Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading

Advertisements

3 Tips for AP Lang Test Prep

Like most teachers, I’ve had a estranged relationship with the AP exam—and any standardized test. Do we have an obligation to prepare students for the “test”? I think so. But that obligation can never supplant the greater responsibility we bear to build our students’ literacy lives in an increasingly challenging world.

Or put another way—do we want to students to do well on a three-hour exam on a single day in their lives, or do we want to prepare to think critically and responsibly for the rest of their lives?

So after years of relentless trial and error, the tweaking of steps forward and steps back, my approach is this: My goal is help students find their voice, to become better, lifelong writers and deep thinkers. If I center my teaching on practices towards that end, then the test will (mostly) take care of itself.

That said, I understand that test prep and lifelong skill building aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In the last decade I’ve been teaching AP Lang, I’ve done lots of different types of test prep, from direct and explicit—timed writes and mock exams (so that students are familiar with the task and understand that that’s what it is: a task v. the way to write)—to embedded, everyday skills-building. This month, the Moving Writers team has shared authentic ways to prepare students with the skills they’ll need on any test; below, I share three things to prepare students for the three writing prompts on the AP Lang exam. While I’m confident these strategies prepare students for the exam, I know that they also, and more importantly, prepare them for the real-world texts they’ll navigate beyond any single test. Continue reading

Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go. Continue reading

3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

Test Prep for Below-Grade-Level Writers

National Leave the Office Early Day!

If you’ve never proctored an extended-time room for one of the big, high-stakes standardized tests as a high school teacher, I don’t recommend it.  And yet I wish every high school teacher could have that experience at least once.  As a teacher who has invested several years in a co-taught English 11 class, I was lucky enough to get that chance a couple testing seasons ago.  It was perspective changing.

The idea of the modification is that for each section of the test, IEP students with certain accommodations are given double time to complete the work.  It’s logical, but for all but two of the dozen or so students I proctored the test for, it was utterly useless and actually worked only to extend their misery:  For each section of the test, the students gave up and closed their test booklets within 15-20 minutes–less than half the allotted work time for a normal test session, in most cases.  

They had internalized a belief that they weren’t going to be successful on a test like that, so putting in all of that time on it just didn’t make sense for them.   Continue reading

A (Writing) Library of Possibility: Structure and Freedom

In recent years, I’ve moved further away from assigned writing prompts to a more open workshop model. It’s been a hard shift, though, and it’s messy. Really messy. Like many teachers, my planning for writing often goes one of two ways: 1) read mentor texts and then develop a writing prompt, or 2) develop a writing prompt and then study mentor texts. With so much beautiful writing in the world, it can be difficult to keep up. I want students to read and write all of it, but because that’s impossible, choices have to be made and then we dig in.

How to decide what to write comes down to a number of factors. Faced with time to do only one essay, for example, should we do a narrative or a process analysis piece or a definition essay? Of course, the most important thing to consider are the kids currently sitting in our classroom, kids who may have different needs and interests from the students who sat in those seats last year. Flexibility is key.

But just like we need to balance whole class novels with choice and independent reading, we also need to think about what opportunities for choice we give our students in writing. Yes, students can always choose how to respond to a prompt, and we can create prompts that are open-ended enough that no two students will ever have the same response. But what about choice in the prompts themselves? Or what about allowing students to find their own mentor texts, choose their own modes and genres, write their own prompts? How can I use a balanced writing approach that allows students to study the same mentor texts as a community of writers but also give them space to individually find and study their own?  Continue reading

3 Strategies for Students Who Say, “I’m Finished” After Writing a Paragraph

 

I grew up in Connecticut, so the old southern phrase “Bless your heart” isn’t a part of my everyday vocabulary. However, I’ve caught myself saying it a few times, in identical situations. Here’s the scenario:

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I’m finished.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts            we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

OR

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I have nothing else to say.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts           we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

My southern friends have taught me that “bless your heart” is the phrase you say when  you’re trying to be nice. But there’s an edge to it. A bit of sarcasm or exasperation or maybe even pity. It’s the phrase that comes to mind when a student thinks she’s done writing, but I know she’s only just begun.

How do we help these writers — the ones who honestly believe they’re done, that they’ve written into all of their ideas, that they can call it a day? How can we literally bless their writing hearts and help them along on their cut-too-short writing journey?

There have been times when I’ve pointed to a sentence or paragraph and said, “You need to add more here” and left it up to the student to figure out what that means. These are not moments I’m proud of. I’d rather look back on the times when I’ve given the student a strategy to try, one they can use not-just-this-time but over and over again, whenever this problem of “I’m finished” presents itself.

Here are a few techniques I’ve shared with students that have helped coax them back to the page to do some more thinking and writing — to help them deepen and extend and thoroughly develop their ideas.

Strategy #1: Explode the Moment

I first learned about this Barry Lane technique at the Writing Project Summer Institute. The idea is simple: take a short phrase, sentence, or paragraph and explode it into more short phrases, sentences or paragraphs.

Here’s an example I wrote together with my students a few years ago. We pulled a sentence from a student’s draft and imagined all of the things happening in and around that particular moment; then we fleshed it out.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.47.10 PMExploding the moment is typically used to help students flesh out a piece of narrative writing, but it can work just as well in informational or analytical writing; a lot of informational and analytical writing depends upon a strong narrative introduction or thread anyway to hold the reader’s interest and add texture to the piece.

Strategy #2: Mirror a Mentor Text

Whenever I can, I use mentor texts to help my students work through writing problems and puzzles. I like to ask the question, “What did the mentor do?” and help my student describe the work of the writer so he can try it in his own piece.

In this technique, you help the student find a mentor text that is like the writing they are doing, and you invite them to see what content the writing has that their piece may lack.

I love the example Rebekah shares in some of our workshops about her student Josef, a 9th grader, who was writing a persuasive piece about “must-see” bands in 2016. His draft looked a little something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.58.35 PM

Josef had written 10 nearly identical paragraphs for the different bands he had chosen for this piece. And for Josef, ten paragraphs was a big accomplishment — surely he was done. But they all lacked something major, something that held his writing back from being a substantial piece of analysis. Each paragraph lacked the reasons and evidence needed to support the claim that the band was worth seeing live!

So, Rebekah shared a tiny excerpt from the mentor text 25 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.58.49 PM

Then she asked Josef, “What does this mentor include that isn’t yet in your piece?” A light bulb went off. Josef immediately realized that he had failed to talk about the music itself. So he went back to the drawing board and added another paragraph to each section. Here’s the paragraph he added to the bottom of his Catfish and the Bottlemen section:

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 10.03.19 PM

With longer mentor texts, it can be helped to have students create a true mirror in their notebooks by cutting the mentor text into chunks — chunks that represent different sections or topics — and pasting them onto the left side of their notebook. Then, on the right side, they can experiment with adding similar sections to their own writing.

Strategy #3: The Braided Paragraph

The Braided Paragraph is a variation of the Braided Essay in which writers weave together different “threads” of a topic, resulting in a beautiful and nuanced mishmash of genres and thinking and moments of revelation. Here are the directions I give my students for trying the braided paragraph:

  • Draw a line down the middle of a fresh sheet of notebook paper. On the left side, copy what you have written, putting one sentence on each line (or skipping lines in between sentences).
  • On the right side, create new but related content by trying one of the following:
    • Write the opposite of the line on the left.
    • Write a related detail, fact, or piece of evidence.
    • Write a surprising line to go with the line on the left.
    • Write the word “but…” and continue the line on the left.
  • After you’ve written a new line for every original line in your piece, braid these two columns of writing together into something bigger, better and more interesting than what you had before.

Sometimes the Braided Paragraph technique produces amazing results. Sometimes, like a good exquisite corpse, it makes for really wacky writing that sometimes inspires something new in the writing and sometimes dies right there on the page. What matters is that you’re inviting students to write in and around their original thinking, to play with it, stretch it, and contort it into new possibilities.

How do you help your writers move past a paragraph into more developed writing? How do you entice the writer who says “I’m finished” back to his notebook? 

 

 

 

 

3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 9.21.00 PM

Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.

Steps:

  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

    Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 10.31.07 PM

    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.