Memoir Study Remix: The Broken Piece

One of the best things about the Moving Writers community is the open sharing that happens here, as well as the sharing and discussion that occurs in our Twitter PLN. People ask questions, have them answered, find inspiration and share ideas and resources on a regular basis. It’s quite remarkable, and shows the importance of reflection and revision of what we do in our classrooms.

I’m also blessed to work with an amazing gang of English teachers in my school, and we have a very similar approach in our department.

This makes it much easier to look at something that isn’t working the way you really want it to, and figure out a way to do it better.

For a long time, my Grade 12 students have worked with memoir, reading it and writing it. I am a big fan of reading memoir, and as we focus on a theme of Independence, Identity & Individuality, it’s a natural fit.

But it wasn’t going as well as I had hoped. Our reading of memoir was reduced to a pretty typical essay, and our writing was kind of scattershot, lacking any real focus. These things lay at my feet, and as I finished it last fall, I knew it was time to do it better.

In the next few Friday posts, I’d like to share what we did to fix the memoir study in our classes. Continue reading

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GRIT: A Reflection Protocol for Risk-Taking

GRIT ReflectionAs a Curriculum and Instruction Consultant in my district, when I’m not working with students as learners, I’m working with their teachers. Over the past few years, we’ve been digging into some really hard work. I mean really hard. We’re working on moving away from teaching novels to teaching reading, away from prescribing a formula to analyzing mentors, away from grammar workbooks to grammar in context. Like I said, it’s hard, hard work.

Throughout the process, I’ve come to realize that we as teachers aren’t all that different from our students when it comes to digging into new, hard learning. We come with diverse experiences and understanding, and we learn at different paces and in different styles. And, when something is especially difficult or unfamiliar, it terrifies us. Some brave souls embrace the fear head-on while others avoid it or deny it or deflect it. (You’ll usually recognize that approach when you hear, “but that won’t work with my kids” in the break room.) Most teachers, though, fall somewhere in the middle: willing to try it out, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One teacher bravely confided in me about letting go of control and allowing students to make observations in a mentor text. “Megan, I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff, here.” My initial reaction was to assure her that I, and the rest of her PLC, were there to be her parachute, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that metaphor wouldn’t hold up.

When we’re taking risks, learning something new, making big changes, a swan dive off of a cliff is sometimes what it takes to get things moving. More often, though, what it takes is the kind of grit that gets you to the top of the cliff in the first place.

Now, grit has been an awfully buzzy word lately, and usually I do my best to avoid that kind of buzz. But, in this case, it has helped me to embrace and support risk-taking by encouraging thoughtful, honest reflection that is grounded in learning. The following is a protocol I’ve used with myself and with teachers in my district whenever it’s time to embrace risk-taking and move forward.  Continue reading

F.A.Q. (Or How to Take Ownership of Writing)

Untitled drawing-1

photo via imdb.com

At my school district in Michigan, we’re in the home stretch. Just a few more days of instruction, and then we’ll be on our final exam schedule. So, for this post, I planned to write about creative lessons that will keep your class engaged and fresh throughout these dog days.

 

From my past tense, though, you can probably tell by now that I’ve failed miserably in that endeavor. I’m at that point in the school year where I feel like I’m just barely making it through the school day. Creativity? What kind of crazy pie-in-the-sky teacher did I think I was? I’m trying my hardest just to maintain the basics: confer, revise, read, reflect.

Come to think of it, it’s the basics that have me so exhausted this year. I think it’s because I took on a new challenge this year at our district’s alternative high school. Instead of two semesters during each of which we teach half of a consecutive, year-long course, we teach four terms of non-consecutive classes. So, in the past, at this point in the year, I’d be in my final weeks with kids I’d known since September or, at worst, January. Now, I get a new class full of fresh faces every 10 weeks. I’ve known my current students since the end of April. The end of April! That’s when, as a teacher, I used to return from spring break and state testing, put my feet up (figuratively, of course), and settle in to cruise through into summer. This was the point of the year when I realized I was really reaping the benefits of a well-established classroom culture. Now, it feels like we’re still working on getting to know each other, yet I have to be ready to assess them and send them on to their next step.

Part of the reason why this is so exhausting to me is because I refuse to treat my classes like credit recovery. Instead of powering through content and assignments, I work to establish trust and relationships, notebooks, reading goals, intrinsic motivation, and growth mindset. I love a good ice breaker as much as anybody, but man, this is tiring!

Which leads me to my point: As I gear up for next year, I want to do more (okay, hopefully not more, but let’s say better) in getting kids to own the classroom values. Continue reading

Beyond the Baked Goods: Appreciate Teachers by Supporting Them

Whether you recognize it for a day or a week, it’s that time of year: teacher appreciation. If you’re an elementary teacher, I apologize; you’re probably thinking, “Don’t remind me. I’ve eaten so many baked goods, I feel a little queasy.” Secondary teachers, your eyes may have just bugged out of your head as you thought, “What!? You get baked goods!?”

 

I joke about teacher appreciation celebrations, but they’re important. And they’re well-timed. This is the stretch of the school year that can feel a bit like pushing a Buick uphill

…in the mud

…with four flat tires.

I’m incredibly thankful for everything our community does for teacher appreciation, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we could do better. Don’t get me wrong; at this time of year, a lunch or a coffee cart can seem like a godsend. But, I’d argue that more than appreciation, we need support.

I imagine we could probably get together at one of these teacher appreciation celebrations and lament all day about how we need more support from our legislators and our community. But I don’t know how far we’d get beyond sharing the same concerns. At least not in one conversation around the coffee cart. There is, however, a lot that we can do within our own buildings to move beyond baked goods to support teachers all year long. Continue reading

Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

Continue reading

The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading

Whiteboard Duels: Collaborative Drafting

Collaborative Drafting

In my time outside of school, I often freelance as a speechwriter. My students know this, and when one of my students came to me with the speechwriting scenario of the century, I decided that a whiteboard duel would be perfect for the task.

This particular student is traveling throughout UN member nations researching and speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals. Her task is daunting and the complexity of her mission deserves its own post. However, the speaking portion of her mission requires that she speaks to various groups about her personal connection to these goals and her unique viewpoint as one who has spanned the globe to see these goals in action. In short, she has become a pseudo-expert for the UN, and she has an intriguing need to express her expertise effectively.

In helping this student prepare her remarks, I used a collaborative drafting method called a Whiteboard Duel.

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We began our drafting by answering 3 metacognitive questions: What are you doing? Why does it matter? and Why should other people care?

The Materials

The biggest whiteboard you can find, two or more different colored markers, two erasers, and a timer.

The idea of the Whiteboard Duel is that two or more writers collaborate on a project in real time. In my scenario, my student and I decided to work on a specific portion of the speech, and we set a ten-minute timer. We then set about crafting a speech.

The Process

  1. Set a purpose
  2. Set a timer
  3. Draft

The Rules

  1. For the duration of the timer, talking is not allowed.
  2. Anything can be erased, but it must be replaced with new writing.
  3. Now is not the time for grammar and punctuation edits.

The beauty of this drafting exercise is that it provides two (or more) writers with the explicit authority to revise a collaborative text. While, in the end, this speech will be delivered by my student, and I will have little to no responsibility to it, the in-the-moment drafting gives both writers real ownership.

My words became her words and her words became mine.

Continue reading

#squadgoals or The Importance of Collaboration & Community

Frequently, I seem to find myself with a work related catchphrase, something I find myself repeating in classes, in meetings, and in PD opportunities. It becomes a key part of my philosophy for a time.

This year, I find myself harping on the fact that what we do, as teachers, is a human endeavour. When it comes to our work with our students, especially in the times we live in, this is readily apparent.

However, I feel like we sometimes lose this notion when it comes to our professional relationships. It is far too easy for us to exist in some sort of Fortress of Solitude, sometimes it’s out of our control, yet other times we do this to ourselves.

justice-league

Of course I’m going to use a nerdy picture to talk about teamwork. (Image via iCloud Wallpaper)

I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons this week. Partly, it’s a reaction to what I’m seeing online. My social media feeds are clogged with people who are struggling, with people who are sharing, with people who are questioning… in short, there are a lot of people questioning their role in things, and seeking, or offering, a sense of community in our work.

This is important for me, because my online PLC has become very important to me. It was a great support, and sounding board when I felt that I lacked that in my “real world” professional life. I had changed schools, and although I worked next door to amazing teachers, we didn’t always work as a collaborative unit, as a team. Interacting online fulfilled that need for me. It led me to wonderful communities of educators, like the one here at Moving Writers. People share openly, ask questions and make suggestions, all things that move “the work” forward in ways that just aren’t there when you’re flying solo.

The other thing that’s happening is that my English department has changed. (It’s literally only four people, and I’m the only one who only teaches English.) There are two new people, and we’re currently teaching the same English courses. Our classrooms are right beside each other.

And we’re collaborating like mad! It’s so energizing and engaging! As I type this, we’ve in the midst of all three of us doing the same set of activities that we hashed out around a drama performance our students saw this week. The magic of like minds, sitting around a table, inspiring, challenging and supporting each other is my favorite part of teaching, outside of the actual work with the students. We’re each benefiting professionally, and the material that we’re able to put in front of our students is so much stronger.

So, I close this week thinking about our human endeavour. I work with great teachers who inspire and excite me. I interact with people online, and this happens there too. As this drops, a whole bunch of folks are gathering for NCTE, and my biggest regret about not being there isn’t the cool stuff I’d learn, but the cool people I’d learn it with.

So make a point of engaging in this human endeavour. Talk, face to face, or via some fancy futuristic electronic method. Share, ask, offer and grow. It is all win.

Who’s in your squad? What magical things have you cooked up with your colleagues?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy, and we can expand our PLNs!

-Jay

Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

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Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

Continue reading