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

Beginning AP Argument Writing – Letter to the Editor

Today’s guest post is from our friend, Betsy Reid. Betsy is a colleague of Moving Writers founders Rebekah and Allison at Trinity Episcopal School, where she teaches AP Language and Composition
and serves as the head of the department. For the past 20 years, she has taught all grades and levels in both public and private settings in Virginia and North Carolina. Betsy graduated with a B.A. from Meredith College in 1995 and obtained her Masters in Educational Leadership from VCU
in 2008. Most recently, she was a contributor to
Argument in the Real World by Troy Hicks and Kristen Turner (set for November release.) Join her on Twitter @ReadBReid Wednesday nights for #APLangChat and follow her classroom adventures on Instagram @mrsreid_tes.

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Photo of Betsy & her writers courtesy of David Ready, Trinity Episcopal School

 

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you are a Moving Writers regular, then you recognize these words. Rebekah has made some of her most important teaching discoveries while repeating this mantra, and just a few weeks ago, I did the same.

Rebekah’s room at school is just like the kitchen at a party: It’s in the middle of everything, and everyone wants to stop in. I learn something new every time I walk in the door, and if it’s not busy-mom life hacks like online grocery ordering or kid dessert ideas, it’s something about writing.

I walked in one day early this year when I was struggling with making a fundamental change in the way I teach writing in AP Language. I had taken a good, long look at The AP Chief Reader report, and it spoke to my heart. I had been teaching with the College Board-provided sample essays and rubrics, and I finally realized that my student’s writing mentors were anonymous student essays from AP Central. They were developing arguable screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-8-37-09-amclaims, but few that they really felt passionately about. They were Integrating conflicting viewpoints, but they sounded inauthentic. The were explaining how rhetorical choices work but they were not making these choices for themselves in their own writing.

Basically, my students were seeing professional writing as something far-off; it was something to analyze, but not something they could ever achieve for themselves. I looked at Rebekah and said I thought it was time for a change, and some serious mentor texting. Of course, she said,

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

________________

Nothing makes my teaching day better than when I think of a lesson that will have students practice several skills in one shot. In my beginning AP writing assignment, I wanted them to show me all that they had learned since the first day of school:

  • To be able to access and read closely from national and local news sites
  • To have an opinion on something that matters to them
  • To defend it using the elements of argument
  • To demonstrate their knowledge of basic rhetorical strategies by employing them in their own writing

I decided to go big by starting small: The Letter to the Editor.

Here was my process: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Rewriting the Word Wall

Today’s guest post comes from Amy Heusterberg-Richards, a tenth-year ELA teacher at Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District, located just north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Amy currently teaches Writing 10 and IB English Literature HL Year Two. Connect with her on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR.

Mentor Texts:

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflecting on elements of craft
  • Creating voice

Background:

My fifth-grade Social Studies teacher had a head of hair that rivaled those of Michael Bolton and Kenny G (musical studs of the time), making him the subject of more than one conversation between my classmates’ mothers. He had an acoustic guitar on which he played historical ballads and an impressive collection of obnoxious ties. An apparent pioneer in flexible seating, he had a reading loft and colorful bean bag chairs, over both of which we students often fought. All these glorious items aside, though, the possessions I most remember from Mr. Weitzel’s school domain were his classroom walls, spaces filled with explorers’ names, vocabulary terms, and worldly locations.

At the beginning of the school year, the walls were unimpressive, white blocks spattered with grey smudges and sticky, tape residue. Come June, however, they transformed into an exhibition of all the learning we students had accomplished. I remember sitting at my desk those last days and feeling a proud satisfaction of all the terms I had acquired, all the people and places I could now discuss.  Mr. Weitzel, as primary school teachers perhaps best understand, knew the impact these Word Walls had on the development of his students. He used his walls to physicalize terms, to track concepts, and to serve as reference documents. He skipped posters to motivate and instead posted words to guide.

This school year in our tenth-grade Writing course, my teammates and I decided to re-write the seemingly elementary Word Wall concept at our secondary level. We knew we wanted to begin our class with an exploration of — to borrow language from Stephen King’s On Writing — the “tools” of effective craft. We selected five elements of voice (diction, syntax, imagery, inclusion/exclusion of details, and tone) which we felt we could use in all upcoming writing studies. We also decided, in the spirit of the Word Wall, to post visuals of each tool on our own walls for “Writing Well.”

How We Used The Mentor Texts:

For each writing tool, we asked students to define the device and study a teacher-selected mentor text whose purpose was twofold: The excerpt from King’s On Writing (chapter one of the “Toolbox” section) described how to select vocabulary, but students also discussed how King employed the diction tool himself; Anne Lamott’s “Short Assignments” from Bird by Bird advised how to include/exclude details, but the class analyzed how her writing gave/withheld information with intent, too.

After exploring such mentor texts by writers-on-writing, we asked students to discuss additional examples of each tool’s use in groups and practice writing these devices in pairs. Ultimately, we ended each two-day, tool study with an individual activity that prompted students to intentionally use the element of craft to write well and, at the same time, to produce a visual to adorn our Writing Well Wall.

  • For diction, each student selected words with similar denotative meanings and placed them on a spectrumed paint sample with consideration to connotation.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-07-pm
  • For syntax, each student selected an auditory sound and visually wrote syntax that mimicked its quality and color.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-12-pm
  • For imagery, each student selected a photograph and wrote the sensory experience of one of its human subjects.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-17-pm
  • For details, each student selected a topic about which to write a flip-book riddle that excluded enough details to confuse but not enough to stump.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-21-pm
  • For tone, each student pulled a page from a discarded library book, marked evidence that created a tone, and labeled/showed the tone word.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-26-pm

The entire study of these five writing tools took the initial two weeks of our course. In that short time, our Writing students studied, practiced, and mimicked the craftsmanship of strong writers at a wonderfully tangible level. They created a wall full of examples showcasing the tools used to produce effective craft. Greater even still, they developed testimonies to themselves that they can control, at this most focused level, the sometimes daunting tasks needed to write effectively. As we move on to more challenging topics, more developed essays, and longer revision periods, I hope my students feel a comforting satisfaction — not unlike the one fifth-grade me experienced — as they sit aside a Writing Well Wall that reminds them with each glance that they can use — and have used — the tools of powerful writers.

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Mentor Text Wednesday: A surprising essay collection that helps students get at the “root” of the matter

Today’s post comes from our Twitter friend Brett Vogelsinger. When he is not digging in the garden, Brett teaches ninth grade English at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. You can connect with him on Twitter @thevogelman.

Mentor Text:  The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-8-24-08-amWriting Techniques:

  • Powerful syntax and diction
  • Intense brevity
  • Getting at the “roots” of something

Background:

Looking for a book to read on a trip to Maine, I stumbled upon a brief review of the book The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden.  A quick trip to the library, and it was mine for the week of travel.  I looked forward to a break from reading books to recommend to students, a little private “grown-up” reading that appealed to one of my other passions in life: gardening.  

But as teachers of reading and writing, we all know that we cannot so easily shed our teacher skin and read books as normal folk.  So only three essays into the book, I found myself not just admiring the well-crafted nonfiction, the brisk pacing, the powerful voice of each essayist, but also longing to take those lessons back to my students, to hear them write about their passions written with similar finesse.

Moreover, each essay in the book took a just a few minutes to read, yet each sounded unique to its writer and each crackled with wonderful wording.  I know these were professional horticulturalists and botanists and landscape designers, most of them with their own books already published, public speaking resumes replete, adept at turning their ideas into words, but I could not help but think, “This is the kind of excitement I want to feel reading my students’ work!  This is the kind of spark I want to help them to throw!”

Use these mentor texts to teach:

Powerful Diction and Syntax

Here are a few of the favorite lines I discovered in this book.  Each could make an excellent mentor text for a student looking to craft a memorable line in their nonfiction writing.

“My favorite part of winter is spring.” — William Cullina, “Spring Fever”

“Plants adopted me, I think.  My parents did their best, but with six kids and their own drinking problems, I was up for grabs.” — Thomas Hobbs, “It All Began With An Oxygen Mask”

“Whatever else might be happening in my day, or in the world, the garden is always there, carrying on its unhurried, miraculous business in the bee-humming, earth-splitting Now.” — Susan Heeger, “Homegrown”

“Perhaps I garden for all that accompanies the act of gardening: the nutty-sweet fragrance of black locust blossoms, on a rainy afternoon in May, when the silver-gray clouds make the trees look like gray-green ghosts laden with white blossoms; the flash of a sky-blue wing, as a bluebird flies from its next in the hollow of a tree and swoops, in that particular bluebird way, over the field where I’m planting my tomatoes.”

As I write this I am suddenly aware that my mentor sentences get longer as I write them (give me enough space in this post and I’ll start quoting entire paragraphs!) but each offers its own lesson in craft from the short, quick, surprise twist in the first one to the dense, lush, hyphen-heavy description in the last.  These are lines that will stretch our student writers.

Intense Brevity

The average essay in this book runs just a few pages long, readable in minutes.  Sometimes our student writers need to hear from us and see in mentors that writing can be deep, meaningful, and important without being Dickensian in length and complexity.

Examining how these writers pare down their lives into one or two moments and then pare those moments down into key images and meaningful epiphanies can help inspire our students to return to revise by reduction, trimming, shaving away.  

Getting at the “Roots” of Something

The whole idea behind this essay collection is that the writers are seeking to discover what is at the “root” of their obsession with gardening.  The metaphor works especially well in the title of a gardening book, of course, but it can be applied to anything.  A student who is obsessed with snowboarding or cars or ballet or graphic novels can trace these interests back to their roots too, and doing so in an essay can be a means of self-exploration.

Katherine Bomer, in her book The Journey Is Everything, calls for teachers to move students towards this view of the essay, to perceive the genre as a means of discovering something new, not simply state and restate what is already known to a tightly scripted formula.  Challenging students to explore the roots of their obsessions in brief essays implies some digging and exploration, some unearthing is involved in their writing process.  The writers in the collection have done this work and the excitement in their thinking shines  Even students with no interest in gardening could find in one of these essays an excellent mentor for the “sound” of exploration in an essay, the thrill of the dig.  

I admit that when all these ideas came flooding in on me my first thought was “Hey, this is my summer!  What happened to my me-time reading?”  I had to quickly remind myself that it is precisely this “reading as a writing teacher” that makes my work so endlessly interesting and engaging for myself and my students.  It gives me and my students mentors to spend time with.  This type of reading might well be tangled in the roots of my obsession with teaching English.  And I wouldn’t want it any other way.  

What book collections have you found useful as mentor texts for essay?  What texts emphasize the power of brevity for your students?

Connect with Brett @thevogelman!

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Metaphorical Op-Ed

Today’s guest post comes from Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches eleventh grade International Baccalaureate English and Theory of Knowledge in Hanover County, Virginia. She has taught ninth through twelfth grades over her eighteen-year teaching career. Connect with her on Twitter @KellyAPace. 

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Mentor Text: There’s a Brock Turner in All of o(UR) Lives

I don’t know why I could not get the story out of my head, but it would not go away. Perhaps it was because I was a University of Richmond alumni. Perhaps it was the combination of rage and embarrassment I felt towards my University–a school that I typically respect and praise. Yes, when CC Carrerras published her article in The Huffington Post comparing her rapist to Stanford University’s Brock Turner, I was angry and embarrassed by my alma mater’s reaction. Yet, I was equally inspired how Carrerras could use the written word to discuss a situation so personal, so devastating, and so emotional. Her raw words ultimately became the first mentor text for an assignment I am calling a “Metaphorical Op-Ed.”

I prefaced sharing this piece with my students by stating that what they were going to do today was going to be difficult. They would not be allowed to react to the article’s content; they simply had to look at how it was written. We discussed what it means to read like a writer, listing examples of writer’s craft they could look for when reading:

  • sentence structure
  • diction
  • style
  • persuasive techniques
  • tone
  • paragraph structure
  • figurative language

I read the article CC Carrerras published on September 6, 2016 in The Huffington Post “There’s a Brock Turner in All of o(UR) Lives” aloud to my students, asking them to annotate the text. I tried to read with passion, with conviction, even though they couldn’t react in an emotional way to the article. The article was written ten days prior to my lesson; it was current and passionate and students wanted to talk about the content.  Yet, they refrained.

Here’s what happened instead. They started talking about the structure of the text. “She has a one sentence paragraph,” someone said in disbelief. “Can you really do that?” When I tried to point out that it makes her argument stand out, they saw possibilities and what techniques they wanted to try for themselves. They noticed the use of statistics, how she calls the reader to action at the end of the text, how some of her use of parentheses make the writing awkward, and most importantly, they discussed the impact of the metaphor of Brock Turner. I asked them to count and underline the number of times Carrerras uses the metaphor in her text. Eleven. The name “Brock Turner” was mentioned eleven times. “Just about every paragraph,” one student noticed.

After practicing reading like writers, I told them we were going to imitate Carrerras. The class before this one, we had spent time looking at Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as a metaphor for the Red Scare going on in the 1950’s. We also considered the characters of Miller’s play, choosing an adjective to describe each as well as labeling each as a noun. For example, John Proctor became the self-sacrificing martyr. Abigail Williams became the two-faced liar. The day I asked students to read like writers I brought up these labels and the way the Salem Witch trials could be a metaphor for what happened in 1953. I told them they needed to choose something they could be critical about right now in their lives. It could be as simple as the change in our school’s cafeteria food to teenagers should not be ridiculed for being obsessed with technology to the upcoming election. What I wanted them to do is be as persuasive as Carrerras was in her article. And just like Carrerras uses Brock Turner as a metaphor, I wanted them to either use The Crucible itself or a character from the play as a metaphor. I gave them an example I knew they could relate to: If I find Hillary Clinton to be dishonest, I might say she is a modern day Abigail Williams because of her dishonesty.

Students brainstormed and came up with ideas such as these:

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   A persuasive essay was born through the use of this mentor text with my promise to students to continue with the following mini lessons:

  • Using metaphors in writing
  • Incorporating persuasive language
  • Finding credible evidence
  • What is parallel structure?
  • Writing the counterclaim

Carrerras’ use of the metaphor of Brock Turner changed the way my students look at writing. I’m still angry and confused by my alma mater’s reaction to Carrerras’ situation, but when I read her piece over and over again like a writer, I see students open to the possibility of turning a regular persuasive essay into so much more. “I’ll always think of this article when I see that name, ‘Brock Turner,’” one student said. Perhaps when they finish their metaphorical op-ed pieces, I too, will  never look at the characters of The Crucible the same way again.

 

Ironic How-To’s: Using Satire Writing As a Tool for Self-Discovery

Today’s guest post is from Christina Gil, a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. Christina believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.

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Image via youtube.com

One of my defining moments as a teacher happened sometime around 2004.  Another teacher in my department who was retiring that year said that she would never let a student make a fool out of her in her last year as a teacher.

And I remember thinking that my willingness to make a fool of myself on a daily basis is probably my biggest strength as a teacher.  If I can laugh at myself, then I am comfortable with my own faults, and I also get to know my students better when I open myself up to ridicule this way.

But it’s not always easy to incorporate humor into what we are actually studying–if you don’t get Jane Austen, you think it’s 300 pages about people going for walks and drinking tea.  Getting students to write funny pieces is even harder, unless they are naturally funny, but most kids don’t feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable.

And of course, exposing some part of yourself to your reader is the key to meaningful writing. Continue reading