3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading

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GRIT: A Reflection Protocol for Risk-Taking

GRIT ReflectionAs a Curriculum and Instruction Consultant in my district, when I’m not working with students as learners, I’m working with their teachers. Over the past few years, we’ve been digging into some really hard work. I mean really hard. We’re working on moving away from teaching novels to teaching reading, away from prescribing a formula to analyzing mentors, away from grammar workbooks to grammar in context. Like I said, it’s hard, hard work.

Throughout the process, I’ve come to realize that we as teachers aren’t all that different from our students when it comes to digging into new, hard learning. We come with diverse experiences and understanding, and we learn at different paces and in different styles. And, when something is especially difficult or unfamiliar, it terrifies us. Some brave souls embrace the fear head-on while others avoid it or deny it or deflect it. (You’ll usually recognize that approach when you hear, “but that won’t work with my kids” in the break room.) Most teachers, though, fall somewhere in the middle: willing to try it out, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One teacher bravely confided in me about letting go of control and allowing students to make observations in a mentor text. “Megan, I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff, here.” My initial reaction was to assure her that I, and the rest of her PLC, were there to be her parachute, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that metaphor wouldn’t hold up.

When we’re taking risks, learning something new, making big changes, a swan dive off of a cliff is sometimes what it takes to get things moving. More often, though, what it takes is the kind of grit that gets you to the top of the cliff in the first place.

Now, grit has been an awfully buzzy word lately, and usually I do my best to avoid that kind of buzz. But, in this case, it has helped me to embrace and support risk-taking by encouraging thoughtful, honest reflection that is grounded in learning. The following is a protocol I’ve used with myself and with teachers in my district whenever it’s time to embrace risk-taking and move forward.  Continue reading

Organizing Instructional Time

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food organization

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.

 

Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

4 Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text: Incidental Comics

The school year is winding down—and I find myself thinking more and more of warm poolside days—yet everywhere I turn, rich mentor texts seem to come my way. I’ll find something and think, “Oh, that would have been perfect to use with ____” or “That would have worked great with ____!” Although it may be too late to use these ideas this year, I click my bookmark button and tuck them away for next year.

One mentor text I can’t wait to use is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics. Although I’m usually suspicious of most social media “suggestions,” I have to thank Facebook’s algorithm for introducing me to Snider’s work. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Grant Snider’s work before. As someone who loves the way words and pictures can work together, whether it’s through infographics or graphic novels, the moment I started browsing Snider’s work, I fell in love. And once my teacher-brain took over, I couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for reading and writing for next year. Continue reading

How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

IMG_0438 Continue reading

Poetry Mentor Text: “Raised by Women”

Poetry Mentor Text-

I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.

Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year. 

The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.

In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.

Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”?  Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?

Listen to “Raised by Women” by Affrilachian poet, Kelly Norman Ellis.

Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.

Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).

Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.

Continue reading

Discovery Writing

The Need for Writing

As I began planning my unit for The Crucible, I reflected upon previous years and noted the nearly complete lack of writing. Traditionally, the unit is taught as a close reading/character analysis unit with a strong focus on allegory and character complexity. However, I wanted to change that. I wanted a unit that would allow for deep and purposeful writing that led to ideas essential to the text. One of those essential ideas is Abigail Williams’s loss of childhood innocence, and my students reflected on this idea through Discovery Writing.

Discovery Writing

The idea of Discovery Writing came from the notion that self-directed writing often leads to personal truths. As learners, we are not looking for universal, capital-T Truth. Instead,

DiscoveryWriting

Students engaged in Discovery Writing

we are looking for personal, and oftentimes conflicting, lower-case-t truths. A great way to illustrate this lies in the difference between denotation and connotation. We are not concerned with Webster’s definition of Childhood Innocence. Instead, we are interested in what Childhood Innocence means to each student; we are interested in how they have come to realize and understand this meaning and what they are going to do with this personal truth.

The Only Rule

Students may only read, write, view, or listen for the entirety of the hour.

The Prompt

Demonstrate what Childhood Innocence means to you.

Continue reading

Argument in the Wild: Reading & Writing from Media-Rich Texts

The idea that “everything’s an argument” seems almost too obvious these days. After all, talk to almost any adolescent today and it’s clear how aware they are of the ways in which they are constantly being persuaded, whether it’s an editorial from the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, the latest newscast from CNN or The Daily Show, or the pop-up mobile ad for an item students were browsing earlier.

That said, we all know that as tech and media-savvy our Generation Z students seem to be, students may still lack the close reading, analytical skills necessary to understand not just that they are being persuaded, but how that persuasion is happening. And because “everything’s an argument,” the sheer volume of messages can be overwhelming.  Continue reading

No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading