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

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

#socialmediaday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Adapting Mid-Stream: A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School

One of the very best parts of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with inspiring educators across the country. This week, we are sharing a two-part guest post from Cincinnati teacher Beth Toerner (btoerner). We connected this year through a mutual professional friend and spent months corresponding about her 8th grade classroom and her desire to move them toward more authentic writing experiences and products. What you will read today and on Wednesday represents one of those experiences that changed the shape of her classroom and her students’ writing lives. Not only are Beth’s experiences and student work amazing, but so is her reflective spirit and willingness to change her plan mid-stream when she realized her students needed something different. Something more. We are SO excited to share this with you.  – Rebekah

#socialmediaday

Last year, I started using essential questions to help my students connect our whole class novels through a focus on universal human issues. This year, I attempted to transition these questions into literary essays about the topics using mentor texts as guidance. My plan did not unfold as I imagined, but the course it took produced more authentic and thoughtful writing than I have seen from my eighth graders all year. In the following posts, I will work through the steps that this process took in class and share what we learned along the way.

Overview:

Whole class reads: Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do differences make us uncomfortable?
  2. What is empathy? Why is it an important human characteristic?
  3. Why is it important to be connected to others?

Before reading, students write short, informal responses to these questions to get them thinking about the ideas. During third quarter, we read the texts above in the order listed, frequently circling back to our essential questions for discussion and reinforcement of the guiding ideas.

After we had read all three pieces, we did an activity to help students specifically connect their thinking about these questions to text-based evidence from the pieces that we had read together. This activity (Allison’s brainchild), called “Inside/Outside Brain,” required students to organize their “inside brain thoughts” by writing them inside a giant face and the matching them to their “outside brain” supporting evidence. I modeled on the board and they wrote in their writer’s notebooks.

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After completing this activity, my goal for students was to write a literary essay in which they responded to one of our three essential questions in a lengthier, more detailed response. I planned for them to use our common texts (Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl)  to support their thinking. It seemed like I had it all in order: I gave them questions to help them trace the development of ideas as they read, we brainstormed examples together, and I had three wonderful mentor texts to help them discover ideas for crafting and organizing masterpieces.

However, as my students brainstormed ideas, I started to feel uneasy. Although my students were doing a perfect job sharing examples to support our essential questions, like the idea that Stargirl’s shunning at Mica High School and its impact on her emotional state showed the importance of human connection, I also noticed that they were eagerly sharing examples from books we had read in seventh grade, as well as books they had read on their own. Would requiring them to write about the three texts that I had chosen squelch their creativity? Would limiting them to one of three teacher-generated questions limit their thinking?

I took some time to reflect. My students were doing something much more important than what I had planned for them: they were thinking beyond our classroom lessons and analyzing the impact that reading has had on them throughout their lives. And of course, each student had a unique experience with reading. Different books, different life experiences, different lessons gleaned. I needed to create an assignment that allowed them to express these thoughts.

So, we changed the plan. I told my students that their ideas had changed my idea, and we started with a new assignment: a literary essay that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” We were able to use the same mentor texts that I had originally planned, and in fact, they were a more natural fit for this piece than for what I had previously developed. We centered our study around three mentor texts:

“Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”

“Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later”

“How Judy Blume Changed My Life”

Each of these mentor texts has its own strengths in modeling the writing that I wanted my students to do. I was looking for writing that showed a deep understanding of literature but also shared a more personal element; I wanted students’ essays to have a conversational tone that zoomed in on a discussion of the subject (a book, author, or characters) through a very personal and reflective lens.

The first mentor text with which we worked was “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”. This text functioned well to start this project; its length was accessible, the highly structured list format gave both an approachable model for organization, and it was a jumping off point for a brainstorming activity.

First, we read the article as a class and had a quick discussion of the general plot and themes in Catcher itself. Even though my students hadn’t read it, the fact that it focused on universal lessons made it accessible. Next, we made a list of what we noticed as writers. My students noticed all kinds of stuff:

  • The article has a short introduction that explains why the author wrote it
  • The author made a list of five life lessons the book can teach
  • Each lesson is followed by an explanation that uses an example from the book
  • Each explanation is followed by a direct quote from the book that supports the example
  • The sections a numbered and each life lesson is in bold
  • It goes from universal —> more specific (explanation from the book) —> very specific (direct quote)
  • Each item on the list has the same structure
  • Even though it’s about a specific book, the lessons apply to everyone

I thought that this structure could be a great one for my students to imitate in their own pieces of writing, as the outline was clear and consistent. But first, I gave students a chance to collaboratively practice some of the thinking it would take to get there. I gave them some time to brainstorm other “Five Things ____ Can Teach You About Life” lists in their writer’s notebooks. Then, I had students get together in small groups to share their ideas. They chose one idea for a list and wrote it out on the giant sticky notes that I have in my room. They came up with a range of ideas, some of which drew on our preceding essential question work, and some of which did not:

  • Five Reasons Differences Make Us Uncomfortable
  • Five Things Reading Can Teach You About Empathy
  • Five Things Realistic Fiction Teaches You About Life
  • Five Things Book Can Teach You About Connections
  • Five Things Stargirl Can Teach Us About Human Connections
  • Five Ways to React After Losing Someone Close to You

After they made their lists, I armed them with normal-sized sticky notes and had them circulate the room, reviewing the lists that other groups made. Their job was to put at least three sticky notes on other groups’ posters showing examples from our common texts that supported one of the reasons on the list.

Here are some of the final products:

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.34.22 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.34.29 AM

 

Although my students used this as a jumping off point for essay writing, this activity itself served as a collaborative way to review common themes among our three class texts. In the future, I think it would come in handy as a way to review at the end of a novel unit or practice writing “Listicles,” which seem to have taken over the internet these days. Later this week, I will be back to share how we moved from these lists into polished literary essays.

You can connect with us by leaving a question or comment below, finding us on Facebook, or Tweeting Beth @btoerner! Stay tuned Wednesday for Part 2 of her series! 

Fostering Reflection in Narrative Writing

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Today’s guest post is from Liz Matheny (@matheeli)

I like to open and close the year with reflective, narrative writing. I do this for two reasons: to help my students explore themselves and their experiences, but also to help them see the growth in their writing. One of my favorite ways to do is to have my students reflect on personal change through the lens of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”.

Becoming an adult is tricky, especially for my juniors and seniors. They have one foot planted in adolescence, but want the independence and confidence of adults. That duality is exactly why White’s essay works so well with older high school students.

Just like my students, White yearns for summer. He recalls sweet memories of vacationing at a lake in Maine every August with his family. He recalls the sights, the sounds, the little intricacies one only notices in the sweltering heat summer solitude. Eventually his nostalgia gets the best of him and he revisits the lake as an adult with his son. White’s new experience–visiting the lake as an adult– is all consuming. He tries to enjoy all the things he once did as a boy, but realizes he no longer fits in. It is his son that must enjoy the subtle nuances of this magical place.

When I introduce the essay to my students, I give very little context other than they probably know E.B. White as the writer of Charlotte’s Web. I request that as they read they mark up their noticings. What moves does White make that make the essay work?

Once they finish reading, I see students caught up in their own daydreams, lusting for summer or the past. I ask them to form a small group (no more than 4 people) and share out their noticings. I want them to talk it out and pick up on noticings they may not have recognized.

After their 5-minute conversation, we compile a class set of noticings on the board.  As they share their noticings, I request that they add noticings from other groups to their own annotations. As they contribute various noticings, I ask them to explain the impact of that move on White’s essay. How did it impact the reader’s experience?

Here’s a sample of what my 6th period class noticed:

  • Varied sentence structure and lengths (to create intensity and emphasize certain emotions).
  • Repetition (to create rhythm)
  • The use of contrast (to help the reader see his “a-ha” moment)
  • Tone shifts (to contrast before and after)
  • Imagery (symbolism of lightning; keen attention to detail and description)
  • Duality of experience (past vs. present comparison)
  • Organization: before/after, past/present, compare/contrast (to show his own growth and awareness)
  • Concluding recognition (the realization his experience at the lake will never be the same and he will have to live through his son’s experience)

I then ask my students to talk within their groups and select the three or four most meaningful moves White makes. We reconvene, and the groups discuss and whittle away at our master list. My mod 6 determined these moves as the most significant, meaningful moves:

  • Varied sentence length
  • Detail & description
  • Repeition
  • past/present organization

We spend a few minutes talking about what they liked about the essay: their favorite lines, if they could relate. I share some of my favorite lines (“…sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”).

I close our conversation by talking about the reflective nature of personal narratives. How these essays often reflect human nature and experience more authentically than any other form. Then, I give students the following prompt:

Use White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a mentor text for your own reflective narrative.

  • Incorporate at least 3 of White’s moves that your class selected.
  • Pick an approach:
    • Tell about an occasion when you revisited a place that you no longer “fit” into.
    • Consider a belief you once had that changed or developed. Tell about the experience prompted the change?

My students spend the rest of class brainstorming and writing. I encourage them to go back to White’s essays frequently to study the moves so they can play in their own writing. I tend to give them about 48-hours to compose their narratives.

Over the next two or three class periods, we work on the essay by re-reading White’s moves and sharing their writing with one another. They label the top of their essays with the moves they incorporated in their own essays. This helps their partners give feedback about the success or limits of how the move is used. They consult their copies of “Once More to the Lake” again and again, deeply analyzing how White’s moves function. They compare White’s writing to their own and their peers’. They see how they’ve used the same moves similarly, or in unique ways.

Our final step is to use White’s title as inspiration. Over the years I’ve read essays entitled  “Once More to the 1st Grade Classroom”, “Once More to the Church”, “Once More to the Soccer Field”. Just as my students learn so much about themselves and each other through this process, I also learn about them, too. I learn about their experiences as people, but I also get to see my risk-takers when it comes to writing. I get to see who put themselves out there and who kept guard. I get to know them as people and as writers.

Teachers (especially high school teachers!)  love “Once More to the Lake” — how have you used this text to spark writing in your classroom? Are there other texts you use as mentors for reflective narratives? Leave us a comment below! 

The Wonder of Whipstitch: Poetry as Literary Analysis

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We are delighted to share a guest post today from middle school teacher Elizabeth Oosterheert. You might remember her from a post earlier this year! You can connect with her on Twitter @oosterheerte. 

Ah, spring. It’s that vibrant time when my “garden” of students begins to blossom beautifully, and the seeds planted earlier in the year stretch toward the sun as students gain a stronger sense of voice and begin to take more ownership of their writing. That’s the sweetness of seasons changing.

Another end of the year splendor is celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and flowing into May with more reasons than ever to incorporate poetry into my writing workshop. After reading Karla Hilliard’s post earlier this year about whipstitch poetry, and Rebekah’s challenge to strive for authenticity in literary analysis, I began to wonder what it would look like to use whipstitch poetry as a whimsical frame for everything from character study to thinking about more abstract concepts like theme and mood.

When I first explored this idea, my students were reading in coming of age book clubs that we called Voyages. As Karla suggested in her post, I began my workshop one day by inviting students to make a list of objects or natural forces  they noticed in the books they were reading. We visited Randi Ward’s website and read examples of whipstitch poems, carefully examining the way that she used word choice, brevity, line breaks, and breathtaking photography to enhance her poetry. We discussed how vital the right image can be to inspiring excellent writing.

After using Ward’s poems as mentor texts, my students experimented with writing whipstitch poetry as an analytical response to their book club reading.

Tessa, one of my eighth grade writers, composed these poems after reading the novel Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt. Her poems invite readers to consider the natural forces at work in the story such as the ice that eventually leads to a character’s death, and also to think about Joseph, the protagonist, and his search for his daughter, Jupiter.

Orbiting Jupiter Whipstitch PoemsScreen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.50 PM

  1. Ice

I am the ice

I climb with the cold

And fall with the heat

Do you not think I feel you Joseph?

I try to warn you with splinters on my surface            

But you go too far

I fall, taking you with me

You escape the cold waters the first time

But your life seeps from you the second

You sink to the bone chilling cold beneath

I am the ice

 

  1. Jupiter

I’m looking for you Jupiter

Gazing at the planet in the sky

Every night, gazing

I am alone with Silence

I let it have my heart

But I can’t make it breathe

Yet it grows, it grows big around me

But I am growing too

  1. Will.Find.You.

 

  1. Rosie

Warped stall doors creak

Bright motes of dust swirl between sinking beams

Streaking the spindly hay string loft

Careful hands squeeze and release my udder

Creating a steady stream of milk

The circular rubbing of the coarse hide on my rump

Makes my backside waggle

I moo a sigh of contentment

Chiming a melody with the steady thumping of milk

I love you, Joseph.

 

  1. Church Bell

Snowballs explode against my sturdy frame             

Joseph seems to find it fun to strike me with snowballs

I scream loudly, clanging my tongue against my exterior

But no matter how hard I try, he doesn’t stop.

He shows up every day after school, tackling me

with an onslaught of snowballs.

Later, we read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, as a whole class text and the “banner” story in our study of World War II.   An exemplary novel for examining characterization and voice,  Sepetys’ haunting tale is told from the perspectives of four young refugees trying to escape the relentlessly advancing Russian army.

Working with coauthors, students were invited to compose whipstitch poems that explored characters’ motivations, fears, and questions. They were also encouraged to create their own artwork to accompany their poetry, or to import images that enhanced their message.

We shared our work in the context of a class poetry reading, and discussed what we had learned about characterization and other elements in the novel through the lens of whipstitch poetry.

Salt to the Sea Whipstitch

By Kayla, Maria, and Grant

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.13 PM.pngEmilia—- Maria

I walk through the snow.

With every step I take my feet sink beneath the coldness.

I had nowhere to go, I could only follow.

Florian, he is much like August, my knight.

I carry him inside me wherever I go.

I look up to the nests in the trees.

Beautiful baby birds soon flying free.

No one is free.

No one is safe.

Shame is a hunter.

 

Eva—- Maria

Sorry, but it’s true, we are nearly gone.

War is destroying everything around it.

No one is safe.

Soon we will all vanish, whether we are killed

or we starve.

The only thing we are fed is lies.

These people all around me have no hope.

Those who do soon will be swallowed by

the grave they dug for themselves.

 

Wandering Boy—- Grant

I follow life, just wandering

Wandering away from pain

Wandering toward freedom

Wandering home.

 

One-eared Bunny—- Kayla

One hope lost

A new one found.

Like everyone in my sad story

I am just looking for someone to love me.

 

Joana—- Kayla

Everyone seems to forget-

War does not justify inhumanity.

Currently,  to conclude our study of World War II, my students and I have been reading the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and we’ve chosen to revisit whipstitch one more time, but broaden the ways that we employ it as an analytical tool.

Today, my students received this invitation to engage with our shared text using a poetic lens:

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.14.02 PMWhat would it look like to frame the events in Unbroken as whipstitch reflections?

You might use whipstitch poetry to:

  • Analyze decisions and the resulting actions/consequences
  • Compose an apology from one character to another
  • Capture one event from the book, such as one day on the raft, or one day in a japanese pow camp.
  • Reflect on a word that has special meaning in the story such as: glory, courage, determination, champion, villain, faith, etc.
  • Ask questions
  • Emphasize an important conversation (what is being said, and what is implied, but left unspoken?)
  • Focus on a definition
  • Express a big idea

 

Your Invitation:

 

  • Choose a theme you’ve noticed in unbroken, and frame a series of four whipstitch poems around your big idea.
  • Example: “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” If you choose these words spoken by pete zamperini, your four poems could be about the following topics: Pete’s influence in Louie’s life, the determination that louie shows while training for the olympics, a reflection on louie’s time on the raft, or a day in louie’s struggle against the bird.
  • You may work individually or collaboratively on your poems.

 

 

The final weeks of school are a perfect “garden” for growing student writers, an opportunity to engage students by using poetry to celebrate language and promote authentic analysis in your classroom. My students also enjoy writing narrative poetry and poetry in two or more voices.  How do you use poetry with your students? What are your favorite poems?

Connect with me on Twitter @oosterheerte, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net to share your ideas!

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !

From Babylon to New Hampshire: Tiny Writing Lives Large

 

Today’s guest post is from Elizabeth Oosterheert (@oosterheerte). Elizabeth currently teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She enjoys leading sectionals on young adult literature and writing workshop at the Iowa Reading Conference and the Heartland Teacher Convention. Her passions are writing beside students and encouraging students to use their gifts on stage.

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“Scientists seem to think there are no living beings up there…just chalk, or fire.”

Thornton Wilder

Memories & Miracles: An Autobiographical Journey

Reading Rebekah’s post about tiny writing and the necessity of publication for young writers at the end of October  inspired me to adapt some of her ideas for my eighth grade writing workshop. My students and I are engaged in a year-long autobiographical writing project that culminates in the publication of a class book featuring student photos and compositions. This year, our autobiography is entitled “Memories and Miracles,” a reference to our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe production of The Secret Garden. The goals of the autobiography are to engage each student in writing that is personally meaningful and fulfilling to him or her, and to encourage student growth as speakers, writers and thinkers as they prepare for the rigor of high school.

The autobiography consists of the following introduction and five chapters:

  • Introduction: A Room Called Remember: -Students compose place narratives framed around favorite childhood memories.
  • Chapter One: Encyclopedia of an Extraordinary Life: Using mentor texts by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Langston Hughes, students compose their own “life encyclopedias” and personalize Hughes’ classic poem, “Theme for English B,” so that it reflects truths about their lives.
  • Chapter Two: Youth, Joy, Adventure: Students explore mentor poems and narratives that I’ve composed as well as texts by professional authors like Billy Collins, and compose narrative poetry, poems for two voices, and snapshot narratives that tell the stories of favorite possessions or photos. Students have agency as far as which pieces they choose to write.
  • Chapter Three: In Spite of Everything, the Stars: In this chapter, students explore multigenre writing, experiment with writing editorial/opinion pieces after reading mentor texts by Rick Reilly, and with thanks to Penny Kittle, consider the songs that “live in their hearts” and write narratives about their life songs or life soundtracks. Finally, students dabble in composing Spoken Word poetry using mentor texts by Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.
  • Chapter Four: Words for the Journey: Students write commentary after reading several mentor pieces by Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts, and others. Students frame a research based commentary around an essential question of their choice, and are able to reference a folder filled with professionally written commentaries.  I also write a commentary with them as they draft theirs.
  • Chapter Five: Leaving a Legacy:  Students compose a Legacy Speech that reflects their life journeys. Students decide whether they wish to focus on their spiritual or academic growth, or some other aspect of their lives.  These speeches are drafted during our workshop time during the last month of school, and are presented at a local church.  Students also design websites featuring their compositions and we publish a hardcover class book showcasing our writing and photos using Shutterfly.

 

 

 

Tiny Writing with a Big Impact…Letter to My Younger Self

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Books That Move Us: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay

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Today’s guest writer is Chasidy Burton, who teaches English to juniors and seniors in Nashville, TN. Chasidy loves to teach writing for the empowerment students experience with getting words on the page and the discovery of their own voice. She is constantly seeking to better her teaching practice, and she enjoys reading about unconventional approaches to teaching and literacy. Today, Chasidy shares about a professional development book that has shaped her writing instruction. 

How long does this need to be? How many paragraphs? How many words? How many pages? Then I ask, did Ernest Hemingway ever ask these questions? My response to my students when they bombard me with questions about guidelines and page length is not always well-received. I would love to unleash them and tell them to channel their inner “Papa”, but that just doesn’t seem to work that well with my students. I am usually met with blank stares and sometimes evil eyes.They want structure. They want a framework. They want a mold. Following the rules is so easy, but I have had trouble finding authenticity in my students writing. I don’t know about you, but if I have to read one more five paragraph essay detailing Hamlet’s three stages of indecision, I may spiral into madness like Ophelia and start passing out imaginary flowers. We need a change in my senior English class. And after reading Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay by Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer, I am inspired to conquer my own fears of breaking a mold.

60 Second Review

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Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer focus on the fact that research proves that the five- paragraph formula hinders writers. Their book equips teachers with strategies, skills, and insight in teaching students how to write authentically and thoughtfully. The book is organized by skills ranging from combatting formulaic writing, to establishing reading and writing routines, to reading and writing like writers and explorers.

There are loads of activities that will stimulate students’ thinking and challenge students to approach writing not in a formulaic way, but through the use of model texts, scaffolded assignments, and creativity. This book uses  activities that are centered around literature, which helps the strategies and methods implement seamlessly into an established literature-based curriculum.

My Big Writing Takeaways

  • My students can expand their writing skills and writing structures through the power of narratives.

I am expanding my notions of the power of narrative voice. One of the lines that really grabbed my attention in this book was that “all students should have the opportunity to discover that their ideas matter and are worthy of exploration and shaping to meet the needs of readers – not a formula.” This struck me because for years I kept forcing my students into a box – a box that I didn’t really believe in. Why? I kept hearing teachers preach about structure. Yes, structure is important, but what if we start with the most important thing first? To me, it is the idea. The ideas are what I want them to remember long after they walk out of my classroom. Great thinkers, writers, and leaders rarely start with the structure. They start with the idea. I cannot recall one time when I read something and thought, wow, that structure really inspired me. Of course we know that structure matters, but I want my students to experience more than that.

This book inspired me to create more narrative writing opportunities for students — because students are more naturally inclined to begin with strong ideas in this genre, and teachers are less inclined to assign a structure.  Instead of spending so much time on form, we are spending more times on genre, purpose, style, and voice. So many writing conversations this year are revolving around what best fits their purpose. This book is offering me tools to create these experiences for my students.

  • Students are scared to take risks, but we can provide a safety net within our classrooms for them to experiment.

One of my fears as I am trying to move away from formulaic writing is trying to allow students to explore writing in unconventional ways. The book advocates that this doesn’t always have to look like an essay. Essays are MY comfort zone. Like most teachers, I always have that overwhelming need to control, and it is easy to control a five-paragraph formulaic essay, especially with a rubric.  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay has helped me create some “low-stakes” activities that get my students writing as a way to prepare for the big assignments.The appendices at the end of the book  have several examples of activities that can be modified for all sorts of texts. One activity that I really like is allowing students to create a soundtrack for a text. Students love movies, so this is a fun and creative writing assignment that I feel like is low-stakes to get them thinking for a more significant piece later.

This activity can modified in a number of ways, but allows a different take on the standard five-paragraph literary analysis, and students enjoy it!

My students are scared of writing – I am too most of the time. Mine have trouble finding any authenticity in the formulaic models and so do I, but that is what we lean on because we haven’t tried anything new. This book allows teachers to begin to slowly implement creative changes that can lead to those bigger changes – the ones where we really see students’ writing shine –  we are longing for. These small changes allow for those moments.

  • Exploration can and should be a framework within our writing classrooms.

When I think about what inspired me to become an English major and ultimately an English teacher, I always come back to the words. How the words were arranged on the page. How I felt after reading the words. How the words had the power to shift the world a little. Exploring words and ideas are the roots of thinking, and students need a place to establish roots. There is a chapter in the book titled “Writing to Explore” and I love this notion. Exploring is fun. Exploring is dynamic. Exploring is empowering. Exploring can be scary.  If students are just expected to fall into a mold when writing, they lose their voice. This chapter begins with questioning techniques and then describes different types of essays such as exploratory essays, formal journal entries, mini-essays, focus essays, question essays, and collaborative essays. These descriptions of how these work in a classroom has been essential for me as I attempt new strategies. They are easily adaptable, and allow students the opportunity to explore ideas without the confines of a rigid structure.

  • Unleashing The Power of My Sofa in My Classroom

I read this book over the summer but some of these ideas really made sense to me when I began conferencing with students about college essays. I am fortunate to have an office in my classroom with a nice comfy sofa. My seniors come in and conference with me while sitting on the sofa and this is where I hear about the most candid details of their lives. For some reason, that sofa creates an atmosphere of sharing and truth. The conversations this year have ranged from difficult parent relationships, to eating disorders, to depression, to insecurities, and ultimately how to write about these complex issues. These kinds of ideas don’t fit into a formulaic model. These issues are raw, blunt, and vulnerable. As my students talk, I keep finding myself making connections to Hamlet, The Color of Water, or The Great Gatsby. As I continue to think about this idea, the Writing with Mentors chapter in this book keeps coming to mind. This chapter is divided into 2 sections, Literature as Mentor and Literature as Inspiration.  I love this chapter because of the overlap of utilizing the classic literature that I love and currently teach alongside more authentic forms of writing such as memoirs, eulogies, pastiches, letters, character conversations, business letters, interviews, podcasts, book trailers, and recipes.

As my students talk about their own insecurities, failures, and successes with me, I want them to see the connection between themselves and our literature. This chapter has given me some great ideas of how to implement these types of experiences within my current curriculum, all while offering my students an opportunity to foster their own writing voices – I want to hear the voices from my sofa in their writing in my classroom.

How I Hope to Use It

I am currently using this book in my classroom to begin to build a more legitimate writing workshop environment. Instead of assigning five-paragraph literary essays for them to complete at home, I am leaning more towards the ideas presented in the book – particularly the exploratory writing experiences. My students have already demonstrated a new energy about their writing experiences. Some are energized, some are frightened, some are always going to be apathetic. As I attempt to work towards more innovative writing experiences, this book offers a framework to get started. The ideas presented are clear and concise, which is allowing me to adapt my content easily.

Should You Buy the Book

Yes! I want to be a risk-taker in my classroom. That is a scary place to be at times, but this book is helping me find the courage to try new things.

What if I let things get messy this year? What if I feel liberated with my teaching and challenge my students to think like writers instead of students who write?  Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay is helping me pursue this. So instead of wallowing in 85 essays that just sing the same old song, I am dreaming of unique voices singing their own songs.

Here’s a bit of inspiration. One of my students told me this semester that “it’s nice to know that our teacher cares about what we think rather than a rigid structure.” For me, that’s a victory.

So here goes. Leaving my comfort zone, but inspired.

 

Video Essays for More Authentic Literary Analysis

Today’s guest post comes from a California teacher that we met at the Southland Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in October! 

Noël Ingram currently teaches English 10, Cinematic Arts, and Yearbook at Da Vinci Communications in Hawthorne, CA. She conducted her undergraduate studies in English and Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and earned her teaching certification through the LMU|Teach for America Partnership. She believes in the power of stories and values people who speak their truth. Various pathways to Noël’s heart include books, cats, coffee, tea, running, line dancing, and colorful office supplies.Want to connect? ningram@davincischools.org; http://www.dvcnoel.weebly.com 

At my school, projects drive the learning process. Each grade level team collaborates to create project deliverables that are connected. Sometimes, students create one large product at the end, with each class focusing on a particular piece of the final creation. Other times, our team decides on a big driving question and then focuses on answering the question a little different within each of our classes. Regardless of the approach we take, the content that kids learn in each class is essential for them to be successful in their other classes. For example, students may be required to incorporate content from their Chemistry course into the story they are writing in Humanities. The main characters from this story may then form the basis of the app they code in Computer Science.  We work through a minimum of two projects a semester and the kids publicly display their work at Exhibition once a semester. I teach 10th grade English and Cinematic Arts in a blocked schedule, and I have the freedom to allocate the time however I choose. I do not divide my time into an “English” block and a “Cinematic Arts” block. Rather, I teach films as “text” and weave in basic film concepts that will assist students in creating their own pieces.

Our last project, “Case Closed,” explored the following driving question: What is evidence and how is it used to make a case?

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What I Hoped Students Would Get From This Project

A broader concept of “evidence.”

By the time students come to me, they have a relatively solid understanding that “evidence means quotes”. However, I don’t want my students to think that quotes are the only form of evidence out there. I want them to view their world as brimming with pieces of evidence to analyze including images, films, texts, and behavior.

An understanding of intertextuality.

I want students to see that the themes explored in Hamlet are timeless and very much present today. I want students to make connections between their favorite films and T.V. shows and the literature we read in class.

A focus on authentic analysis.

When we as teachers say “analysis,” most students automatically think of the five-paragraph, literary analysis essay that they have been trained to write since middle school. Unfortunately, I rarely ever see any authentic analysis in these types of essays. Plagiarism runs rampant and much of the essay is simply parroted information from Shmoop, SparkNotes, or other similar sites. This project could not be plagiarized from study sites. Students were required to think deeply about the text and make intertextual thematic connections.

 

Before the Project

We did a whole-class novel study of Hamlet. We watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 TV adaptation of the play in class, pausing often to discuss and analyze key moments.

Genre Immersion

We begin all genre studies in our workshop the same way: with a genre immersion. I screened our “mentor texts” in-class, while students took notes on their “noticings.” After the first viewing, students discussed at their tables what they noticed and then shared-out whole class. I then shared with them a little bit of context about how the genre of video essay is currently being defined.

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I relied heavily on pieces from the YouTube channels Nerdwriter and Every Frame a Painting, intentionally choosing pieces that focused on film concepts we had covered in class to reinforce their cinematic knowledge. I also included a few more experimental forms so that they could see some of the range of the genre. Please note: If you plan to use any of these videos in your own class, please watch them beforehand and decide on the video’s appropriateness according to your unique class community. My students all sign a permission slip that allows me to screen rated R material for curricular purposes.

After making a list of their own noticings, students discussed which features of the genre they thought were the most important. They then shared these features out in a whole-class discussion. I took notes of what students were sharing on a google doc and then used their notes as the basis for the checklist I used to grade their final cuts.

The Creation Process

To guide students in the creation process, I had them submit work for four checkpoints. They were allowed to use any video editor they liked and I did not provide any direct instruction in video editing. Most students used either iMovie (as an app on their phones) or WeVideo. We had a little bit of a snafu when our school’s content filter would not allow me to adjust the settings to allow students to have access to YouTube to find video clips. Students then either found their clips at home or used their cell phones to save clips to their Google Drive. There are many browser extensions that students can use to download video clips to use in their projects. Additionally, Subzin is a helpful resource that allows you to search movie quotes. Students would use this to find additional sources of video that they wished to use in their project.

Some topics that students chose to explore included:

  • The portrayal of mental health
  • Revenge
  • Gender discrimination

Changes I Will Make Next Time

Emphasize clip length: “the shorter the better.”

Students tended to show clips that were far too long. I believe this came from their personal attachment to the clips they chose. They frequently chose to look at their favorite movies or TV shows and had a difficult time cutting down the length of the clips, instead wanting to show every part of the scene.

Analysis vs. Summary

Even though I taught a mini lesson on analysis vs. summary and had students analyze a mentor text, indicating which parts of the voice over were analysis and which parts were summary, many students still struggled with this. Next time, I plan to modify this project by requiring students to submit the files of the clips they are using in a separate checkpoint and having students fill out a say/mean/matter chart for their clips prior to working on their script

More feedback

 Students didn’t have as many opportunities for peer feedback as they usually do during a genre study. Next time, I will add in a “rough cut” screening so students can receive ample feedback before submitting their final cut.

Requirement of a Voice Over

 Some very effective video essays are created without the use of a voice over. Thus, I told students that they could create their video essays without a voice over, but that they should keep in mind that this is a more challenging option. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students who did not use a voice over in their project made their choice based upon the erroneous belief that it would be “easier,” rather than because it was the best artistic choice for their vision. Students were overwhelmingly unsuccessful at communicating their argument without the use of a voice over.

Some Outstanding Student Examples: 

In Their Own Words: What Students Said About This Project

  • I liked that we were able to choose how we did it and it wasn’t too guided.
  • I liked that we could relate it to any topic and I liked how we got to see how the themes were portrayed in modern day TV or movies.
  • I liked how we got to watch Hamlet and pick a theme from it and put it in our perspective.
  • I liked that I really got to show my creative side and I got to express myself.
  • What I likes about this project was the production behind the Video Essays, I thought through the details and important part of my video essay. I chose decisions because decisions are key in plot formation and climax in stories or movies. And I see that a lot in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The editing was a fun experience because I got to learn how to uses new software in editing. I want to be an editor and animator so it is why I enjoyed editing classwork.
  • I liked that Noel left room for us to do whatever we needed to carry out our vision. She gave us room to be creative.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to find themes and argue about them. We could back our ideas and arguments up with video clips.

This is a project that I will use again. The video creation and use of their favorite shows and movies immediately engaged students, while the foundation of our study in video essay mentor texts held students to a high level of rigor. As the deadline loomed nearer, many students approached me to share that they found this project “so much harder than [they] thought it would be.” I responded, “you’re right. This project is really difficult because it’s hard to create beautiful work that people care about. Let’s see how our mentor texts can help us here.”

How do you use film as mentor texts in your classroom? How can you see students using video essays to engage in authentic analysis within your curriculum?

Mentor Text Wednesday: Building Eloquence (Using Patrick Henry)

Today’s guest post is from teacher Melissa Surber. Melissa teaches 11th grade College Prep English 1, 12th grade College Prep English 2, and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

Mentor Text: Speech in the Virginia Convention by Patrick Henry

Writing Techniques:

  • Rhetoric (ethos, pathos, logos)
  • Imagery
  • Claim and Counterclaim
  • Metaphor/Simile
  • Rhetorical Questions
  • Allusion

Background:

Teaching college bound juniors is a blessing, but teaching college bound juniors early American Literature, well, that’s always been a challenge. Over the years, I have learned to navigate the world of Olaudah Equiano, Red Jacket, and Patrick Henry by focusing on their use of rhetoric, specifically how they create ethos, pathos, and logos to influence their audiences. Focusing on these elements has given me a direction in teaching texts that may not be as accessible or significant to students.

Several years ago as I passionately described Patrick Henry’s balanced and effective use of ethos, pathos, and logos, I had an epiphany: why not prove to my students Henry’s genius by using his speech as a mentor text for their own speech about a current issue. Luckily, there never seems to be a shortage of major news events. The first year, I had students consider the Benghazi attack. Then they wrote about what the U.S. should do about ISIS, then what the response should be to Syrian refugees, and this year, after much anxiety and some sleepless nights, I made the decision to have students consider the issue of the police shootings of unarmed black citizens. Part of me wanted to stay away from the issue, but my heart told me my students needed to be able to articulate their ideas about these weighty events. Often, the discussion about this topic, especially in our small rural suburb just north of Ferguson, Missouri, involved yelling and divisiveness. I wanted to encourage my students to consider how to reach people’s minds and hearts with a more balanced and thoughtful approach.

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Melissa’s students work together to analyze Patrick Henry’s speech as a mentor text.

How I use the mentor text:

Providing students with current event background: By the time we read “Speech in the Virginia Convention” by Patrick Henry, we have been discussing rhetoric for several class periods. Before we begin reading, I provide students with information regarding the event we will be pairing with our reading. I usually give them a news article or infographic and have them watch a news broadcast. I have them examine:

  • The causes of the event
  • The effects of the event
  • The solutions offered by leaders
  • The pros and cons of each solution

I function as notetaker and clarifier during this discussion.

Setting the stage for students to write a speech: I then ask students to choose the solution they believe to be the right one. I say, “Imagine trying to convince an entire room of intellectuals who are scared and uncertain that your solution is best. The entire room disagrees with you. How do you make them listen?” I preface Henry’s speech by telling students his words are partially responsible for our country’s creation, so he knows how to persuade. Because of that, I tell them, we are going to use his speech as a mentor text for our own speech about ___________ (whatever issue is prevalent at the moment).

Analyzing Henry’s speech as mentor text: We then proceed to read. We examine Henry’s ideas, but primarily, we analyze how he creates them. Often, I pair students in a modified think, pair, share to analyze his writing moves. Below are the items they discuss and try to create in their own speeches.

  • In paragraph one, how does Henry use ethos?
    • They immediately notice he compliments his audience and then tells them directly he is about to disagree with them. We discuss why he may have made this choice and the effect it had on the audience. Students then begin their speech by complimenting a modern audience and acknowledging their differing opinion.
  • “I consider this as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” Why did he choose these opposing words? (paragraph 1)
    • We discuss the way these opposites solidify the gravity, the importance of his words and the pathos of the word slavery, an idea these men would fear because they either owned slaves or had slave owner friends. Students then create their own contrast with weighty words that appeal to a democratic nation. We often list some possibilities on the board before they create.
  • In paragraph two, how does he structure his ethos to connect with his audience?
    • Students realize he acknowledges why they believe the way they do and then explains why his view differs. Then they go to their speech to do the same. I ask them to consider why an audience would not support their solution.
  • “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed by a kiss” allusion (paragraph 3)
    • I often have to explain this Biblical allusion, but then I ask why Henry may have chosen it. We discuss how Henry knows the values of his audience. We then discuss what Americans value. They go to work to create an allusion that will resonate with their audience.

We continue reading, pausing to discuss and write.I help give students a focus by giving them this handout: speech-in-the-virginia-convention-teacher-copy. Together, we think about the following: 

  • the use of rhetorical questions (paragraph 3)
  • the list of the solutions already tried and their results (paragraph 4)
  • the use of anaphora (repetition of phrase beginnings) to build rhythm and momentum (paragraph 5)
  • the brief declaration of his solution and why it’s so late in the speech (paragraph 5)
    • This is integral to the effectiveness of his speech. He knows his wary audience will shut down if he begins with his intent to go to war. He must ease them into this frightening idea by building their animosity toward the British response.
  • the use of claim/counterclaim to further build anger toward the British (paragraph 6)
  • the metaphor of slavery and bondage he extends through the speech and his use of imagery with “clanking” (paragraph 7)
  • the use of a rhetorical question to soften his implication of cowardice inaction (paragraph 8)
  • his final statement personalizing his call to action (paragraph 8)

We work our way through the speech in that way, with students analyzing his rhetoric and then using it as a mentor for their own. By the time we finish reading the speech, students have created a persuasive speech at which they marvel. It has the necessary argumentative components of claim and counterclaim, but it also has beauty and imagery and style. Below are excerpts from two students’ speeches.

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Making it meaningful: Students then type their speeches and sign them. I send them to politicians. Some have been mailed to the White House, some to Missouri Senators, some to our local Representatives. I also tweet excerpts to political leaders as well. For some students, it’s their first foray into civic responsibility; for others, it teaches them a finessed approach to argumentation. For all students, they develop a different aspect of their writing voice, one more authoritative, persuasive, and effective.

 How do you use classic American speeches and other literature as mentor writing in your classroom? Leave us your ideas below, connect with us on Facebook, or Tweet Melissa @ELAWordsmith.

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Lifetime of Secrets

Today’s guest post comes from Anne Wolter, a 6th grade English teacher at Western Heights Middle School in Washington County, Maryland.  Anne has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, and has been teaching for four years.  She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young children.  You can connect with her on Twitter @wolteann.

Mentor Text:  A Lifetime of Secrets (personal, reflective, arts integration)screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-10-00-am

  • Writing Techniques:
  • Elements of memoir writing
  • Incorporating art with writing

Background:

Before I was a teacher, my best friend gave me a book.  I have always been a reader, and have kept a journal since becoming an adult, and I guess the book reminded her of me.  The book is A Lifetime of Secrets by Frank Warren and contains hundreds of pages of people’s deepest, darkest secrets, anonymously sent in on postcards or other artistic backgrounds.  Since receiving this book, I’ve read it, and read it, and read it again.  It’s amazing and sad and beautiful and inspiring.  People still send in secrets to the website and Facebook page. There is something so empowering and exhilarating about leaving your secrets for others to find – knowing that strangers know you better than those who are supposed to know you best, even if the strangers don’t know your name and could never pick you out of a crowd.

I’ve always tried to find ways to incorporate PostSecret into my teaching.  Sometimes I’d pick one and share it as a warm up.  I’ve used it for characterization lessons.  But I’ve never felt it was getting its due.

Enter Mentor Texts.

I was teaching a memoir unit to my sixth graders and started with 6 Word Memoirs to get their feet wet with memoirs.  After that, I wanted to give my students some choices of another type of short memoir text before moving into longer memoirs.  After reading Writing With Mentors, I decided to use NYC in 17 Syllables, excerpts from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Rosenthal, and while searching for my third choice, I saw my book A Lifetime of Secrets on my shelf.  PostSecret would be my students’ third option.

How We Used the Mentor Text:

I first had a discussion with my students about what a mentor text is and how they can use it to guide and inspire their own writing.  I told them I would give them three choices and gave them a quick blurb about each choice.  With PostSecret, I explained that the secrets are anonymous (and some are inappropriate!), so I carefully selected and took pictures with my iPad of 15 secrets from the book that were appropriate, and posted them to Google Drive, giving my students the QR code to access the folder.  I also explained that if they were to choose PostSecret, theirs were NOT anonymous and they should know their boundaries of what is okay to share.  

We looked at the secrets and talked about what they noticed. Students noticed that:

  • they were all written in the first person, were personal, and reflective
  • none of the secrets were more than one or two short sentences
  • the picture that was the background of the secret was always related to the secret – the art was relevant

Once we had this discussion, students were ready to get to work.

The students embraced this mentor text and ran with it.  Some used Skitch to take an image from Google that represented their secrets, and then wrote their secrets on the image.  Others drew pictures that represented their secret.  In both cases, the students work reflected the mentor text.  Now I have finally found an inspiring way to use PostSecret in my classroom for years to come!

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Student work