“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

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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…

Continue reading

A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

#socialmediaday

Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

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Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

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Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner). 

 

 

All the Culture Wars We Cannot See

I was browsing my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon one of those little wars that sometimes erupt on social media.  They’re usually small and self-contained, but if you’ve got an hour and a bowl of popcorn they can be terribly fun to watch.  

This one happened to be about a lovely little arthouse theater in Austin that had dared to set up women-only screenings for the upcoming release of Wonder Woman.  I know; how dare they, right?  

Cries of “reverse sexism” were instant, followed immediately by the counter-volleys from enlightened guys and gals making fun of the fragile egos of the men so affronted by a film screening they weren’t invited to.  

Like I said, a lovely sight to behold!  It got me thinking, though, about how rapidly culture conversations shift–and what that means when we try to help our kids consider their context for writing.

And once you get a teacher thinking about a topic, he’s going to want to have students write about it.  And if he’s going to have students write about it, he’ll probably want to make sure they understand it first.  And if he has to figure out how to help them understand it, he’ll probably get hungry for some pancakes.  

Or something like that… Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Say Something Nice

Mentor Texts:

The Say Something Nice series at Birth.Movies.Death

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Counterargument
  • Tone and Voice

Background – Our students consume a fair amount of pop culture. They’re able to budget their time in such a way that they’re consuming media at an insane pace, binge watching like mad, and watching everything Netflix has to offer in their favorite genre.

So, it stands to reason that they watch a lot of crap.

When we’re talking about these things, at some point during the bashing, I make a point of pointing out that the things we hate the most are someone else’s absolute favorites, and vice versa. It kind of blows their minds, but it highlights a point I really want them to think about as consumers of media, as participants in work with texts of all kinds – there is good in the bad.

As a fan of pop culture, and as a teacher of literature, it’s second nature for me to note the positive aspects in things. I’m either justifying my investment in entertainment, financially, my time, or looking for the teachable moments in a piece. It’s a practice I enjoy personally, but it’s also a thing I think is important for my students to adopt as well. I want them looking for golden lines, magic moments and things that they enjoy, even if the text they’re in stinks. Continue reading

A Late Night Mentor Text

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Argument in the Wild: Reading & Writing from Media-Rich Texts

The idea that “everything’s an argument” seems almost too obvious these days. After all, talk to almost any adolescent today and it’s clear how aware they are of the ways in which they are constantly being persuaded, whether it’s an editorial from the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, the latest newscast from CNN or The Daily Show, or the pop-up mobile ad for an item students were browsing earlier.

That said, we all know that as tech and media-savvy our Generation Z students seem to be, students may still lack the close reading, analytical skills necessary to understand not just that they are being persuaded, but how that persuasion is happening. And because “everything’s an argument,” the sheer volume of messages can be overwhelming.  Continue reading

Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

THUG

image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

Annotated Intentions (and Why They’ll Change the Way You Grade)

I’ve spent years searching for a fair-minded approach to grading that demands accountability but also doesn’t crush student spirits when products don’t turn out well.  

I’ve definitely been given the “hard grader” label over the years, but students have also mostly agreed with my observations when it comes time to conference.  Our district writing rubric is clear and concise, and since students are familiar with it we can have conversations using common vocabulary.  I would venture to say that most of my students are not surprised by the grades they earn.

I did once have a student respond to my feedback by shouting, “Ah, fiddlesticks!” but I consider him an outlier…

Despite being generally happy with my approach to grading and encouraging a growth mindset in my writers, I’ve still sometimes wound up frustrated with myself, or with the firm language of a rubric that feels fair until those peculiar moments when, on a particular paper, it suddenly doesn’t.    

One of the most effective remedies I’ve discovered is the practice of pre-annotation.   Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

logan-trailer-700x300

A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally  got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading