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

Blending Genres with Narrative Journalism

Years ago, my PLC adopted the “I-Search” paper as a piece of informative writing that now feels like a relic from another age.  It was a sort of “meta-writing” wherein the students undertook a research project and then wrote a paper not about the research topic, but about the experience as a writing process.

It was a failure, but at least it had noble intentions:  To get students to think about their writing process and roles as authors.  

For us, the failure was a blessing in disguise.  Once it was clear that the assignment was something of a dumpster fire, we were forced to revisit our entire unit.  And from the ashes of the I-Search emerged our favorite writing piece of the year:  The Narrative Journalism Experience.  

What’s Narrative Journalism?

Many people know the genre as “Longform Journalism”–indeed, your best resource for mentor texts would be the outstandingly curated site www.Longform.org, which compiles the best in the genre and even sorts it by subject matter.  Students are more drawn into the genre when I can point them to entire collections of mentor texts thematically sorted around topics like “Imposters” or “Sad Retired Athletes” (the collections get VERY specific!).

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image via http://www.longform.org

While styles vary, the core of this type of writing is the conveyance of non-fictional information through a narrative structure–often, the narrative is about the journalist’s experience in investigating the story.  In fact, that’s the narrative perspective the students end up adopting when we turn them into amateur journalists later in the unit.  More on that below… Continue reading

March (Madness) to Determine Significance

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March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard Continue reading

The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: Continue reading

What Are You Working On? Empowering Student Writers through Workshop

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I’ve always believed in the writing process. My teaching didn’t always reflect that belief, as I spent too many years earlier in my career creating worksheets and essay prompts and outlines and templates. I soon realized that just because my writing instruction included steps didn’t mean it was a process.

That said, in more recent years, I’ve tried to integrate more elements of writing workshop: writer’s notebooks, quickwrites, peer response groups, conferring. Just about every day, for example, we begin my AP Lang class with writing—writing to reflect, explore, find topics, generate ideas, develop fluency, play with language. Students work through the process of finding ideas worth writing about, organizing those ideas, and developing their voices.

As much as I’ve tried to turn the writing process over the students, the truth is, no matter how well-intentioned I may have been in my efforts to empower students, I realized that nothing empowers students more than actually giving them power. So that’s what I did.

What follows is how I’ve taken another step in shifting my classroom towards a more authentic writing workshop. Continue reading

Breaking Mentor Texts into Loose Parts

“What’s a break it box?” Ethan asked, pulling the overflowing black bin from the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. These shelves on wheels serve as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.

“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there are some old wireless modems in there right now.”

“And you’re going to let us break them?” He asked me, incredulously.

“Sure,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. Make something new.”

He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re going to let me rip this stuff apart.”

“How will you know what’s inside unless you break it open?”

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Conferring as Prewriting

I was reminded the other day of the work of Don Murray (who, with Don Graves, I affectionately refer to as “the Dons” in my head). “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time,” Murray wrote in his wonderful essay, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product.”

As my students begin work on one of their first major essays this year, I keep coming back to Murray’s words. 85% of writing is prewriting. I remind myself of this fact as I panic a little, worried that it’s already October and my students are only just beginning one of their first major essays this year. What have we been doing for the last few weeks? I ask myself. Students need to write, and write a lot, in order to become better writers, so why did it take so long to get to this first essay? It’s already October! I panic a little more. It’s almost November! I start to hyperventilate.

And then I take deep breaths and remember Murray: 85% of writing is prewriting. And then I remember that it’s not as if my students haven’t been writing, writing, writing for the last seven weeks. “Never a day without a line,” another Murray quote, is our class mantra. We’ve been writing every day—filling our writer’s notebooks, creating lists, making observations, drawing heart maps, reflecting on memories, asking questions, lifting lines, recording wonderings, sorting through worries, playing with language, exploring writing territories, and most of all, finding voice. By doing all these things and more, students can begin to unearth those “moments worth writing about” that will carry them through the rest of the year as they become writers.  Continue reading

I Haven’t Forgotten About You: Honors Students and the Summer Reading Essay Anxiety

Amid the torrent of myths about gifted and talented students – they don’t need special attention, they can get the content on their own, they cannot function in a heterogeneous society – lays the accurate claim that, from a socioemotional perspective they can be strong-willed and often aim for perfection. This is a well-researched and well-supported claim, but the writing teachers of gifted and honors students only need to assign a writing exercise to see this in action.

These are the students who revise three, four, and five times. They revise until they are beyond positive that they are handing us their best work. They sit outside our classrooms in the morning because they aren’t thrilled with their conclusion and they wonder if they can come in during lunch to work on their counter argument.

Of course, we do a mental dance (alright, sometimes we just dance right in front of everyone) and we shout, “Yes! Yes, come in during lunch. Come in after school. I’ll cancel my dentist appointment so we can work on the transition between your first and second paragraphs. These cavities can wait!”

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Best of 2015-2016: Writing Explorers – 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

I spent a lot of time with Donald Murray this year, working my way through his books and essays. One of my biggest takeaways is that neither I nor my students need to have all the answers before we begin writing  — and that is such an encouragement to anxious student writers! In this post, I share four ideas for weaving the language of exploration and discovery into the writing process. 

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Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.

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When Purpose Drives a Project

The Internet has the power to connect people across the globe. I think we can all agree that’s already been well-established. The realization that I’ve recently had, though, is what a powerful impact this can have on my own professional learning. The first time I participated in a Twitter chat, I felt like a superfan who had just received a backstage pass to a Broadway show. There were so many “stars” of ELA, and we were all part of the same conversation!

I feel that same electric excitement whenever I stumble across a blog in which another teacher writes about something I’ve also been working on. Such was the case when I read Allison’s post about children’s literature. In the post, there were a few main points that I felt immediately connected to:

Her kids worked with children’s literature as a genre. This was exciting because this year, I tackled the project of a children’s book with my literacy lab, an elective intervention class comprised of students who struggle with reading and writing. Using children’s literature as a genre was non-threatening while still allowing for in-depth analysis, and it opened the door to other, more challenging texts.

She wrote about the power of having students collaborate on their writing. Collaboration was crucial to our project – mostly because it was such a heady project to tackle. Instead of a bunch of individual stories each paired with artists, though, we all worked together on the same book and then partnered with an artist who was willing to illustrate their work. We found that we needed each other to succeed in this endeavor. Each student had different strengths ranging from generating ideas to rhyming, and they lifted each other up to make an enormous project seem a lot more “doable.”

She used mentor texts to drive the instruction. I share a classroom, and many times I wondered if my teacher-roommate thought I was crazy when she’d arrive before we’d finished cleaning up. The desks were stacked high with every sort of children’s literature imaginable from board books on up. The students even gathered a collection of anti-mentor texts, or books they deemed to be so awful they wanted to make sure to avoid pitfalls that could potentially put our book in that category.

As I reflect on my own experience with our children’s literature project, I know that these were three key factors to its success. What really was the game-changer for me and my students, though, was the authentic audience. Continue reading