March (Madness) to Determine Significance

top-ten

March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard Continue reading

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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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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“Getting to Know You”: Introductions Inspired by Broadway

My last post mentioned Pippin, and now I’m quoting Rodgers & Hammerstein; I had musical theater on my mind this summer because I knew my break would end with a “bucket list” vacation to Broadway, the four-plays-in-four-days kind of trip my Tony Awards-watching teenage self had always dreamed about. The trip was an absolute treat, and it also offered some inspiration for the school year ahead. Silence your cell phones and unwrap your candies: here comes a musical edition of “the first thing” that happens in my classroom.

“I’ve now become an expert on the subject I like most…getting to know you”

Our series this month asks “What is the first thing we want students to understand about writing?” Two of the first things I want my students–especially my freshmen–to understand are that I am excited to read their writing and I want to hear and help them develop their authentic voices. As Anna in The King and I reminds her students “if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” so I try to start the year by providing students with opportunities to teach me about themselves and their needs for the year ahead. These opportunities often come in the form of notebook (or index card) invitations. These invitations are doubly helpful for my freshmen classes, since the first major writing task of that curriculum is a personal narrative. As they introduce themselves to me and the rest of the class, students also begin to mine their lives for great moments to explore in longer narratives. What follows are some musical theater-inspired notebook invitations and writing exercises. Some of them are stage veterans while others are hopeful ingenues. Continue reading

HAMILTON, the Mentor Text

THE NEW YOU

Image via hamiltonbroadway.com

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Hamilton. And by thinking, I mean obsessing. One morning, I was awakened at 4:00 AM by my loving and lively four-year-old, and after some time of trying to fall back into a peaceful summer slumber, the state in which she now rested, I gave in to the sunlight and began my day. My day was to consist of hard-core housecleaning and home organization, the latter, my least favorite of all the tasks on the to-do list.

My husband and children slept on, and I found myself with a few hours of quiet solitude. So, I plugged in my ear buds and got to cleaning. My playlist? The Hamilton soundtrack in its entirety – front to back, top to bottom, in order.

Besides being moved to tears more than once, I felt the way I feel when I’m reading something good, something rare, something special. Like when I read East of Eden last summer after dodging it all those years, or the first time I ever read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” or a William Trevor story. Just sheer force and beauty, so mindblowingly beautiful you can only stand back and watch, slack jawed.

I’m sure you’ve read or seen the many Teaching Hamilton resources. Megan wrote about using Hamilton here on Moving Writers in the spring. And there are some other great ones out there – this one from The Teaching Channel, this from The New York Times learning blog, and this, especially this, from Atlantic Records and Genius.com which includes complete annotations for each and every song. How fascinating that this musical, this story, can now be a part of our classrooms and our students’ learning experiences. How novel and engaging, how exciting and challenging. To borrow a phrase, “How lucky we are to be alive right now” as educators, when hip-hop, history, and story-telling are so readily available and seamlessly blended.

Take for example the opening track: Alexander Hamilton.

The song opens with Aaron Burr’s character posing the overarching question of the play:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

 The lyrics continue, with several characters (who also happen to be important historical figures) delivering lines:

JOHN LAURENS:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder

By bein’ a lot smarter

By bein’ a self-starter

By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

 THOMAS JEFFERSON:

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted

Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up

Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of

The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

JAMES MADISON:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned

Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

BURR:

Well the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”

Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and

The world’s gonna know your name! What’s your name, man?”

ALEXANDER HAMILTON:

Alexander Hamilton

My name is Alexander Hamilton

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait

ELIZA HAMILTON:

When he was ten, his father split, full of it, debt-ridden

Two years later, see Alex and his mother, bed-ridden

Half-dead, sittin’ in their own sick

The scent thick

COMPANY:

And Alex got better but his mother went quick

 GEORGE WASHINGTON and (COMPANY):

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide

Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, somethin’ new inside

A voice saying “(Alex) you gotta fend for yourself”

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

BURR and (COMPANY):

There would’ve been nothin’ left to do

For someone less astute

He would’ve been dead or destitute

Without a cent of restitution

Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord

Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford

(Scammin’) for every book he can get his hands on

(Plannin’) for the future, see him now as he stands on

The bow of a ship headed for a new land

In New York you can be a new man

COMPANY and (HAMILTON):

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man

WOMEN:

In New York

MEN:

New York

 HAMILTON:

Just you wait

COMPANY and (COMPANY):

Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

We are waiting in the wings for you (waiting in the wings for you)

You could never back down

You never learned to take your time

Oh, Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

When America sings for you

Will they know what you overcame?

Will they know you rewrote the game?

The world will never be the same, oh

BURR and (COMPANY):

The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him

(Just you wait)

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom

(Just you wait)

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him

MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:

We fought with him

LAURENS/PHILLIP:

Me? I died for him

WASHINGTON:

Me? I trusted him

ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:

Me? I loved him

 BURR:

And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

COMPANY:

There’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait

BURR:

What’s your name, man?

HAMILTON & COMPANY:

Alexander Hamilton!

 

As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for unique ways into reading and writing about literature. Although it seems “there’s a million things” we could use for classroom instruction here in this first song, for my money, the song Alexander Hamilton serves as an excellent mentor text for writing about a novel’s (or any text’s) critical information and context. It perfectly and succinctly catches the audience up to speed on the first 19 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life, all while establishing themes, revealing character, and foreshadowing future conflicts in the story.

The musical functions as an answer to the question Burr initially poses. How did this unlikely immigrant become one of our country’s most important Founding Fathers?

As a fun and challenging end-novel assessment for this upcoming school-year, I’m going to have students create their own “Alexander Hamilton.” Students will, of course, need to model closely from the original, being careful of rhythm, rhyme, and form.

Here are some sample directions for students:

Your task: Create your own Alexander Hamilton song for any character from the novel we’re studying.

  • Choose a character from the novel we’ve been studying.
  • Identify an overarching question for the character that the novel provides the answer to. For example, this for The Cather in the Rye:

How does a prep-schooled, downer, brother of a kid-forgotten and a writer,

dropped in the middle of a well-trodden spot in New York City,

confused and bemused, grow up to be a symbol and martyr?

  • Determine the critical information from the novel that establishes character and theme.
  • Modeling closely from “Alexander Hamilton”, create a song or rhyming narrative poem that provides your audience with the most crucial information about the character you chose.

You should…

– Begin with the end in mind. (Like Burr’s, “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”)

– Make intentional choices about what characters deliver which lines.

– Have some fun with language, rhythm, and rhyme.

– Include the most prominent features of the song’s form.

– Create a catch phrase and refrain like “there’s a million things I haven’t done/just you wait” for the character you chose.

Besides getting a serious mental workout and having a little fun…

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Mapping: Analyzing a Weird Text

I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey

Night Vale

Image via welcometonightvale.com

Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.

We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”

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The Narrative of Learning Essay: Personal Narrative Meets Literary Analysis

Students have a story to tell. So why not let them tell it as a way in to literature — to walk an idea around to see how far it will go and where else it might lead them?

If your students are like mine, they feel boxed in by their preconceived ideas of academic language (AKA “sounding smart), and they sometimes get stuck in the confines of the formal literary analysis. Rebekah has written some genius stuff about using mentors for literary analysis, and I think she’s on to something.

What I like about professional models of what we might qualify as “literary analysis” is their sophistication, their control, and the authentic and interesting voices exploring some equally authentic and interesting ideas. For students, simply giving them permission to exercise their own, authentic voice in literary analysis can be a game-changer in how they approach and craft this type of writing.

A mentor text I’ve had great success with is a beautiful piece from  The New York Times called “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.” Full disclosure: I have two little girls, who are not so much babies anymore, but during their toddler years, we, like many other parents and their tots, read over and over again the timeless, melodic, sleep-inducing pages of “Goodnight Moon.” Perhaps that’s why I first admired this essay so much, but after introducing it to students as their first ever “narrative of learning” mentor, I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lovely piece of writing.

The Narrative of Learning Essay

Here’s the idea:

The narrative of learning essay is different in both kind and degree. The task is for students to write a deeply reflective essay in which they explore, reveal, and uncover some aspect of the literature being studied.

Students then…

  • Decide what to discover, explore, and uncover about the text.
  • Choose one feature of the text that they find genuinely interesting and worthy of exploration.
  • Write an essay that is, at its core, a mature, sustained conversation about the text, zeroing in on the one feature they’ve decided to explore and what they discover about it.

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Could You Please Repeat That? Showing Students the Effect of Repetition in Writing

Remember that Family Guy bit where Stewie is begging to get Lois’s attention by doing that lovable and annoying and relentless thing children do? “Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mama! Mama! Mama! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mummy! Mummy! Mumma! Mumma! Mumma!”

Of course, Lois replies, “WHAT?!”

Repetition is, no doubt, effective.

Stewie-Lois

Image via barfblog.com

I tell my students often that carefully and intentionally placed repetition can elevate your writing like that (*snaps fingers).

Something I’ve done that pushes students towards this type of intentional and elevated writing is to zoom in on the sentence level and examine the writer’s choices in repetition.

The upshot is that this is a two-birds, one stone approach. Students are required to both analyze the writing, which could tilt towards either literary or rhetorical analysis, and imitate the structure in their own writing.

Take for example these mentor sentences and passages:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.

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Teaching Shakespeare (and Literary Analysis!) with Prompt Books

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 10.50.30 AM

Page of a Prompt Book from Drury Lane Theater production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1763, Source: Folger Digital Image Collection

 

This April, English teachers, Anglophiles, all buddies of the Bard will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Museums, libraries, schools, and theater companies are marking the occasion with special events like the homecoming of the Globe to Globe tour of Hamlet, which will have performed in around 200 countries by the time the company’s journey ends; Chicago Shakespeare’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago; and the Folger Shakespeare Library of Washington, DC’s First Folio Tour, which will bring a First Folio from the library’s incredible collection to every state in the union and Puerto Rico (I’m counting the days until it reaches Wisconsin in November!).

The First Folio Tour is just one of many resources that the Folger has to share with teachers. The library also hosts some incredible professional development workshops and institutes on its campus and around the country. In the spirit of celebrating Shakespeare and writing with mentors, I’d like to share my adaptation of the prompt book, a mentor text-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, close reading, and literary analysis that I learned while attending the Folger’s 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. My seniors recently completed prompt books as a final assessment for our study of Hamlet, and the results were phenomenal.

What is a prompt book?

A prompt book is a copy of a play’s script that has been cut and/or annotated by the director. You and your students can explore historical prompt books in Luna, the Folger Library’s digital image collection. Here is a link to one of the Luna images I shared with my students, and here is a link to a prompt book with directions for Hamlet and Laertes’s swordfight. You’ll notice in these examples that directors have indicated where actors should move on stage, what gestures should be made, how a line should be delivered, or which lines will be cut.  

The Assignment:

After sharing prompt book mentor texts with my seniors, I instructed them to choose a passage from Hamlet that we had not already performed in class and create a director’s prompt book for the passage. Then, I added another “layer” to the prompt book: after making their directorial decisions, students had to explain why they were making those choices (in other words, they had to articulate their analysis of the text).  I asked students to craft the prompt book electronically using tools in Google Docs; students could italicize or recolor stage directions, and they could use the comments feature or a series of paragraphs following the prompt book to explain their directorial choices. Continue reading