March (Madness) to Determine Significance

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March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard. 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

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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

Conferring as Prewriting

I was reminded the other day of the work of Don Murray (who, with Don Graves, I affectionately refer to as “the Dons” in my head). “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time,” Murray wrote in his wonderful essay, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product.”

As my students begin work on one of their first major essays this year, I keep coming back to Murray’s words. 85% of writing is prewriting. I remind myself of this fact as I panic a little, worried that it’s already October and my students are only just beginning one of their first major essays this year. What have we been doing for the last few weeks? I ask myself. Students need to write, and write a lot, in order to become better writers, so why did it take so long to get to this first essay? It’s already October! I panic a little more. It’s almost November! I start to hyperventilate.

And then I take deep breaths and remember Murray: 85% of writing is prewriting. And then I remember that it’s not as if my students haven’t been writing, writing, writing for the last seven weeks. “Never a day without a line,” another Murray quote, is our class mantra. We’ve been writing every day—filling our writer’s notebooks, creating lists, making observations, drawing heart maps, reflecting on memories, asking questions, lifting lines, recording wonderings, sorting through worries, playing with language, exploring writing territories, and most of all, finding voice. By doing all these things and more, students can begin to unearth those “moments worth writing about” that will carry them through the rest of the year as they become writers.  Continue reading

Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

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Writing Floats on Talk: Pitching Our Ideas

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-27-41-pmMy word-of-the-year, the thought on which I want to focus my energies and instructional experimentation, is “talk”. James Britton famously wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” I want my students’ writing to float … and then to fly.

So, yes, I want them to write five times as much as I can possibly read and grade.  And I want them to talk about their writing ten times more than that.

You and I know this truth.  Allison and I talk about our writing for at least five hours for every one hour that we actually commit words to paper.  We know how our ideas grow and evolve when we share them aloud. We know that something changes as we hear our writing read aloud to someone else. We know that talking is a critical part of the writing process.

I’ve been searching for ways for my students to talk more about writing this year. With my seniors, we started by formally pitching their ideas for writing.

After a few days of mentor text immersion, my students had a general, fuzzy idea what they wanted to write about.  When they arrived in class, I gave them these instructions:

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Students immediately perked up, asking so many follow up questions about the world of publishing that I could hardly settle them to write. Why? This was real. They saw the relevance because real writers have to pitch their work, and in our class we act like real writers.

After spending 5-ish minutes jotting down a pitch in their notebooks, students had to pitch their ideas to their editorial board (their tablemates).  The rules were:

  • Each person shares his or her pitch.

  • The Editorial Board should listen attentively and then flood the pitch with questions — gently poke holes in it, ask follow-up questions, point out potential problems. Good editors don’t let you run with a weak idea.

  • This conversation should continue until either A) the Editorial Board reaches unanimous approval or B) the writer realizes that substantial reworking needs to happen before their idea is ready for the Editorial Board. Either answer is a WIN.

Students were initially excited-but-trepidatious about pitching their ideas to their peers, and I had to provoke some editorial boards into serious questioning lest they default into, “Cool. Good idea”-rubber-stamping. After talking it out — a process that took between 15-20 minutes total — students had this to say:

“This was helpful because there were some areas where I needed to patch up a bit, and I didn’t even realize it but my tablemates helped me figure it out. Go team.”

“I made my ideas more concrete by talking about it. Other people gave me ideas and asked questions that I’m going to need to answer and build off of.”

“I came up with a better idea with help from my tablemates.”

“Hearing my friend’s pitches made me inspired for other essays I could write in the future!”

“We should do this more often.”

Through this process of real-life pitching, students gained confidence in ideas they already loved, refined existing concepts, and tossed out duds.  Students walked into their writing with buy-in from others.  As we reflected together, students realized that spending time talking out their ideas on the front end led to revelations they previously had only after completing a piece of writing (usually moments before it was due).

Do your students pitch their ideas to the class? How do you make it work? In what other ways do you use talk to make writing float? Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or comment on Facebook.

Never a Day Without a Line… or a Word

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“Never a day without a line,” Brenda repeated.

In the summer of 2011, I had the pleasure of participating in the PA Writing and Literature Project Summer Invitational Writing Institute. Although I’d been teaching for several years by then, my experience with the writing project that summer was the first time I started to think of myself not just as teacher of writing, but as a writer who teaches.

The truth is that I had been always been a writer. I’d kept journals and notebooks and diaries for years. And as an English major, I’d also written my fair share of essays, papers, and assorted assignments. But in my mind, none of these things qualified me to be a writer. Writers publish their writing; they write books and for newspapers, magazines, and journals.

That changed when I participated in the writing institute. Which brings me back to Brenda. Brenda Krupp, a third-grade teacher and co-director of the writing project, facilitated the institute that summer. Her boundless energy and passion for not just her students’ writing lives but also our own—as teachers, as colleagues—was palpable. Although she taught us many things those four hot weeks in July, if I had to choose one thing that I will always remember, it’s the words she shared from writing legend, Don Murray: “Never a day without a line.”  Continue reading

“Getting to Know You”: Introductions Inspired by Broadway

My last post mentioned Pippin, and now I’m quoting Rodgers & Hammerstein; I had musical theater on my mind this summer because I knew my break would end with a “bucket list” vacation to Broadway, the four-plays-in-four-days kind of trip my Tony Awards-watching teenage self had always dreamed about. The trip was an absolute treat, and it also offered some inspiration for the school year ahead. Silence your cell phones and unwrap your candies: here comes a musical edition of “the first thing” that happens in my classroom.

“I’ve now become an expert on the subject I like most…getting to know you”

Our series this month asks “What is the first thing we want students to understand about writing?” Two of the first things I want my students–especially my freshmen–to understand are that I am excited to read their writing and I want to hear and help them develop their authentic voices. As Anna in The King and I reminds her students “if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” so I try to start the year by providing students with opportunities to teach me about themselves and their needs for the year ahead. These opportunities often come in the form of notebook (or index card) invitations. These invitations are doubly helpful for my freshmen classes, since the first major writing task of that curriculum is a personal narrative. As they introduce themselves to me and the rest of the class, students also begin to mine their lives for great moments to explore in longer narratives. What follows are some musical theater-inspired notebook invitations and writing exercises. Some of them are stage veterans while others are hopeful ingenues. Continue reading

College Application Essays: Using Infographics to Help Students Write Authentically

For a few years now, a debate has been simmering in my department about the college application essay: what’s our role?  Some of my colleagues think we have an obligation to help the students with this very important piece of writing, and they’re not alone. Many of the school districts around us require all juniors to write a college application essay in the spring.  Others in my department think students need to write these completely on their own. This piece of writing is a representation of who they are and how they want to be seen by colleges; teachers should keep their paws off it.

I’m somewhere in the middle. We’ve taught them that good writers ask for feedback. They draft. They revise. I think it’s appropriate to continue that process with them on this high stakes piece of writing. Still, something just feels wrong about grading it.  What does assigning a grade to a piece of writing like this accomplish, anyway? “This earned a C! Good luck getting into college!”

Last year, in response to my students clamoring for help with the essay post-AP test, I tried my middle ground approach. We worked on the essays in workshop, we conferenced, we shared portions aloud, we drafted, and we revised. I sent them on their merry way in June with essays that were well underway but had never been “finished” or graded.

It was fine, but I knew it could be better. The students struggled to write authentically. They were determined to tell colleges what they thought they wanted to hear and, in many cases, their essays struggled to move beyond cliche.  This year, I realized I needed to slow the process way down, and I attempted to do that using infographics. Continue reading

Mapping: Analyzing a Weird Text

I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey

Night Vale

Image via welcometonightvale.com

Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.

We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”

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Five Ways to Use Sketching in Writing Workshop

This week as I sat in a meeting with some art teacher colleagues, I was struck by how many parallels we could draw between teaching the two subjects. Our students have writer’s notebooks; theirs have sketch books. Our students have copious time in class to practice the skills we teach in whole-class lessons; art students watch a demonstration, and then skitter back to large tables to dig into their own work, applying the skill they just learned. In our workshop, students hover at different phases of the writing process: some writing off the page, some researching online, some elbow-deep in mentor texts. At any given time, art students are working on different projects — some are pinching pots, some are sketching in their notebooks, some are conferring with their art teacher.

In the English department, we have BIG plans to continue drawing parallels (and making them explicit!) between art and English. I anticipate that this post will branch off into several sub-posts in the near future — I will have lots to say about our plans. For now, I’d like to use the inspiration from this week’s meeting to look at various ways in which we can bring art, specifically sketching, into the writing workshop.

  • Sketching as Idea Nurturing

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