Recommended Reading: Intention

One of the greatest things about being active online as a teacher is that you get to interact with, and learn from, a lot of different people. I would never go as far to tell anyone that they absolutely have to be on Twitter to be a good teacher, but I can comfortably say that it’s a good way to engage and learn.

A pair of my favorite Twitter follows, Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder regularly drop bombs of goodness into my feed, and have had positive impacts in my classroom for the last few years. Dan gave me one of my favorite student response formats, and Amy has inspired so many creative activities in our work.

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My copy of Intention, proudly on my desk

 

Naturally, when I found out they had written a book together, it became a must buy. Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom has taken a place of honour on my professional bookshelf.

 

The core idea of the book is that we work to focus on the intent behind the things that we do in our classrooms. It is not necessarily the what we do that matters, the products, but rather the why we do it, the intention. This focus allows us to explore things more deeply, and allows us to let students create new things, hopefully breaking the cycle of reading and writing in response.

This book was like reading something that my heart wrote without me knowing it. Continue reading

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Dead Game

Mentor Text: Dead Game by Andrew Vachss

Writing Techniques:

  • Using Story to Explore an Issue
  • Foreshadowing
  • Personification
  • Focusing a Narrative

Background:

I pulled this story out in my class this week, not as a mentor text, but as a tool to help us discuss our writing variables. There is a question on my Grade 12s’ upcoming provincial assessment that asks them to explain the writing variables they’ve chosen for their writing task. They need to explain how their central idea, form, purpose, audience and context are connected. In past years, students have faced some challenges in answering this question. My hope was that in discussing this story, we could look at Vachss’ variables, and discuss what the connections are, hopefully seeing how we could do the same.

And then I remembered how much I love giving this story to students, and watching them react to it. As we discussed it, we also talked about how a piece such as this one could be a good mentor text for them as they wrote their assessment. They’re asked to write a piece that explores a central theme, and this piece could certainly allow them to do this.

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Best Author Photo Ever via nndb.com

I used to read a lot of Vachss. He’s a very visceral writer, and pulls elements from his work as a lawyer in his work. It can be a tough read. He’s also an advocate for the “bully breeds” of dogs, and firmly believes that dogs are only a danger when they are trained to be. We talk about this belief as we talk about the story.

 

Though it may impact my ability to use this story to talk about the writing variables in the future, I plan to use this piece as a mentor text. Continue reading

I Love My Analog Marking Lists

Somewhere, in my busy week of Halloween, my daughter’s birthday, teaching and student led conferences, I found time to do some marking.

DNbHj1WVoAA1r91As I marked, I tweeted a picture of one of my marking sheets, sharing a couple of the reasons that I still use an analog marking model. I don’t do the math in the old gradebook any more, but I still have a stack of sheets that have the grades on them.

Other contributors on the Moving Writers team have shared their thoughts about the grading process, and I echo a lot of what they have to say. The last few years, I’ve moved away from putting the grade physically on their work in favour of comments and feedback. The numbers live in our LMS, and my students themselves decide which of the sources of feedback they want. Many look at the feedback, then the grade, while others only focus on one of those things.

As for my analog sheets, they’re part of my process. I don’t feel comfortable going to a purely digital method of recording grades. Even the best programs are prone to hiccups, and regenerating a whole class of numbers is a task I hope to never take on. I recently had a situation where a student’s program meant that mid-semester, he was put into his own class in the LMS, and in doing so, all the numbers I had entered for his assignments vanished. A few minutes with my sheets, and we were right back where we had been.

My sci-fi fueled distrust of machines isn’t the only reason I value my analog marking sheets though. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Talking About a Text That Matters to You

Mentor Text: What Static Shock Meant To Me As a Young Black Boy by Jaylen Pearson

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About a Text
  • Applying a Critical Lens
  • Highlighting an Impactful Moment
  • Writing an Introduction

Background:

My Grade 12 course is tied to a theme based around identity, individuality and independence, which we call The Three Is. As a way of exploring these things, we read and write a lot of memoir based stuff. Since I let my own biases take the wheel at times, we often do this through the lens of pop culture. When I think of how deeply things in my world have been impacted by Star Wars and rock and roll, it just seems like a natural fit. Take into consideration the role that pop culture plays in our lives now, and it just makes sense.

 

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Image via Den of Geek

As a result, my social media feed is a cornucopia of teaching and the things I love, creating all these gorgeous confluences of work and play – my favorite thing to bring into my classroom. For example, this piece about Static Shock came across my feed, and I got excited. I never watched the show, though I was aware of the character’s origins in the comics. I grew up in a rural area, with pretty limited exposure to diversity, and that line of Milestone Comics was an interesting glimpse into a different world for me. (Milestone Comics was an independent imprint distributed by DC Comics that focused on minority characters, as they were underrepresented at that time.) As time has passed, I have come to appreciate how much those comics, the characters and stories must have meant to people. This will be the appeal for many in using this particular mentor text.

 

It is also a fine example of writing about how a text matters to you personally, which, in our classrooms, is a thing we want students to be able to write about. Continue reading

“No Dress Rehearsal…”

I do not hide the fact that I am a fan of rock and roll.

And, if you’re a Canadian of my age, that means being a fan of The Tragically Hip.

That means being a fan of Gord Downie.

Gord, as we all call him, in a very Canadian way, like we knew him personally, sort of way, passed away this week. About a year and a half ago, it was revealed that Gord had terminal brain cancer. As fans, we got to say goodbye. There was new music. There was a final tour. The last show of that tour was televised, and Canada pretty much stopped to watch.

And now, he’s gone.

It rattled me. I’m a big fan of music, and lately, that seems to mean dealing with loss after loss of artists who had given you songs that meant so much. Gord’s passing has hit the hardest of these.

 

Gord

The painting that hangs in my classroom.

A painting I did after catching my last Hip show hangs in my classroom. Gord watches over us as we work. I’ve looked up a number of times the last few days, and thought about what that means in my English classroom.

 

Like many of my favorite artists, Gord made rock and roll a literate pursuit. I’ve written here before about his lyrics and poetry. In many ways, Gord wasn’t a lyricist as much as he was a poet fronting an amazing band. The Huffington Post, this week, called him a pub-rock poet. In my classroom, he watches over young writers. As I encourage them to play with words, a master of the craft is there, I hope, in spirit. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Poets Respond

Mentor Texts: The Poetry of Poets Respond, via Rattle Magazine

Writing Techniques:

  • Responding to current events
  • Finding Inspiration
  • Poetic Form

Background:

This post has been at the back of my mind for a while now. It’s not the first time I’ve written here about how our classrooms are places that we have to deal with the troubling things that our world puts in front of us. I openly advocate having poets and poetry journals in your social media feed. I do, and it’s a rich resource. One of my favorite follows is @RattleMag. There are many wonderful poems and poets peppered throughout my feed as a result of this follow, but there’s a wonderful strategy there that I want to mine as well.

 

Once a week, they publish a poem under the banner Poets Respond. The intention is that a poet is able to respond to events in the world within the past week. This is a concession to the “age of information” on their part, as they have a lengthy period of time between issues. I love their selection criteria, “Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome.”

 

I stand by my opinion that poetry, and other forms of writing are important ways for our students to work through their opinions and ideas about things that are challenging. Poets Respond is what this looks like in practice outside of a classroom, in the “real world” where our writers live. Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Lynda Barry

If you’ve taken note of my Twitter handle, you might be curious about where it comes from. I didn’t join Twitter as a teacher, and my initial avatar was a drawing I did of a stuffed monkey that used to travel with my wife and I wherever we went. Being drawn to artistic pursuits, and travelling with a stuffed monkey, it made sense to adopt the handle @doodlinmunkyboy and roll with it.

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A page from What It Is

It’s a different handle than most teachers have, as it doesn’t necessarily reflect my “teacher identity” as a high school English teacher. It actually speaks more to my artistic leanings, though I have taught art as well.

Some of my posts here at Moving Writers have highlighted my interest in focusing on the visual elements of the language arts. Though we often focus on reading and writing, viewing and representing deserve, in my opinion, development and practice. I’ve drawn quite heavily on my interests in art and design, as well as my experience as an artist and art teacher to make this happen in my class.

I am well aware that this notion is daunting for many teachers. If we don’t self-identify as artists, we feel ill-prepared to encourage our students to play and explore that side of literacy. I totally get that!

Recently, I dropped a quick recommendation of a book that I’ve used in my classroom recently. I’ve thought about that brief mention, and would like to expand upon it. There are two books that I use in my classroom that are invaluable resources in pushing the creative limits of ourselves as teachers, and the efforts of our students.

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Syllabus one of my favorite teaching books (image via Drawn & Quarterly)

Cartoonist, author and teacher Lynda Barry has created many wonderful things, but it is her teaching books that have become very important to me. I have read all three of them: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and keep What It Is and Syllabus close by, alongside my Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher books. Let’s be honest, someone who’s official title is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity absolutely has to have great ideas, right?

I recommend these books to my English teacher friends because they are a blueprint to helping students find a path to expressing themselves visually. Many of the core ideas about creativity and artistic attitude that I worked to instill in my art students years ago are laid out in these texts. Barry lays out exercises to help students develop, while also encouraging them to embrace their innate talents, whatever they may be. If you’re a teacher who wants to have students sketching as part of their writing process, and aren’t sure how to go about it, it’s a great blueprint. The drawing jam from Syllabus has been invaluable the last few years as we study graphic novels, and work on graphic storytelling. After running through a couple weeks of drawing to start the class, students develop confidence in what they can create, an acceptance that they can do something that works artistically, even if it isn’t necessarily of the caliber of the art they see in the graphic novels we study.

I recommend these books to English teachers because there are so many activities in them that are invaluable in the idea generating stages of the writing process. In What It Is Barry shares ways to get writers to (literally) draw from their own experiences. They’ll pay attention to their day for ideas, or reflect upon people they’ve known to find characters to write. These exercises combine visuals and text, giving them material from which to write. They are engaging ways to generate ideas, so much more lively than sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration.

I recommend these books for their mentor text potential. In What It Is Barry includes a collection of pieces in which she creates pieces that explore some big, rhetorical and inquiry style questions through a combination of art, collage and text. They’re engaging pieces that have students represent their thoughts and ideas. There’s no thesis, no body paragraphs, or the conventional features we expect when students work with these kinds of questions… there is simply the wondering, the exploring, the attempts to answer, presented in an interesting way. Much more interesting to mark!

I recommend these books because using them allows students to have fun. Have you broken out some crayons in a high school classroom lately? It takes the students right back. If you think asking students to draw a castle in two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, and finally 15 seconds doesn’t create a buzz… And that fun is engaging. We go from laughing about our castles to talking about how we established criteria for what makes a castle, and how we could express that idea succinctly. From fun to important learning in a single exercise. Maybe we do this a few times, with dragons, unicorns and portraits of our teacher before we have that chat. If we do, we’ve strengthened the connection between expressing oneself creatively and fun, which is also a big win.

Before I bought these books, I had discovered Barry online. Her Tumblr page is a treasure trove, as it is essentially the course website for ‘The Unthinkable Mind,’ the course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin. It’s loaded with activities, ideas and exemplars, and well worth a visit. I just took a look at the first page, as I haven’t been there in a while, and I noted a handful of things I’d like to try in my Creative Writing course next semester.

These texts are unconventional in many ways, which is what makes them, in my opinion, so important for us to have. I love handing them to someone to check out, and the conversation that comes afterwards. Creativity is an important part of what we do in our English classrooms, and they encourage that in a natural and holistic manner. They’re wonderful guides for visual expression and literacy, which can be challenging to teach. Most of all, they’re catalysts for fun in your classroom, a way to play as part of learning, which is very important in our work.

Have you used Barry’s work in your classes? How? What’s a go-to text of yours that we might not know about?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesdays: Let’s Rank The Things We Love

Mentor Texts: All 115 of Taylor Swift’s Songs, Ranked by Rob Sheffield

School Days and Parisian Nightsuits: Every ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Episode, Ranked by Jennifer Wood

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Considering Appropriate Length
  • Recognizing good writing

Background:

 

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Love this minimalist Freaks and Geeks poster via Etsy

One of this week’s mentor texts was a total must read for me based upon the subject material. My Grade 12 classes study Freaks and Geeks as part of our look at Identity, Individuality and Independence. It’s a wonderful text, giving us lots to ponder, and explore, while being entertaining and engaging. There’s a reason you’ve seen it on so many lists of the shows you must watch.

 

The other was a must read for me as well, but because of the writer, not the subject material. I am a huge fan of Rob Sheffield’s writing, having devoured his memoirs and beautiful book on David Bowie in the last year or so. He’s a music fan, and writes about it so unabashedly that I will gladly read any of his writing about music. This is significant, because I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I do enjoy her songs as performed by others, and I’m listening to Ryan Adams’ wonderful full album covering of 1989, but her music doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve long been fascinated by these epic rankings of the creative works of people. Every special edition that Rolling Stone publishes featuring an artist I love has one of these features. I read the lists fanatically, in my head reordering my own personal list. I’ve never actually taken the time to put pen to paper, but I’ve solidified a few Top 10 lists while killing time.

We live in a pop culture saturated world, as well as a world which is constantly ascribing value to things. Top 10 lists are standard fare, and there are those among us who may still apply Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to our appreciation of music. If you’re a fan of anything, you are expected to be able to name the favorites – songs, albums, episodes, seasons, games, levels, novels, scenes, comics, artists, or whatever it may be. Continue reading

Required Reading: On Mandated Texts

If you’re a regular visitor to Moving Writers, you’ve seen the Behind The Scenes series of posts throughout September related to organizing the year. Earlier, throughout August, the Ask Moving Writers series had this team sharing answers to readers’ questions.  I have an obvious bias, but what a wonderful thing to have a community of teachers sharing their experience and insight.

In the spirit of this, I’d like to address a question that came up as we prepped for the Behind The Scenes series. Britt Decker asked about mandated novels within the workshop model. Although I don’t necessarily work in the workshop model, the idea of working with mandated novels got me thinking.

 

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via the TEDEd blog

I’m lucky enough to not have to deal with mandated novels. My team and I have great flexibility, and have novels that are loosely attached to a grade, but little that is set in stone. We communicate to make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and make an effort to complement what each other are doing with the texts that each of us chooses.

 

I’ve been open about my affinity for the whole class novel. I think a community of learners, exploring a text, creating some common experiences and knowledge is a powerful thing in a classroom. The whole class novel has been tarnished by the image of repetitive, mindless busywork. The mandated text compounds this distaste for us, because it feels like our freedom is impacted. We have to teach a book we didn’t choose, and we think of how we likely did a whole class novel as students, that mindless busywork hamster wheel we felt trapped on. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Poetry of Small Moments

Mentor Text: The Taco Boat by Al Ortolani

Writing Techniques:

  • Idea Generation
  • Memoir
  • Poetic Form
  • Voice

Background:

In  Twitter edchats, I’ve been part of discussions about what should be part of a teacher’s Twitter feed. One of my go-to recommendations is always poetry. Following poets, literary magazines and other sites that focus on poetry. The wealth of poetry this puts into your feed is good for your soul as a human, and a vital resource as an English teacher. My screens feed me poetry daily.

I’m a huge fan of poetry as a mentor text, as the texts I’ve shared on Mentor Text Wednesday would attest. Often, it is my Twitter feed that puts these poems in front of me, such as this week’s poem. Al Ortolani’s The Taco Boat was one of those poems that you read and instantly know has a place in your classroom.

Whaaaaat

The poem, as retweeted by Rattle magaizine, in which it appears

Continue reading