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!
Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!
Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!
Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.
We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.
So, that doesn’t work. What does?
As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement. Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading
Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.
But what does this look like in your plan book?
How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?
How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?
And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?
Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!
Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.
How do you begin to process the wonderfulness that is NCTE 2016? All the people you met, the sessions you attended, the Uber drivers you shared conversations with, the authors’ hands you shook?
In the past we’ve offered a top ten list, but this year we are going to share our NCTE heart maps. Underneath the NCTE’s first theme of advocacy was a second theme that emerged: bring love into the classroom. With the release of one of our mentors’ new books Heart Maps, we felt that heart mapping would be the most inspired and inspiring way to share what resonated most with us this past weekend.
In her presentation Leading to Raise the Level of Writing, Lucy Calkins said, “Reading and writing workshop exist so we can be there, in the moment, with students. So we can be people together.” I carried these words with me to every session, during every Uber ride, to every dinner with my colleagues. Teaching is about being together with people. November has been a rough month. I find myself thinking, “I just want this day to be over.” But teaching — and the reminder that teaching is about being together, in the moment — helps me slow down, stimulates my senses, and keeps me grounded in our humanity. The men’s names you see on the left of my heart — those are the Uber drivers who took us around Atlanta. The oval-shaped table surrounded by happy faces at the bottom — those are my students. Teaching is hard, busy, exhausting, overwhelming, disorientating. But it’s also as simple as taking the time to listen to someone’s story and sharing a piece of yours — of being together with one another.
At every turn, NCTE brought together two big ideas for me — being present and taking action. And maybe those two ideas are really the same. Because when we fully engage with the people who walk into our classroom each day, we ARE taking action in the world. To quote Kwame Alexander, “Teachers ARE the army — manufacturers and purveyors of hope every single day.” As I leave Atlanta and walk back into my classroom, I am full off fresh resolve to take a step back from my plans, my units of study, my to do lists. To look into my students and use the predictable structures of reading writing workshop to fully be there.
Kate Baker (@ktBkr4) tweeted this incredible sketch note of one of our sessions, I Kissed Grading Goodbye.
Like the heart map, sketch noting encourages the maker to distill an experience, a text, a presentation into its essential pieces — to identify the heart of the thing.
Can you imagine using heart mapping and sketching noting with your students? Could they create a heart map of their experiences in English this week? What truly resonated with them? What moved them in your class? Could they create sketch notes of the questions still bouncing around in the brain — the main takeaways they want to carry with them?
Before the craziness of Thanksgiving week picks up, we invite you to take a few moments to heart map or sketch note your NCTE experience, to remember the things that are most important to you — the reason you came to NCTE, which is quite possibly the same reason you teach.
Now that NCTE has passed, and we’re rapidly hurdling towards 2017, Rebekah and I are going to be signing off from the blog for a little while. We need to finish writing our book! But fear not, we’ll be around, and our amazing team of bloggers will continue to churn out brilliance for you to take into your classroom tomorrow.
We wish everyone a wonderful thanksgiving!
Allison & Rebekah
In our 9th grade Reading Writing Workshop, most writing studies are genre-based. Occasionally, we center our writing studies around a writing technique. But in my 12th grade IB English class, things are a little different. We still use a workshop approach to writing — we move through writing processes in different ways and at different paces, we make small-and-steady progress, we learn skills together, and we still use mentor texts to guide and inspire our writing.
In this class, though, the four IB assessments — both written and oral — focus on the analysis of literature. And, so, I shift my practice in this class out of necessity and out of the best interest of my students who are working hard to earn college credit.
My students need consistent practice writing about literature. But I still want their writing to be authentic — to look like what real writers do. And I still want their writing to be guided by their passions.
Finding Writers’ Passion about Shakespeare
So, after our study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, students spent a few days jotting in their notebooks and chatting in small groups about the elements of the play that interested them, that excited them, that made them want to know more. While they no doubt sensed that we were working our way toward a piece of writing (they are on to me!), we didn’t say the word “writing” or “paper” or “essay” or “analysis”. We started from a place of curiosity.
If this sounds vague, it was! I wanted my instructions to be big and broad — and I wanted students to interpret them in as many different ways as they could. My fear here was limiting them or ramping up their natural writing anxiety to the point that they chose the first,easiest idea that came to mind.
They were already a bit primed for this task as they had just finished writing a piece of “wholehearted analysis” — analysis of anything they wanted. We had already walked together down the road of identifying our passions and using our expertise to lend authority to a piece of analytical writing. What I hoped to do here was extend that authority and enthusiasm into a piece of literary analysis
Finding Mentor Texts to Support Authentic Writing About Shakespeare
After students whittled their lists down and started to find a focus, they needed some mentor texts to help bridge the gap between their vague clouds of ideas and the necessary gathering of information that leads us into drafting.
Not knowing what their particular passions were, but wanting to convince them that this, too, would be a piece of real and authentic writing, I gathered a different kind of mentor text into my cluster. Instead of finding a bunch of pieces of writing about literature in a specific genre, I searched for pieces of real-world analysis specifically on Shakespeare.
What do real writers write about Shakespeare in the 21st century? After just half-a-planning-period searching, here’s what I found:
Mentor Texts for Wholehearted Analysis of Shakespeare
Close Reading of a Passage: “By Heart: Shakespeare – One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”
Analysis of Shakespeare’s Moves on Another Text”: “How Shakespeare Would Have Ended Breaking Bad”
Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy: “What Was Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy”
Analysis of a Character: “Hamlet Was a Bro Who Didn’t Even Like Sex”
Review of a production: Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral
Tracking a motif / symbol through the play: 50 Shades Of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code
Tracking a trend in Shakespeare’s Language: Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds
Studying Mentor Texts for Analysis of Shakespeare
Together, we read the mentor texts and made sure they had the essential elements of analysis — a claim, reasons and evidence, a logical structure, authority, passion, and a real audience. This served as a helpful reminder to students of the elements their piece must have to be considered literary analysis, too.
Studying these mentor texts helped students refine their ideas — firming them up, erasing them completely, replacing them with stronger ideas. Many students wrote pieces that bore no topic resemblance to the mentor texts studied. Still, students used the mentor text for ideas about kinds evidence to include, what tone to strike, how to engage readers while retaining intellectual authority.
Give it a whirl!
I feel certain your students write about literature! Give it a try — spend a few minutes searching for writing about the author your students are studying. What do real writers write today about Salinger? About Hawthorne? About Conrad? About Dickinson?
I bet you’ll find some things that surprise you!
And then think about how this will fling wide the opportunities for your students to write literary analysis that not only matters to them but might also possibly matter to real readers.
What authors do your students study? How might your students find areas of passion even between the covers of the literature you teach? Find me on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1), on Facebook, or leave us a comment below!
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.
We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:
I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?
So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.
One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!
I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.
Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.
“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”
You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.
But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.
When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:
How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?
These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.
But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
This summer began with a hold-over goal from last summer: my daughter wanted to jump off the diving board. The previous summer had ended with her standing on the board, toes curled over the edge, but no jump. As soon as the pool opened this season, her mind was set. She would jump.
And yet, when we got down to the pool, nerves had reappeared. Georgia demurred. Day after day, she talked about the diving board. She looked at the diving board. She even touched the board from the safety of the deck.
But one day as Georgia watched the other children fling themselves from the board, she looked at me, resolute, and asked, “Mom, what’s the worst that could happen? There is a life guard right there. I know I can swim. You’re watching me. I just need to jump.” And so she did.
This is the way I want to teach.
I believe in the transformation that happens in our minds and in our classrooms when we take a leap and launch into an experiment, into the unknown. It’s a shot in the arm — a wake up call. Medicine for weary teachers and complacent students.
Recently, on the Talks With Teachers podcast, Allison and I shared that experimentation isn’t always borne of courage and conviction. In my experience, it has most often come out of desperation — of seeing something that isn’t working, hypothesizing about a solution, and then saying to myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
This is a question I come back to a lot. And it’s a question I also pose to my student writers. Because I want our classroom and their writing to be filled with the kind of wonder, discovery, and risk-taking that happens when we try. When we experiment.
Experiments — large and small — innovate our pedagogy.
Six years ago, I knew my writing instruction wasn’t working. I was scared to really teach writing — scared my writers would fail — so I resorted to no-fail solutions: formulas, fill-in-the-blank essays, giving them arguments. Of course, these measures also killed their writers’ souls. Not knowing if it would work or if I could pull it off, I wiped my plan book clean, read Write Beside Them, asked “What’s The Worst The Could Happen?”, and started a full-fledged writing workshop.
This is the same way I eliminated traditional grades in my senior English classes last year.
On a smaller scale, this is how I approach daily instruction. While our fundamentals remain constant — choice, target instruction, time to read, time to write, time to talk — I keep my teacher heart engaged by experimenting with the variables.
In the last few weeks, Allison told me that she has been getting her 9th grade writers to share their writing process and receive feedback under the document camera. In her class, students clamor to share; whole class periods are filled with sharing. I didn’t think this would work for me. What if I asked the students to volunteer to share, and no one did? What if they came forward, but they didn’t know what to say? And I didn’t know what to say? And it was painful and awkward for everyone? But, I know my students need more opportunities to talk about their writing, so I tried it. And it worked — students shared and enjoyed peeking into one another’s notebooks.
Angela’s post on making writing using a grid intrigued me as I was looking for tangible ways for my students to revise their free verse poems. But I worried: would students understand what to do? What if they couldn’t apply the poetry strategies that I taught…? And I was suddenly confronted with that reality … in the last days of our writing study? Still, I was curious. What would happen? And I didn’t want to wait until our next writing study. What was the worst that could happen?
So, we tried it last Tuesday. It was fun and fresh — a new way of looking at our writing. It transformed some students’ poetry. A few confirmed their faith in their original lines and gained confidence to stop tinkering. A couple truly struggled- – they quickly realized that this is not a revision strategy for them. At least not now. But what was lost? Nothing. Writers learned something about their process.
I want this ethos — that we will try anything to become better — to pour over into my students’ writing.
How can we get our students to try new things in their writing? How do we get them to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The good news is that their sweet and strange teenage brains are already wired for this – we just have to tap into it:
Students can’t take risks if they don’t know what they look like. When we immerse them in the work of real writers, we improve the chances of them trying the (risky) techniques of real writers.
Because they saw real writers use these techniques, Federico tried his hand at using a Tweet as evidence in his sports analysis, Lauren wove personal anecdotes into her film analysis, and Claire tried out a strange and surreal metaphor in her poem about snorkeling.
Some experiments succeed and others fail wildly. We need to allow our students to take risks in their writing along with the opportunity to fix it if it doesn’t work. In real life, writing is not one-and-done. It shouldn’t be one-and-done for our students either, especially if we are asking them to try new techniques in their writing.
Big, polished, published pieces can’t be the only time students take risks and experiment in their writing. Daily notebook time gives students a chance to try new techniques with the safety that comes from knowing that no one else will see it, no one will judge it, no one will give it a grade.
We encourage students to take risks in their writing when we reward it. Allison’s notebook spotlight under the document camera is a wonderful way to highlight times that students have moved beyond their comfort zone in their writing. I have even awarded students bonus points for telling me how they have taken risks in their writing.
Asking students “what risks have you taken in this piece so far?” brings the concept to the forefront of the student’s mind and the conversation about writing. Asking this question nudges students in the direction of experimentation and lets them know that it is not only permissible but encouraged.
“What’s the worst that could happen” is one of the most powerful questions in my toolbox — right up there with “How’s it going?” and “What do you notice”? Here’s the thing: when our risky experiments are rooted in best practices and the best interest of our students, they might fall flat, but they will never fail. We will be learning about our own pedagogy, reinvigorating our practice, helping our students discover what does and doesn’t work for them. This is true learning.
We were so excited to chat with Brian on an episode of one of our favorite education podcasts, Talks With Teachers!
Listen to us talk all things mentor texts here!
My 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:
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:
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.