But how do you start a unit of analytical writing?

SunshineOne of my colleagues just went out on a limb and had her sixth graders compose graphic essays. I’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t had the nerve; I had a million questions! She gave me her rationale, her goals for the unit, the methods she used to scaffold the work for her students, the final products.

And yet, I still had one more question: “But what words did you say to start this?”

A reader had a similar question for us recently — “How do you start a unit of the kind of analytical writing you advocate for in Beyond Literary Analysis?” —  and it’s a really good question. How do you start? What do you say day one, minute one? What language do you use to communicate to your students what they are about to do — especially when jumping into something as challenging as analysis and as wide-open as Analyze-Anything-You-Want-In-the-World.

Although we spend the biggest chunk of Beyond Literary Analysis providing lessons for your class, we never do address the very first day or what a unit of analysis study might look like. We made this choice in part because it looks very much like the way we proceed in any unit of study (I’ve written about it here, and it gets a whole chapter of Writing With Mentors). Where our mini-lessons typically go, I use mini-lessons on passion, ideas, structure, and authority from the book based on what I think my students need most at that moment.

But I thought it might be worth spending a moment talking just about gearing up and getting going, including the language I use to explain to students what they are about to embark upon when they are writing free-choice, wholehearted, passion-driven analysis.

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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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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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Getting Ready to Go Beyond Literary Analysis!

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We are joining our friends at Heinemann to present a 3-part webinar series designed to get you ready to help your students move beyond literary analysis! You can read session descriptions and register here.

Here’s an overview:

We are getting ready to go BIG—to a place in students’ writing beyond five-paragraph analyses of themes and formulas that dictate their every sentence; to a place past our fear and their dread; to a place of passion and discovery in analytical writing.

This isn’t an insignificant change, though. To give students the transformational skills of analytical writing that are truly transferable, you will likely be striking out into a brave new world of teaching far different from the way you were taught and far different than the way you’ve been teaching analytical writing in the past. You need to prepare.

That’s what we’re doing in this webinar series: giving you the background, the foundation, the language, and the practice you need to feel ready to jump into this new kind of writing work with your students! In our time together, we will:

  • Talk about why this shift is so necessary;
  • Give you tips for explaining this change to others;
  • Introduce you to the four essential tools of analysis and let you practice with them;
  • Help you build creative energy into all the nooks and crannies of your classroom so that passionate writing can happen;
  • Teach you how to turn students’ passions into texts for analysis;
  • Help you plan how to use activities for discovery and crafting techniques throughout the writing process in whole-class, small-group, and conferring settings.

Join us to get ready to turn analytical writing in your classroom upside down!

Review Beyond Literary Analysis & Win!

Review Beyond Literary Analysis

We are dying to know what you think of Beyond Literary Analysis! So, we’re running a contest!

Post a review of our new book on GoodReads or Amazon between today and Friday, April 6, and your name will be entered into a drawing for a 30-minute Google Hangout Q&A for you, or you and a buddy, or you and a buddy and a bottle of wine, or you and your department!

Want to earn additional entires? Take a picture of you reading Beyond Literary Analysis, post it to social media, and tag #BeyondLiteraryAnalysis. You’ll earn an additional entry for each photo.

We love this book and we love you, so we can’t wait to hear what you’ve been thinking as you read!

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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Beyond Literary Analysis – Free Study Guide

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Whether you are interested in studying Beyond Literary Analysis on your own, with a teacher buddy, or as a department, we have written a study guide to facilitate your thinking and discussions!

You can find it FOR FREE (along with a sample chapter from the book!) on Heinemann’s website!

3 Teacher Stances for Writing Conferences

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Before I leapt into writing workshop years ago, the biggest thing holding me back was my fear of writing conferences. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say or that I couldn’t help or that a student would bring me a problem I didn’t know how to solve.

Years have passed. Now, writing conferences bring me a rush of adrenaline. I never feel more in my groove than when I’m running around the classroom in a conferring frenzy. But, like all insecurities, it’s still an element of instruction I spend a lot of time thinking about.

It’s sometimes tempting when we are trying to navigate a room full of students to give a quick to-do and move on. But we need to tread carefully because we should never use writing conferences to limit a writer’s choices by imposing our will on their piece — even accidentally. One thing I’ve discovered on the road to having good conferences is that how I make a suggestion or teach a strategy is just as important as what I say.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I did some Google Hangout professional development with a department in Connecticut who wanted to know more about conferring with writers in a way that is both meaningful and manageable. As I prepared for our time together and tried to articulate how I’ve made conferences work, I discovered that when I approach a writer, I typically take one of three stances depending on what they need and how they need to hear that information: the teacher, the reader, and the writer.

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The Teacher

This is our default, right? The Teacher is a more directive stance, perfect for re-teaching a mini-lesson, re-enforcing a fundamental writing skill, or giving a writer a new technique as a challenge.

What I Might Say:

  • When a writer wants to ____, they ________.
  • If you’re trying to ____________, consider _________.
  • Remember that when we _________, writers ______.
  • To take this to the next level, you might try ____________________.

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The Reader

Approaching a student’s writing like a reader is the gentlest stance — one I turn to when a piece of writing is in deep trouble (especially in terms of comprehensibility), when I am working with a writer who is resistant to help or feedback, and when I just don’t know what to say.

I love the Reader stance because it gives me an answer every time. No matter what, I know how I feel when I read something. Plus, this stance reminds the writer that there will be an audience on the other side of the writing — an audience who has expectations and needs that should be met. And for the writer in your room who doesn’t want any feedback, the Reader is difficult to disagree with!

What I Might Say: 

  • As a reader, I’m wondering ______.
  • As a reader, I’m confused by ______.
  • As a reader, it’s difficult for me __________.
  • When I read this, I’m thinking _________. Is this what you intended?
  • When I read this, I feel like ________________.
  • As a reader, I’m noticing ____________.

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The Writer

The Writer is my go-to approach when a writer doesn’t need a craft move but needs a habit or process instead. This stance is all about articulating for a student what real writers do to move through the writing process.

I might suggest that a student take a break from the words and take a minute to sketch about their ideas instead, talk out their ideas with a friend, go back to a mentor text right before they finish their last-minute edits for inspiration, do some writing-off-the-page, go back and re-read what they had written before.

What I Might Say:

  • When I’m writing, I sometimes ____________________.
  • When a writer gets to this place in their process, they might ___________________.
  • Often, writers ________________ when they _________________.
  • To ________________, writers sometimes ___________________.

Why Do These Stances Matter?

Taking different stances in a writing conference meets the needs to the writer at hand better than when I think I need to be the Teacher all the time — hurling writing strategies around the room at warp speed. I need to differentiate my stance just as much as I need to differentiate my instruction.

But these also help me organize my thinking as I enter a conversation. By thinking in terms of three simple stances, I limit my pre-conference panic. The options and answers no longer feel dauntingly limitless — I know that I am going to take one of three approaches.  They give me an extra boost of confidence which allows me to help my writers feel confident with their choices, too.

Are there different stances you take in a writing conference? A different way you organize your teacher thinking as you approach a writer? Leave us a comment below and share how you conceptualize your conferences with writers, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahODell1! 

 

What Time is It? Notebook Time!

We are singing Hamilton as we read today’s fantastic, deep-dive guest post from Scott Bayer, an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Specialist for grades 6-12 in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has taught high school English for 16 years and is passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences for students, teaching a more inclusive reading list, and developing student agency, voice, passion, and curiosity. You can find him on Twitter: @Lyricalswordz

Even though students have always written in my class, I’ve always known that they’ve needed to write more and in different ways. When I first started teaching, I was stuck in traditional modes—ones that I learned from my own experiences as a student in school: students wrote what I told them to write, and then I graded their work.

As my craft evolved, so did my classroom. I began to have kids write in various ways during class and for various purposes, but my methods were always somewhat wayward and unevenly implemented. My classes would go through periods of writing and writing instruction.

More recently, I passed out marble composition notebooks, and although I gained a lot of muscle transporting stacks of those things home and back every weekend, their use always faded, being replaced by something else deemed more worthy of instructional time. My desire for kids to write more was the correct impulse, I just had never quite figured out how to sew it into the fabric of our classroom.

But the following remained true: If I want my students to be thinkers, I must provide them opportunities to think. If I want them to be writers, I must provide them opportunities to write.

What Changed

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.10.59 PMI was so inspired last summer by reading Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Their ideas about mentor texts are so clear and relevant and utilitarian and are not so much a strategy as a way of life.

So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.

I decided I needed to start small and adapt an idea that would work for me and my students. I wanted a strategy that would encourage risk-taking. I wanted a tool that would provide low-stakes writing opportunities. I wanted something that would let students develop their own voices. I found Notebook Time made these possibilities a reality, and in a way that could be implemented in my classroom right away.

Since I would have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom for the first time, I also considered how I would adapt this to the newly available technology. The Notebook Time experience detailed here is almost entirely digital, which has been a big risk for me, but the rewards have been immense. If you don’t have access to technology in your classroom, this experience can be replicated in your classroom—there’s just more printing involved!

How Notebook Time Works in My Class

This year I teach on-level English 12 and Notebook Time functions like this in our classroom: the first three days of the week, my students have the first 10 minutes of class to complete a Notebook Time entry. On Thursday, we spend the 10 minutes learning about the art of writing or the craft of revising, focusing on a specific skill or idea or strategy. On Friday, students choose one of their three entries from the week, revise it, and submit it for a grade.

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Each week I try to provide various types of texts. Because I limit Notebook Time to 10 minutes, I elected to avoid lengthy passages that students would need to read and interpret. I will use a few lines of prose, a stanza of poetry, or a verse from a song, but rarely more than that.

I also select from various images (photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons), as well as charts, graphs, and statistics. I pull from a resource library of collected readings in my curriculum in which the texts are thematically linked to our units of study, but I also search the internet for anything relevant to students’ own lives. So three times each week, students are seeing a wide variety of cold texts, and then they can respond in writing however they want. In a broad sense, they may perform analytical, argumentative, or narrative writing.

We started Notebook Time in mid-september, with a presentation and a student handout adapted from Writing with Mentors.

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All of this was to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is really important for students to know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it. Additionally, although a bit paradoxical, this type of freedom can be paralyzing for some students. I had to convince them that as the author of their work, they are in full control. For the remainder of that first week, we did some practice, and I wrote along with them to model some different types of responses.

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Learning Writing and Revision Strategies

There are an endless number of things to talk about with regard to writing, so I try to have kids try a strategy for a few minutes and then talk about it for a few minutes. For instance, one day, I gave them a quote from Brent Staples about rewriting, and I merely had them discuss why rewriting is so important. Another day, we looked at Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Method and considered ways we could use it to revise our work.

Although we occasionally look at something as an entire class, I want them to maintain the same sense of choice, and I want what we learn to be germane to their own writing. So I have never, for example, taught a mini-lesson on run-on sentences. That might be new learning for some kids, but not all kids. But I did, one day, give them the option, based on feedback I’d given them, to choose whether they needed to learn more about run-ons, fragments, or “other” (which explored how to create more complex sentence structures) .

Another day we tried something a bit different: In our Google Classroom, I shared an exemplar I wrote on Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”, and then gave them “can comment” access to the document, with the following directions:

  1. Read the sample Notebook Time entry below from start to finish.
  2. Consider the work as a whole in relation to the text.
  3. Highlight part of the writing that engaged or interested you.
  4. Write a comment about why it is a strength of the writing OR
  5. Write a comment about how and why you will try something like it in your writing.

Students developed insightful comments about the writing itself, but also talked about how they wanted to try specific moves in their own writing, which was so inspiring. Here’s an example of Derrick’s comments, in which he noted the intentional fragments (even if he didn’t know to call them that) in one comment and rhetorical questions in another, as well as his later work on an M.C. Escher drawing where he tried using both writing moves he commented on.

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Closing the Notebook Time Cycle

Students choose one of their responses to revise, copying and pasting it in the table provided at the top of that week’s document. Then they begin their revision process in the adjacent box. Seeing their original and their revision side-by-side has been powerfulScreen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.25.03 PM for students. In our classroom we have talked a lot about the importance of revising, but as teachers know, revision talk can be cheap to burgeoning writers. My students wanted something more concrete, so I shared with them an adaptation of the STAR Method from the inestimable Kelly Gallagher, and this really cool Upgrade Your Sentence document I found on Twitter from @heymrshallahan. I gave them an exemplar with a single sentence so they could see how one sentence could be upgraded in many different ways, and then I gave them a more functional document where they can actually plug their sentences in and work on their writing at the sentence level.

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Why It Works:

  • Routine: Students come into class, get a Chromebook, and know exactly what to do for the first 10 minutes. Some students even begin before the bell rings to get a few extra minutes—which of course is great! We stop after 10 minutes every time. Things like this can take over a lesson if you let them (and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but students know exactly how long they have and I know precisely the remaining number of minutes to plan for.
  • Low-stakes: The environment allows kids to take risks without worry of being penalized by something as silly as a grade. I encourage them to reach, because there is no fear of falling.
  • Text Variety: In addition to what’s normally going on in our classroom, students are exposed to texts in real-world situations. They bring only the knowledge they have to a cold text, and must reason inductively. They cannot wait for someone else to tell them “the answer;” they must forge ahead alone, which fosters their self-reliance and independence.
  • Revision: I no longer have to hope students are making revision a regular practice. I see it every week. By juxtaposing the original and the revision on the documents, kids see it too.
  • Practice: My students wrote for 190 minutes during Notebook Time during quarter 1; they will write for more than 350 minutes during quarter 2.
  • Grading: I don’t get buried under a stack of papers. No teacher has time to provide feedback on four Notebook Time entries each week, so I give them feedback on the one they want.
  • Timed Writing: Because they are the most tested generation in the history of education, it’s not a bad thing that students get regular practice of on-demand writing in a timed situation. Just a bonus!

Impact & Implications So Far

For years, I was unsure of how to embed regular writing opportunities that challenged and inspired kids, giving them the freedom to write in ways that are important to them. I tried different strategies and routines, but none had the staying power for me or my students. That has all changed with Notebook Time. The routine—using the first 10 minutes of class every day, writing to three prompts the first three days of the week, talking about writing on Thursday, revising on Friday—has been great for me and for my students.

The overall benefits of Notebook Time have been almost too numerous to list, but a few that I’ve found incredibly important: an increase in the volume of writing—some students have claimed they’ve written more this semester than they ever have before; writing as a way to explore one’s own thinking, rather than just being a way to demonstrate final thought; and the development of student voice, and this one is the most meaningful of all. Students who were resistant to writing—there was almost a mutiny in the first week when I asked them to write 100 words—and now are not only writing a lot more than they ever have before, but they are writing about things that are important to them in ways that elevate their voices, bringing them from the margins to the mainstream.

Scott has generously shared a folder of resources with you! Go ahead — thank him here in the comments or on Twitter @LyricalsWordz. You can also comment with strategies you have used to adapt Notebook Time for your students!