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.

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

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

Writing Techniques:

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

Background:

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

 

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Image via Den of Geek

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

 

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

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.24 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.30 AM

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). 

 

 

Adapting Mid-Stream: A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School

One of the very best parts of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with inspiring educators across the country. This week, we are sharing a two-part guest post from Cincinnati teacher Beth Toerner (btoerner). We connected this year through a mutual professional friend and spent months corresponding about her 8th grade classroom and her desire to move them toward more authentic writing experiences and products. What you will read today and on Wednesday represents one of those experiences that changed the shape of her classroom and her students’ writing lives. Not only are Beth’s experiences and student work amazing, but so is her reflective spirit and willingness to change her plan mid-stream when she realized her students needed something different. Something more. We are SO excited to share this with you.  – Rebekah

#socialmediaday

Last year, I started using essential questions to help my students connect our whole class novels through a focus on universal human issues. This year, I attempted to transition these questions into literary essays about the topics using mentor texts as guidance. My plan did not unfold as I imagined, but the course it took produced more authentic and thoughtful writing than I have seen from my eighth graders all year. In the following posts, I will work through the steps that this process took in class and share what we learned along the way.

Overview:

Whole class reads: Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do differences make us uncomfortable?
  2. What is empathy? Why is it an important human characteristic?
  3. Why is it important to be connected to others?

Before reading, students write short, informal responses to these questions to get them thinking about the ideas. During third quarter, we read the texts above in the order listed, frequently circling back to our essential questions for discussion and reinforcement of the guiding ideas.

After we had read all three pieces, we did an activity to help students specifically connect their thinking about these questions to text-based evidence from the pieces that we had read together. This activity (Allison’s brainchild), called “Inside/Outside Brain,” required students to organize their “inside brain thoughts” by writing them inside a giant face and the matching them to their “outside brain” supporting evidence. I modeled on the board and they wrote in their writer’s notebooks.

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After completing this activity, my goal for students was to write a literary essay in which they responded to one of our three essential questions in a lengthier, more detailed response. I planned for them to use our common texts (Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl)  to support their thinking. It seemed like I had it all in order: I gave them questions to help them trace the development of ideas as they read, we brainstormed examples together, and I had three wonderful mentor texts to help them discover ideas for crafting and organizing masterpieces.

However, as my students brainstormed ideas, I started to feel uneasy. Although my students were doing a perfect job sharing examples to support our essential questions, like the idea that Stargirl’s shunning at Mica High School and its impact on her emotional state showed the importance of human connection, I also noticed that they were eagerly sharing examples from books we had read in seventh grade, as well as books they had read on their own. Would requiring them to write about the three texts that I had chosen squelch their creativity? Would limiting them to one of three teacher-generated questions limit their thinking?

I took some time to reflect. My students were doing something much more important than what I had planned for them: they were thinking beyond our classroom lessons and analyzing the impact that reading has had on them throughout their lives. And of course, each student had a unique experience with reading. Different books, different life experiences, different lessons gleaned. I needed to create an assignment that allowed them to express these thoughts.

So, we changed the plan. I told my students that their ideas had changed my idea, and we started with a new assignment: a literary essay that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” We were able to use the same mentor texts that I had originally planned, and in fact, they were a more natural fit for this piece than for what I had previously developed. We centered our study around three mentor texts:

“Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”

“Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later”

“How Judy Blume Changed My Life”

Each of these mentor texts has its own strengths in modeling the writing that I wanted my students to do. I was looking for writing that showed a deep understanding of literature but also shared a more personal element; I wanted students’ essays to have a conversational tone that zoomed in on a discussion of the subject (a book, author, or characters) through a very personal and reflective lens.

The first mentor text with which we worked was “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”. This text functioned well to start this project; its length was accessible, the highly structured list format gave both an approachable model for organization, and it was a jumping off point for a brainstorming activity.

First, we read the article as a class and had a quick discussion of the general plot and themes in Catcher itself. Even though my students hadn’t read it, the fact that it focused on universal lessons made it accessible. Next, we made a list of what we noticed as writers. My students noticed all kinds of stuff:

  • The article has a short introduction that explains why the author wrote it
  • The author made a list of five life lessons the book can teach
  • Each lesson is followed by an explanation that uses an example from the book
  • Each explanation is followed by a direct quote from the book that supports the example
  • The sections a numbered and each life lesson is in bold
  • It goes from universal —> more specific (explanation from the book) —> very specific (direct quote)
  • Each item on the list has the same structure
  • Even though it’s about a specific book, the lessons apply to everyone

I thought that this structure could be a great one for my students to imitate in their own pieces of writing, as the outline was clear and consistent. But first, I gave students a chance to collaboratively practice some of the thinking it would take to get there. I gave them some time to brainstorm other “Five Things ____ Can Teach You About Life” lists in their writer’s notebooks. Then, I had students get together in small groups to share their ideas. They chose one idea for a list and wrote it out on the giant sticky notes that I have in my room. They came up with a range of ideas, some of which drew on our preceding essential question work, and some of which did not:

  • Five Reasons Differences Make Us Uncomfortable
  • Five Things Reading Can Teach You About Empathy
  • Five Things Realistic Fiction Teaches You About Life
  • Five Things Book Can Teach You About Connections
  • Five Things Stargirl Can Teach Us About Human Connections
  • Five Ways to React After Losing Someone Close to You

After they made their lists, I armed them with normal-sized sticky notes and had them circulate the room, reviewing the lists that other groups made. Their job was to put at least three sticky notes on other groups’ posters showing examples from our common texts that supported one of the reasons on the list.

Here are some of the final products:

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Although my students used this as a jumping off point for essay writing, this activity itself served as a collaborative way to review common themes among our three class texts. In the future, I think it would come in handy as a way to review at the end of a novel unit or practice writing “Listicles,” which seem to have taken over the internet these days. Later this week, I will be back to share how we moved from these lists into polished literary essays.

You can connect with us by leaving a question or comment below, finding us on Facebook, or Tweeting Beth @btoerner! Stay tuned Wednesday for Part 2 of her series! 

The Wonder of Whipstitch: Poetry as Literary Analysis

The Wonder of Whipstitch-.png

We are delighted to share a guest post today from middle school teacher Elizabeth Oosterheert. You might remember her from a post earlier this year! You can connect with her on Twitter @oosterheerte. 

Ah, spring. It’s that vibrant time when my “garden” of students begins to blossom beautifully, and the seeds planted earlier in the year stretch toward the sun as students gain a stronger sense of voice and begin to take more ownership of their writing. That’s the sweetness of seasons changing.

Another end of the year splendor is celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and flowing into May with more reasons than ever to incorporate poetry into my writing workshop. After reading Karla Hilliard’s post earlier this year about whipstitch poetry, and Rebekah’s challenge to strive for authenticity in literary analysis, I began to wonder what it would look like to use whipstitch poetry as a whimsical frame for everything from character study to thinking about more abstract concepts like theme and mood.

When I first explored this idea, my students were reading in coming of age book clubs that we called Voyages. As Karla suggested in her post, I began my workshop one day by inviting students to make a list of objects or natural forces  they noticed in the books they were reading. We visited Randi Ward’s website and read examples of whipstitch poems, carefully examining the way that she used word choice, brevity, line breaks, and breathtaking photography to enhance her poetry. We discussed how vital the right image can be to inspiring excellent writing.

After using Ward’s poems as mentor texts, my students experimented with writing whipstitch poetry as an analytical response to their book club reading.

Tessa, one of my eighth grade writers, composed these poems after reading the novel Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt. Her poems invite readers to consider the natural forces at work in the story such as the ice that eventually leads to a character’s death, and also to think about Joseph, the protagonist, and his search for his daughter, Jupiter.

Orbiting Jupiter Whipstitch PoemsScreen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.50 PM

  1. Ice

I am the ice

I climb with the cold

And fall with the heat

Do you not think I feel you Joseph?

I try to warn you with splinters on my surface            

But you go too far

I fall, taking you with me

You escape the cold waters the first time

But your life seeps from you the second

You sink to the bone chilling cold beneath

I am the ice

 

  1. Jupiter

I’m looking for you Jupiter

Gazing at the planet in the sky

Every night, gazing

I am alone with Silence

I let it have my heart

But I can’t make it breathe

Yet it grows, it grows big around me

But I am growing too

  1. Will.Find.You.

 

  1. Rosie

Warped stall doors creak

Bright motes of dust swirl between sinking beams

Streaking the spindly hay string loft

Careful hands squeeze and release my udder

Creating a steady stream of milk

The circular rubbing of the coarse hide on my rump

Makes my backside waggle

I moo a sigh of contentment

Chiming a melody with the steady thumping of milk

I love you, Joseph.

 

  1. Church Bell

Snowballs explode against my sturdy frame             

Joseph seems to find it fun to strike me with snowballs

I scream loudly, clanging my tongue against my exterior

But no matter how hard I try, he doesn’t stop.

He shows up every day after school, tackling me

with an onslaught of snowballs.

Later, we read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, as a whole class text and the “banner” story in our study of World War II.   An exemplary novel for examining characterization and voice,  Sepetys’ haunting tale is told from the perspectives of four young refugees trying to escape the relentlessly advancing Russian army.

Working with coauthors, students were invited to compose whipstitch poems that explored characters’ motivations, fears, and questions. They were also encouraged to create their own artwork to accompany their poetry, or to import images that enhanced their message.

We shared our work in the context of a class poetry reading, and discussed what we had learned about characterization and other elements in the novel through the lens of whipstitch poetry.

Salt to the Sea Whipstitch

By Kayla, Maria, and Grant

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.13 PM.pngEmilia—- Maria

I walk through the snow.

With every step I take my feet sink beneath the coldness.

I had nowhere to go, I could only follow.

Florian, he is much like August, my knight.

I carry him inside me wherever I go.

I look up to the nests in the trees.

Beautiful baby birds soon flying free.

No one is free.

No one is safe.

Shame is a hunter.

 

Eva—- Maria

Sorry, but it’s true, we are nearly gone.

War is destroying everything around it.

No one is safe.

Soon we will all vanish, whether we are killed

or we starve.

The only thing we are fed is lies.

These people all around me have no hope.

Those who do soon will be swallowed by

the grave they dug for themselves.

 

Wandering Boy—- Grant

I follow life, just wandering

Wandering away from pain

Wandering toward freedom

Wandering home.

 

One-eared Bunny—- Kayla

One hope lost

A new one found.

Like everyone in my sad story

I am just looking for someone to love me.

 

Joana—- Kayla

Everyone seems to forget-

War does not justify inhumanity.

Currently,  to conclude our study of World War II, my students and I have been reading the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and we’ve chosen to revisit whipstitch one more time, but broaden the ways that we employ it as an analytical tool.

Today, my students received this invitation to engage with our shared text using a poetic lens:

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.14.02 PMWhat would it look like to frame the events in Unbroken as whipstitch reflections?

You might use whipstitch poetry to:

  • Analyze decisions and the resulting actions/consequences
  • Compose an apology from one character to another
  • Capture one event from the book, such as one day on the raft, or one day in a japanese pow camp.
  • Reflect on a word that has special meaning in the story such as: glory, courage, determination, champion, villain, faith, etc.
  • Ask questions
  • Emphasize an important conversation (what is being said, and what is implied, but left unspoken?)
  • Focus on a definition
  • Express a big idea

 

Your Invitation:

 

  • Choose a theme you’ve noticed in unbroken, and frame a series of four whipstitch poems around your big idea.
  • Example: “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” If you choose these words spoken by pete zamperini, your four poems could be about the following topics: Pete’s influence in Louie’s life, the determination that louie shows while training for the olympics, a reflection on louie’s time on the raft, or a day in louie’s struggle against the bird.
  • You may work individually or collaboratively on your poems.

 

 

The final weeks of school are a perfect “garden” for growing student writers, an opportunity to engage students by using poetry to celebrate language and promote authentic analysis in your classroom. My students also enjoy writing narrative poetry and poetry in two or more voices.  How do you use poetry with your students? What are your favorite poems?

Connect with me on Twitter @oosterheerte, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net to share your ideas!

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

Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

THUG

image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

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.

logan-trailer-700x300

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