“Word by Word”: Thinking About Close Reading, Revision, and NCTE

The title of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, comes from a family story that a favorite colleague of mine also liked to tell when she was helping students get started with their writing. As Lamott tells it, when her father saw her brother overwhelmed by the task of a report on birds that was due the next day, he sat down next to his son and told him to take the work “bird by bird.” Similarly, Lamott suggests that writers use short assignments (think about a paragraph rather than a chapter, a description rather than a character’s whole story) to overcome writer’s block or dispel writing fears.

This fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about taking writing and life bird by bird. As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, I made a big move in August, and life in a new city and a new school often forces me to live and work from moment to moment. I can’t do the kind of long-term planning I used to because I’m living a new routine for the first time. And in the classroom, I’ve recognized that my savvy students are very good at seeing the big picture–the “flock,” if you will–but they need more practice with recognizing and appreciating the finer points of a writer’s style, so I’ve started to implement some strategies that help my students read and write “bird by bird,” or, more accurately, “word by word.” Serendipitously (I mean it! This synergy wasn’t planned–such is the “bird by bird” life!), these strategies will also be on my mind and my presenter’s podium at NCTE later this week!

Words in Action: Learning with the Body

When I attended the Folger Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 2014, one of the most surprising and exciting lessons I learned was how I could engage my body to learn language. I am not an athlete, nor am I very coordinated, so my feelings about my body were a lot like those that Shonda Rimes describes in her encouraging memoir The Year of Yes (if you need a boost, I highly recommend it!): my body was “just the container I carry my brain around in.” But then Caleen Jennings–a professor, playwright, and actress from American University and one of the best teachers I’ve seen in action–challenged our cohort to learn a monologue. She gave us strict instructions to learn the first five lines by creating a different, deliberate action for every word in every line–even the articles!

At first, I felt like a goofball, walking the campus at American University, my home during the institute, and reciting my lines while flailing about, but soon I could put my script away and recite my monologue easily as my limbs moved slowly and carefully through each action! As Caleen had promised it would, my body knew the words; they had been sculpted into muscle memory. And physicalizing the words made them realer to me. I could physically feel the difference between Juliet’s “joy” in Romeo and her fear about his “rash” and “sudden” vows of love at her balcony.

With memories of that miraculous memorization in mind, I’ve incorporated similar strategies into my Shakespeare lessons. This week, I started a study of Hamlet’s act four soliloquy by handing out some of the “juiciest” words and phrases from the speech to my class. First, students spent a minute or two walking around the room saying their words with different tones and pitches. Then, I asked students to create an action to represent their words. They could also take a moment to look up their words in the dictionary for clarification. Finally, we stood in a circle and spoke our words while performing our actions. After we had shared around the circle twice, I asked students to reflect on how it felt to say their words out loud and how this collection of words shaped their understanding of the context of Hamlet’s speech and their perceptions of his character. As we read the whole speech together, I saw students sit up a little straighter or repeat their actions when their words and phrases were spoken. The words anchored them to the text.

In retrospect, I wish I’d done this activity earlier, because my students had just handed in a writing assignment that also asked them to approach the play “word by word.” In that assignment, students wrote a defense of a particular performance of Hamlet or a “mash-up” soliloquy script of their creation by grounding that defense in specific evidence from the text. It’s easy to get swept up in the plot of Hamlet, so I wanted students to dig deeper and think about how particular words (rather than melodrama) shape an actor’s performance. I’ve been delighted by a number of their essays so far, but I think earlier physicalization could have made thinking “word by word” even more natural for them.

In the future, I’d like to incorporate more word physicalization in my senior class and freshman writing workshop. Here’s what I’m thinking about trying:

  • Repeating this “words in action” activity with words and phrases from poems before reading the whole poem
  • Asking students to physicalize a word they’re currently using and an alternative word or phrase; when they compare the two actions, which is more robust, more exciting, more engaging? Use that word.
  • Asking students to assign an action to each vocabulary word–I’ve tried this before, and it has worked really well for some students! Perhaps I could pair this with Hattie’s fun word nerd work!

Want to see this lesson in action? If you are headed to NCTE this week, come to the session I’m presenting with Jacqueline Smilack and Corinne Viglietta on Friday, November 17, at 3:30: “Students Close-read Hamlet by Putting It on Its Feet.”

Words in Transition: Revising with the Stars

While my seniors close-read Hamlet, my freshmen in Reading Writing Workshop are shifting toward nonfiction and continuing to close read their own writing. They are a very talented and imaginative group of writers, so my challenge will be teaching them new ways to revise their work (my seniors could use practice with revision, too). I would like them to recognize how a word or phrase can reshape a draft.

Since my freshmen are learning new writing moves from mentor texts, I thought I would try to gather some mentor texts with revision moves. A quick Google search can yield a wealth of resources, like this draft from Gary Soto (his “Oranges” was a favorite during our poetry unit), or this list from LitHub, or a teacher Twitter favorite from August, The New York Times Book Review special feature on “Poetry in Action.” (Another great resource I can’t wait to check out? The NY Times headline-charting Twitter feed Michael mentioned in his recent “Teaching from My Twitter Feed” post.)

The Soto draft, like the “Aha! Moment” column from Poets & Writers Magazine shows on paper how a writer’s work interacts with the reader.

screen-shot-2017-11-14-at-6-18-52-am-e1510658653320.pngSoto’s draft includes edits made by a good friend who is one of his favorite first readers. The draft offers an opportunity to talk about the difference between a “chum” and a “comrade,” or “remarkable strength” versus “overwhelming duty.” Also, how can adding one ingredient like turkey to a “dry sandwich,” suddenly render a more vivid scene?

Putting a draft up against a final copy shows students that revision is more about word work than fixing spelling or punctuation. (At NCTE, I’ll show you how you can compare Shakespeare “drafts,” too!) Once students study these revision mentor texts, we can try mimicking some of their moves:

  • Change or swap a word
  • Cut or move a phrase
  • Remove a paragraph from an essay or a stanza from a poem
  • Rearrange stanzas
  • Cut more small words
  • Delete a favorite line (ahhh!)
  • Expand analysis/condense evaluation

If you’re interested in learning more about “Revising with the Stars” and are going to NCTE, don’t leave St. Louis without attending “Bust a (Writing) Move,” the session led by the Moving Writers team on Sunday, November 19, at 12:45.

How do you encourage students to read and write “word by word”? How do you remember to take life “bird by bird” amidst the zaniness of second quarters and holidays? I’d love to hear your ideas and examples in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. Hope to see you at NCTE!

 

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Punctuation Study: A 5-Day Writing Study to Set the Tone for the Year

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This year, I am teaching two new grades in a new classroom in a new school with new colleagues and a new schedule. And with all that comes the delightful insecurity that comes with every new school year to some degree — the feeling that I’ve never taught anyone anything before, the fear that I won’t know what to say, the general conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing.

And sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.

Teacher insecurity can breed productive reflection and experimentation and letting go. Often, not knowing what’s going to happen next leads us to something new.

This month, after a few weeks of getting-to-know-you-and-getting-to-know-mentor-texts, not knowing what was going to happen next lead me to a new writing study that I’ve long wanted to try but never before attempted: a whole study just about punctuation.

Here’s what I taught, what students did, how I assessed it, what students thought, and why this worked so well:

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Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Revision

Mentor Texts:

Poetry In Action from The New York Times Book Review

E.B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts via brainpickings.org

Strategies Used:

  • Revision

Background:

Aside from noting a few things that popped into my Twitter feed, I haven’t done very much work this summer. July is largely mine. However, the idea that I’d start to meander back into teacher mode in August was always there. I’d do some planning, and resume my regular writing here.

So, imagine my joy as August began, and a clear choice for my first mentor text post of this school year rolled across my Twitter feed. I’m sure a lot of you saw it, as it was retweeted by various members of the Moving Writers community. The New York Times Book Review published an awesome mentor text set – poets’ annotated drafts of their work. I was really excited by this.

I was also reminded of something I had seen long ago at a workshop – an early draft of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I remembered loving the idea of showing my writers that draft of White’s, and my excitement around this Times post was much the same.

This was a readymade mentor text set to facilitate the discussion around revision! Continue reading

revision pic

Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

I love this question…although that might be because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  I wish that meant that the forthcoming answer was some magic bullet I’ve discovered, but alas, I’m fairly certain that no such bullet exists.  But there are some magic spells (I don’t like bullet metaphors–so violent!) that I’ve found work at least some of the time.

My overarching advice would be to be willing to cast lots of spells with any given piece of writing–one student may respond amazingly to one approach while another proves impervious to the same strategy.  There’s probably a Voldemort in every class too–that one kid who just doesn’t respond very well to ANY of your magic.   Continue reading

Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.

 

This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?

 

Being Concise

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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

Whiteboard Duels: Collaborative Drafting

Collaborative Drafting

In my time outside of school, I often freelance as a speechwriter. My students know this, and when one of my students came to me with the speechwriting scenario of the century, I decided that a whiteboard duel would be perfect for the task.

This particular student is traveling throughout UN member nations researching and speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals. Her task is daunting and the complexity of her mission deserves its own post. However, the speaking portion of her mission requires that she speaks to various groups about her personal connection to these goals and her unique viewpoint as one who has spanned the globe to see these goals in action. In short, she has become a pseudo-expert for the UN, and she has an intriguing need to express her expertise effectively.

In helping this student prepare her remarks, I used a collaborative drafting method called a Whiteboard Duel.

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We began our drafting by answering 3 metacognitive questions: What are you doing? Why does it matter? and Why should other people care?

The Materials

The biggest whiteboard you can find, two or more different colored markers, two erasers, and a timer.

The idea of the Whiteboard Duel is that two or more writers collaborate on a project in real time. In my scenario, my student and I decided to work on a specific portion of the speech, and we set a ten-minute timer. We then set about crafting a speech.

The Process

  1. Set a purpose
  2. Set a timer
  3. Draft

The Rules

  1. For the duration of the timer, talking is not allowed.
  2. Anything can be erased, but it must be replaced with new writing.
  3. Now is not the time for grammar and punctuation edits.

The beauty of this drafting exercise is that it provides two (or more) writers with the explicit authority to revise a collaborative text. While, in the end, this speech will be delivered by my student, and I will have little to no responsibility to it, the in-the-moment drafting gives both writers real ownership.

My words became her words and her words became mine.

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Writers Pay It Forward

A few years ago, after writing my eleventy-billionth letter of recommendation, I realized that the kids owed me. Perhaps not the most gracious response, but I had agonized over letters for a large group of past students, and I decided it was time for them to pony up. My current students were sweating buckets over revisions of their first essays and the line at my door for extra writing conferences was starting as early as 6:15am! I needed all hands on deck. In a moment of desperation (inspiration?) I dashed off a quick email to 20 former students:

Hey guys!  Any interest in coming to Academic Advisory on Wednesday to help out my current AP Lang kids with their first essays? By the way, all of your letters of rec are finished and submitted.

–Mrs. Maguire

Luckily, the thinly veiled guilt trip worked quite nicely and they all showed–some even brought friends. The next Academic Advisory, my room was packed with current and former students, paired up, perched on tables, huddled in corners, editing and discussing the younger students’ essays.

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Three years later, that email sent on a whim has proven to be one of my favorite traditions of fall in my class. Seniors pop by to ask, “Are you going to need us to come in and help like the seniors did last year?”  And after one go-around with the seniors, my juniors start asking, “When are they coming back??”  

Every year I’m surprised by how successful the mentoring is, but in the crush of fall and the holidays, I’ve honestly never thought that much about why it works so well. So tonight I’m thinking through some possible answers to this question:

What is it about peer to peer mentoring that makes it so successful?

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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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