March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up.  Continue reading

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“Listening Is an Act of Love”

Full confession: I wanted to say something profound, to share some brilliant new teaching strategy that had emerged from my classes over the past month, but as I sit down to write on one of the first sunny days of a very gray February, I’m feeling a little tapped out of great ideas. Like Hattie, knowing that I have just two months to get my IB students ready for their spring exams is making me feel a little white rabbit-y, and I think all the newness of a new school, new students, and a new city has made me stick to familiar lessons rather than pioneer new ones. Though I haven’t invented any new lessons, in the past week, I did re-learn an important one: to borrow from the title of The Princess Diaries’ Lily Moscovitz’s cable access show, I’ve been reminded to “shut up and listen,” because–to quote another public broadcast show host, StoryCorps’ Dave Isay– “listening is an act of love.”

The lesson began when my freshmen held a Harkness-style discussion of The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve not taught the novel before, so I didn’t have many resources to draw from and I worried all month about what I should have been doing differently. Should I have asked more questions about symbols? Should I have reviewed comprehension questions after each assigned reading? Should I have shared more instructions about how to find and think about Notice and Note signposts? And should I have guided our first big discussion of the book so that I could make sure students were probing deeply and thinking critically?

The students’ mature, compassionate, and well-mannered self-guided discussion on Tuesday and Wednesday gave me my answer: “No…you should shut up and listen.” They didn’t need me to make magic happen. For two days, students talked thoughtfully about Holden, challenged each other to support ideas with evidence, and coaxed each other to speak when some classmates sat silent for too long. And as I listened to my students, I realized that they had listened to Holden Caulfield in a way I never had as a student. When I read the book during high school, I couldn’t get past Holden’s rough shell to appreciate the “catcher in the rye” inside, but my students “got” him, and they appreciated the way Salinger seemed to “hear” people their age decades ago.

As I read some revised paragraphs from the freshmen later in the week, I tried to listen again. The ninth graders’ revisions showed me that they had heard my questions about which pieces of evidence supported their ideas, and their writing told me we needed to talk some more about building momentum and ending with a “click.” As I listened, I learned that these revisions didn’t need grades yet, they just needed feedback, more questions that showed I was still listening.

Standing in the eye of a group-work hurricane during my IB classes was also a time to listen. As students worked together to put scenes from The Merchant of Venice on their feet, I sat at my desk or wandered around and listened in on conversations. The project’s assessment depended on that listening. I looked forward to final performances, certainly, but the skills I was really looking for were demonstrated during planning. As they brainstormed and rehearsed, students justified their costume choices, their sets, their props, their gestures, and their expressions with evidence from the text. To the passerby who just looked inside my room, it would appear that I had given the class a day off, but a good listener could hear how much the students knew and understood about Shakespeare’s problematic play.

And then I greeted my seniors on Wednesday, the day when we learned they had lost a classmate in an accident, I knew it was also time to listen. A day intended for more scene work was instead a time to talk together or be quiet together or find comfort in a routine…a time to listen to each other–to memories, to questions, to the little funny stories anyone tells when they’re trying to cut the silence and the sadness.

And then I came home Wednesday night to news of more students, miles away, who had lost classmates, too. And the next day, those students channeled their anger and fear and sadness and frustration and mourning and love into a powerful political voice. Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and their classmates in Parkland are making the world shut up and listen. Sometime, somewhere, someone else must have listened to those students, listened to the point that it empowered them and assured them someone would always listen.

And so I will keep practicing the lesson I re-learned this week, all the while hoping that listening is just the first act of love I can offer communities who are hurting. Let the next act be action, changes that protect the young voices demanding to be heard. 

What’s the best thing you heard (or overheard) this week? When have you felt listened to? How can we teach our students to show each other that they are listening? How can we help our students be heard? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. 

Tackling IB Literature Papers I & II: Test Prep Without Test Rep

IB exams begin in early May, and I’m a teacher who loves to settle into a discussion when the ideas are good and they just keep coming, so if you asked my students to identify an external conflict in the drama of senior year of IB Literature, they would say “Ms. Jochman vs. the calendar.” How many times have I shook my fist at the clock just the class was close to an analytical breakthrough? Too many to count.

Since my seniors have to take all of those great talking points and eventually share them in two written exams, one of my biggest challenges when teaching IB is figuring out how to balance literature study with writing study. In a course that’s one month shorter than anything else I teach.

In the past, I’ve fallen back on assignments or on-demand writings that mimic the two exams my students will take: a commentary on an unseen piece of prose or poetry and a comparative analysis of two works in the same genre. All of that mimicry and repetitive testing can get tedious, however, and it doesn’t offer students the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles or develop their own writing voices. How, then, can I help my students develop the critical thinking and writing skills they will need without all of those drills? Below are some of the options I’ve tried and a few I’m challenging myself to try this year. Continue reading

Teaching to the Writing Test – a Moving Writers series

National Leave the Office Early Day!

Although there may be a horde of teachers who have whittled it down to a perfect science, no teacher has ever been excited or invigorated by preparing his or her students for a standardized writing test.

And yet, it’s something that pretty much every one of us must do in one way or another.

Like it or not, our students’ futures will be full of high-stakes “test writing” circumstances — yes, AP and IB tests as they get into junior and senior year, the SAT and ACT, college placement tests, and even job interviews in which they will be asked to compose a piece of writing on-demand in hopes of securing a position.

It’s not fun, but it’s real.

So, we want to spend January letting you into the reality of our classrooms when matters of writing test preparation are at hand:

  • To what extent do we “teach to the test” and to what extent do we let what we still know to be true and best about writing guide our instruction?
  • How do we prepare struggling readers and writers?
  • How do we prepare older students for AP test, IB test, and the SATs?
  • How do we plan a workshop curriculum when standardized tests are looming in the distance?
  • To what degree do we infuse test prep with writing workshop and writing workshop with test prep?

Regardless of the students sitting in your classroom this year, we hope that each installment will give you food for thought and inspiration for making this year’s test prep meaningful beyond test day! We’ll tackle these questions this month as we look ahead to the spring semester with a desire to prepare our students for what lies ahead on the test and in life as writers.

A Teaching Lesson from the Dance Studio: Crash and Learn

If you read the #NCTE17 recap, you know that the Moving Writers team has busting a move on the brain, especially me, since I am currently taking a second round of swing dancing lessons (so maybe it’s more like I’m “cutting a rug”?). This dance class crosses a long-existing item off of my bucket list, and I’m having a blast (and not crushing too many toes). While I expected to enjoy learning how to dance, I didn’t anticipate how much I would enjoy watching my dance instructors teach. Both are just plain great teachers–they are patient, kind, and encouraging; they are clear communicators; they break steps down into pieces their students can handle; and they always explain why leads and follows move the way we do in each step or sequence. I leave class happy to have learned new steps and happy to have watched two great teachers in action!

One of the strategies my instructors like using most is “crash and learn.” When they start to teach a new step, they will demonstrate it once or twice and then let the class just go for it to see what happens. The result is usually pretty messy. Limbs tangle, laughs ring out, apologies are mumbled. Then, the instructors share what they noticed and take the step apart so we can make it work. As my first semester at a new school nears its end, I’m realizing that “Crash and Learn” could very well be the theme of my half-year. A few years ago, the perfectionist in me would have been mortified by tiny missteps or wonky lessons, but a few months of “crashing and learning” has taught me a lot about the joy of risk and the knowledge that can only come from making a mistake first. And as I “crashed and learned,” I realized that the process was one my students ought to get comfortable with, too. As you look forward to Christmas break and perhaps make some classroom resolutions for the new year, here are some tips for how to make the most of your “crash and learn” moments.

Hang on, Ginger Rogers! That’s a clever title, but what does “crash and learn” actually look like in the classroom?

Good question! “Crash and learn” could mean handing students a poem for a cold read and asking them to make some sense of it alone before you read it together. “Crash and learn” could mean giving students a mentor text the class hasn’t annotated and asking students to write a draft of something like it. It could mean–as it did for my seniors this week–completing a mock assessment of a poem students had only read alone. It’s not a strategy for every day, but it’s something worth trying a few times each year.  I’ll share some more specific details about recent “crash and learn” moments in my classroom below.

“This is my dance space; this is your dance space.” DanceSpace

Johnny Castle was right. Dancers need to know their places (but nobody puts Baby in a corner), so make sure to set some guidelines for all who will be crashing and learning. Let students know when you’ll step in and when they will have to navigate on their own–and hold yourself to those guidelines, even if you start to see struggle!

For example, as I fielded some seniors’ frustrations about recent assignments, I realized that they were expecting more guidance from me about which writing topics to choose and what exactly they ought to say about those topics. While I don’t plan on dictating that much of their writing (our goal is authentic thought and personal response, so I keep prompts as open-ended as I can), I could be more explicit about what students can expect from me, what I’m expecting them to do on their own, and why those are the expectations of the assignment and the course. I will start next semester with a similar conversation.

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and…” well, you know the rest…

footloose_04

If you’re going to crash and learn, make sure you’ve allotted enough time for students to retry the activity a few times. For example, my freshmen are currently writing a collection of digital texts, and our schedule is such that they’ve had to “crash and learn” a few of the digital genres on their own. They have had five chances to try the “read a mentor text/mark your noticings/use the mentor as model” method, and their work has improved with each new attempt. Any “crashing” that happened with the first two attempts–sentences that bordered on plagiarism, sources that were too weak (or pieces without sources), pieces that didn’t use mentor text moves at all–led to a lot of learning that has produced better, stronger texts on the third, fourth, and fifth drafts.  

Cue Tom Bergeron…

Even Dancing with the Stars makes time for reflection. Every time dancers finish their numbers, host Tom Bergeron is there to ask them how they feel about their performance. I realize that “crash and learn” can look and feel a lot better for a teacher than it may to a student, since I might register students’ progress or the way they’re building scaffolds before they do. Thus, I’ve tried to follow each “crash and learn” experience with time to reflect as a class or individually. When my seniors performed a mock assessment of a cold-read poem yesterday, I made sure to carve out time for a discussion of what they observed, what questions they had, and what they now knew they needed to feel ready for the actual assessment. Now I know that learning new strategies for organizing our analyses should be our top priority.

As a semester of “crashing and learning” comes to a close, I’m also asking students to fill out what would normally be end-of-the-year course evaluations so that I can recalibrate for the new semester.  
Find a Partner!

Dance-Marathons

And with course evaluations inevitably comes some constructive criticism. I’m grateful for new buddies in my department who have helped me to process the survey results and find new ways to meet students’ needs. “Crashing and learning” can leave some bumps and bruises, so make sure you have a partner or two who can keep you on your feet and ready to get back on the dance floor!

When is the last time you “crashed and learned”? Have any other tips for how to learn from diving into the deep end first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman. And if you need a little boost as the holiday craziness sets in, here’s a great dance montage

Bust a (Writing) Move — An NCTE17 Recap

Says she wants to dance to a different groove

Now you know what to do G bust a move

– – Young MC

 

Among my all-time NCTE highlights came this year as members of the Moving Writing crew gathered in real life to share some of our favorite writing moves to support writers throughout the writing process.

 

THANK YOU to all of you who hung around St. Louis until the bitter end with us. For those who couldn’t be with us in person, we thought we’d share a little bit about our favorite moves — along with our slides and resources — to energize your writing instruction as we head into the winter!

Sit back, crank up some ‘90s dance jams, and bust a writing move.

Continue reading

“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!

 

“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

“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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