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.
Soto’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!