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

Mentor Text Wednesday: In Praise of the Secondary Character

Mentor Texts: “In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” – Sady Doyle

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Applying a critical lens
  • Voice

Background:

I am re-reading the Harry Potter series with my oldest daughter. We’re reading the gorgeous illustrated editions. This means that we are now on our second go-round with Chamber of Secrets, as Prisoner of Azkaban won’t be released with Jim Kay’s art until October.

I was a fan of this series as a reader, but as a parent, watching my oldest react with such excitement to Rowling’s tale is a whole other experience. I’m especially proud of how she’s picked up on the fact that Hermione doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets from others, because, as she says, “It’s not fair, Dad. She’s really smart and works hard to help.” Every time she takes her braids out, she struts about, with “hair like Hermione’s”

Which makes her part of my inspiration in my mentor text choice this week. Sady Doyle wrote this great piece which I’ve had in my files for a few years now. If you haven’t read it already, it is a fun piece, assuming a somewhat satirical voice while applying a feminist lens to the Potter series, imagining them as a series dealing with, instead, the exploits of Hermione. Continue reading

Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot. Continue reading

Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading

I Haven’t Forgotten About You: Honors Students and the Summer Reading Essay Anxiety

Amid the torrent of myths about gifted and talented students – they don’t need special attention, they can get the content on their own, they cannot function in a heterogeneous society – lays the accurate claim that, from a socioemotional perspective they can be strong-willed and often aim for perfection. This is a well-researched and well-supported claim, but the writing teachers of gifted and honors students only need to assign a writing exercise to see this in action.

These are the students who revise three, four, and five times. They revise until they are beyond positive that they are handing us their best work. They sit outside our classrooms in the morning because they aren’t thrilled with their conclusion and they wonder if they can come in during lunch to work on their counter argument.

Of course, we do a mental dance (alright, sometimes we just dance right in front of everyone) and we shout, “Yes! Yes, come in during lunch. Come in after school. I’ll cancel my dentist appointment so we can work on the transition between your first and second paragraphs. These cavities can wait!”

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How Mentor Text Study Makes “Big Magic”

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It’s Tony Awards season and I’m writing about magic–of course I have Pippin on the brain!

It was 9:45 on a Thursday night with two weeks left in the school year and I was crying. My eyes welled up as I read a mash-up of Death of a Salesman and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Years after the death of their father, Biff Loman was inviting Happy to join him on a quest for gold. It should not have worked. It should have been ridiculous. But in the hands of one of my quieter students, a writer whose work had slowly but surely improved and grown, month by month, semester by semester, it worked so, so well. Of course the Loman brothers would band together on a treasure hunt! The scene unfolded so beautifully, and the late hour made me feel like I’d stumbled upon one of those once-in-a-lifetime nighttime blooms. It was magical. And so I cried.

Like Rebekah, I found it extra difficult to say goodbye to the Class of 2016. One of the elements of the International Baccalaureate learner profile (and, let’s be honest, any good learner profile) is risk-taking, and these seniors were my risk-takers. Whatever detour or or alternate route I wanted to take, they went along for the ride. I’ve never had a class as game for challenges as this one, so my heart, too, was heavy when they threw their graduation caps into the air a few weeks ago.

This class proved over and over again that teaching with mentor texts WORKS, and nowhere was the truth of mentor text magic more evident than in the seniors’ final projects, creative pieces that didn’t start in a revolutionary place but are inspiring a revolution in my classroom.  Continue reading

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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