Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part II

Today we present Part II of Sarah’s thinking on building student interest in your writing classroom by weaving in video games and video game writing. You can read her full post from Wednesday here

On Wednesday, I discussed a few small ways teachers can use to bring video games into their classrooms. Today, I want to explore some more substantial approaches to including video game-inspired writing in your classrooms with several ideas for mentor texts in specific units of study in which video games bring some interesting possibilities!

Critical Review and Top List Units

The sites I linked on Wednesday are also perfect for game reviews that teachers can use for critical review or argumentative units in the writer’s workshop. Some of the best writing craft comes from writers at these gaming outlets including hooks, descriptive language, hyperbole, humorous tone, alliteration, the list goes on! In our current game reviews unit, one student found the Horizon Zero Dawn Review by Lucy O’Brien on IGN, one of the games in the running for game of the year in 2017, and my students couldn’t stop gushing over how well-written it was! This paragraph caught their interest based on the descriptive language throughout:

On top of that, Horizon‘s ‘post-post apocalyptic’ landscape itself is beautiful and terrifying, so journeying through it in search of things to do between main quests – not that you ever have to go too far – is usually a reward of its own. Snowy vistas, autumnal forests, and vast deserts are stunningly realised, even capped at 30 frames per second as it is. (That’s true on PlayStation 4 Pro as well, where it runs in a stunning 4K mode.) Frozen mountain peaks or the calcified remains of a skyscraper make for eerie, quiet jaunts, made more unnerving by the Lost World-esque horror that sits in Horizon‘s underbelly. One of the most thrilling moments in my playthrough was when I got lost early on, skirted too close to the water’s edge, and accidentally walked across the giant tail of a half-submerged Snapmaw before sprinting to safety with sweaty palms. Being killed in Horizon isn’t Dark Souls-style punishing, but as you save via spread out ‘campfires’, the threat of death also equals the threat of losing some progress. It’s enough to make these moments of terrifying discovery into Horizon’s ‘water cooler moments’ – the ones you look back on and shiver.

IGN is a student favorite, but you can also utilize YouTube reviewers like GT Reviews, ACG, and others. Top ten lists are also an excellent genre to build argumentative skills and the gaming world has plenty of videos and written pieces zooming in on different topics within gaming; not to mention that most people get hooked on these lists! WatchMojo on YouTube is a great source for gaming top ten lists and other gaming outlets have them as well. Here are some favorites from our Game Review Unit and Top Five List Unit this year:

Creative Writing Units

Video games can be excellent for creative writing as well. My students write 100% poems and vignettes about games, characters, and topics centered around gaming; many gamers are big into fanfiction writing as well. I have had many students publish their stories set in video game worlds about a character they developed on different fanfiction sites like Fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own simply because they wanted to.

YouTube is also full of “let’s plays” mentor texts where a gamer plays through a game and records commentary or dialogue. Some are fully immersive with voice acting on the gamer’s part and editing to make it seem like a movie. One great example I have found is Rycon Roleplays on YouTube who has done an incredible “let’s play” of cinematic quality entitled Let’s Roleplay The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “Leon’s Tale” in which he plays Skyrim with voice acting, storytelling, and creative editing. Creating one of these “let’s plays” could be a project for a gaming student as well.

Video games often get a bad reputation, but in reality they can be some of the greatest pieces of art our world has to offer. You don’t have to have a class dedicated to video games or even a love of video games to get these possibilities in your classroom; you don’t even have to make a unit dedicated to them! Little changes to notebook time, discussion prompts and articles, and choice of mentor texts from gaming outlets can incorporate video games into your classroom on a small or large scale! From amazing landscapes to brilliantly designed characters to the interwoven gameplay and storyline, video games are a door to some amazing writing. How about letting them in?

What are your thoughts on including video game inspired writing in your classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts comments below!

Sarah Jones teaches Writing Through Video Games I and II and Spanish I and II at Cuyahoga Falls High School in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. She earned her B.S. in Education at Miami University in Oxford, OH and later earned her M. A. in Teaching through the Ohio Writing Project at Miami University. She is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games classes and her Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at jonessj2@miamioh.edu or Twitter @jonessjteacher.

 

 

 

 

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Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part I

I’m so excited to present today’s guest post by Sarah Jones, whom I met through the Ohio Writing Project last summer. Sarah is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games and Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at jonessj2@miamioh.edu or Twitter @jonessjteacher.

Today Sarah will share two ways you can bring video games into your writing classroom TODAY. On Friday, she’ll help us think about incorporating video games into whole units of study. 

“This is the only English class that I actually want to write for.”

I get that a lot in my small elective called Writing Through Video Games. I designed the curriculum a few years ago as a writer’s workshop and now we are adding Writing Through Video Games II next year. Now that I have established the class, the students know what to expect when they walk in: we’re not playing video games, we’re writing about them. This class came out of my desire to have my students be more invested with their writing and from my love of video games.

As teachers, we always discuss how we can get our students more engaged in our classrooms and in their writing. For some students, essays about literature they did not choose to read are not relevant and it is easy to find the “answers” on the internet. I wanted to teach craft, style, and structure in a way that was engaging. The writer’s workshop was the perfect way to be engaging with rigor and relevance but I needed a lens with which to teach my students how to write better. What were my students often engaged with? Video games!

Most research polls now say that around 97% of our students play games in some fashion, whether it’s Candy Crush or Grand Theft Auto V. I have had hours of conversations with students about a game’s mechanics and flow of story, the development of characters, the pros and cons to purchasing a game, or the profound impact a particular game had on their lives. Whether we like it or not, video games are important to our students; now what do we do?

We invite our students to write game reviews, top ten lists, autobiographical pieces, and so many more. We don’t need a class solely devoted to the study of writing through video games, especially if video games are not your cup of tea! We just need to give them the option; a way to use their interest in video games to help them practice their craft.

Here are a few small ways you can implement the lens of video games into your classroom!

Notebook Time

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An easy way to include video games in your classroom is during notebook time–or Quest Logs as we call it in our class! My students have been inspired by:

 

  • Images of characters or landscapes from games
  • Graphs and statistics about gamers or opinions of gamers
  • Famous quotes from games
  • Lines from great writing about video games

I find most of my images and graphs from places like Statista and Google searches for images. Gaming outlets on the internet also have a lot of the mentor texts you can use for notebook time like IGN, Gamespot, Metacritic, and PC GamerScreen Shot 2018-04-18 at 7.49.01 AM

Dungeon Forum Fridays

Video games can also be the source of great discussion and research. My students in Writing Through Video Games use NPR’s articles and stories about gaming to develop new ideas and opinions about their favorite hobby for discussions. We do what we call a Dungeon Forum on Fridays (based on Spider Web Discussions by Alexis Wiggins) where they read an article ahead of time and hold a discussion about the topic. Dungeons in many video games are designed to be cooperative, just like these discussions, and online forums are always open to everyone to jump in to say their opinion. During these discussions that are focused on the article, I always stay out of the discussion and let them lead it. I just take notes in the background and map out the web of their ideas, solutions, and references to the text!

My students also tap into TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Polygon, and Kotaku to find articles to support claims, pose discussion questions, and inform themselves about the gaming world. I generally search for articles based on topic, but I find that Keza MacDonald, a video game editor at The Guardian, has some intriguing and sometimes provoking opinion pieces. My students tend to disagree with her ideas and tone frequently and it brings up interesting counters from the students! Using an article about video games to start a discussion will spur some compelling debates and get most students involved in defending their opinions. Here are the articles that my students enjoyed the most:

What are your thoughts on adding small ideas about video games into your classroom? I would love to see your comments below!

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

The First Seven Days of a First-Time Workshopper

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 4.29.24 PMThere are lots of teachers who implement writing workshop in baby steps — maybe first some mini-lessons, and then some conferring down the road, and later expanded choice for students, and next year some mentor texts. And that works!

For me, it didn’t, though. I dabbled in workshop for a year before I realized that I needed to be all in or all out; there was no workable middle ground. Today’s guest writer, Elontra Hall (@cloudscholar) was the same way. At the beginning of this semester, he found himself with a brand new class and ultimate freedom to teach whatever he wanted to teach. He knew this was the time to jump into workshop with both feet. 

We are so lucky today to feature a post where he walks us through those tentative and miraculous first days of one teacher’s leap into the workshop life! We hope to hear more from him as the semester progresses! 

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explore thedeepestwaters

“Are we doing drama today?”

“Are you American?”

“What’s  a writer’s workshop?”

These questions ambushed me as I stepped out into uncharted waters.  Let’s rewind for a moment though before I give my account of the first week of writer’s workshop.

……….

When I interviewed at my current school, I was asked what I would do with seven hours of drama (seven one-hour lessons per week with seven different groups of students) if I were allowed to do whatever I wished. My response was immediate and made my heart feel as if were fluttering:

Writer’s workshop!

Collaboration with teachers of other subjects, team teaching opportunities, group work and research, chances for students to go out of the academy on trips and guest speakers to come in and support. A dream.

Then, I got the job.

After celebrating my new appointment and the freedom that I was to be given, I stared out into the abyss and worry began to boil in a cloud above me.  How was this going to work?

In the States, as a young teacher (two or three years in) I had tried to run a writer’s workshop with varying results. Since moving to England, I had used various writer’s workshop elements in English lessons: freewrites, mentor texts, peer feedback and revision, but in my experience of teaching in the U.K. there was never time to run a proper writer’s workshop because of the amount of content to cover. The GCSEs* loom menacingly over everything; they weigh heavily on students’ future prospects as well as the rating* of the school. Having never “properly” run a writer’s workshop in the UK or heard of anyone else  here running one, I had no idea how it would work.

But, my teacher intuition grumbled, and I remembered what I saw in my mind’s eye during the interview: Teams of students working together to tighten up pieces, Writer’s Marathon in London, pockets of reading and engaged discussion spread out around the room, a board of pieces published by students, a revision and feedback board. Freedom and focus.

It was a risk worth taking.

New job, new class, new content. Luckily, the Christmas holidays had come, so there was time, hypothetically, to thrash some order out of the chaos. One of the best ideas that I had was to take to twitter -as one does- to ask for help and suggestions. And boy did they come!


Next, I took a look back through some of my Writer’s workshop texts: Why Workshop, Bullock; Teaching Writing that Matters, Gallagher, Lee; Living and Teaching the Writer’s Workshop, Painter. I also made sure to get a writer’s notebook for myself and a good pen (Parker IM, ball point, gel ink refills). Finally, I made sure to try to plot out a kind of rough course for my students and I to chart. I wanted to start with freedom and gradually build in a loose structure. These students had never done authentic writing that wasn’t an assessment of some kind. So I worked out that the students would always have a ten minute writing session, a ten minute mini-lesson followed by self-directed writing and one to one/group conferencing.

Well, the festive vittles consumed, the initial anxiety having given way to the choppy waters of starting a new school mid year, I have begun the grand experiment.

Here’s what’s happened so far.  

The First Seven Days

  1. The first seven days have been extremely interesting. I have one hour per week of writer’s workshop with seven groups. My writer’s workshop lessons have taken the place of drama lessons- to the great dismay of a few (Sorry.) From anecdotal accounts, the kids love it. They are excited about being able to choose what they want to write about. They like that they don’t have to be overly focused on SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation), and they- so far- are genuinely invested in what they are writing. The UK secondary school system is in dire need of programmes like writer’s workshop – programmes that are focused on the student’s interests.
  2. The moment the students realised that they held majority control in their learning they were in. It was remarkable, all of the annoyance disappeared, and pens began that strange yet familiar dance across the page.
  3. Allowing the students to decorate their writer’s notebooks was a quick and definite win.

On the first day, I told them about writer’s workshop and some of the things that are possible. In order to get as much writing done as possible, and to create a positive atmosphere about the new class, I forewent the majority of my teaching time, and we worked through three exercises:

  1. A ten minute free-write
  2. I wonder
  3. Fruit bowl

Free-write:

I think this is pretty standard. Write for ten minutes without stopping and when you get stuck write, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ until you think of something more interesting. The students got to choose the format and content of their writing and as they wrote I wrote. It was a  great experience, sharing time writing with young writers. After time was up, I let the students move around to share their work, with the condition that they could only say thank you in response. (Thank you Ms. Cox from NWP – Meadowbrook Writing Project – Oakland University – Michigan.)

The buzz around the room after the share was palpable and  the apprehension that had lined their faces earlier was gone, replaced by something else – excitement.

I Wonder:

This, too, is a common activity; I have to thank Twitter again for the inspiration. To begin with, I modeled and shared some things that I am genuinely curious about- from scientific and distant to more personal. The students all took a moment (Twenty seconds) to think about things that they were genuinely curious about and then wrote them down. When that moment was over, they wrote down as many ideas as they could in about a minute and a half. Once the time was up, I gave them the option to share with each other:

I wonder if human beings will still exist in a thousand years.

I wonder if faster than light travel is possible.

I wonder what it would be like to live forever.

I wonder how big sharks can get.

I explained to them that as we moved forward these topics might provide topics or act as springboards for them to begin writing. Later on this half term, I plan to compile a number of these from a range of notebooks and put them on sticky notes. The sticky notes will then go to a ‘station’ in the room where students can look at them and perhaps draw inspiration.

Next, I took a bit of time to reinforce some of the basic pillars of our writer’s workshop:

  1. Everybody writes – including me
  2. Traditional teaching only lasts ten to fifteen minutes (max)
  3. Writing here is a process with focus on development and growth – not grades or levels
  4. Collaboration and trust are key for the workshop to be successful
  5. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about creation.

In the time that we had left, I explained ‘Fruit Bowl’.

Fruit Bowl:

The idea is that they were to describe an object without letting (the reader) know explicitly what is being described through naming or other obvious signposting.

After all of the activities I did an informal survey and asked that if they had enjoyed the lesson, that they raise their hands.  A forest of hands shot up and I noticed a number of wide smiles.

The last thing I did was assign homework: Three ten minutes writes on whatever moved them. No sighs, no groans, no muttered whispering about how pointless the homework was. I was pleasantly stunned.

…………..

At the end of the seven days, I have to say that I’m pleased with how each classes’ first session went. Now though, I have a different set of issues.

I have to pin down an enthusiastic and reliable team for my PLC to make the workshop truly interdisciplinary. I have to figure out how to make sure that at least one piece of homework gets looked at for each student in each lesson: which calls for conferencing, but is borderline impossible to do in the time frame that I have as each of my groups are over twenty students.

And, finally – most worryingly for me – I’ve given a target of two to three publishable pieces for this five week period. How can I monitor that and coordinate mini-lessons that are meaningful and helpful to all of the students with their disparate ideas and writing ideas?

The answers to this and many more questions I’m sure I’ll come up with soon. I have had quite a bit of help and advice from a number of sources that I regularly refer to; I’m certain that I’ll unearth an answer or, if I’m lucky, a clutch of them.

In short, although I may not be doing it the ‘right’ way (if there is such a thing) I feel like what we’ve started is good, has legs  and a bit of room to grow and develop and adapt as we go along.

What was your first week of workshop like? What did you choose to spend time on? What did you skip? What words of wisdom would you give to Elontra? Leave him a comment below, share your thoughts on Twitter @cloudscholar, or find us on Facebook to join the conversation.

 

*GCSE exam: an end of year exam for sophomore students (year 11) these are national exams that every student in the UK takes on the same day at the same time across the country, The grades that they get from these have a huge impact on what students do next in their educational careers.
*Rating: Schools in the UK are inspected by a central governmental body called OfSTED. Schools are graded in the following areas: Leadership and management, Teaching, learning and assessment.

With Apologies to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose: Strategies for Compare/Contrast Writing

Today’s post is from frequent guest-poster Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. You can read some of her other Moving Writers pieces here and here. You can connect with her on Twitter @kellyapace.

“Mrs. Pace, did you hear about Matt Lauer?” one of my students accosted me as I entered the Raider Writing Center, a student-led center for writing help that I manage and teach.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I often feel like I live in a bubble while at school, not knowing what is going on in the world outside of Room 211.

“Check on Twitter. It’s all over that. He’s gone from the TODAY Show because of sexual misconduct charges,” she said. I glanced at my Twitter feed and sure enough, I saw the news: 

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I stepped back, jaw open, stunned like I was reading about my own personal friend. Yet I was. I watched Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show every day as I took care of my first child while on maternity leave. He was my Olympics news source. I lived 9-11, Columbine, several presidential elections, and the War on Iraq through Lauer’s eyes. He looked at me through the television, and I thought I saw honesty and integrity. I marveled that day: If Matt Lauer can’t be trusted, I’m not sure who in our popular culture can.

Later that week, I sat down to figure out how I would introduce the idea of compare and contrast for an essay my IB juniors were writing. I knew my students had done this skill before; I knew they had made plenty of Venn diagrams in their time, so I needed something to really grab their attention. I wanted to teach about how to write a thesis statement for a compare/contrast paper and how to structure the paper so that it doesn’t seem as if they are isolating two subjects. I wanted a more organic and authentic compare/contrast structure for their writing.

Hoping for inspiration, I flipped through a file of mentor texts I recently put aside. Nothing. I trolled the internet. Nothing. And then I got back on Twitter. Matt Lauer was still clogging my feed, and I stumbled upon an article about the similarities among the apologies of sexual harassment cases: “Regret,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Predator’: Analyzing the Apologies of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Others Accused of Sexual Misconduct” Discussing the overlapping ideas between those accused of sexual misconduct, the article was intriguing, as was the cloud of overlapping words in their apologies that the article included:

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I suddenly had an idea. I used the public apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as mentor texts and asked my students to color mark similarities and differences for homework. Students came to my class the next block eager to discuss these apologies. They had no idea they were learning skills of compare/contrast for their upcoming papers, and they couldn’t stop them from discussing (and arguing) all of the ideas they did. We color marked their ideas together, grouping the similarities and differences to the side:

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Most agreed that Harvey Weinstein’s apology was the most sincere while Lauer’s was more emotional. Rose’s showed no growth at all. We also discussed the similarities like how much of the apology followed the same format: make an excuse–say I’m sorry–discuss how I will work on my flaw.

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I then asked students to write a thesis statement that presented an argument comparing and contrasting the three apologies. Here are two from my class that day:

Although Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer recognize that they caused pain and apologize and justify what they did, Harvey Weinstein is more sincere in his apology because he shows commitment to fixing what he did.

 

Although the apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer present a similar pattern, admit learning occurred, and clearly say they are sorry, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more sincere in their apologies.

We discussed the idea that their thesis should be an argument. Such arguments were easy to form because they were interested in the subject of these public apologies and clearly had strong feelings on who was more sincere.

In the end, I used this lesson to teach my students how to write a thesis statement and how to structure their papers for the literary analysis paper they were writing. The results were stunning pieces of writing that were far more organic than if I had them complete a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences. Later that week, I received an email from a parent:

“I just wanted to reach out and tell you how thrilled I am with your lesson on apologies by our public figures…In a day and age where lies are told so frequently, this lesson is so timely and just what all kids need.  We are in the ages of “lie, deflect, lie deflect.”  Thank you for this lesson of sincerity and accountability.  I’ve told my children over and over, sorry needs to be genuine or just don’t say it.  Don’t be “sorry you got caught”; be sorry for your actions.  Thank you for explaining this from someone other than their mother, in a way that is less lecture and more deep thought.”

When planning this lesson, this was not my intention, but I realize now that it added a bonus of teaching students character in writing instruction. Perhaps they would not only learn the structure of a compare/contrast piece of writing, but they also would learn the value of genuine words.
As a final note to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein: My apologies for using your public words as more than just uttered phrases. Yet, they have provided my students with mentor texts on the art of comparing and contrasting, enabling them to make connections and write more authentically in Room 211. For that, I am grateful.

Analyzing Audience with the College Essay

Today’s guest post is from Paige Timmerman, a high school English teacher in Salem, Illinois. You can connect with her on Twitter at @pbrink12 or via e-mail at timmermanp@salemhigh.com.

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When I decided to take the plunge and try writer’s workshop over the summer, I knew I wanted a unit on college application and scholarship essays for the simple fact that I knew my students would crave it.

I also couldn’t help think about how rare and valuable it is to have a unit for a potentially “real” audience.  Students spend much of their time writing hypotheticals for teacher eyes only, but this unit is an opportunity to really analyze the audience and think critically about what might impress them.  I also viewed the unit as an opportunity for students to think very deliberately about craft, as they usually only have about 500 words to convince a group of people they don’t know to contribute to their education.  It’s a tough feat!

Planning

I began by scouring the internet for mentor texts of successful college admittance and scholarship essays, and I came across the “Essays that Worked” page on the John Hopkins University website.  What I liked most about this page was that each winning essay was accompanied by a “review burst” written by the selection committee, which detailed why the essay impressed them.

After I selected four mentors and examined them, I noticed they each possessed interesting textual features (dialogue, rhetorical questions, etc.).  There also were a variety of structures; one winning essay was even structured like an instruction manual for how to “handle” millennials.  These techniques, I realized, were why they won- they stood out amongst a swarm of simple sentences in long paragraphs.  Therefore, I wanted to make sure I taught these features at the beginning of the year through a narrative unit and an informative writing unit before encouraging students to apply them to their college pieces.

Here are the mentor texts we used:

Just Keep Folding

On and Off

AdmissionsSaving the Manatees

The Palate of My Mind

Pre-Writing

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This is the anchor chart that was chosen to be displayed during the unit and served as a basis for how the essays were assessed.  An example of a cumulative discussion over the mentor texts (featuring Jack, Grace B., Tina, and Nick) can be found here.

We spent four days in class analyzing four different mentor texts.  Just as I had hoped, the “review bursts” from the selection committee deepened our discussion by causing students to consider audience.  Next, I had students mine the mentor texts for commonalities in groups, each of which submitted a 3-5 minute video of its discussion and created its own anchor chart.  With new knowledge of the unit in the back of their minds, students then developed questions they would ask members of a college scholarship/application selection committee if given the opportunity.

I asked two of our counselors, both of whom have been part of the selection process for

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Mrs. Knapp and Mrs. Kessler impart their most valuable piece of advice: the best essays tell a compelling story.

local scholarships, to select the anchor chart they thought best captured the spirit of the unit, and they came into my class the next day to explain their choice.  After that, they answered questions about the genre, which helped students “get inside the head” of the audience.

 

Pause

While I needed students to write at least 1,000 words for a dual credit requirement, I considered that many prompts are 500 words or less.  Therefore, I decided to have them complete two essays instead of one.  Prompts were chosen authentically from real scholarships or college websites, or they were chosen from “general prompts” from The Common App.

Once the first essays were in the rear-view, I decided to facilitate mock “selection committees.”  Students returned to their discussion groups and received a packet of three student essays, each of which had an “alias” to replace the name for anonymity.  They read the essays quietly first, annotating pros and cons in the margins as they went along.  Each group member used a different color of colored pencil so I could see the progression of their silent discussions as each essay was passed from person to person.

 

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Logan, Max, and Grace H. judge three anonymous essays.  Click here to view their discussion.

Group members then discussed what they noticed in each piece, and a criteria was determined for selecting the “best essay.”  They then submitted a 2-3 minute video that explained which essay they believed was most deserving of the desired award and how they came to that conclusion, citing specifics in each of the three essays for support.

 

What I liked most about this activity was that students were no longer thinking about the audience; they were the audience.  They got the opportunity to “try on” the selection committee’s shoes for an hour or so and walk around, which helped them understand what it takes for an essay of this style to stand out.  Additionally, it allowed them to understand the impact of the specific textual features we had studied with the first two units.  

Present

As my students are currently wrapping up their second pieces of the unit, I am reflecting back on what I have been seeing as I have been conferring with them.  I’ve seen less “I am a really hard worker and deserve this scholarship” and more unique textual structures and craft techniques introduced in class.  I am confident my students are entering the sea of paperwork known the college application and scholarship process armed and ready to give their competitors a literal run for their money, and I know this is due largely to the fact that we spent so much time considering audience.

While this unit encouraged my students to think about their futures, it also allowed me to continue considering my own future as a writing teacher.  As I think back to common comments I made during conferences, I remember saying frequently: “You should incorporate some of the techniques we talked about in the memoir unit or the informative writing unit!”  Although hypothetical, those units at the beginning of the year served as building blocks for the authentic piece constructed in this unit.  This is leading me to believe students’ college essays could be even better if I added another unit into the mix before the college essay unit to give them even more tools in their toolboxes before constructing an essay they want to push out to a real audience.  With this in mind, I plan to go forward next year by cutting the college writing to one paper rather than two in order to make room for another “building blocks” unit to precede it.  With newfound knowledge that acting as the audience improved student writing drastically, I am saving a few student pieces and plan to kick off the unit next year by placing my students in the judge’s seat.

While the college writing unit may not have been as exciting as some of the others, the experience of having an authentic audience proved to be unique and invaluable.  That said, as I go forward and continue to dabble in writer’s workshop, I am left with one main lingering question: If knowing a real audience will read students’ work pushes them toward more deliberate thinking about their writing craft, how can this phenomenon be replicated in units of writing where students do not feel authenticity from the audience?

What are you thinking, teachers? How might you use the analysis of audience in a different writing study? How have you used the college essay to teach more than just the college essay? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find Paige on Twitter @pbrink12. 

Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” as Mentor Text

We’ve been excitedly sitting on today’s guest post for nearly a year! We are so happy to finally share this lesson with you — perfect for the late fall and early winter as you scramble to engage your students in meaningful work before Winter Break!

 Adrian Nester is an AP English teacher and journalism adviser at Tunstall High School in Dry Fork, Virginia. After 16 years of teaching, she is thankful to have met her AP Lit Help teaching community when entering into her mid-career crisis years.  She is the mother of two, wife of one, and teacher of many.

 

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-2-31-48-pmEach year at the end of the first semester, I reward my juniors with a day of reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a slice of sub-par store bought fruit cake. That was it. Although my intentions were good,  I did a disservice to Capote, my students, and definitely the fruit cake.

This year with four days left before the scheduled exam review, I decided to take a different approach with “A Christmas Memory” and use it as a mentor text for crafting personal narratives.  

I became familiar with using mentor texts this summer after reading Allison and Rebekah’s Writing with Mentors and used the concept with some nonfiction pieces, but would it work with fiction?  Fiction is so unique to each individual writer, could it work as a mentor text? Would it be so impactful that it would help them borrow the writer’s moves and become more like “real writers” as with Karla Hilliard’s post on The House on Mango Street.

The plan for reading and writing

Day One: Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Everything, Everything

ds are the luckiest.Today’s snapshot comes from Katie Stuart (@KatieStuart10) who teaches 9th grade English and 11th and 12 grade electives at Windham High School in Windham, NH. She previously taught at Windham Middle School and Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.  She earned her B.A. in English and M.A.T. in Secondary English from the University of New Hampshire.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 8.51.48 PMText:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Audience:

High School

Book Talk:

Imagine being a teen who is allergic to the world.  Maddy cannot leave her specially designed, air-lock protected house for fear of germs that might kill her. When smart, funny Olly moves in next door, they quickly become intrigued with each other.  This book is written in the style of a diary and is a fast read. 

Sentence Study:

“Then I see him.  He’s tall, lean, and wearing all black: black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely.  He’s white with a pale honey tan and his face is starkly angular.  He jumps down from his perch at the back of the truck and glides across the driveway, moving as if gravity affects him differently than it does the rest of us.”

This Passage Can Help Writers: 

  • Describe a person’s appearance in a way that communicates something about his or her personality
  • Use a colon to introduce a list
  • Vary sentence length
  • Play with repetition

Together, the Class Might Notice …

  • Yoon starts with a short, punchy sentence.
  • The colon is used to introduce a list
  • Each item in the list repeats the adjective that was used in the first clause
  • The third sentence is shorter and contrasts all the “black” in the second sentence
  • The last sentence describes how the person does something, not just how he look
  • The last sentence uses figurative language,  the simile “as if”

Invite Students to Try It By Saying …

There are many times we might describe someone in writing — sure, in fiction like Nicola Yoon. But we might also describe a person when writing a profile, a memoir, a poem, a personal essay. Try on the techniques we noticed here: the colon to introduce a list, the repetition, the description of how, and the figurative language. Use them to try your hand at describing a person who is important to you. It can be anyone you want, a real or fictional person. It could be your dog. See if this mentor text can help you describe a person.

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Studying Structure & Genre Mixing with Nicola Yoon

yoon

Photo via The Guardian

Today’s Mentor Text Wednesday post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York.  She blogs over at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and tweets @HMX_MSE.

Mentor Text: “We don’t make princesses in those colours” by Nicola Yoon in The Guardian

Writing Techniques:

  • Structure

  • Craft

  • Genre mixing

Background:

The Guardian is one of my favorite online magazines for its English take on the world and, of all things, for its sports analysis pieces.  Nicola Yoon is a well-known author in my classroom, and I enjoy collecting stories of race-based microaggressions, like the story here, to share with students for reflection.

I haven’t used this one in a classroom yet, but if I do tie it into a unit on fairness, I want to make sure I let the piece breathe before I dive into a mini lesson.

How We Might Use This Text:

Structure – Nicola Yoon sets her piece by establishing her character as a protective mother first.  It’s an unusual choice, as most writers might want to start off by describing the birthday party or even with the announcement that she’s the first black female to hit #1 on the New York Times Young Adult list.  Why does she make that choice?  Why does the “story” only start halfway through the piece?  What would your piece look like if you established and described the characters first?

Craft – I used Yoon’s last sentence and did some sentence mimicking in my own notebook:

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and teens shouldn’t cyberbully each other.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and racism is wrong.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and global warming is a major issue.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

Here’s another thing I know: It’s 2017 and there are no such things as girl books or guy books.  It’s time everybody knew that.  It’s past time.

By using Yoon’s words I was able to think about the how she uses repetition to make her voice stronger, and her tone balances between a gently admonishing “c’mon you guys” and an outraged “I can’t believe this still happens.”  The “it’s 2017” gives the call to action a sense of urgency because we’re all writing in the here and now.

Genre mixing – Is this piece memoir?  A call to action?  Both?  Neither?  I’d say it uses the techniques of a memoir to serve as a persuasive piece to agitate and inform a mostly white readership about the realities of living as a Person of Color. Another writer might say it’s a memoir with flecks of a call for justice, because there’s a focus on Yoon’s personal growth.  Whatever we decide to call it or not call it, it’s a good example of how pieces in the real world don’t always neatly conform to elements of a single genre.

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).