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

“The Right Words at the Right Time”: Commencement Speeches and Essays for End-of-the-Year Reflection

It is six o’clock on a Saturday night, and I am sitting at my desk in my classroom. The end of the semester is definitely near! While many of you might still have weeks of instruction left on the calendar, I am down to my last week before finals and commencement. My desk is a fort made out of paper stacks, my grading bag sags with the weight of leftover assignments, and my head swims with end-of-the-year to-do lists for my classes, the yearbook club, the English club, and my professional development plans.

Across the room, Friday’s  “Commencement Speech Wisdom” quote of the day is still written on a small white board: Larry Lucchino, former CEO of the Boston Red Sox, tells the Boston University Class of 2008 that “Life is not about warming yourself by the fire; life is about building the fire.” Lucchino’s advice  is great for seniors at commencement or teachers at the beginning of a school year, but right now, I’m sure many of us would like to be stretching out in a lawn chair next to the bonfire rather than building it!  Others’ posts on this blog have often comforted and inspired me like a quiet moment around a fire, so today I invite you to put up your feet–if only for five minutes–and join me for a little reflection and inspiration. Continue reading

Introducing Argumentative Writing with Infographics

Like Rebekah, Allison, and probably many of you, I am a big fan of Kelly Gallagher’s work. In fact, a colleague and I structured our freshman curriculum to mirror the writing scaffold in his book Write Like This: our first freshman writing assignments encourage students to “express and reflect” in personal narratives, assignments throughout the year ask students to “inform and explain,” “evaluate and judge,” “inquire and explore,” “analyze and interpret,” and now, one of the last assignments of the year, a persuasive research-based speech, requires students to “take a stand and propose a solution” about an issue that matters to them.

As part of the assignment, students work with research databases in our library, many of which have helpful “Pro/Con” features that make “taking a stand” with appropriate evidence pretty easy. While working with students on the assignment last year, however, I started to realize that my approach was too prescriptive; my schedule for the assignment asked students to decide where they stood on an issue before beginning their research. So much for encouraging open minds! Thankfully, I had the good work of Kelly Gallagher, Rebekah O’Dell, and Allison Marchetti to help me develop a new, more organic approach to beginning our research process.

In his most recent book, In the Best Interest of Students, Gallagher, citing the work of George Hillocks, reminds teachers that “Argument doesn’t start with a claim; argument starts with data” (89). Gallagher provides a useful example to illustrate his point, but that first sentence was all I needed to set me down a new path. Inspired by Allison and Rebekah’s use of raw data for notebook time, Rebekah’s infographic study, and the great infographics many of you have shared on Twitter, I introduced our argumentative writing assignment with a day of infographic exploration. 

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This infographic inspired a lot of discussion in my class earlier this year. What research questions might it prompt for your students?

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Teaching Shakespeare (and Literary Analysis!) with Prompt Books

 

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Page of a Prompt Book from Drury Lane Theater production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1763, Source: Folger Digital Image Collection

 

This April, English teachers, Anglophiles, all buddies of the Bard will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Museums, libraries, schools, and theater companies are marking the occasion with special events like the homecoming of the Globe to Globe tour of Hamlet, which will have performed in around 200 countries by the time the company’s journey ends; Chicago Shakespeare’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago; and the Folger Shakespeare Library of Washington, DC’s First Folio Tour, which will bring a First Folio from the library’s incredible collection to every state in the union and Puerto Rico (I’m counting the days until it reaches Wisconsin in November!).

The First Folio Tour is just one of many resources that the Folger has to share with teachers. The library also hosts some incredible professional development workshops and institutes on its campus and around the country. In the spirit of celebrating Shakespeare and writing with mentors, I’d like to share my adaptation of the prompt book, a mentor text-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, close reading, and literary analysis that I learned while attending the Folger’s 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. My seniors recently completed prompt books as a final assessment for our study of Hamlet, and the results were phenomenal.

What is a prompt book?

A prompt book is a copy of a play’s script that has been cut and/or annotated by the director. You and your students can explore historical prompt books in Luna, the Folger Library’s digital image collection. Here is a link to one of the Luna images I shared with my students, and here is a link to a prompt book with directions for Hamlet and Laertes’s swordfight. You’ll notice in these examples that directors have indicated where actors should move on stage, what gestures should be made, how a line should be delivered, or which lines will be cut.  

The Assignment:

After sharing prompt book mentor texts with my seniors, I instructed them to choose a passage from Hamlet that we had not already performed in class and create a director’s prompt book for the passage. Then, I added another “layer” to the prompt book: after making their directorial decisions, students had to explain why they were making those choices (in other words, they had to articulate their analysis of the text).  I asked students to craft the prompt book electronically using tools in Google Docs; students could italicize or recolor stage directions, and they could use the comments feature or a series of paragraphs following the prompt book to explain their directorial choices. Continue reading