“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

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“Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword” (or bring along your shrimp puppet): Writerly Wit and Wisdom from a Weekend Book Festival

As Jay said in his last post, the spring is full of Snake Men, stealing classroom time we’re desperate for, and, unfortunately for some of us in the midwest, this spring has also been devoid of sunlight, so I’m feeling like a bit of a nocturnal, cold-blooded creature myself. Thus, I was grateful for a new ray of light in my community, the inaugural UntitledTown (I’m from Green Bay, get it?) Book Festival. Saturday sessions with midwestern writers and the keynote addresses by Sherman Alexie (!!) and Margaret Atwood (!!!) on Sunday night yielded some great tips for writers and teachers of writing that I hope will brighten your day!

  • “Writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”: Wisconsin-based novelist Nickolas Butler (add his Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men to your summer reading list!) shared the first chapter of The Hearts of Men at his Saturday reading. (Consider teaching that chapter as a short story; it’s a heartbreaker!) Later, he explained how a pivotal scene in the novel was inspired by a painful moment in his own life. He told the crowd that fictionalizing that difficult moment gave him an opportunity to re-examine the real people involved in it. The experience reminded him that the best characters are rarely all good or all bad; rather, like real people, good characters are complex and complicated. For Butler, “writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”; as teachers, our challenge is to understand our students for 360 degrees. Now is a good time to reflect on how much you’ve learned and come to understand about the amazing young people who enter our classrooms each day.

 

  • “Let them write what they want to write and read what they want to read”: When I asked Butler how Wisconsin had influenced his writing, he said that he wouldn’t have become a writer without the encouragement of his Eau Claire librarians and teachers. Growing up, his mother and the local librarians let him read whatever he wanted, and his teachers recognized that he was a “goofy kid” who could write, so they encouraged his gift, enlisting his help in the school newspaper and other projects. Butler encouraged the teachers in the audience to let students “write what they want to write and read what they want to read”; consider the book talks and independent reading work in your classroom author approved!

 

  • What literary analysis and “Rodeo” have in common: When asked about his craft during a panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” Benjamin Percy–an author of thrillers, comic books, and craft texts–cited the work of American composer Aaron Copland. Percy said that Copland’s essay, “How We Listen,” helped him to understand readers’ and writers’ relationships to text. In the essay, Copland describes three planes of listening to music: the sensuous, the expressive, and the musical. Most listeners experience the sensuous plane, the sheer pleasure of music; some listeners enjoy the expressive plane–the “leaning forward,” as Percy described it–that happens when music evokes emotion; and then composers and musicians can listen in the musical plane, where one recognizes music as the product of notes and musical conventions. If you’re reviewing for AP or IB tests this week, consider using Copland’s essay as a crash course in close reading! Percy explained how his MFA classes helped him think about writing on the musical plane, but returning to his favorite books–his first writing teachers–reminded him that readers need “lean forward” moments, invitations to the expressive plane.

 

  • “Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword”: Nickolas Butler joined Benjamin Percy for the panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” and he quoted a favorite book about samurai warriors when sharing advice for writers who are hesitant to place characters in situations of threat or commit to moments they aren’t sure they can write: “‘Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword.’ Keep swinging the sword; move confidently.” Butler’s samurai-inspired advice works well for our writers, too. For the past week, I’ve been encouraging my juniors to “swing the sword”–take risks make decisions–as they draft their World Literature Written Assignments for IB English. I’ve been trying to remind them that writing is a means of discovery and we have to keep swinging, keep taking chances and writing into the void, to develop our best work.

 

  • DON’T “lose the word that ends an argument in a moment”: Sherman Alexie, the first keynote speaker of the capstone session of UntitledTown, shared funny and poignant stories from his forthcoming memoir. During his remarks, he talked about Salish, the Spokane language his mother spoke fluently and founded a school to teach, and the space between “living thing” and “sacred thing” where many indigenous languages reside. Alexie seemed to suggest that a language made sacred is revered but risks being lost while a language used for day-to-day living is remembered. Alexie described how his mother and father argued in Salish, but his father could end the argument with a word, one that Alexie never learned and now can’t remember. Think of that, he warned, you lose the word that ends an argument in a moment. Alexie’s yearning for his father’s words makes me wonder what more I can do to inspire awe and appreciation for words in English and other languages.

 

  • “We are art-making beings”: Margaret Atwood, the last speaker of the festival, approached the podium with a plastic hotel laundry bag in hand. With a mischievous, Mary Poppins-like air, she pulled a hat, a plastic folder with her speech, and a shrimp puppet from the bag. The hat was helping her battle our unseasonably cold April weather; the speech would discuss The Handmaid’s Tale’s origins, Gilead’s legacy, and the importance of the humanities; and the shrimp puppet was a stand-in for Handmaid’s scholarly Dr. Peixoto during an imagined Q & A that Atwood performed for the crowd. Near the conclusion of her speech, Atwood declared that the humanities are important because “we are art-making beings”; without art, humans cease to be whole. The puppet show was a clever manifestation of this truth; it offered a completely different glimpse of Atwood, fifteen minutes of creative play that shared more of her personality and skills than the other two parts of her presentation. Atwood’s words inspire me to honor the art-making beings in my classroom, including myself, with more opportunities to do the things that make us whole.

This time of the year leaves many of us feeling like we’re running on empty, so it’s good to remind ourselves of the “lean forward” moments–the wonder and awe–that drew us to our work in the first place. I hope I’ve been able to share some of the wonder of UntitledTown with you, and if you need another helping, remember that great craft talks are often just a YouTube or author website search away. And if those fail to inspire, well, I know where to find a Booker Prize-winner with a shrimp puppet.

Have any favorite author encounters to share? A favorite writing craft podcast or YouTube series? Share your ideas for spring pick-me-ups and ways to celebrate being “art-making beings” on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

Writing Center Update: The Good, The Bad, and The Tricky

My IB teaching partner dropped a calendar page on my desk yesterday morning that reminded me–in its stark black-and-white boxes filled with Easter vacation, early release days, and special schedules–that we have very few weeks left in our semester. That somewhat panicked calendar also means that the Triton Writing Center, the fledgling dream I committed to back in September, has almost survived the school year! If you’ve been thinking about starting a writing center program at your school, this post is for you! Here is what I’ve learned and witnessed in my seven months of creating and managing a very simple student-staffed writing center.

The Good…

  • Every little bit helps. Though it has been difficult to schedule many tutoring appointments, even the briefest tutoring session can make a difference for a writer. Since my freshmen started working with peer tutors, their writing has become clearer and more confident. Though grammar is not meant to be the focus of a tutoring session, writers have appreciated the one-on-one conversations about grammar that happen during these sessions. As one freshman told me, “My tutor helped me to recognize when I was switching verb tenses, and now I’m a lot more conscious of it and can fix it on my own.”
  • To paraphrase Whitney Houston, “I believe the tutors are our future.” Want to find your future teachers? Check out peer tutors’ phenomenal reports. A few of the brave beta tutors in the program have become shining stars, giving up weeks of study halls and lunches to meet with individuals or classes. The reports they fill out in our tutor report Google form demonstrate patience, care, and their own lessons learned. 

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

Facepalm.

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

Ugh. Facepalm.

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

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

FACEPALM!!

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

A 24-Hour Play, a 365-Day Inspiration

“Take a line; take a prop; write a play!”: these are the three commands of The MadCap 24-hour Play Festival, a theatrical fundraiser held at a coffee shop and performance space in my hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Last weekend I followed those commands to write my third play for the festival. My “madcap” experience has inspired some new ideas and resolutions to ponder for the year ahead. 

Idea #1: A recipe for a 24-hour play…or a classroom activity:

Here’s how the MadCap Festival works:

  1. Around 7:30PM on a Friday night, actors, writers, and directors gather in the coffeehouse.
  2. The festival director (a dynamic teacher from Sheboygan) assigns actors, writers, and directors to teams.
  3. Writers pull a line from a hat; directors pull a prop name from a hat (the festival director prepares a set of lines and crazy props beforehand).
  4. The writers, directors, and actors meet briefly in their teams to discuss what sort of work the actors are comfortable with and/or what special talents they have. Everyone exchanges contact information.
  5. Playwrights have the next twelve hours to write a 10-minute scene. 
  6. The actors and director receive the scenes on Saturday morning and rehearse all day.
  7. All scenes are performed for a live audience on Saturday night.

This theater festival challenge could easily be adapted into a notebook time prompt or larger creative assignment:

  • Pull a few crazy lines from the novel or short story the class is studying –students can spin their own story or scene from the line.
  • Bring a collection of objects from home and ask students to incorporate one in a scene, story, or poem.
  • Work on character analysis–ask students to reflect on how and why the characters in your class text might interact with a particular object or deliver a particular line.
  • Host a mini-festival in your classroom, perhaps a “One Week Theater Festival,” where writers work for half of the week and the actor-director teams work for the second half.

Idea #2: One student writes, another performs, and literary analysis ensues

Last spring, a friend introduced me to the Modern Love podcast, a series showcasing favorite Modern Love columns performed by famous figures, and since then, I’ve been really intrigued by the idea of students performing each other’s work. What new discoveries could writers make when their written work was turned into a dramatic audio recording? What could the writing, performing, and listening teach us about interpretation? (And could this activity help some of my IB students understand why they should avoid the intentional fallacy?)

Each year I participate in the MadCap festival, I’m amazed at what the director and actors make of the script they receive. This year, I laughed with the rest of the crowd at actors’ inventive (and sometimes unexpected) interpretations of the scene I wrote. Their performance was like feedback in a writing conference; it showed me what they “heard” or understood when they read my work and how they responded to it. A ten-minute play might be a tough place to start, but perhaps students could try writing a monologue for a character played by a classmate. Later, the writer-performer pair (or writer-performer-director trio?) could discuss what they noticed in each other’s art.

Idea #3: Collaborative writing

For my first entry in the festival, I wrote with one of my best high school friends; for the last two festivals, I wrote with the youngest of my three brothers, one of the best actors I know! Jeremy and I write well together because we can be honest with each other, and each time we collaborate, I get to know my brother better and I learn something new about comic timing and crafting characters through dialogue. 

My students often discuss together and present together, but I rarely ask them to write together. I wonder what they would learn if they collaborated on a story, poem, or piece of creative nonfiction. Could they identify how their writing voices change when they work with a collaborator? What might we all learn about what it takes to collaborate well? Perhaps a collaborative writing exercise could lead to a list of great moves for collaborators.

Finally, some resolutions: 

72 hours after the festival has finished, I’m thinking about personal and professional resolutions that it inspires ( and in the spirit of Hattie’s resolution, I’ll present them as bullet points!):

  • Write with my students and write for me: Whether tackling a ten-minute scene at midnight or chipping away at a novel, I’m happier when I find time to write for myself about topics that aren’t at all related to the classroom. A happier Ms. Jochman makes for a happier classroom, so I resolve to write beside my students and also write more on my own.
  • Put students’ work on the public stage: Raised stakes can make writers nervous, but raised stakes also make writers WORK and make writing real, so I resolve to find more opportunities for students to share their work with an authentic public audiences.
  • Remember the writing process: My scene didn’t start to take shape until 1AM on Saturday morning. Why? My brother and I had ignored the process that had served us well the year before.  Way to go, English teacher! No matter how much pressure I might feel to progress a unit or make students meet a deadline, I have to respect the process, and I resolve to address process more deliberately in the year ahead. With any luck, an emphasis on process will help my students and me avoid future all night writing sessions.

The MadCap Theater Festival always falls at a crazy time of the new year: my school’s second semester is just beginning, my IB students are preparing for a major assessment, and the temperature inevitably drops to a lung-freezing degree, but this creative challenge always shakes off my winter doldrums and makes me think about the madcap adventures my students and I could have in the future. As 2017 continues, I’ll let you know how well I keep my resolutions, and I hope you’ll share what new ideas and resolutions you’ve been inspired to try!

Have an suggestions for a 24-hour writing challenge? What are your writing resolutions for 2017? I’d love to hear about them–please comment below or connect with me on Twitter @MsJochman. 

 

 

On the Power of Choice (Plus a Writing Center Update!)

As you may have noticed from some previous posts, Rebekah’s “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” has been fueling a number of experiments in my classes this year. Another risk I decided to take was to replace a long-running historical narrative project with a new study of informational texts. The results of this experiment have reminded me once again of the power of choice: as Tricia wrote recently, students succeed when they can write about what matters to them.
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Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot. Continue reading

Starting a Writing Center: A Risk, a Recipe, and an Invitation

Vulnerability–in life, in writing, in yoga class, you name it–is really tough for me, so you can imagine how moved I am when another teacher in this amazing community is willing to share a challenge in the classroom, a well-intentioned project gone slightly askew, or a new endeavor in its wobbly-legged infancy. Reading about those moments makes me feel a bit braver, so this month, I’ve decided to take a big risk, be a little more vulnerable, and tell you about what seems like a half-baked project right now but what I hope–with hard work and perhaps some of your help–will turn into something delicious. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of The Great British Baking Show?)

Our school’s chapter of the National English Honor Society and I would like to start a student-staffed writing center.  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

How Mentor Text Study Makes “Big Magic”

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It’s Tony Awards season and I’m writing about magic–of course I have Pippin on the brain!

It was 9:45 on a Thursday night with two weeks left in the school year and I was crying. My eyes welled up as I read a mash-up of Death of a Salesman and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Years after the death of their father, Biff Loman was inviting Happy to join him on a quest for gold. It should not have worked. It should have been ridiculous. But in the hands of one of my quieter students, a writer whose work had slowly but surely improved and grown, month by month, semester by semester, it worked so, so well. Of course the Loman brothers would band together on a treasure hunt! The scene unfolded so beautifully, and the late hour made me feel like I’d stumbled upon one of those once-in-a-lifetime nighttime blooms. It was magical. And so I cried.

Like Rebekah, I found it extra difficult to say goodbye to the Class of 2016. One of the elements of the International Baccalaureate learner profile (and, let’s be honest, any good learner profile) is risk-taking, and these seniors were my risk-takers. Whatever detour or or alternate route I wanted to take, they went along for the ride. I’ve never had a class as game for challenges as this one, so my heart, too, was heavy when they threw their graduation caps into the air a few weeks ago.

This class proved over and over again that teaching with mentor texts WORKS, and nowhere was the truth of mentor text magic more evident than in the seniors’ final projects, creative pieces that didn’t start in a revolutionary place but are inspiring a revolution in my classroom.  Continue reading