5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

5 Things Your Students Can Learn From Blogging

This year, my AP Literature students had the opportunity to participate in a poetry blog share with students from other AP Lit classes across the country (shout out #aplitchat squad!). I liked the idea of this writing opportunity from the get go for several reasons—students would have an authentic audience, sharpen their critical reading skills, have the opportunity to see how other students develop insights about complex texts, give and receive feedback, and have a long-term, self-directed writing opportunity.

But what appealed to me the most? The chance to turn my kids loose to write in the wild. Recently, Hattie wrote about growing independent writers through blogging and Tricia put her finger on the many ways blogging is both powerful and useful. And this week my friend Brian wrote about the ins and outs of his blogging unit.

To tailor to my students’ needs, my poetry blog requirements have remained simple and flexible: Student blog posts must analyze a self-selected contemporary poem. Easy enough, right? Right. But there’s a ‘but.’

Our quest this year has been to narrate our ideas, insights, and conclusions about literature in our own unique and authentic voices—aiming always towards engaging, effective, sophisticated, and intentional writing that is conversational (but not a conversation), and offer readers not just proof of reading, but a depth of analysis that is interesting and thought provoking.

It’s a tall order, I realize. But that’s why student blogs are awesome. It gives students a chance to practice writing in a virtually fail free zone, and they learn important lessons not just about reading and writing, but themselves as writers and what it takes to craft engaging, effective writing. But the freedom of blogging is what makes this type of self-evaluation and practice possible.

My students have embraced this, too. I love the message of Ashton’s headline.

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Here are 5 things your students can learn from blogging. (I know, because I’ve learned them, too.)

  1. Voice and style 1

Think of blogging as the anti in-class essay.

Of course, you can focus student blogs on any topic, theme, or style to meet any academic purpose, but for me, blogging frees my students from the constraints of what they believe assigned essays should sound like.

For starters, there’s no official rubric or handbook, the style is incredibly familiar, and the pressure of page length is off. Because blogs offer students creative control of layout and themes, it’s this same ownership that encourages not just a unique layout but a considered style and voice in their writing.

My students are discovering over time that who you are on paper is who you are, so they strive to show how interesting and intelligent they are with the voice and style of their writing.

 

  1. Mentor text habits of mind2

It will come as no surprise to you that every author I’ve heard speak this year has this one thing in common: all of them read. They have influences and mentors and other writers they aspire to.

The beauty of mentor texts is they’re all around. In our blogging project, students have taken cues from mentor texts we’ve studied in class, but just as importantly, they’ve paid attention to the writing of others, both professional and non. They’ve assessed what works, what doesn’t work, and what makes for an interesting and engaging post. And blogging provides them a safe space to play with different craft moves they might not try in class.

This risk-taking and awareness is difficult to teach. So the prize goes to blogging.

 

  1. Quality control3

Last month as I was drafting a post for WVCTE, I knew I was writing something that I was going to be proud of. Conversely, I’ve written plenty of posts where I’ve left it and let myself feel quite the opposite — sometimes a tinge of disappointment or even a cringe. My students are learning this, too.

Because of our blogging project requires students to comment on one another’s posts, my kids are learning what kinds of topics, format, analysis, and style elicits comments from their readers. My students are learning that depth of thought, voice, and authenticity win over their readers far more often than fancy formats or photos.

I hope my students are discovering the awesome balance of professional and personal in their writing. That yes, they write for their audience, for me, for the grade and the assignment, but that their work and their writing is far more satisfying when it’s writing they can be proud of.

 

  1. Audience awareness4

Speaking of readers, how great is it that blogging offers students an opportunity to be published writers? My students have shared their posts on social media, tweeted them at the poets who penned the poem they analyzed, and even extended their blogging into personal topics, as well.

What I like most about giving students a real, living, and available audience (who isn’t me) is the intrinsic drive to craft quality writing.

 

  1. Writing on a deadline5

Students are used to copious due dates and deadlines in their academic lives. Teachers, of course, live by deadlines as well, the bells signaling us constant reminders of what we need to do and when. But writing on a deadline? That’s its own animal.

I realize I’m going to contradict myself with Quality Control, but sometimes, you just have to crank out the words and get the job done. This is a fitting lesson for my seniors who are so close to crossing the threshold into demanding college majors.

I’ll thank blogging once again for reminding my students of the grit it takes to meet your deadlines and get the job done the best way you can.

 

Are your students blogging? I’d love to have you tell me more about it! 

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

 

 

 

 

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3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

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

6 Authentic Alternatives to the Book Report

6 authentic alternatives to the

I have inherited a legacy of book reports.

Every quarter for eons, students in my school have written book reports. And, for whatever reason, parents in my community are rumored to be enamored with book reports — they are somehow a mark of a rigorous writing curriculum. So, while I work on a grand re-education project, I’ve been looking for ways to check this box for parents while doing what’s best for student by providing opportunities for authentic writing experiences.

Why the Book Report Anyway?

Book reports fill an important hole in students’ K-12 writing experiences; it fills a gapQuote (1) between simple comprehension-driven plot summary in the primary grades and literary analysis in high school. They sit in the gap, offering students a chance to recap the plot (thereby verifying their comprehension) with some add-on reader response, getting them closer to the how and why of analysis.

So, what’s wrong with it?

It’s not authentic. You can’t open The Atlantic and find a book report. And if a type of writing doesn’t exist out in the world, it shouldn’t exist in our classrooms.

If writing is going to matter to our students, authenticity has to be our cornerstone.

6 Authentic Alternatives

There are authentic alternatives — texts created by professional writers and thinkers that do more than a mere book report but stop shorts of serious literary analysis. Some require very little actual writing but require the same thinking and rehearsal as a more formal piece of written text. Others require multiple pages of written text. You know what your students are ready for. And you know how to scaffold for them.

Maybe you move from non-written to written responses to literature over the course of the school year? Maybe you create smaller writing groups and assign each one a different product based on their  needs. Perhaps you present all of these as a menu of options they choose from a few times over the course of the year.

Sketchnote

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Beyond Notebook Time: The Journal Explode Essay

Beyond Notebook Time_ The Journal Explode

With thanks to guest contributors

Kevin Mooney, rumored to be the inspiration for the teacher John Keating replaced, he is a lead teacher at North Hagerstown High School in Washington County, Maryland and is in his 22nd year in education. 

Liz Matheny, AP Language and Composition teacher in Frederick County, Maryland. (Check out a great mentor text post from her here.) 

Each day to begin class, we journal. We journal because journaling is useful. We journal because it is a low-pressure opportunity for my students to share their thoughts, feelings, and observations about a text, a topic, an issue, or an image. We journal to connect to a character or anchor a big idea, and we journal to set the table for the day’s instructional menu. We journal because it’s fun and gratifying. We journal because Kelly Gallagher says students should write four times more than what we teachers can grade. Journaling is useful.

But where do these journals go? Some years, I’ve asked students to write, rest, repeat, and let this daily exercise stand on its own as writing calisthenics. Some years, I’ve collected journals and asked students to tag entries they’d like me to read and respond to. Other years (including this one), I spot check journals in class and invest time in the important discussion and sharing of ideas that ensues after our “on the clock” writing time.  

But the best, most effective, most bang for your buck expansion of in-class journaling?

The Journal Explode.

What is a Journal Explode and how does it work?

I’ll let my teaching mentor and Journal Explode creator, Kevin Mooney, explain…

For years, I didn’t assign many in class essays for two main reasons: students didn’t write well and reading over 100 essays devoted to the same prompt was grindingly boring. So I didn’t assign essays except for the required “full process” or “research essay” or as an option as an end-of-unit or alternate assessment. Unsurprisingly, not assigning essays didn’t make the essays I got any better.

But I knew that I was taking the easy way out. And I knew that writing made writing easier for students. So I created what I called a “journal explode.”

Here’s the idea: every day we do a journal entry. By the end of the week, students choose whichever journal they’re most interested in, tickled by, etc. and turn it into a full process essay and turn it in on Friday. Students write their journal entries in composition books. (This was, at the time, important to me, because I wanted students to be able to have an almost “flip book” sense of how their writing was improving as we wrote more and more.)

With the new system, if a student wanted, he could take the journal entry from Monday and “explode” it into a full process essay Monday night and be done for the week. Or she could wait until Thursday night and choose from the week’s worth. Or he could go back into the archives of journal entries from weeks past and choose one of those to write about. Or she could revise and recast and rewrite a previous Journal Explode.

I could require or encourage students to try to apply concepts we’d covered during the week – participial phrases, for example – as part of the assignment. I could look at all the essays and start seeing patterns of students’ strengths and weaknesses: they’re not varying sentence structure; they’re using a particular phrase too often and needlessly (in my opinion, though other people might disagree, I still think that…). We’d do mini lessons using student examples to clean and recalibrate.

And grading? That bugbear? I found I could get through all my classes in a couple of hours because there was lovely variety and real earnestness in their essays. They’d chosen a topic they really dug (“Should Iron Man be allowed to keep his suits? Defend with readings, observations and experiences,”) and which they were more or less excited to write about. I’d give a holistic grade: check, check plus, check minus, the rare zero. I’d spend time not so much correcting (though I did that, too) as making positive comments whenever possible. And all the while, looking for patterns in their writing and planning my week’s writing activities.

By the end of the year, my students had written at least one essay a week. More than they had probably written in all their other classes. Combined. Ever. They were no longer intimidated by essays. But it was really all them and their efforts and their work and their writing. And, I hope, essays became for them what they were for Montaigne and which we all intend them to be: unpacking and developing your thinking on paper in surprising, idiosyncratic and impressive ways.

Journal Explodes and Current Events

Liz Matheny also uses Journal Explodes to much success in her AP Language and Composition class. Click here to read all about her process. But in the meantime, read the highlights below beginning with a few examples of successful journal prompts from her classroom:

Journal: Starting January 1, everyone in France over the age of 15 became an organ donor unless they “opted-out” in the country’s refusal program. Every day 22 Americans die while they wait on the transplant list. What should we consider ($SEEITT) about organ donation?

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: America should change from an opt-in system to an opt-out system.

Journal: The number of 18- to 35-year-olds seeking prenups is on the rise nationwide, but many millennials are more interested in protecting intellectual property — such as films, songs, software and even apps that haven’t been built yet — than cash.

Defend, Challenge, Qualify: Prenuptial agreements should only cover physical or monetary property.

Some days I will simply use [an AP Language] Q3 prompt we do not have time to actually write in class. My students have no idea that it is a prompt, so it is a good way to help them see how the daily journals connect to the exam and their ability to craft meaningful, nuanced arguments on the spot.

Once a month my students select a journal and “explode” it into a full argumentative essay. I do not require a specific number of paragraphs, but I often assign them specific rhetorical moves and techniques to try out as they go (anaphora, epistrophe, staccato sentences, etc.).

I love this easy-to-implement daily writing because it helps me focus on argument development every day. It also serves as a formative assessment which ultimately leads to a summative assessment. Our daily discussions create a strong sense of community as students often develop beliefs and find their voice about global topics many of them wouldn’t encounter until they graduate or become adults.

Journal Explodes and Blogging

And finally, here’s how I incorporate Journal Explodes in my class.

I choose my journal prompts based on student need. Some days, we dig into a passage from our text, other days we examine mini mentor texts to spark inspiration. Sometimes we play with language or talk about what’s on our minds, and sometimes we examine a big idea that exists in our literature and in the world. Day after day, students use this time to strengthen their thinking, explore their voices, and just…practice.

That’s the fun part — any idea is fair game and the outcomes are flexible.

Like the original assignment, I ask students to expand upon one of their in class journals and turn it into a developed piece of writing. But this year, we’ve gone digital. I’ve moved my students’ Journal Explode experience to Weebly blogs, giving them agency and audience.

Here is one smart cookie’s Journal Explode blog on a childhood memory from our introductory journals to To Kill a MockingbirdAnd check this one out to see a student really explore and challenge his thinking about dark and offensive memes. (Special thanks to Katherine B. and Revan B. for allowing me to share here.)

Although we’re in the beginning stages of blogging, and though there will likely be missteps along the way, I believe blogging is an awesome platform and opportunity for my students’ journal writing and “exploding” to go live somewhere beyond their notebooks and out into the world. 

In what ways might you adapt the Journal Explode assignment for your classroom? We’d love to find out!

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

-Karla

How to Make Blogging a Core Practice in Your Writing Workshop

A few months after Rebekah and I started Moving Writers in 2015, I knew blogging was something I needed to bring into my classroom. I was undoubtedly behind the curve — lots of teachers I knew were already blogging with students, and every year at NCTE, I circled multiple blogging sessions in my program but never attended them. 2015 was going to be the year.

But I struggled. Only two years into using the writing workshop approach, I was still trying to find my rhythm — the perfect balance of depth and breadth. Writing studies took a long time, and I was trying to fit 6-8 studies in over the course of the year. In addition to these studies, how would I be able to successfully integrate blogging into the classroom? How could I make it MORE than a single writing study without sucking all our writing energy and precious time? Could I make it a core practice in our workshop — one that could magically run itself?

It took me a few tries, but last year I feel like I finally got into a groove with my eighth graders. Here are some considerations for making blogging a core practice in your workshop: Continue reading