writers has been that it’s been very much a reflective act for me. We’ve just wrapped the semester, and some elements of our memoir work came in as the semester ended.

What’s funny about what I’m sharing this time is that this post feels almost like an obligation. See, the pieces I’ve already shared, as well as the forthcoming post about writing memoir, are cool. In my head, I call this kind of stuff “showcase projects” – you know, the ones that make people curious, the ones you can show off easily. The ones that make other projects feel less interesting.

That being said, the final two pieces that I’ll share from our work while reading memoirs are ones that matter to me. When we sat down and discussed the things we wanted students to  explore in reading a memoir, these were definitely things that we felt mattered. Continue reading

5 Reasons Why Analysis Essay & Meeting Your Students Where They Are

saturday well-spent

One tried and true way I choose mentor texts for my students is to strike while inspiration is hot by building assignments from engaging and effective texts that I stumble upon “in the wild.” Like Michael’s series on Teaching From My Twitter Feed, sometimes the best mentors are the ones that find you.

Because it’s nearly impossible to turn off my teacher switch, I knew as I turned the page in my new issue of The New Yorker that I would include Carrie Battan’s “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” as a mentor text in my AP Literature class. My students had been struggling with depth in written analysis, and this text did so many things right, there’s no way it could go wrong.

For some more context and background on why this mentor text, my AP Lit students are whip-smart. They are insightful and curious and down for any activity I plan. They play my reindeer games, if you will. And although they had been making gains in their writing and analysis, I still wanted more—more depth, stronger voice, stronger arguments, more authority.

When I introduced what my students and I have fondly come to call “the Taylor Swift mentor” to my AP Lit students, I saw light bulbs. No matter how often we discussed the hallmarks of mature and sophisticated analysis, it wasn’t until my students got their hands on Battan’s deep dive into Taylor Swift’s new album that they began to understand the finesse of controlled, creative analysis.

We first read this text aloud in class and then pasted each page onto chart paper for group annotations. What I like about collaborative text annotations is the opportunity for students to process together—to exchange noticings and ideas about why the mentor text is…well, the mentor. Because ultimately that’s what it’s about, right? Examining the stitches and seams of the text to get a better, deeper understanding of the writer’s craft.

Here are my students’ major takeaways from “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation”.

Writers of sophisticated analysis…

  • Are conversational but maintain sophistication
  • Seamlessly embed quotations
  • Are intentional about the structure of their argument
  • Pull no punches—defend their analysis even if it is critical
  • Have a purpose and know what they want to communicate to the audience

Now, here’s where the 5 Reasons Why Essay comes in and why I want to stress: you’ve got to meet your kids where they are…

At the time, my students were on the heels of another big paper, at the end of the most demanding novel we’d yet encountered, and we were only a couple weeks out from Thanksgiving break. I knew I wanted my students to have an opportunity to practice what they’d learned from the Taylor Swift mentor, to discuss the novel they’d studied, and to continue to build necessary AP Lit exam skills.

So, 5 Reasons Why Beloved is a Work of Literary Merit was born.

Essentially, I wanted my students to write like Carrie Battan writes about Taylor Swift, but I wanted them to format it like the good folks at Vulture or Paste. So I set out to make “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” our anchor mentor text and  “Every Batman Movie, Ranked” and “5 Reasons Why Jupiter is Weird” our style guide.

Based on my students’ needs and based upon the mentor texts that were most apt, I assigned the following task:

In the style of a pop culture listicle, defend why Beloved by Toni Morrison is a work of literary merit. Students were required to address the following criteria: why the novel is ambiguous, provocative, complex, emotionally challenging, socially challenging.

Admittedly, the listicle style felt like a bit of a risk, but it yielded some of the strongest analysis I’ve seen all year. After having gone on the emotional journey of this novel, and after dedicating ample classroom time to examine the moves of Carrie Battan’s Taylor Swift mentor, and after checking out the “reasons why” listicle style, students were more than ready to write about the literature they’d studied.

Here are a few excerpts of student papers:

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All year we’ve focused on voice, style, and narrating our insights using our authentic voices. This assignment was a reminder that mentor texts are crucial in guiding student writers, but also a crucial reminder that we must meet our students where they are.

How do you determine which mentor texts to include in your instruction? How do you meet students where they are? I’d love to hear from you!

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

 

 

With Apologies to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose: Strategies for Compare/Contrast Writing

Today’s post is from frequent guest-poster Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. You can read some of her other Moving Writers pieces here and here. You can connect with her on Twitter @kellyapace.

“Mrs. Pace, did you hear about Matt Lauer?” one of my students accosted me as I entered the Raider Writing Center, a student-led center for writing help that I manage and teach.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I often feel like I live in a bubble while at school, not knowing what is going on in the world outside of Room 211.

“Check on Twitter. It’s all over that. He’s gone from the TODAY Show because of sexual misconduct charges,” she said. I glanced at my Twitter feed and sure enough, I saw the news: 

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I stepped back, jaw open, stunned like I was reading about my own personal friend. Yet I was. I watched Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show every day as I took care of my first child while on maternity leave. He was my Olympics news source. I lived 9-11, Columbine, several presidential elections, and the War on Iraq through Lauer’s eyes. He looked at me through the television, and I thought I saw honesty and integrity. I marveled that day: If Matt Lauer can’t be trusted, I’m not sure who in our popular culture can.

Later that week, I sat down to figure out how I would introduce the idea of compare and contrast for an essay my IB juniors were writing. I knew my students had done this skill before; I knew they had made plenty of Venn diagrams in their time, so I needed something to really grab their attention. I wanted to teach about how to write a thesis statement for a compare/contrast paper and how to structure the paper so that it doesn’t seem as if they are isolating two subjects. I wanted a more organic and authentic compare/contrast structure for their writing.

Hoping for inspiration, I flipped through a file of mentor texts I recently put aside. Nothing. I trolled the internet. Nothing. And then I got back on Twitter. Matt Lauer was still clogging my feed, and I stumbled upon an article about the similarities among the apologies of sexual harassment cases: “Regret,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Predator’: Analyzing the Apologies of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Others Accused of Sexual Misconduct” Discussing the overlapping ideas between those accused of sexual misconduct, the article was intriguing, as was the cloud of overlapping words in their apologies that the article included:

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I suddenly had an idea. I used the public apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as mentor texts and asked my students to color mark similarities and differences for homework. Students came to my class the next block eager to discuss these apologies. They had no idea they were learning skills of compare/contrast for their upcoming papers, and they couldn’t stop them from discussing (and arguing) all of the ideas they did. We color marked their ideas together, grouping the similarities and differences to the side:

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Most agreed that Harvey Weinstein’s apology was the most sincere while Lauer’s was more emotional. Rose’s showed no growth at all. We also discussed the similarities like how much of the apology followed the same format: make an excuse–say I’m sorry–discuss how I will work on my flaw.

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I then asked students to write a thesis statement that presented an argument comparing and contrasting the three apologies. Here are two from my class that day:

Although Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer recognize that they caused pain and apologize and justify what they did, Harvey Weinstein is more sincere in his apology because he shows commitment to fixing what he did.

 

Although the apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer present a similar pattern, admit learning occurred, and clearly say they are sorry, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more sincere in their apologies.

We discussed the idea that their thesis should be an argument. Such arguments were easy to form because they were interested in the subject of these public apologies and clearly had strong feelings on who was more sincere.

In the end, I used this lesson to teach my students how to write a thesis statement and how to structure their papers for the literary analysis paper they were writing. The results were stunning pieces of writing that were far more organic than if I had them complete a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences. Later that week, I received an email from a parent:

“I just wanted to reach out and tell you how thrilled I am with your lesson on apologies by our public figures…In a day and age where lies are told so frequently, this lesson is so timely and just what all kids need.  We are in the ages of “lie, deflect, lie deflect.”  Thank you for this lesson of sincerity and accountability.  I’ve told my children over and over, sorry needs to be genuine or just don’t say it.  Don’t be “sorry you got caught”; be sorry for your actions.  Thank you for explaining this from someone other than their mother, in a way that is less lecture and more deep thought.”

When planning this lesson, this was not my intention, but I realize now that it added a bonus of teaching students character in writing instruction. Perhaps they would not only learn the structure of a compare/contrast piece of writing, but they also would learn the value of genuine words.
As a final note to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein: My apologies for using your public words as more than just uttered phrases. Yet, they have provided my students with mentor texts on the art of comparing and contrasting, enabling them to make connections and write more authentically in Room 211. For that, I am grateful.

The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Two Timberlakes

Mentor Text: The Selling of Two Timberlakes by Hanif Abdurraqib (via Pacific Standard)

Techniques:

  • Contrast and Comparison
  • Criticism and Analysis
  • Organization
  • Making Connections
  • Using Narrative to Make a Point

 

Background – Full disclosure. It’s taking a lot of self-control to stop me from turning Mentor Text Wednesdays into a Hanif Abdurraqib fan column. I discovered him as a poet first, via FreezeRay Poetry, a journal that focuses on pop culture inspired writing. I read what he shared via Twitter, and snapped up his collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us right away, returning a week later to buy the other copy in the store for a friend. His collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was one of my Christmas book gifts. He’s a powerhouse of a writer, combining identity, race and pop culture in such a way that you are inspired and heartbroken in one fell swoop.

 

This essay happened into my Twitter feed without my knowing it was Hanif’s writing. It was one of those beautiful moments when the subject caught my attention, and when I clicked through, I discovered I was about to read some new work by one of my favorite writers. I love when that happens.

One of the amazing things about Hanif’s work is how he writes about music. He writes about what he loves so passionately, you want to love it too. (Seriously. I am so not Carly Rae Jepsen’s kind of audience, but he’s got me curious.) He’s not afraid to be honest, and say what he actually thinks, but so articulately, and respectfully, making his writing perfect mentor text material for writing about music. When he writes about music, you feel like you’re part of a dialogue, that someone is working to help you understand why he feels the way he does, yet cares what you think, and wants to hear it. I kind of hope my students feel this, and work to answer him back in a manner approaching the way he writes. Continue reading

3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading