InstaPoetry: a Unit of Writing Study with Resources

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Recently, I was wandering around a Target while my daughter was at Girl Scouts, and I was amazed to find six (six!) collections of poetry in the book section! Poetry! At Target! I was so moved that I took a picture and Tweeted,

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I suppose what moves me is that I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are at an unprecedented moment of social and political unrest and uprising (and renewal?) in this country and suddenly Rupi Kaur is a New York Times bestselling poet and collections of poetry are for sale to the masses at Target.

It seems poetry has gone mainstream, at least in part, because we constantly swim in a current of excess language. There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that it’s time to pare down. To distill talk until it’s just truth.

Poetry has been a bit out of vogue in education over the last few years. At least in Virginia, poetry is not longer found on state tests. So unless students take an AP or IB literature course, reading poetry has been largely erased from most classrooms. After all, why invest valuable instructional time on a cognitively challenging genre on which students won’t be tested?

Of course, we all know better. Of course, we must do better.

Rupi Kaur , r.h.sin, Amanda Lovelace, and the other poets whose collections can be purchased at airport newspaper stands write in sound bytes and Instagram posts. Their poems can often feel more like an inspirational coffee mug than classic verse. And while I don’t think that Cyrus Parker should replace Seamus Heaney, Instagram poets can open the gate for our students into a bigger world of reading and writing poetry.

So, why not create a unit of study around Instapoets — reading them, analyzing their writing, contemplating what makes them so popular, and then creating our own (hopefully viral) Instapoems.

A Unit Map:

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Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

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

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

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

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

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

A Micro Writing Unit: Picket Signs

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7th graders’ peaceful protest down the halls on Friday.

Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry.  Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 3.37.20 PMBut when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.

Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.

Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles.  I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.

In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.

Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.

Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)

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Reading Like a Writer in Troubled Times

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

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

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

What Article of the Week is Adding to My Writing Instruction

Article of the Week

Kelly Gallagher is well-known for a lot of reasons in our English teacher world.

Killer writing activities.

“Readicide”.

Clark Kent vibe.

(Allison and I once stalked him around a breakfast at NCTE. Remind me to tell you that story sometime.)

But I would argue that the thing most frequently associated with Kelly Gallagher is the Article of the Week. So much so that it has become a beloved institution. Google it and see how many versions of it live in classrooms and schools and whole districts all over the world. It’s stunning.

And yet, until six weeks ago, I had never tried it with my own students.

I’m still figuring out this middle school thing (truth: I’ll be figuring it out for awhile to come), and with the sudden realization that my students needed more nonfiction reading experiences before high school, I added the Article of the Week when we returned from winter break.

Article of the Week is a part of reading instruction, right? Students are reading an article, turning it over in their head, annotating it, and then crafting their own response. But I am a sucker for an instructional practice that does double-duty. So while my students are working on comprehension, Notice & Note signposts, and interacting with a text as a reader, I am also using Article of the Week to boost writing instruction in four ways:

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Taming the White Rabbit and Making Time for Talk

Around this time every year, I start channeling my inner white rabbit.  As of today, I have 3 months until my kids will sit for their end-of-course exams.  If you subtract a half week for mid-winter break, a week for spring break, three days for state testing, and another three for a giant field trip that will take two-thirds of my class, I’m left with closer to two months.

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Image Source: giphy.com

 

There’s no way they’ll be ready. We have so much more to do.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly white-rabbity.

I missed Monday because I was out with a sick kid, and there were rumors of a snow day for today (which came true! YAY!), so the five days of teaching I had planned became three.  I stood in my classroom trying to rethink the day’s plan to cram more stuff in, but, luckily, my gut told me to slow down. My kids were *hopefully* heading into a three day weekend. I needed them to leave excited about their new writing projects and ready to spend a little of their snowy Friday writing.

Generating excitement, though, takes time.

This writing piece we’re starting is the most choice-filled thus far. Some of my kids have an idea and are running with it. Many, though, need some help. I decided to scrap the day’s plans and instead do some purposeful talk about our writing.

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The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

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

3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

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

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

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

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