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

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Possible Subtitles

Mentor Text: Possible Subtitles by Mari Andrew

Subtitles

Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Analyzing Rhetoric
  • Explaining a quote
  • Pre-writing

Background: If you’re a member of the Moving Writers community, then the work of Mari Andrew is familiar. We’re all big fans, and have been using her work in our classrooms. We’re all probably buying her book this week too. There is something so powerful and real in the honesty and openness that she puts into the pieces that she shares on Twitter and Instagram. They’re wonderfully accessible and inspiring for students, making them some of our favorite Mentor Texts.

Last week, I stole a few phone moments while I waited for my family. As is generally the case when a Mari Andrew post comes across my screen, I flagged it for future use. As I often do, I retweeted the post. (Usually under my #nowherenearmynotebook tag.) As I wrote an accompanying tweet, I realized how versatile this particular image was.

That’s the very best thing about a mentor text, or really anything that we can bring into our classroom – the ability to use it in more than one way with your students. A really good mentor text is versatile, and can be used in a variety of ways. Mari Andrew’s pieces are like that. I’ve used many of them as prompts for memoir writing, but I’ve also used them to explore vocabulary, or as inspirations for other writing pieces. I love using her pieces, because there is a simplicity and accessibility in her work. As I work to encourage students to express themselves visually, her work is an example of how it can look, and that it doesn’t need to be perfect, and that honesty is actually more important than skill. It’s nice putting a piece of art in front of a student, and having confidence they can easily do a version of their own. 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

Taming the White Rabbit and Making Time for Talk

Around this time every year, I start channeling my inner white rabbit.  As of today, I have 3 months until my kids will sit for their end-of-course exams.  If you subtract a half week for mid-winter break, a week for spring break, three days for state testing, and another three for a giant field trip that will take two-thirds of my class, I’m left with closer to two months.

giphy (9)

Image Source: giphy.com

 

There’s no way they’ll be ready. We have so much more to do.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly white-rabbity.

I missed Monday because I was out with a sick kid, and there were rumors of a snow day for today (which came true! YAY!), so the five days of teaching I had planned became three.  I stood in my classroom trying to rethink the day’s plan to cram more stuff in, but, luckily, my gut told me to slow down. My kids were *hopefully* heading into a three day weekend. I needed them to leave excited about their new writing projects and ready to spend a little of their snowy Friday writing.

Generating excitement, though, takes time.

This writing piece we’re starting is the most choice-filled thus far. Some of my kids have an idea and are running with it. Many, though, need some help. I decided to scrap the day’s plans and instead do some purposeful talk about our writing.

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:

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.19.15 AMScreen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.18.49 AMScreen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.17.36 AM

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

 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: A MAD Fold-In Poem

Mentor Text: A MAD Fold-In Poem by Daniel Scott Tysdal

Techniques:

  • Poetic Form
  • Writing Rough Drafts
  • Analysis
  • Visual Presentation

Background – If you read this column regularly, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. I’ve actually made it a professional goal to explore poetry in my classroom with more intent the last couple of years. This means that my Twitter feed is almost saturated with poetry, a stream of sharing from poets and poetry journals. An especially rich feed lately has been that of poet Kaveh Akbar, who regularly posts images or links of poems that move him.

In December, he tweeted a handful of poems from what was then the new issue of Poetry. I did what I do on Twitter, and slapped my personal curation hashtag on them, and made a mental note to peruse that list later. I happened to be at a bookstore that carried Poetry, and bought it, recalling that Kaveh had tweeted some good pieces from it.

Then, I started reading, and flagging poems. One of those poems I’ve already played with in my classroom, and I’d like to share today. My geeky little heart pounded a bit faster when I came across Daniel Scott Tysdal’s poem “A MAD Fold-In Poem.” I remember the MAD Magazine fold-in so fondly. For those who’ve never seen one, the inside rear cover of MAD Magazine often featured this piece, where an image and phrase would form a different, related image and phrase when the page was folded, touching the A and B arrows together. I loved the art, and I loved the bit of satire that this often carried. Sometimes, it read like the punchline of a joke, but more often, the folding revealed some sort of hidden side to the issue being featured in the larger image.

Tysdal’s poem uses this conceit. As you read it, before any folding, you’ve got a poem. The poem ends with a colon, as if more poem is promised. When you follow the instructions, and fold the page, connecting A to B, another line appears, finishing the poem.

What a fun little device to explore. I knew that in January, we’d be exploring social justice issues in two of my courses, creating multigenre projects and zines. This poem was a perfect fit for those.

How We Might Use This Text:

Poetic Form – A funny thing about poetry as a form is that many students have a very set, preconceived notion of the conventions of poetry. They are prepared to rhyme, focus on rhythm, write in strictly numbered stanzas… almost as if they’ve been taught poetry using a checklist.

As a result, I feel compelled to expose them to poems that don’t adhere to such conventions. It seems very important to show them that the conventions are there to be played with. This is a great mentor text for that. The line lengths vary, and lie on the page unjustified. Until they see the MAD fold-in conceit, students are challenged by this. They look for reasons for this poem’s disregard for conventional spacing and left justification. I encourage them to consider why Tysdal made these choices.

The MAD reference went over my students’ head, which was nice. It allowed them to explore the impact of the folding without knowledge that there would be any such impact. After the chorus of “Cool!” and figuring out the fold, the reasons for the justification were made clear. Then, as frequently happens when we write poetry, the focus shifted to word choice.

This form makes word choice very important. The words that start and end many lines of this poem matter. As well, the words that get “lost” in the fold matter too, as they need to build to the line revealed in the fold, but they need to fit in the hiding place behind the fold. Lines can’t be too long, and where they lie must be staggered on the page.

 

image

Kenzie working on her first draft

Writing Rough Drafts – The stress upon the layout of this poem actually pushes us to a drafting process. A specific part of my instruction to my writers when we began this was to start in their notebooks. We took a page and folded it. Most of them began with the line(s) that they wanted to be shown upon folding. We folded our notebook pages, and placed the words that made up that line left and right of that fold. Those pages were unfolded, and they filled in poems around that line. The words that began and ended their lines were already chosen. Words could be moved around in this draft based upon whether or not they were best suited for to begin or end a line. Writing this first draft also gave us an idea of what the poem would look like visually.

 

I also like that they would need to consider the space between the words that remain after the folding. Are they words from every line in the poem, or are there gaps. Are these gaps there for a purpose, to create a pause to slow the reader, and make them think?

Visual Presentation – The visual aspect of this poem loomed large for my writers. They needed to figure out how to set this poem up. We had a number of minilessons talking about the skills involved in achieving the right look. We talked about justification, and the appropriate tech tools to achieve the impact. I was showing them how to find gridlines and rulers to aid in layout.

I like using readily available programs, so this became a tutorial on some features in PowerPoint. To achieve the spacing we wanted, I suggested adding each line as a separate line, allowing for easier shifting of words to the right or left of the guidelines where the fold would create that final line. I love the idea of them having those skills to draw upon as they write other pieces, and need to use the placement of lines and words for impact.

Analysis – I gave my students a bit more instruction than, “Hey look at these! See how they work? Write one!” We discussed the form, and impact, and then I connected it to the work we were doing. I encouraged them to find a quote within the material we were looking at in our research, and reaction to, global issues and social justice topics. This quote was to be what the fold would reveal.

We had great discussions about how we could do this. The poem could leads to the quote as a final line, building context. What if the poem deconstructed the quote. If the quote were a lie, or questionable statement, then the poem could question, or challenge the quote. This proved popular, and allowed many of my writers an access point to their writing. We also had a great discussion about how this changed the impact of the fold-in, almost as if the truth behind the quote were hidden, and then revealed – such a symbolic gesture.

These global issues related projects were semester ending pieces, but as we wrote them, I could see other analytical uses for these poems. Much like The Golden Shovel, they could be used as a means of literary analysis and expression. Instead of the words from the existing source ending each line like The Golden Shovel, they could alternate between beginning and end of lines.

This poem encourages a lot of the things I think matter in a writing task. There is an opportunity to play, and be creative. There is a structure that exists, which can be used to support writers who need to have that comfort. It makes word choice matter. It can be simple, and challenging. It can be used as a tool to explore ideas. They are very cool when they’re completed, which makes the writer proud. If that happens, it’s pretty much a win, right?

What have you taken to class lately almost immediately after discovering it? Did it work out as well as you’d hoped? 

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

 

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Fun with Maps

twitter feed

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

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

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

Check out this one:  

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

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

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

brilliant maps did not vote

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

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

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

brilliant maps star wars

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

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

Pretty cool, I’d bet.

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

terrible maps
–Mike

 

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

Tackling IB Literature Papers I & II: Test Prep Without Test Rep

IB exams begin in early May, and I’m a teacher who loves to settle into a discussion when the ideas are good and they just keep coming, so if you asked my students to identify an external conflict in the drama of senior year of IB Literature, they would say “Ms. Jochman vs. the calendar.” How many times have I shook my fist at the clock just the class was close to an analytical breakthrough? Too many to count.

Since my seniors have to take all of those great talking points and eventually share them in two written exams, one of my biggest challenges when teaching IB is figuring out how to balance literature study with writing study. In a course that’s one month shorter than anything else I teach.

In the past, I’ve fallen back on assignments or on-demand writings that mimic the two exams my students will take: a commentary on an unseen piece of prose or poetry and a comparative analysis of two works in the same genre. All of that mimicry and repetitive testing can get tedious, however, and it doesn’t offer students the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles or develop their own writing voices. How, then, can I help my students develop the critical thinking and writing skills they will need without all of those drills? Below are some of the options I’ve tried and a few I’m challenging myself to try this year. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Talking About a Text That Matters to You

Mentor Text: What Static Shock Meant To Me As a Young Black Boy by Jaylen Pearson

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About a Text
  • Applying a Critical Lens
  • Highlighting an Impactful Moment
  • Writing an Introduction

Background:

My Grade 12 course is tied to a theme based around identity, individuality and independence, which we call The Three Is. As a way of exploring these things, we read and write a lot of memoir based stuff. Since I let my own biases take the wheel at times, we often do this through the lens of pop culture. When I think of how deeply things in my world have been impacted by Star Wars and rock and roll, it just seems like a natural fit. Take into consideration the role that pop culture plays in our lives now, and it just makes sense.

 

static-shock-season-two-dvd-release

Image via Den of Geek

As a result, my social media feed is a cornucopia of teaching and the things I love, creating all these gorgeous confluences of work and play – my favorite thing to bring into my classroom. For example, this piece about Static Shock came across my feed, and I got excited. I never watched the show, though I was aware of the character’s origins in the comics. I grew up in a rural area, with pretty limited exposure to diversity, and that line of Milestone Comics was an interesting glimpse into a different world for me. (Milestone Comics was an independent imprint distributed by DC Comics that focused on minority characters, as they were underrepresented at that time.) As time has passed, I have come to appreciate how much those comics, the characters and stories must have meant to people. This will be the appeal for many in using this particular mentor text.

 

It is also a fine example of writing about how a text matters to you personally, which, in our classrooms, is a thing we want students to be able to write about. Continue reading

“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