Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

Organizing Instruction for Effective Feedback: Strategies for Teachers and Students

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As any writing teacher knows, one of the hardest things about teaching writing is getting meaningful feedback to students. And in a writing workshop model where students are constantly writing, the task can be even more daunting.

But as Kelly Gallagher has reminded us, our kids need to write much more than we can grade. If they only write as much as we can grade, then they simply can’t write at the volume they need to in order to improve as writers. How can we organize our writing workshops, especially at the beginning of the school year, to provide more meaningful feedback for the months ahead?  As I thought about this question, I realized that this was ultimately a question about conferring, since talking about our own writing is the most effective way to get feedback. We learn best in the context of our own writing and our learning can be enhanced through meaningful talk. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

It speaks volumes that three of our top ten posts in the 2016-17 school year explore the issue of abandoning the 5-paragraph essay in favor of structures that are more organic and authentic and favorable to our young writers. We have Tricia to thank for sharing all of her thinking around this issue. In today’s post, she delves into a magical form called the CFC, brought to her attention by a University of Oklahoma professor. As is the norm in Tricia’s oh-so-generous posts, she supplies an in-depth explanation of this concept, along with copious examples and bonus mentor texts at the end. Dig in!

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Have you heard of the CFC-The reason the five-paragraph essay has maintained its dominance in schools for so long is because of its clear structure. A clear structure, of course, is important in essay writing. However, when students sit down to write a five-paragraph essay, they too often start by thinking in terms of structure rather than thinking in terms of ideas. In other words, students’ ideas are crammed, retrofitted, and limited so that they can fit into five neatly organized paragraphs.

What I appreciate about the CFC, on the other hand, is that it requires students to leadwith their ideas. In order to effectively use this structure, students must ask themselves what is a common understanding or assumption about this issue? To answer that question, students need to have a sense of audience. Students then need to think about how that common understanding is supported at first glance by evidence. Finally—and most importantly—students must take a stance of curiosity and ask is that really true? Perhaps a closer look reveals that it is not. From this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.

Take this example:

  • A commonplace assumption is that our school education often provides our most valuable learning experiences.
  • After all, at first glance, we spend many years in formal schooling and billions of dollars on funding our public schools.
  • But are schools the only place that we can get a valuable education? If we take a closer look, we see that we can learn much outside the classroom.

The CFC structure I’ve outlined above is essentially the set-up of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ wonderful essay, “The Other Education”. Here is the opening of that piece:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

Likewise, the CFC appears in the marvelous long-form essay, “The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. Here is an excerpt from early in the essay:

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Walsh begins with the commonly held belief that being an introvert is often seen as a negative quality, especially because at first glance, America is a “land of the loud and home of the talkative.” Walsh includes additional evidence to support this commonly held belief, such as statistics about the physical benefits of being an extrovert and the societal prejudices against being an introvert. However, a closer look reveals the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.” From this point on, Walsh’s essay digs deeper to examine those benefits.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here are five benefits to the CFC:

Structure. While the five-paragraph essay is structured, it is a structure that is limiting. The CFC, on the other hand, offers a structure that is a meaningful starting point for students as they write and explore a topic.

Large and Small Scale Organization. Speaking of structure, the CFC can offer a method for global organization where the entire essay is loosely organized into these three parts. But it can also be used as a smaller craft move within an essay. Take, for example, this paragraph from “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmes in the New York Times:

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Above, Holmes uses the CFC to pivot from some background information earlier in the essay to his claim that teaching ignorance has value.

And below, in Kathryn Shulz’s Pultizer Prize winning feature essay—“The Really Big One” published in The New Yorker last year (and among my absolute favorite essays of all-time)—the CFC is alive and well:

Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.

Notice how Shulz begins this section (which is actually the narration part of the classical argument structure) with what “most people in the United States” first associate with fault lines: the San Andreas. Shulz then shifts to take a closer look at the fault line of more pressing concern—the one found a few hundred miles north in the Pacific Northwest.

Authenticity. As I hope I’ve shown in the example above, the CFC can be found in many professional essays and mentor texts.

Focus on Reasoning. To pull off the CFC, students need to think through the assumptions behind commonly held beliefs. Then students need go further—to consider opposing or alternative views to those beliefs. They learn to ask questions and look at an issue by taking another stance. They learn to be curious.

Motivating. When I asked my students what they thought of this structure, one student replied, “I like it because it makes me feel like I’m proving someone wrong. I’m taking something that a lot of people believe and showing them how it’s not that simple.” Rather than write an essay that simply answers why I’m right (isn’t that what all five-paragraph essays do?), the CFC asks students to consider what if we’re wrong?

Of course, all this said, the CFC isn’t always the best organization for all types of arguments. Students need time and practice experimenting with many different types of organization and then choose the one that best fits their ideas.

What do you think of this method? How do you help students find a way to structure their ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.

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As a bonus, here are a handful of additional essays that also use the CFC form in some capacity:

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

In Pursuit of Meaningful Feedback

Hi, Elizabeth!

First, thank you for asking this important question! We know how important it is to find ways to give meaningful and timely feedback to students. But we also know how limited our time is—there are only so many minutes in a day, in a class, during prep periods, after school, before school. Finding time for effective feedback is the holy grail of English teachers everywhere. 🙂

Second, just a warning that this response is much longer than I initially intended—but when it comes to feedback there is just so much to say! I’ll be going into my 17th year of teaching this fall, and in those years, I still haven’t found the answer when it comes to giving effective feedback. But every year, I think I get a little closer. So much of teaching is just a series of relentless tweaking, here and there, to make our practice just a little bit better from one moment to the next, all in the service of our students.

This (long) post is a result of all that relentless tweaking. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

I love this exploratory, confessional, honest narrative in which Tricia invites us along on her journey to her discovery, along with her students, that five paragraph essays were not only not serving them as writers, but were actually limiting and caging them. Tricia shares resources for thinking beyond five paragraphs, but more importantly, she opens up the dialogue for thinking through and talking about and searching for what else is out there for our writers.

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: 3 Favorite Writer’s Notebook Prompts

Last year, Rebekah and I committed to opening our classes with “notebook time” — ten minutes at the beginning of every class period for our students to write and think and sketch in their notebooks. Best decision ever! But let’s be honest, sometimes we’re still searching for the perfect writing invitation seconds before our students walk in the classroom. It’s good to have a few go-to back-up options for days like this, which Tricia presents in today’s post. Thanks, Tricia!

I have a confession. I didn’t always use a writer’s notebook, either as teacher and especially as a student. It’s hard to remember what that was like—Where did I keep all my thoughts? How did I keep track of it all? Writer’s notebooks—or journals—were something I remember learning about in graduate school, and while I tried a bit of it when I first started teaching, I quickly abandoned the practice in favor of the neat, clean handout I could create (and control).

I think it was the open-endedness of the writer’s notebook that intimidated me: What prompts would I use? How would I know what prompts would work? And for what texts? Do I even have time for this?

Fast forward 15+ years, and I can’t imagine teaching without a writer’s notebook. That is not to say that I use them in all my classes. I’m still working on using them more deliberately and consistently in my literature-based courses. But writing? How do you teach writing without a writer’s notebook? I can’t imagine.

Instead, I’ve learned to embrace and celebrate the opportunity that writer’s notebooks offer. My own notebooks have changed over the years, too, as I moved from small, lined notebooks to bigger, unlined versions (my current notebook, and so far my favorite, is a Moleskine with dotted pages—dotted pages!).

I used to worry that every notebook prompt had to tie in with what we were reading or currently writing. While that’s still true most of the time, I’ve also found that sometimes a good notebook prompt doesn’t just reflect what’s in the curriculum, but also opens the way to new thinking and reflection, which then leads to new reading and writing. A good notebook prompt is generative.

So in no particular order, I thought I’d share three of my favorite writer’s notebook prompts from this year (so far). Continue reading

Best of 2016-2017 School Year: “Teachable Alternatives” to the 5-Paragraph Essay

It’s no secret that the five paragraph essay is dead.  But what goes in its place? In this post, Tricia examines several ways of moving beyond the contrived essay formulas of the past and into new writing territory that ultimately lets our students write what matters and find the forms that best showcases their ideas.

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On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades. 

Part of the reason writing doesn’t matter to most students is because they know, as we do, that the assignments we give are contrived, and that there is no assignment more contrived than the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve written about the tyranny of the form on Moving Writers here and here. And while I’ve committed myself to freeing myself (and my students) from under the form’s weight, I continue to struggle with the how.  Continue reading

4 Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text: Incidental Comics

The school year is winding down—and I find myself thinking more and more of warm poolside days—yet everywhere I turn, rich mentor texts seem to come my way. I’ll find something and think, “Oh, that would have been perfect to use with ____” or “That would have worked great with ____!” Although it may be too late to use these ideas this year, I click my bookmark button and tuck them away for next year.

One mentor text I can’t wait to use is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics. Although I’m usually suspicious of most social media “suggestions,” I have to thank Facebook’s algorithm for introducing me to Snider’s work. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Grant Snider’s work before. As someone who loves the way words and pictures can work together, whether it’s through infographics or graphic novels, the moment I started browsing Snider’s work, I fell in love. And once my teacher-brain took over, I couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for reading and writing for next year. Continue reading