The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: Continue reading

The Food Memory Narrative

If you’re anything like me, those few short weeks between fall and winter breaks are nothing short of an anxiety inducing shopping/baking/grading/wrapping/tying-up-loose-ends extravaganza. Each year, the time sandwiched between breaks seems like too little or not quite enough.

But a few years ago, I cooked up a new dish called Food Lit. Food Lit was inspired by the Navajo Kentuckians, one of the best sessions I’ve ever attended at NCTE . To offer you the Happy Meal version of this session, teachers in two regions educated their students on “good food.” Students learned about topics such as food insecurity, obesity rates, and food integrity. Students grew gardens, educated their communities, and even prepared meals with food they harvested. Some even studied food and nature-centric literature like Mark Twain’s “The Bee.”

After attending this session, I began cultivating an inquiry into food in my own classroom and savoring the delicacy of “between breaks” learning.

One assignment that fires up my students’ brains is the food memory narrative task. You can read more about what we’ve been up to in Food Lit here and from years past, here and here.

Food is such an important, driving force in our lives. We share and create some of our most important stories surrounded by food. It comforts us, nourishes us, and heals us. So far, I haven’t met a student who didn’t have one special dish or fond food memory to look back on.

That’s what the food memory narrative is about.

I first ask students to examine these mentor texts:

Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner from NPR

Memories of Meals Past from The New York Times

Jeruselem: A Love Letter to Food from NPR 

I remind them that they are reading (and listening) to expand their understanding of “good food” but also to read as writers who are sharing their connections to a special dish.

This year, I asked students to share their mentor text noticings in a Google Form. Here’s some of what they came up with:

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What I’ve found is that food is an easy sell with students – it is relatable, its appeal universal, and my students enjoy reflecting on their “memories of meals past.” Here’s an example of how one student made this writing her own:

But the cherry on top? Our Food Lit Family Dinner, the day everyone brings in their favorite, most meaningful dish to share with the class.

Some of the biggest hits this year? Pizelles (or as one student called them: “cookie waffles”), King’s cake (somebody gifted me the baby), “brookies” (a delightful brownie/cookie duo), pepperoni rolls (a unique West Virginia snack and my contribution), tried and true homemade mac and cheese (what’s not to love), and West Indian curry (which you can read about below).

For me, this assignment does at least two things: it encourages a different bite of the narrative apple, and most importantly it continues to build and strengthen classroom culture. And that’s one recipe that can’t go wrong.

What works for you in your classrooms in the weeks between breaks? What activities inspire student writing and build classroom culture? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

-Karla

 

Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

Video Essays for More Authentic Literary Analysis

Today’s guest post comes from a California teacher that we met at the Southland Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in October! 

Noël Ingram currently teaches English 10, Cinematic Arts, and Yearbook at Da Vinci Communications in Hawthorne, CA. She conducted her undergraduate studies in English and Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and earned her teaching certification through the LMU|Teach for America Partnership. She believes in the power of stories and values people who speak their truth. Various pathways to Noël’s heart include books, cats, coffee, tea, running, line dancing, and colorful office supplies.Want to connect? ningram@davincischools.org; http://www.dvcnoel.weebly.com 

At my school, projects drive the learning process. Each grade level team collaborates to create project deliverables that are connected. Sometimes, students create one large product at the end, with each class focusing on a particular piece of the final creation. Other times, our team decides on a big driving question and then focuses on answering the question a little different within each of our classes. Regardless of the approach we take, the content that kids learn in each class is essential for them to be successful in their other classes. For example, students may be required to incorporate content from their Chemistry course into the story they are writing in Humanities. The main characters from this story may then form the basis of the app they code in Computer Science.  We work through a minimum of two projects a semester and the kids publicly display their work at Exhibition once a semester. I teach 10th grade English and Cinematic Arts in a blocked schedule, and I have the freedom to allocate the time however I choose. I do not divide my time into an “English” block and a “Cinematic Arts” block. Rather, I teach films as “text” and weave in basic film concepts that will assist students in creating their own pieces.

Our last project, “Case Closed,” explored the following driving question: What is evidence and how is it used to make a case?

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What I Hoped Students Would Get From This Project

A broader concept of “evidence.”

By the time students come to me, they have a relatively solid understanding that “evidence means quotes”. However, I don’t want my students to think that quotes are the only form of evidence out there. I want them to view their world as brimming with pieces of evidence to analyze including images, films, texts, and behavior.

An understanding of intertextuality.

I want students to see that the themes explored in Hamlet are timeless and very much present today. I want students to make connections between their favorite films and T.V. shows and the literature we read in class.

A focus on authentic analysis.

When we as teachers say “analysis,” most students automatically think of the five-paragraph, literary analysis essay that they have been trained to write since middle school. Unfortunately, I rarely ever see any authentic analysis in these types of essays. Plagiarism runs rampant and much of the essay is simply parroted information from Shmoop, SparkNotes, or other similar sites. This project could not be plagiarized from study sites. Students were required to think deeply about the text and make intertextual thematic connections.

 

Before the Project

We did a whole-class novel study of Hamlet. We watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 TV adaptation of the play in class, pausing often to discuss and analyze key moments.

Genre Immersion

We begin all genre studies in our workshop the same way: with a genre immersion. I screened our “mentor texts” in-class, while students took notes on their “noticings.” After the first viewing, students discussed at their tables what they noticed and then shared-out whole class. I then shared with them a little bit of context about how the genre of video essay is currently being defined.

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I relied heavily on pieces from the YouTube channels Nerdwriter and Every Frame a Painting, intentionally choosing pieces that focused on film concepts we had covered in class to reinforce their cinematic knowledge. I also included a few more experimental forms so that they could see some of the range of the genre. Please note: If you plan to use any of these videos in your own class, please watch them beforehand and decide on the video’s appropriateness according to your unique class community. My students all sign a permission slip that allows me to screen rated R material for curricular purposes.

After making a list of their own noticings, students discussed which features of the genre they thought were the most important. They then shared these features out in a whole-class discussion. I took notes of what students were sharing on a google doc and then used their notes as the basis for the checklist I used to grade their final cuts.

The Creation Process

To guide students in the creation process, I had them submit work for four checkpoints. They were allowed to use any video editor they liked and I did not provide any direct instruction in video editing. Most students used either iMovie (as an app on their phones) or WeVideo. We had a little bit of a snafu when our school’s content filter would not allow me to adjust the settings to allow students to have access to YouTube to find video clips. Students then either found their clips at home or used their cell phones to save clips to their Google Drive. There are many browser extensions that students can use to download video clips to use in their projects. Additionally, Subzin is a helpful resource that allows you to search movie quotes. Students would use this to find additional sources of video that they wished to use in their project.

Some topics that students chose to explore included:

  • The portrayal of mental health
  • Revenge
  • Gender discrimination

Changes I Will Make Next Time

Emphasize clip length: “the shorter the better.”

Students tended to show clips that were far too long. I believe this came from their personal attachment to the clips they chose. They frequently chose to look at their favorite movies or TV shows and had a difficult time cutting down the length of the clips, instead wanting to show every part of the scene.

Analysis vs. Summary

Even though I taught a mini lesson on analysis vs. summary and had students analyze a mentor text, indicating which parts of the voice over were analysis and which parts were summary, many students still struggled with this. Next time, I plan to modify this project by requiring students to submit the files of the clips they are using in a separate checkpoint and having students fill out a say/mean/matter chart for their clips prior to working on their script

More feedback

 Students didn’t have as many opportunities for peer feedback as they usually do during a genre study. Next time, I will add in a “rough cut” screening so students can receive ample feedback before submitting their final cut.

Requirement of a Voice Over

 Some very effective video essays are created without the use of a voice over. Thus, I told students that they could create their video essays without a voice over, but that they should keep in mind that this is a more challenging option. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students who did not use a voice over in their project made their choice based upon the erroneous belief that it would be “easier,” rather than because it was the best artistic choice for their vision. Students were overwhelmingly unsuccessful at communicating their argument without the use of a voice over.

Some Outstanding Student Examples: 

In Their Own Words: What Students Said About This Project

  • I liked that we were able to choose how we did it and it wasn’t too guided.
  • I liked that we could relate it to any topic and I liked how we got to see how the themes were portrayed in modern day TV or movies.
  • I liked how we got to watch Hamlet and pick a theme from it and put it in our perspective.
  • I liked that I really got to show my creative side and I got to express myself.
  • What I likes about this project was the production behind the Video Essays, I thought through the details and important part of my video essay. I chose decisions because decisions are key in plot formation and climax in stories or movies. And I see that a lot in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The editing was a fun experience because I got to learn how to uses new software in editing. I want to be an editor and animator so it is why I enjoyed editing classwork.
  • I liked that Noel left room for us to do whatever we needed to carry out our vision. She gave us room to be creative.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to find themes and argue about them. We could back our ideas and arguments up with video clips.

This is a project that I will use again. The video creation and use of their favorite shows and movies immediately engaged students, while the foundation of our study in video essay mentor texts held students to a high level of rigor. As the deadline loomed nearer, many students approached me to share that they found this project “so much harder than [they] thought it would be.” I responded, “you’re right. This project is really difficult because it’s hard to create beautiful work that people care about. Let’s see how our mentor texts can help us here.”

How do you use film as mentor texts in your classroom? How can you see students using video essays to engage in authentic analysis within your curriculum?

“Teachable Alternatives” to the 5-Paragraph Essay

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On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades.  Continue reading

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

Continue reading

A New Approach to Finding Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

In our 9th grade Reading Writing Workshop, most writing studies are genre-based. Occasionally, we center our writing studies around a writing technique. But in my 12th grade IB English class, things are a little different. We still use a workshop approach to writing — we move through writing processes in different ways and at different paces, we make small-and-steady progress, we learn skills together, and we still use mentor texts to guide and inspire our writing.

In this class, though, the four IB assessments — both written and oral — focus on the analysis of literature. And, so, I shift my practice in this class out of necessity and out of the best interest of my students who are working hard to earn college credit.  

goldenMy students need consistent practice writing about literature. But I still want their writing to be authentic — to look like what real writers do. And I still want their writing to be guided by their passions.

Finding Writers’ Passion about  Shakespeare

So, after our study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, students spent a few days jotting in their notebooks and chatting in small groups about the elements of the play that interested them, that excited them, that made them want to know more. While they no doubt sensed that we were working our way toward a piece of writing (they are on to me!), we didn’t say the word “writing” or “paper” or “essay” or “analysis”. We started from a place of curiosity.

If this sounds vague, it was! I wanted my instructions to be big and broad — and I wanted students to interpret them in as many different ways as they could. My fear here was limiting them or ramping up their natural writing anxiety to the point that they chose the first,easiest idea that came to mind.

They were already a bit primed for this task as they had just finished writing a piece of “wholehearted analysis” — analysis of anything they wanted. We had already walked together down the road of identifying our passions and using our expertise to lend authority to a piece of analytical writing. What I hoped to do here was extend that authority and enthusiasm into a piece of literary analysis

Finding Mentor Texts to Support Authentic Writing About Shakespeare

After students whittled their lists down and started to find a focus, they needed some mentor texts to help bridge the gap between their vague clouds of ideas and the necessary gathering of information that leads us into drafting.  

Not knowing what their particular passions were, but wanting to convince them that this, too, would be a piece of real and authentic writing,  I gathered a different kind of mentor text into my cluster. Instead of finding a bunch of pieces of writing about literature in a specific genre, I searched for pieces of real-world analysis specifically on Shakespeare.  

What do real writers write about Shakespeare in the 21st century? After just half-a-planning-period searching, here’s what I found:

Mentor Texts for Wholehearted Analysis of Shakespeare

Close Reading of a Passage: “By Heart: Shakespeare – One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Moves on Another Text”: “How Shakespeare Would Have Ended Breaking Bad”

Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy: “What Was Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy”

Analysis of a Character: Hamlet Was a Bro Who Didn’t Even Like Sex”

Review of a production: Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral

and Atmospheric ; Review: ‘Twelfth Night,’ Anything Goes in Love and

Shakespeare

Tracking a motif / symbol  through the play: 50 Shades Of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code

Tracking a trend in Shakespeare’s Language: Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds

Studying Mentor Texts for Analysis of Shakespeare

Together, we read the mentor texts and made sure they had the essential elements of analysis — a claim, reasons and evidence, a logical structure, authority, passion, and a real audience. This served as a helpful reminder to students of the elements their piece must have to be considered literary analysis, too.

Studying these mentor texts helped students refine their ideas — firming them up, erasing them completely, replacing them with stronger ideas. Many students wrote pieces that bore no topic resemblance to the mentor texts studied. Still, students used the mentor text for ideas about kinds evidence to include, what tone to strike, how to engage readers while retaining intellectual authority.  

Give it a whirl!

I feel certain your students write about literature! Give it a try  — spend a few minutes searching for writing about the author your students are studying. What do real writers write today about Salinger? About Hawthorne? About Conrad? About Dickinson?

I bet you’ll find some things that surprise you!

And then think about how this will fling wide the opportunities for your students to write literary analysis that not only matters to them but might also possibly matter to real readers.

What authors do your students study? How might your students find areas of passion even between the covers of the literature you teach? Find me on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1), on Facebook, or leave us a comment below!

The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

Continue reading

Reader Mail: How do you balance writing and reading instruction?

“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”

The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).

“Writing. Hands down.”

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.

Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.

Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?

It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).

When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:

I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.

Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:

How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?

So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.

This question has two answers:

  • When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.

I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.

Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.

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Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners

In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.

As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:

  • to add detail to their writing
  • to structure their writing
  • to put voice into their writing
  • to write powerful leads and endings.

Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:

  • punctuate their writing
  • use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.

In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.

The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:

  • We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.

When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.

And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.

Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.

  • Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading

In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”

–       You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester

–       Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)

–       The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)

–       In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)

–       In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing

–       In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)

–       If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading

–       If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…

  • Devote a few days a week to each subject

In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue!

–       Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day

–       Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day

–       You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year

–       If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject

–       If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it

–       If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again

–       Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting

–       One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)

–       Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study

  • Alternate full writing and reading cycles

When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.

Pros

Cons

·      No more decision fatigue!

·      You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time

·      Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm

·      You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end

·      During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)

·      During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing

No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:

In a reading day/semester/cycle:

In a writing day/semester/cycle:

·      Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas

·      Invite students to work in their notebook for homework

·      Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read

·      Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading

 

·      Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s

·      Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night

·      Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion

 

In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.

While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.

~ Allison

The Fearless Writers

This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.

I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!

I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text! Continue reading