We are over at the Heinemann PLC Series this week chatting about mentor texts & discovery . Read — and watch — more here!
We are over at the Heinemann PLC Series this week chatting about mentor texts & discovery . Read — and watch — more here!
As this post drops, I’m wrapping up the second week of the new semester. I’ve got new courses, new students and new ideas.
One of the first things that I try to establish is the importance of our notebooks. I actually try to do a lot of our work, our writing, our responding… our thinking in them.
So, I really want them to matter.
For the last couple of years, as I’ve already shared, I have had students put a word on the front of their notebooks, borrowing from the #OneWord resolution movement. After doing this last week, I can reaffirm there is a power in this. Already, students are calling for their notebooks by their words, and there’s something special about this daily occurance.
“I am loyal.”
“I am overachieve.”
“I am creative.”
“I am intensity.”
Even “I am reckless!” speaks to the spirit with which it actually feels like they’re approaching their new English courses.
I added a new element to notebook personalization this semester. I make no bones about being an Austin Kleon fanboy. Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work are a pair of texts that have had an incredible impact on my teaching. His tweets and weekly email newsletter have added so many ideas to my notebook.
In a recent newsletter, he did what he often does, and shared his one of his own processes. Each time that he begins a new notebook, he tapes a picture of someone who inspires him inside, a guardian spirit. He adds a quote as well.
Of course, as I would have students starting new notebooks, I “stole” the idea right away. In our first classes, after we made the initial run through the syllabus, and started establishing our community, we personalized our notebooks. I explained how they were going to have a word that spoke to their goals and aspirations in the course on the front, and a person who inspired them inside. I told them that their first page of their notebook would give me my first glimpse at their writing, as they explained their choices. We had something to do that accomplished a lot, but didn’t feel like a big ask on the first day.
The guardian spirits are as diverse and random as the students that chose them. From Yoda to Dali, Homer to Hermione , Mandela to Jesus, they run the gamut. Of the 60 or so guardian spirits, the only duplicate is Eddie Murphy. In two different classes.
And the rationales for their choices of words and guardian spirits gave me so much insight into who these students are. Eddie Murphy is there because of his bravery as a speaker, his ability to win people’s respect and adoration with his humor. (I know you were curious, so he was the example I chose!) I appreciate the openness with which they did this task.
But as I’ve been assessing those first pieces of writing, and looking at other responses in their notebooks this first week, I’ve actually come to appreciate what those two things they stuck to their notebooks have come to mean. Every time I grab a student’s notebook, I read their word. I open and see the image of someone who inspires them. Who that student is, and wants to be is laid bare for me. It’s quite powerful.
Imagine if it’s having a similar impact on them.
“Take a line; take a prop; write a play!”: these are the three commands of The MadCap 24-hour Play Festival, a theatrical fundraiser held at a coffee shop and performance space in my hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Last weekend I followed those commands to write my third play for the festival. My “madcap” experience has inspired some new ideas and resolutions to ponder for the year ahead.
Idea #1: A recipe for a 24-hour play…or a classroom activity:
Here’s how the MadCap Festival works:
This theater festival challenge could easily be adapted into a notebook time prompt or larger creative assignment:
Idea #2: One student writes, another performs, and literary analysis ensues
Last spring, a friend introduced me to the Modern Love podcast, a series showcasing favorite Modern Love columns performed by famous figures, and since then, I’ve been really intrigued by the idea of students performing each other’s work. What new discoveries could writers make when their written work was turned into a dramatic audio recording? What could the writing, performing, and listening teach us about interpretation? (And could this activity help some of my IB students understand why they should avoid the intentional fallacy?)
Each year I participate in the MadCap festival, I’m amazed at what the director and actors make of the script they receive. This year, I laughed with the rest of the crowd at actors’ inventive (and sometimes unexpected) interpretations of the scene I wrote. Their performance was like feedback in a writing conference; it showed me what they “heard” or understood when they read my work and how they responded to it. A ten-minute play might be a tough place to start, but perhaps students could try writing a monologue for a character played by a classmate. Later, the writer-performer pair (or writer-performer-director trio?) could discuss what they noticed in each other’s art.
Idea #3: Collaborative writing
For my first entry in the festival, I wrote with one of my best high school friends; for the last two festivals, I wrote with the youngest of my three brothers, one of the best actors I know! Jeremy and I write well together because we can be honest with each other, and each time we collaborate, I get to know my brother better and I learn something new about comic timing and crafting characters through dialogue.
My students often discuss together and present together, but I rarely ask them to write together. I wonder what they would learn if they collaborated on a story, poem, or piece of creative nonfiction. Could they identify how their writing voices change when they work with a collaborator? What might we all learn about what it takes to collaborate well? Perhaps a collaborative writing exercise could lead to a list of great moves for collaborators.
Finally, some resolutions:
72 hours after the festival has finished, I’m thinking about personal and professional resolutions that it inspires ( and in the spirit of Hattie’s resolution, I’ll present them as bullet points!):
The MadCap Theater Festival always falls at a crazy time of the new year: my school’s second semester is just beginning, my IB students are preparing for a major assessment, and the temperature inevitably drops to a lung-freezing degree, but this creative challenge always shakes off my winter doldrums and makes me think about the madcap adventures my students and I could have in the future. As 2017 continues, I’ll let you know how well I keep my resolutions, and I hope you’ll share what new ideas and resolutions you’ve been inspired to try!
Have an suggestions for a 24-hour writing challenge? What are your writing resolutions for 2017? I’d love to hear about them–please comment below or connect with me on Twitter @MsJochman.
I’m one of those New Year’s Resolvers. I love making lists. I love setting goals. I look at the New Year as a chance to reorganize my whole life. It’s a magical time in my weird little world. So, of course, I was immediately intrigued when I saw a mention of Bullet Journals on Facebook. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of lists and codes and layouts. Apparently these have been a thing on Instagram for awhile, and I’m a little late to game. Later in the day, I spied a Twitter convo between Moving Writers’ Allison and Rebekah about a bullet journal layout that would make for writing notebook time. And, I’d been thinking quite a bit about Tricia Ebarvia’s Writer’s Workshop blog post and how that could help me better organize workshop in my AP Seminar class. The pieces started clicking together, and my second semester writers’ notebooks in my AP Seminar are about to get a big makeover.
2016 is just about done.
That, as we all know, makes it resolution time. Even if we’re not publicly stating them, we’re making them.
Of course, as teachers, we did this already, back at the beginning of the school year, right? And, well, we’re sort of consistently making resolutions throughout the school year, as a natural part of our reflective process.
I think about resolutions at this time of year. I think about what I want the coming year to be for me personally. I think about some things I’d like to make more time for, or to do better. Professionally, my reality is that I have a few weeks before a new semester, and new courses. I’m setting goals and making plans for them already. Continue reading
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
I love swimming in writing studies for weeks at a time with my students — immersing ourselves in mentor texts, gathering information, writing off the page, talking out our ideas, drafting, revising. But when the average writing study lasts 3-5 weeks, it’s hard to keep the momentum and excitement of seeing a piece through to completion. Last year, I dabbled with mini writing units between big genre studies, like writing our own Buzzfeed lists. But this year, I’m getting even smaller as I find ways to support tiny writing publication.
Inspired by Allison’s post last year about finding time in workshop by extending notebook time through a 5-day week, I have been using extended notebook times as opportunities for tiny writing studies. Before I tell you about what we have written, let me tell you why this works:
For a tiny writing study, I use my regularly scheduled notebook time — the first 5-7 minutes of class when we play, explore, and discover in our notebooks. (If you want to know more about all the ways we use this time, we dedicate an entire chapter to it in Writing With Mentors, and you can check out our session on notebook time at last spring’s EdCollab Gathering.) Each day, we build on and expand our writing. By the end of our fifth class period, we have a piece of writing that is ready to publish.
On day 1, I direct students to a slew of mentor texts and ask them to skim, scan, and look around for 5-7 minutes to get a sense of the genre. I don’t specify which mentor texts they should look at because I want there to be variety. This will help make our noticings more thoroughly developed tomorrow.
Next, I grab a marker and we make a list of our noticings on the board. How is this thing made? What is it composed of? What will they need to do to create something in kind?
Students have been learning how to make noticings since the very first week of school. This is awesome practice as they continue to practice and refine their reading-like-a-writer skills.
Students copy this list of noticings into their notebooks so that they have them as we work throughout the week.
In most cases, I reserve the middle day for trying — writing their own version of the mentor.
This often extends into homework. For example, when we did a “Humans of …” series, students needed to actually interview and photograph people outside of class. So students used the “Try One” class period to brainstorm and share interview questions. When we wrote haikus, students tried their hand at writing a few during notebook time, but then they selected their favorite for homework.
On the fourth day of a tiny writing study, we share and then revise. We keep the task of revision simple: make your writing better.
We keep publication simple, too. Publication simply means “going public” and sharing our work in some way. But you don’t need to have a big author’s celebration every time. Here are some simple ways we publish:
It is so easy for me to make publication an after-thought — a nice-to-do but not necessary. What I forget is that this is the step that takes my kids from students to real writers. This is where we get buy in and show students that their words are real and that their writing matters.
Ready to try this with your students next week?
The secret to a tiny writing study is in the size. The product has to be very, very small in order for students to successfully study the mentor texts and produce their own original piece. Here are four tiny writing studies that have worked for me:
This week, my ninth grade classes studied two-sentence horror stories. (You can find oodles of these on the web, but here are some I share with my students.) We noticed that there was a lot of sentence variety, that they built suspense, that they usually begin with something ordinary and then twist it into something scary in the second sentence.
Students wrote their own and then Tweeted them. You can see some of them here:
Allison came up with the brilliant idea to teach reading like a reader versus reading like a writer through haiku — something so small and so concrete students could quickly see the differences between their readerly observations and their writerly observations.
Using mentor texts from The New York Times’ haiku contest, student made noticings and ultimate wrote their own haikus about places they love.
Based on Humans of New York, students interviewed and photographed people around a theme they invented (Humans of My Neighborhood or Humans of the Trinity Basketball Team or, my favorite, Humans of Teenage Drama). By the end of the week, students had composed three slides, each featuring an image and bit of an interview.
I compiled all of these into one giant slideshow that we enjoyed together.
This is slightly bigger than tiny, but I’ve found that students are so well-versed in listicles that they can quickly pick this up and put it together.
Students worked on their own original list in the style of Buzzfeed. They incorporated images, gifs, and videos to support their list and boost reader engagement. Best of all, Buzzfeed allows you to submit your lists for publication on their site! Publishing for a big, wide Internet audience boosts students efforts in a race to see who will get published and who will get the most “likes”. One student even had his list featured for a day on the Buzzfeed main page!
I’m constantly on the lookout for great tiny writing projects. Here are two more I want to try this year:
The Player’s Tribune, a site started by Derek Jeter, features writing by pro athletes. What a gold mine! While only some of these pieces feature enough craft to really be used as technique-teaching mentor texts, many lead to big-time inspiration for our student writers.
I’m dying to have students look at the series Letter to My Younger Self, in which athletes look back and give themselves advice. Students will love finding the insightful, personal letters written by their favorite athletes and then composing their own letter.
One way that real adults write is in the form of crowdsourcing pitches. Sites like Kickstarter and Donor’s Choose rely on savvy pitch-writing and story-telling to elicit funds from donors!
Using this as fodder for tiny writing would be so much fun. It’s a very authentic form of writing, and it also asks students to be inventive. What would you want to raise money for? Maybe a film you’ve been dying to make or a video game you want to produce or a book you want to self-publish … or maybe a car for your sixteenth birthday! Students will learn to write persuasively for strangers (or in order to persuade their parents!)
Let’s pool our resources! What ideas do you have for units of tiny writing? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahOdell1.
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:
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 do you notice?
Why is it important?
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.
But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)
As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.
When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.
I like to…
Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
– from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.“
– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Allow students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”
Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.
After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?
(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)
With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.
For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.
I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.
Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.
Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:
If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.
I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.
Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.
The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post.
How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!