Mentor Text Wednesday: What Were Giraffes?

Mentor Text: What Were Giraffes? by Amaan Hyder

Techniques:

  • Descriptive writing
  • Social commentary
  • Tone
  • Poetic form

Background: As I said last week, my Twitter feed has become a pretty important source of poetry for me. I follow poets, teachers and poetry journals, and they all dump lots of great poems onto my screen. (Sometimes it feels like too many, which is a pretty good problem to have.) I’m regularly dropping poems into my analog notebooks, and filling up the poetry folder on my drive.

This has given me a resource that has been indispensable as a poetry teacher, one I can tap whenever I need to. Things are organized in various schemes, but I’m generally able to find something to use for the purposes I have in mind.

As I also said last week, I try to make it so that poetry is a frequent part of regular business in my classroom. What’s really cool about this is that it enables me to build a culture around our different approaches to poetry. We’re writing for various purposes and we’re analyzing consistently. That’s awesome, because it allows us a chance to grow as poets and readers of poetry.

WWGIt’s also cool, because it allows me an opportunity to use poems for different purposes, like I did with the poem I’m sharing this week. Kaveh Akbar, a fine poet himself, is a great follow for poetry teachers, because of the poems he shares. (He is on a bit of a hiatus from Twitter right now.) He popped this one into my feed in March, and I took it straight to my classroom.  Continue reading

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Possible Subtitles

Mentor Text: Possible Subtitles by Mari Andrew

Subtitles

Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Analyzing Rhetoric
  • Explaining a quote
  • Pre-writing

Background: If you’re a member of the Moving Writers community, then the work of Mari Andrew is familiar. We’re all big fans, and have been using her work in our classrooms. We’re all probably buying her book this week too. There is something so powerful and real in the honesty and openness that she puts into the pieces that she shares on Twitter and Instagram. They’re wonderfully accessible and inspiring for students, making them some of our favorite Mentor Texts.

Last week, I stole a few phone moments while I waited for my family. As is generally the case when a Mari Andrew post comes across my screen, I flagged it for future use. As I often do, I retweeted the post. (Usually under my #nowherenearmynotebook tag.) As I wrote an accompanying tweet, I realized how versatile this particular image was.

That’s the very best thing about a mentor text, or really anything that we can bring into our classroom – the ability to use it in more than one way with your students. A really good mentor text is versatile, and can be used in a variety of ways. Mari Andrew’s pieces are like that. I’ve used many of them as prompts for memoir writing, but I’ve also used them to explore vocabulary, or as inspirations for other writing pieces. I love using her pieces, because there is a simplicity and accessibility in her work. As I work to encourage students to express themselves visually, her work is an example of how it can look, and that it doesn’t need to be perfect, and that honesty is actually more important than skill. It’s nice putting a piece of art in front of a student, and having confidence they can easily do a version of their own. Continue reading

Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time this year chatting with colleagues about Twitter and its usefulness to educators.  Mostly, we chat about the challenges of getting used to its format (it’s not fun to figure out–I almost gave up in my first week or so of fiddling with it), but sometimes the question is simply “What’s it good for?”

My answer is always the same:  Connections to great educators, incredibly fast news updates, amazing animal and nature videos…and the greatest comedy on the planet.

I could recommend some great follows for Serious Teachers or nature lovers out there, but for now I want to suggest to you that comedy Twitter is

  1. The best Twitter (as they say on Twitter) and
  2. A great resource for teaching students about writing structure with fun, playful mini-lessons.

Continue reading

March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up.  Continue reading

Reading Like a Writer in Troubled Times

We’ve been studying up on the idea of journalistic “angles”, in preparation for the writing of our big narrative journalism piece.  It’s an unfortunate and important time to be examining such things with high school students. Where we’d normally examining several models about random topics and attempt to uncover the underlying purpose or persuasive efforts of the author, we found ourselves this year understandably distracted by the terrible news of another school shooting.  

It didn’t at first occur to me to revisit such a tough topic as part of our ongoing study of narrative journalism.

Until I came across a terrifying and powerful article at The Atlantic about what AR-15 bullets do to human bodies.  It was gruesomely written for maximum impact on its readers–a master class in angle if I ever saw one.  While the author is a radiologist not a surgeon, Heather Sher’s intentions as a writer are as sharp as a scalpel.  She describes the results of an AR-15 on the human body thusly: “The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively.”  Having already described wounds from other bullets as nothing but thin gray lines on an X-ray, Sher leaves readers with a jarring realization–and we’re only eight sentences into the piece. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: My Three Solaces

Mentor Text: My Three Solaces by Erin Fornoff

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetry
  • Brevity
  • Memoir

Background: As this post publishes, many of you are headed back into your classrooms after a break for the holidays. (Monday for me!)

It’s a new calendar year. This, combined with the holiday season, makes me reflective. The chaos of school before the break, the chaos of the holiday season, the cold weather – all of these things put me in a reflective spot.

As I look at a Twitter feed full of people sharing their resolutions, their #oneword and their hopes for 2018, I also see a flood of reflection, much like my own. We’re looking at where we’re going, and we’re reflecting on where we’ve been.

When this poem found its way into my Twitter feed, I earmarked it for future use. Initially, I saw it as a mentor piece for some memoir writing, but as I scoured my earmarked pieces for the first Mentor Text Wednesday of 2018, I saw a new purpose for this piece.

In those first classes of the new year, how many of us are going to have students write about their resolutions? Their One Word?

 

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A Solace for Jay – via Tumblr

Let me propose an alternative. What if they popped open their notebooks and wrote about the things that bring them solace? It could be as an act of reflection – 2017 was tough for many people. Looking at what brings us comfort is a good way to reflect on a tough year. 2018 will be a year that brings challenges as well. For our graduating students, there is much that will change, and a reminder of what brings them solace might be a good start for the year to come. Continue reading

6 Halloween-Infused Writing Ideas for Tomorrow

Lately my son’s favorite activity has been our daily Halloween Walk in which we start at the top of our block and stroll from house to house snapping pictures of all the Halloween decorations we see with his Fisher Price camera. Today we saw spiders and pumpkins and ghosts and skeletons and scarecrows and orange lights and witches hanging from doorknobs. IMG_5930These afternoon walks have spawned two reactions in me:

1) We need to step up our Halloween decoration game big time…

2) We should do something fun and festive and Halloween-y with our students on Tuesday. If your school is like my school, only seniors are allowed to dress up. Aren’t 9th, 10th, and 11th graders entitled to some fun, too?

On Valentine’s Day last year I had similar feelings, and I found myself googling “Valentines’ Day activities” at midnight on February 13. This year, I’ve compiled a few Halloween-infused writing activities ahead of time.  Continue reading

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?

My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.

After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.

So, here’s what we did…

First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?

I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After our routine writing, turn and talk, and share out, I asked students to post their best responses on the board. Here’s what they said makes sentences beautiful…

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Next, I asked them to go digging.

I gave students 5-6 minutes to thumb through the text for examples of “beautiful language,” and then write down a few examples. We then went around the room, student to student reading aloud our beautiful sentences.

Here are some some very recognizable, albeit beautiful examples, that emerged in class:

  • “All time is all time.”
  • “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
  • “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
  • “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
  • “The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.”
  • “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
  • “The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”

After that, we read like readers and then read like writers.

Some guiding questions that helped:

  • What do you notice?
  • What feeling, idea, or event is the sentence conveying?
  • How does the writer do it?
  • Is there anything significant about connotation?
  • Are literary or rhetorical devices present?
  • Is there repetition?
  • What is special, exciting, powerful, or summoning about this sentence?

Then, we built our list of mentor text “noticings.”

From students of Room 729…

 

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Finally, we did some writing of our own.

I write about this often, but this is the beauty of literature as mentor texts. You read the literature, you practice close reading, you read like a writer, and you try your hand at crafting your own beautiful sentences by making concious choices. I tell my students over and again that this is how we become more mature, sophisticated, and intentional writers.

For this portion of this activity, I gave students a series of abstract words and asked them to conjure up a sentence or two that somehow conveyed the feeling or idea of the word. As always, I asked my students to let the mentors be their guide and to use their list of “noticings” to inspire their work.

With this scaffolding and rule of thumb in mind, we wrote about WARMTH, about HOPE, about DESPAIR, about SATISFACTION, and about INEVITABILITY.

Here are a few beautiful sentences written by a few of my very lovely students (who I am grateful to for allowing me to share here):

For Warmth by Jillian C: Warmth is something that cannot always be found under blankets, or in front of heaters, or between the arms of another. Sometimes it cannot be sold or borrowed or stolen. So ignite.

For Hope by Madison B: The potential was proven when all at once, humanity became whole.

For Despair by Sydney B: At night she navigated the den that was her mind; the wolves would arrive soon. It’s a pack mentality.

Reflections on the lesson:

– I happen to be teaching Slaughterhouse Five now, but this activity can be done with any text anywhere. There’s something fun and interesting about that for me. I suspect there’s beautiful language in unsuspecting places, and if we can get students to notice that and pay attention, that’s a win for the good guys.

– Although “beautiful” is a subjective term (in the eye of the beholder and all that), this lesson forces students’ hands in categorizing and articulating beauty in language, a frequent sentiment in AP Literature.

– This lesson hit the head and the heart. One of my favorite, favorite lines from Slaughterhouse Five that I find particularly moving, especially now, says…

“What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once…they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Ain’t that the stuff?

How do you celebrate and call attention to beautiful language in your classroom? I’d love to find out. 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

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

Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading