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

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Mentor Text Wednesday: A Love Letter to Saga

Mentor Text: A Love Letter to Saga by Laura Sackton (via BookRiot)

Strategies:

  • Lit appreciation
  • Media Appreciation
  • Review
  • Criticism

 

Background: Teaching English the way so many of us do winds up highlighting so many great dichotomies that exist in that practice. Write with passion, yet realize that you must do this within constraints sometimes. Read poetry with your heart, but be ready to subject it to an autopsy.

Enjoy and appreciate literature, even though we’re going to attach academic tasks to the reading.

That’s the one that hits me the hardest, and it’s where I see this week’s offering of a mentor text being a good resource. Having students write to a beloved text should prove to be an engaging act of literary appreciation.

 

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Book One of Saga via amazon.com

As you likely already know, Book Riot is a great source for writing about all kinds of books. I especially enjoy their features on genres such as sci-fi and comics. This specific piece reminded me of a particular series, Saga, which I haven’t read in a while, and now need to carve out some time for.

 

It is the way that this piece is written, as a love letter to that comic, that makes it such a great mentor text. Continue reading

5 Reasons Why Analysis Essay & Meeting Your Students Where They Are

saturday well-spent

One tried and true way I choose mentor texts for my students is to strike while inspiration is hot by building assignments from engaging and effective texts that I stumble upon “in the wild.” Like Michael’s series on Teaching From My Twitter Feed, sometimes the best mentors are the ones that find you.

Because it’s nearly impossible to turn off my teacher switch, I knew as I turned the page in my new issue of The New Yorker that I would include Carrie Battan’s “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” as a mentor text in my AP Literature class. My students had been struggling with depth in written analysis, and this text did so many things right, there’s no way it could go wrong.

For some more context and background on why this mentor text, my AP Lit students are whip-smart. They are insightful and curious and down for any activity I plan. They play my reindeer games, if you will. And although they had been making gains in their writing and analysis, I still wanted more—more depth, stronger voice, stronger arguments, more authority.

When I introduced what my students and I have fondly come to call “the Taylor Swift mentor” to my AP Lit students, I saw light bulbs. No matter how often we discussed the hallmarks of mature and sophisticated analysis, it wasn’t until my students got their hands on Battan’s deep dive into Taylor Swift’s new album that they began to understand the finesse of controlled, creative analysis.

We first read this text aloud in class and then pasted each page onto chart paper for group annotations. What I like about collaborative text annotations is the opportunity for students to process together—to exchange noticings and ideas about why the mentor text is…well, the mentor. Because ultimately that’s what it’s about, right? Examining the stitches and seams of the text to get a better, deeper understanding of the writer’s craft.

Here are my students’ major takeaways from “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation”.

Writers of sophisticated analysis…

  • Are conversational but maintain sophistication
  • Seamlessly embed quotations
  • Are intentional about the structure of their argument
  • Pull no punches—defend their analysis even if it is critical
  • Have a purpose and know what they want to communicate to the audience

Now, here’s where the 5 Reasons Why Essay comes in and why I want to stress: you’ve got to meet your kids where they are…

At the time, my students were on the heels of another big paper, at the end of the most demanding novel we’d yet encountered, and we were only a couple weeks out from Thanksgiving break. I knew I wanted my students to have an opportunity to practice what they’d learned from the Taylor Swift mentor, to discuss the novel they’d studied, and to continue to build necessary AP Lit exam skills.

So, 5 Reasons Why Beloved is a Work of Literary Merit was born.

Essentially, I wanted my students to write like Carrie Battan writes about Taylor Swift, but I wanted them to format it like the good folks at Vulture or Paste. So I set out to make “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” our anchor mentor text and  “Every Batman Movie, Ranked” and “5 Reasons Why Jupiter is Weird” our style guide.

Based on my students’ needs and based upon the mentor texts that were most apt, I assigned the following task:

In the style of a pop culture listicle, defend why Beloved by Toni Morrison is a work of literary merit. Students were required to address the following criteria: why the novel is ambiguous, provocative, complex, emotionally challenging, socially challenging.

Admittedly, the listicle style felt like a bit of a risk, but it yielded some of the strongest analysis I’ve seen all year. After having gone on the emotional journey of this novel, and after dedicating ample classroom time to examine the moves of Carrie Battan’s Taylor Swift mentor, and after checking out the “reasons why” listicle style, students were more than ready to write about the literature they’d studied.

Here are a few excerpts of student papers:

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.19.15 AMScreen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.18.49 AMScreen Shot 2018-02-07 at 9.17.36 AM

All year we’ve focused on voice, style, and narrating our insights using our authentic voices. This assignment was a reminder that mentor texts are crucial in guiding student writers, but also a crucial reminder that we must meet our students where they are.

How do you determine which mentor texts to include in your instruction? How do you meet students where they are? I’d love to hear from you!

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

 

 

Memoir Remix: The Empathy Map

Today, I’ll get back to a series of posts I started in December, sharing how we revisited and remixed the study of memoir in our Grade 12 courses.

When we sat and discussed what we felt we wanted to “get” out of studying a memoir, my awesome teaching homie Rachelle was emphatic that we wanted to see our students empathizing with the memoirist. This was pretty obvious, and we all know, when we’re working with our students, the moments we cherish most are when we they communicate to us their empathy for someone they’re reading about. However, how does one encourage that empathy, and how exactly do we get it into something that students can share, and ultimately, we assess?

There was a time when, as English teachers, we had a model for this. We all read the same book, and there were chapter questions, and in those questions, we would specifically ask students how the things that happened to the character made them feel. In the essay that was invariably assigned post-reading, we might encourage a section that explored this empathy piece.

Obviously, the chapter question model doesn’t really work when 25 students are reading 18 different memoirs. (Actually, I don’t really believe in that model in any way anymore.) The essay piece was still available, but since that was the task we were working to replace, it didn’t really make sense either.

As we discussed this, we realized that what we wanted to encourage was a regular practice of reflection, of looking for moments of empathy throughout their reading. We talked through the idea of a notetaking process, filling notebook pages with a bunch of “When they… I felt…” statements. I wasn’t sure what made me recall these, but I thought about those big body biography projects that were all the rage a decade ago, where students made a big poster of the character, and put all kinds of notes all over them, highlighting feelings, actions and whatnot. It didn’t seem feasible to have 25 big posters on the go, but could we replicate this in our notebooks.

We could. My initial whiteboard sketch, which came to my notebook is pretty much what we encouraged students to create. A two page spread in their notebooks, on one side, they draw the character in profile, leaving room to add notes. On the other side, themselves in profile, again, with room for notes. As they read, they added the things that happened to the person, their thoughts and actions. Each thing they added to that page generated a corresponding response from them on their page. Somewhere along the line, the phrase “empathy map” was put into my brain, and that’s what we called these.

Since I believe in transparency in teaching, I’ll openly admit that the first swing at this idea, specifically in the memoir study didn’t work very well. And it’s on me. I had a wonderful group of Grade 12 students, totally open to trying new things, and good with the empathy stuff as it was. However, simply giving them a sheet with a brief explanation, and talking it through with them didn’t pan out. I mean, their pieces were okay, but a lot of them wound up being things that were constructed at the end of reading, and not accumulated while reading. It was like a prettier version of the paragraph from the after reading essay.

I loved the idea though, and held onto it. As my 12s were wrapping up their memoir studies, my Grade 9s were starting our study of The Outsiders. I decided I’d give the empathy map another try, and do it better.

Empathy Map exampleTo do this, I began by actively modelling what I wanted. A big whiteboard sketch went up, and there was Ponyboy and I. We talked about it, and chose a couple of moments that resonated with us. I added those things, and then, I modelled my responses. I asked them to add a couple more things from the chapter.

Photo 1 (4)And each time we read, our task was to add the things that resonated to our empathy maps. They really seemed to enjoy the task, knowing that it was an easy one in many ways. They simply needed to respond to what happened with how it made them feel. It’s funny how easy they felt this was, considering how we felt it was such a difficult thing for us to create as teachers. Many of their pieces extended beyond the boundaries of the pages in their notebooks, with layers of sticky notes, and extra fold out pages taped in. This was what I wanted, beautiful notebook pages full of messy ideas they were working through. The option remained to polish and present these, but I like the chaos of thought captured in the notebook.

Photo 2 (4)The beauty was, I had modeled, and received what I had hoped to see from my Grade 12s. The importance of how we teach something became apparent, again. As well, assuming that I do something similar with texts over the next few years, when these 9s roll into the memoir study in Grade 12, how awesome are their empathy maps going to be then?

As well, because the TeacherBrain never shuts off, how versatile is this strategy? This empathy map could be a notetaking strategy for an essay later. There’s a certain level of character analysis that is embedded in this we could mine. I could dust off that old body biography project, and have students collaborate, discussing, and sharing where their empathy overlapped, or diverged. I saw this happening with the creation of the empathy maps in their notebooks, and there was some pretty rich discussion. Though the intention wasn’t to create that avenue to discuss, it happened, and that’s awesome.

What have you revisited and revamped lately? What do you want to remix and refresh? How do you encourage students to empathize with characters they’re reading? How do you have them express that empathy?

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

3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

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

Memoir Study Remix: Lessons Learned

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, my team and I decided we needed to revisit and remix our memoir study. In that post, I talked about what we did in regards to the lowest moment experienced by the subject of the memoir. This week, I’ll share what we did with the lessons learned from these memoirs.

One of the main reasons that I like having students study memoir is that there is teaching inherent in this pursuit. The sharing of a life is full full of the lessons that were learned in that life. Sometimes, as we’re all aware, the lessons are overt, while other times, there are lessons in there that must be uncovered. Most powerful of all, I think, are the lessons that a reader finds based upon their own experiences, and what they bring to the “conversation.” When we’ve studied memoir together, this is often what our conversation is based upon.

However, my Grade 12s aren’t necessarily reading the same memoirs. My goal is to have us all reading memoir (and biography) and looking for the common elements. There are often pockets of readers working with the same text, but it’s not something I can guarantee, as I work very hard to flood them with memoir choices.

As they read, I asked them to keep notes, specifically noting things they felt were lessons that could be learned from the memoir. We have a conversation about what these lessons could be – the things that are obvious, the things the author intends for us to learn as well as the things that we discover ourselves. I’ll be honest, the size of my school, and some of the decisions we make regarding class composition helps in these conversations. Most of my students have been in my class before, and we’ve done similar activities in previous courses. Continue reading

6 Authentic Alternatives to the Book Report

6 authentic alternatives to the

I have inherited a legacy of book reports.

Every quarter for eons, students in my school have written book reports. And, for whatever reason, parents in my community are rumored to be enamored with book reports — they are somehow a mark of a rigorous writing curriculum. So, while I work on a grand re-education project, I’ve been looking for ways to check this box for parents while doing what’s best for student by providing opportunities for authentic writing experiences.

Why the Book Report Anyway?

Book reports fill an important hole in students’ K-12 writing experiences; it fills a gapQuote (1) between simple comprehension-driven plot summary in the primary grades and literary analysis in high school. They sit in the gap, offering students a chance to recap the plot (thereby verifying their comprehension) with some add-on reader response, getting them closer to the how and why of analysis.

So, what’s wrong with it?

It’s not authentic. You can’t open The Atlantic and find a book report. And if a type of writing doesn’t exist out in the world, it shouldn’t exist in our classrooms.

If writing is going to matter to our students, authenticity has to be our cornerstone.

6 Authentic Alternatives

There are authentic alternatives — texts created by professional writers and thinkers that do more than a mere book report but stop shorts of serious literary analysis. Some require very little actual writing but require the same thinking and rehearsal as a more formal piece of written text. Others require multiple pages of written text. You know what your students are ready for. And you know how to scaffold for them.

Maybe you move from non-written to written responses to literature over the course of the school year? Maybe you create smaller writing groups and assign each one a different product based on their  needs. Perhaps you present all of these as a menu of options they choose from a few times over the course of the year.

Sketchnote

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.

 

static-shock-season-two-dvd-release

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

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

A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

#socialmediaday

Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

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Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

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Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner).