From Facepalm to Firestarter: Embarrassment and Inspiration at a Writing Project Symposium

Facepalm.

By the second panel of the 2017 Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, “From High School to College: Engaging in Writing Dialogue,” you could have made a meme of me (or at least my inner monologue, since I managed to keep my outer composure), sitting like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with my head in my hands. After a 6AM drive to the flagship university of my Badger State and just one hour of conversation about writing with other secondary and post-secondary professionals, I’d finally realized something about my classes that had always been in front of my nose.

Ugh. Facepalm.

Shaking myself out of my embarrassed gloom, I grabbed a sticky note to catch my thoughts: “ALL of my classes are literature-centered!” I scribble-screamed. “I’m almost ALWAYS assessing students’ writing in terms of what it shares or shows about their reading. I RARELY look at them as writers alone!”

I thought about the assignment I had just returned to my IB juniors, a practice writing that I’d touted as a no-fault attempt at the reflective writing we would be doing all semester (in preparation for an “official” version in the spring). I had returned the papers with suggestions for content and MANY corrective pink marks. In my hurry to share with them how an IB examiner might evaluate their work, I hadn’t really stopped to listen to students’ writing “voices.” Even my follow-up activity had focused on grammar and sentence structure–the very things I had asked my students to ignore when assessing some sample reflective statements!

FACEPALM!!

Peeling my fingers off of my forehead, I continued to listen to the panelists as they discussed ways to reinvent instruction and assessment to focus on what we value in writing. I started to imagine myself as another hero of science fiction, Princess Leia, this time lifting a finger to press a button on R2-D2 and send my plea for a facepalm-burn balm out into the universe: “Help me, Greater Madison Writing Project symposium, you’re my only hope!”  Continue reading

Planning

As I write this, I’m in my last full week of classes in the first semester of the year. The exam is written, and copied, sitting in a drawer. My students are putting the finishing touches on the last of their work.

And my head is pretty firmly a few days ahead in second semester.

Though I’m tired and stressed, this is actually one of my favorite times of the year. I’m finishing up with my Grade 11 and 12 students, getting ready for my 9s and 10s. I’m hyper aware of where I want the students I’m about to teach to be in two or three years’ time.

And that makes midyear planning so awesome. Especially exciting for me this year, as I plan, is that I’m working with a whole new team, and we’ve got a semester of working together under our belts, and have figured out how we work together, and collaborate. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Eulogy

Mentor Text: 10 Inspiring,Confusing and Humorous Eulogies of the Famous via The Atlantic

Writing Techniques:

  • Specific Form
  • Considering Audience

Background:

This is actually a post that should be subtitled “What I’ll Do Better Next Time”

My Grade 11 students are in their final weeks of classes, and we’ve been working on MultiGenre Projects based upon research that we’ve done. I’m actually blessed with a group of students who will willingly follow me down any path I choose to take us down, which is making it a pretty rewarding time.

Our first week back from Christmas break, our Grade 12 students write a provincial exam for four days, and they kind of become my focus. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of resources and experience, so I’ve been able to give good stuff to my Grade 11s. They’ve been writing a lot of MGP pieces, and I’ve got mentor texts and guides to support them.

I got my mind set on having them write eulogies. In the past, I’ve seen students write really great pieces eulogizing all kinds of random things, so I felt like it was a great fit for my 11s.

Teacher isn’t my primary function. I’m a dad too, with two awesome daughters, and the husband to an awesome lady, who happens to be an early years teacher. This often means chaos reigns supreme. Which sometimes means I’m sending the stuff I need for my first period to the printer as the bell goes.

Which made it pretty frustrating to discover that I didn’t actually have any material to teach eulogy writing.

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A eulogy scene from Arrow because I’m a geek via The Geektified Blog

I stubbornly pushed ahead, and we talked about what is in a eulogy that we needed to include in our pieces. We made a pretty good list, but I knew that I could do much better. Once I found a bit of prep time, I did some googling, and came across the link I’ve included, full of excerpts from notable eulogies.

How we can use this text:

Specific Form – A neat thing about teaching something like eulogy is that there is a specific nature to the form. The purpose for the piece impacts the writing, which in itself is a great lesson.

However, what can be seen from the variety of excerpts on the site I linked is that the purpose can be met in different ways. This is where a collection of mentor texts is valuable. There are pieces that are solemn, and pieces that are humorous. There are pieces where the writer knew the deceased very well, and those where they didn’t. The variety shows different ways to meet the requirements of the form.

And perhaps this is why I want to build  a set of mentor texts for eulogies. This is my favorite kind of writing task for a class of varying abilities and interests. They are given a form, one that specifies that certain things should be included, and meets a specific purpose. Yet there is a lot of freedom in this form, a variety of ways to meet the “requirements” that allows for our writers to explore and experiment. This, I feel, is where we can do the best for our writers – they have a structure to guide them, yet not one so rigid that they write like automatons.

Considering Audience – This form, as I’ve noted, serves a purpose. In doing so, it actually speaks to an audience. This means that we can give our writers a piece in which audience is a serious consideration, which is, I feel, a pretty important lesson. (Truth be told, I’m marking that provincial test I referred to this week, and there’s a question that always troubles students that this lesson addresses!)

It’s a conversation that encapsulates many elements of writing. Tone is important. One must be reverent, but if you’re eulogizing a comedian, shouldn’t humor be considered? If you’re a comedian eulogizing someone, do you use the humor people expect from you? Is a place to express anger? A eulogy is celebratory, but do you, as a writer, take a moment to highlight moments of imperfection?

And what is included? If you’re including an anecdote, how personal do you go? Do you tell the story only two of you know, or do you go for a larger inside joke, that everyone would get? Do you write something intensely personal, or do you write something for a much broader audience, as Reagan did in his eulogy for the Challenger astronauts?

My use of the eulogy was a bit different. I wanted the students to eulogize something in their research. As I moved around and talked to people, I was glad I persevered with this lesson. We had great talks about what it was from their research they wanted to present to their audience, as well as how they wanted to present it. The student discussing obesity eulogized the gym. Another discussing climate change and its effect on farmers eulogized the trustworthy weatherman. Once they figured out the subject of the eulogy, they considered the impact on an audience as they wrote.

So as for this being a post about what I should have done, I should have collected my mentor texts earlier. Had I had this link to share with them, many students might have moved ahead faster. I share this this week however, to highlight how useful mentor texts are. Having examples of the form, examples of how other handled various aspects of the piece for students to look at is important. Yes, our students can write well without mentor texts, but access to them makes a difference. It’ll be better next time in my room.

Flat out begging – do you have any good eulogies you use as mentor texts? I used them in the multigenre project, how have you used them in your classes?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

 

 

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

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

#squadgoals or The Importance of Collaboration & Community

Frequently, I seem to find myself with a work related catchphrase, something I find myself repeating in classes, in meetings, and in PD opportunities. It becomes a key part of my philosophy for a time.

This year, I find myself harping on the fact that what we do, as teachers, is a human endeavour. When it comes to our work with our students, especially in the times we live in, this is readily apparent.

However, I feel like we sometimes lose this notion when it comes to our professional relationships. It is far too easy for us to exist in some sort of Fortress of Solitude, sometimes it’s out of our control, yet other times we do this to ourselves.

justice-league

Of course I’m going to use a nerdy picture to talk about teamwork. (Image via iCloud Wallpaper)

I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons this week. Partly, it’s a reaction to what I’m seeing online. My social media feeds are clogged with people who are struggling, with people who are sharing, with people who are questioning… in short, there are a lot of people questioning their role in things, and seeking, or offering, a sense of community in our work.

This is important for me, because my online PLC has become very important to me. It was a great support, and sounding board when I felt that I lacked that in my “real world” professional life. I had changed schools, and although I worked next door to amazing teachers, we didn’t always work as a collaborative unit, as a team. Interacting online fulfilled that need for me. It led me to wonderful communities of educators, like the one here at Moving Writers. People share openly, ask questions and make suggestions, all things that move “the work” forward in ways that just aren’t there when you’re flying solo.

The other thing that’s happening is that my English department has changed. (It’s literally only four people, and I’m the only one who only teaches English.) There are two new people, and we’re currently teaching the same English courses. Our classrooms are right beside each other.

And we’re collaborating like mad! It’s so energizing and engaging! As I type this, we’ve in the midst of all three of us doing the same set of activities that we hashed out around a drama performance our students saw this week. The magic of like minds, sitting around a table, inspiring, challenging and supporting each other is my favorite part of teaching, outside of the actual work with the students. We’re each benefiting professionally, and the material that we’re able to put in front of our students is so much stronger.

So, I close this week thinking about our human endeavour. I work with great teachers who inspire and excite me. I interact with people online, and this happens there too. As this drops, a whole bunch of folks are gathering for NCTE, and my biggest regret about not being there isn’t the cool stuff I’d learn, but the cool people I’d learn it with.

So make a point of engaging in this human endeavour. Talk, face to face, or via some fancy futuristic electronic method. Share, ask, offer and grow. It is all win.

Who’s in your squad? What magical things have you cooked up with your colleagues?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy, and we can expand our PLNs!

-Jay

#notebook

My notebooks are an important part of my process as a teacher, and as a writer. They are places that allow me to collect my ideas, and to work them through. I keep one on the go constantly, in my satchel. It comes to every PD opportunity with me, and is often open on my desk as I work.

I began the notebook process for the purposes of curating ideas. They joy of our work as teachers is that there is so much out there. Never mind the ideas flying around at a PD session, sometimes we’re lucky enough to work with people where every it seems like every single conversation results in the sharing of another great idea. My mind could never keep track of everything, and, well, the collection of scraps of paper, note cards and napkins with killer ideas on the, got unwieldy and inefficient pretty quickly.

The notebook fixed this. I kept pages of notes on sessions. I started pages that would collect all the disparate ideas from different sessions and conversations that dealt with a single topic or strategy. I flagged things, and tucked sheets inside. I glued those random scraps right into the notebook. I dragged it to every meeting, and if I was reading a teaching text, it was open beside me as I read. Continue reading

Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

windmill-1927-650x300

Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

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

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

Continue reading