Yes/No/So

Spring in AP English Language is always a little tricky. Stress levels rise among the students as the test looms, and they’re all desperately searching for the magical formula that will make it all click. It’s tough to keep them engaged in the hard work of revising and slowly improving their craft as writers when they want me to just tell them how to get a 5 already.

When I’m not working with those AP students in the afternoons, I’m working with struggling readers and writers as a literacy support coach.  I experienced some similar frustrations–and the same desire for a magical formula– when working with some ninth graders on a recent argumentative essay.

In both cases, the students were frustrated with building arguments logically. They knew they had to address a counterargument, but they weren’t really sure what that entailed. They knew they had to support their claims with evidence, but they didn’t know how to order their different claims in a way that made sense. They knew some of the evidence was stronger than other pieces, but they couldn’t wrap their brains around how to weigh one piece of evidence against another.

As I worked with all of them, I realized I did have a magic formula.

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The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading

Bringing Life to Literary Analysis

Lessons Learned in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

My wife and I are big enough film buffs that it’s pretty commonplace for us to comment aloud about the beauty of a particular shot’s composition or color or general aesthetic while watching a film.  Our kids are used to hearing such remarks even during family movie night.  

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after I had remarked about a favorite shot from the opening scene in Star Wars The Force Awakens , my eight-year-old chimed in a few scenes later, “THIS is my favorite shot in the movie.”  It was the first shot of Rey, the film’s heroine, so perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that the shot stood out to her.  And yet, look at it:

starwars56266a4e8641eScreenshot:  The Force Awakens (20th Century Fox)  

It’s not exactly the introduction of a strong-willed heroine for a young girl to idolize and fall in love with.  It’s…strange and foreign.  Off-putting, even potentially villainous (the costume design of the mask strikes a perfect balance between menace and utilitarian practicality).  I ended up pausing the film for a second and we talked about a few different shots in the film, and it turned out she had some fairly sophisticated reasons for loving each of them.  Her “mentor text” for such thinking had simply been my wife and I talking film in front of her. Continue reading

Wonderfully Messy Notebooks

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a post about my plan for new notebooks in my AP Seminar class.  I was fired up. We were going to make them into bullet journals. There were layouts, there were intricate planning grids, and there were lots and lots of colored markers and pens involved. After I posted the blog, several people said, “Make sure you update us! Let us know how it’s going!” So here we are, warts and all, with my wonderfully messy, not-at-all-what-I-imagined-but-actually-pretty-awesome writer’s notebooks.

Keep reading if you’re curious about what I’ve learned about my students and their writing lives.

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4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

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No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

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

Research Lessons From My Twitter Feed

I’ve been scrolling through Twitter a lot these past two weeks.  I can’t look away from the news and everything I read is prompting new questions and new things I need to research. Saturday, someone tweeted a poem by Naomi Shihab-Nye, Gate A-4. It’s a beautiful story of an interaction between two women in an airport, one helping the other. She ends with some words of reflection:

nye

Though I teach two classes that don’t traditionally use a lot of poetry, this text fit perfectly in my AP Seminar class because it’s nearly impossible to read it and not be left with some questions in your brain. 

In AP Seminar, a research and inquiry based course, I’ve found one of the best ways prompt curiosity and inquiry is giving my students completely un-research-y types of texts: poetry, music, paintings, etc.  The formula? Give them something high interest, let the questions fly, and then let them build the answer.  Continue reading

An Alternative Assignment and What I Learned

Before I began my critical reading unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth, I designed a literary analysis final product that would serve as guidance for the unit as a whole. We would read the play through a critical lens in an effort to collect evidence for our essays. In short, reading with the final product in mind would allow students to be deliberate about their reading choices while paying close attention to specific literary devices that are used throughout the text.

The issue with the notion of a backward planned unit with a summative writing assessment like this is that the product itself is not differentiated. I differentiated the reading process for many students, and the content of the unit was made approachable to each learner with tiered companion texts. However, in terms of creating multiple avenues for a successful product, the assignment was lacking.

One of my students fancies himself to be a hip hop artist and a rapper. Normally a difficult student to motivate, I sat down with him and discussed the possibility of creating a final product after reading Macbeth that would motivate him to engage in the reading process while also appealing to his interests.

This student has released several mixtapes and has demonstrated a legitimate skill in songwriting and producing. We agreed that, rather than writing the summative literary analysis that his peers were assigned, this student would write and produce a song about Macbeth, his tragic flaw, and details from the play. This mirrored the content of the literary analysis paper while providing the student with the room for agency and creativity that he craves. 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!).

 longform2

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