Upon Reflection…

This time of the year is a maddeningly reflective time of year.

Though I have just over a month left before I dial up Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ and tear out of the parking lot, I feel deep in reflection mode.

I’ve already met with my principal about my year-end reflection. My team and I met to plan the tasks and assessments that will run out the year of our common courses. We had our school planning day, and the new member of our team was there. She’s a former student of mine, and the daughter of a beloved former principal. We’re finding out what our schedules will look like next year, and have been discussing what elements of this year will carry over, and how we’ll tweak things. I’m getting ready to start a project that I love with my Grade 10 class, and I’m looking at how we do it this year, to make it the best iteration of the project. And, well, the last few weeks have been crazy, personally, and professionally, so I’ve been catching up on the stack of marking.

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Image via 121clicks.com

Reflection is such a vital part of what we do. We need to look at what we’ve done, and decide whether it merits doing again, and likely, how it can be done better. A cool part of sharing so openly, here on Moving Writers, and via Twitter, is that I actually get a lot of feedback on things, which adds a really cool element to the reflection. I have an amazing team that I work with, and great students who I can discuss things with, and a solid community online to help me work better. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Say Something Nice

Mentor Texts:

The Say Something Nice series at Birth.Movies.Death

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Counterargument
  • Tone and Voice

Background – Our students consume a fair amount of pop culture. They’re able to budget their time in such a way that they’re consuming media at an insane pace, binge watching like mad, and watching everything Netflix has to offer in their favorite genre.

So, it stands to reason that they watch a lot of crap.

When we’re talking about these things, at some point during the bashing, I make a point of pointing out that the things we hate the most are someone else’s absolute favorites, and vice versa. It kind of blows their minds, but it highlights a point I really want them to think about as consumers of media, as participants in work with texts of all kinds – there is good in the bad.

As a fan of pop culture, and as a teacher of literature, it’s second nature for me to note the positive aspects in things. I’m either justifying my investment in entertainment, financially, my time, or looking for the teachable moments in a piece. It’s a practice I enjoy personally, but it’s also a thing I think is important for my students to adopt as well. I want them looking for golden lines, magic moments and things that they enjoy, even if the text they’re in stinks. Continue reading

O Captain, My Captain

I love showing Dead Poets Society to Grade 12 students.

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Image via creoflick.net

There’s something special about that movie and that group. They’re not much longer for my building, and will soon be sallying forth to “Carpe diem.”

But, if I must be honest, I’ve always applied the Stink of English class to it by attaching an academic piece to it, often an essay. The film is rich, with lots to discuss and debate, much for students to ponder as they respond in writing. It works for this, and it’s a good piece to give them the “freedom” of an essay response to say what the movie inspires them to say.

And I kind of hate that I’ve done that. My DPS lesson plan was becoming as stolid and devoid of passion as the introduction to poetry Keating has the boys rip out of their books.

So, this year, I revamped things. There was to be no formal response. In actuality, I wasn’t even going to be able to watch the film with them, because I would be away at PD. They watched. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Songs In A Discordant Voice

Mentor Texts: Another Nightmare in America – Cory Branan (listen here)

American Tune – AJJ (listen here)

Writing Techniques:

  • Voice
  • Adopting a persona
  • Writing a protest piece

Background – I’m a music fan. I use music in many ways in my classroom. It matters in my life so it features in my work.

As I was waiting for my vinyl copy of Cory Branan’s fine new album Adios to arrive, I was reading some writing about it. As an English teacher, and fan of the craft of songwriting, I was especially enthralled by a song-by-song breakdown of the album that was featured on NoiseTrade’s website. Branan is one of the finest songwriters working today, and a chance to see him explain where the songs on this album came from was exciting. (Also, on NoiseTrade, you can get a sampler of three songs from the album, including this one. It’s like Costco. Try these, than buy the megapack!)

As I read, there was a link to this video of Branan performing a solo version of the album’s protest song, “Another Nightmare in America.”

As Branan speaks about assuming the voice of a racist cop, a position quite removed from his own life, I knew this would be a great mentor text. In some ways, Branan uses this exercise to express his feelings, whilst also working to attempt to understand that point of view. (This is to say nothing of having a writer give insight into his craft. We should be training our writers to seek this type of thing out!)

Songs sung in character are not new. Heck, as a Springsteen fan, I’ve already used them in the classroom. However, Branan’s song reminded me of another that I’ve brought into the classroom as a protest piece, “American Tune” by AJJ. (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) I paired them as mentor texts this week because each obviously speaks in the voice of a less than savory character, but also because they speak of things that are quite current and relevant in the world our writers live in. Continue reading

Snake Man & The Nature of Time

When I was at Teachers College, we had a professor, Rick MacDonald. He was the chair of the high school program, as well as the Social Studies department. Everybody wound up in his courses at one point or another.

Ours was a small teachers college, made progressively smaller by the fact that I was a member of the last class admitted, and graduated from it. This meant that we had this really cool vibe happening, where about halfway through the program, your professors started treating you more as a colleague than a student. I think it was even more so for my class, as we would be the last.

Rick was a taskmaster. He was that kind of teacher that you feared. You were never late, you avoided skipping, and you made sure you did your best work for him. A super serious dude.

Which made it all the more impactful when he switched to colleague mode. He did it with a story.

He told us about his first year of teaching. He acknowledged his organization, his intense long term planning, and how he began his career that way. His first year was planned out. The whole year. Every single class. When he told us that, we weren’t surprised.

Then, he told us, about three weeks into the school year, the travelling reptile show came to the school for an afternoon. That van of snakes and lizards gave everyone the afternoon out of class, and threw his plans off for the rest of the year.

So Rick gave us a piece of advice that I’ve used throughout my career, and have passed on to many teachers,

“You can’t plan for Snake Man.” Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: BuzzFeed Poetics

Mentor Text:Which Famous Musician Who Died at the Age of 27 are you?  A BuzzFeed Quiz by Eirean Bradley

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetic form
  • Theme
  • Social commentary
  • Presenting research

Background: I decided to use popular culture as the anchor for the Lit course I’m currently teaching. It’s been going quite well. In my prep work for the course, I searched online for as much pop culture related poetry as I could find. I found this poem, which I’ve already used as the basis for a Poetry and Image Pairing, or a PIP, as we call them in class. However, it had gone into my folder for other purposes as well, a possible mentor text.

I like using mentor texts that are a bit different, and thereby may engage my writers. This piece, based around the ubiquitous BuzzFeed quiz caught my attention, as it allows us to not only play with poetry, but to mess around with something that they’ve no doubt seen online. There’s a nice bit of subversion of this inspiration in the poem that would be a wonderful thing for our writers to pick up on, and use in their writing. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: “so much depends…”

Mentor Text: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetic form
  • Focusing on main idea
  • Brevity

Background: Last year, I made a conscious decision to dedicate April’s Mentor Text Wednesday posts to poetry, in honor of it being National Poetry Month. I plan to continue that tradition.

This week, I want to share my thoughts about this simple, and beautiful poem. I love it, but I also love how it engages, perplexes and challenges students.

As I shared last year, my Grade 10 students create OUPAs, or Original Unique Poetry Anthologies. We recycle old books, giving them interesting new titles, and covers. Then, throughout the course, we regularly add new poems to them, using a poetic form, or pieces of poetry as a mentor text. It’s a pretty engaging activity, and a tradition I love having in my classroom.

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My favorite result in an interesting image search… via ENG106

One of the first poems I used as a mentor text this year was this William Carlos Williams classic. (If you click through to last year’s post about the OUPA, you’ll see that I reference this poem there too. I’m going deeper on it this year!) I have long had a soft spot for this poem, and the way that students react to it. It’s a great way to deconstruct preconceived notions of what poetry is, and it’s a simple piece for them to model original pieces upon. There is a lot of great discussion.

 

However, the more I think about this little poem, the more applications that I see for it. Continue reading

Talkin’ ‘Bout Some Organization

In the stack of marking that I took home, promising myself I’d do before Spring Break ended, sits a stack of Of Mice and Men literary analysis essays.

As we worked on them, we had a fair number of conversations about what we were doing, and why. We talked about how, often, exercises like lit analysis are purely academic, but the process of analysis, and thinking critically, are important.

Since I teach from a largely thematic perspective, we had focused our analysis around thematic elements of the novel, which we had discussed as we read. In short, we had talked through a lot of the what of these essays before writing. I really wanted to focus on the how.

This has become a focus for me as an English teacher, because there are folks that fill my students’ heads with very concrete ideas of what an essay is. There are Right Ways. If you’ve not heard of these Right Ways, then let me tell you, the fear of them runs deep in my writers. Actually, the fear of not conforming exactly to these Right Ways has them so paralyzed with doubt that they can barely write.

My message to them is simply that there are no Right Ways. Well, not official ones that carry throughout academia from top to bottom as they’ve been led to believe. Those that pound their fists on desks and insist that there are are misleading their students – there are right ways, conventions to conform to, but those are individual preferences that very well may differ from teacher to teacher.

So we focused on writing. I let them know what my expectations for the paper were, and made it clear that our goal was to write our strongest pieces. To that end, I wanted us to focus on ideas and organization. I gave them some ideas about structure. We worked hard on introductions, even going so far as to write a rough draft of one in our notebooks, removed from the essay itself.

Like many teachers, I have my bag of tricks that I rely upon. I have a sheet I call The Big Sheet, which I print off on 11×17 to make little booklets to help us organize our ideas. The outer pages are a handout I came across that compiles the rhetorical moves from Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say. Inside they have a thesis statement generator based upon the one that Jim Burke created. There is a page that is blank, but for a reminder of the structure of an essay: an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I also remind them of the mnemonic that I use to remind us of the things that should be in a body paragraph, SELECT.

SELECT

I also spent a class sharing the idea of using Says/Means/Matters with them. (I’ve written about using this strategy before.)

Says-Means-Matters image

Not only did we look at using it as a strategy we can use to develop our arguments, and better explain our ideas, but I was frank with them that they may, in their studies, face a writing assignment that asks them to achieve a piece of a certain length. I know that this stresses writers out. A SELECT paragraph gives them a basic, and potentially brief way to make their point using a quote. Says/Means/Matters allows them a way to expand on that one idea, which, if we’re being honest, is a tool that they can use to add length to a paper more effectively. We did the simple math: if, using only SELECT, we can write a baseline of a five paragraph essay, with three core arguments, then we can use Says/Means/Matters to stretch that same core to up to 12 paragraphs, possibly more than doubling the length of the paper, and that’s without resorting to choosing really, really long quotes!

The strength, I feel in showing them these two approaches is that I’ve now shown them two different ways to communicate their ideas in an organized fashion. I make it clear that another strength in knowing two approaches is that they can alternate between them, giving their writing some variety, less of a feeling of following a set structure than what I’ve seen from students in the past when they used only SELECT.

Basically, I want to spend as much of their time as academic writers giving them strategies they can use in that pursuit. It will work in my class because we’re playing as we learn, taking risks and figuring out how the tools work. I hope that it will work if they roll into a classroom in which there exist Right Ways, because they’ll have confidence in their ability to write, and can do so once they figure out the expectations they need to conform to.

What other organizational tools do you use? Do you have acronyms that you use in class for strategies? I need to build better models for teaching introduction and conclusion… what have you got?

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

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

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A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally¬† got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading

Short Inspiration

I had a meeting this week, during the school day, in my building. It meant prepping a sub plan, but, since I was in the building, something I could get going before running out to the meeting.

As often happens, this wasn’t the best time for my Grade 9s to be without me. We’ve just finished one things we’ve been working on, and we’re not quite where I want us to be for the to work on another thing without me.

We’ve been looking at monsters, and scary stuff like that, as a way to explore imagination and empathy. I needed a one and done activity.

Recently, a tweet came across my feed that featured “Tuck Me In,” a wonderful little short film about the monster under the bed. I watched it again, seeing if there was a way to use it. As I watched it on YouTube, as I often do, I scanned the other videos suggested. This led me to “Run.” This one minute short is a neat little piece of horror. It was great fun to watch with the students.

Continue reading