Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Whether we are teaching poetry or memoir or literary analysis, the requirements for mentor texts are the same: they must be accessible and relevant for students, and they should be richly crafted. And while poetry and memoir texts are ubiquitous, many of us struggle to find literary analysis mentor texts that are developmentally appropriate and engaging for our students. In this post, Rebekah gives two ways of thinking about the mentor text search for literary analysis that will leave you eager to get your hands on some of the great analytical writing out there.

 

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Ten Ideas for Notebook Time

This post by Karla is kind of like a really great Oprah episode in which everyone walks away with an amazing goody bag. YOU WIN A PRIZE! YOU WIN A PRIZE! EVERYBODY WINS A PRIZE! Yep, everybody’s walking away with ten amazing notebook time invitations that you can use with your students in the first weeks of school. It doesn’t get much better than this.

10 Notebook Time Ideas (1)

Recently, my seniors competed in a state-wide writing competition, and to aid in inspiration and help launch their writing process, I presented students with unique and exciting, low stakes writing opportunities. After reading my students’ writing contest pieces, I was reminded once again of the importance of time spent journaling—of the freedom and release of a writer’s notebook.

Before we get to it, if you haven’t already checked out Tricia Ebarvia’s recent post on her three go-to writer’s notebook prompts, you should definitely do that now.

No, no…now! It’s that good. In her post, Tricia shares not only her favorite strategies to get students writing, but a thoughtfully curated list of resources as well.

The Moving Writers gang has published a wealth of notebook time ideas, of which I find ever inspiring. Check out more Notebook Time posts here.

So in the spirit of throwing my notebook time hat in the ring, here are 10 novel and inviting prompts that can get your students writing. Sure, most of these strategies are high on the fun-factor, but all of them should help your students find a seed of an idea that they could nurture into a mature and developed composition. Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: How do you authentically support and assess vocabulary?

AMW Allison

Dear Noel (and fellow readers!),

In a recent webinar, 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling posited an idea that really rocked my world. It was at once so simple and so profound:

Vocabulary is not a task or a thing, it is a literacy practice.

Not so much a skill, but a habit that readers, writers, and thinkers cultivate.

My immediate reaction to this statement: Yes, of course! How could it be anything else?

But my actual classroom story says otherwise.

Like most of us, I have tried everything when it comes to vocabulary instruction. School-issued vocabulary books. Self-made quizzes based on internet SAT word lists. Choose-your-own-vocabulary-words vocabulary quizzes. 10 random, teacher-selected-words-at -a-time vocabulary instruction. And worst of all: no vocabulary instruction.

But as Sarah reminds us, good vocabulary instruction is not about finding the perfect vocabulary system or website or book. It’s about treating vocabulary the same way we treat writing and reading: as a habit we want to cultivate in our young learners.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student.

Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student. (2)

So the real question is: how do we authentically support (& assess?) the vocabulary student?

If we want to be authentic, we have to start with what real people do.

What do real logophiles do?

  1. They look up words they don’t know.
  2. They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing. 
  3. They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
  4. They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
  5. They learn how to say words in other languages.
  6. They research the origins of words.
  7. They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
  8. They have favorite words.
  9. They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
  10. They write & they read… a lot.  

So, what does this look like in the classroom? How can we help cultivate these practices in our students? How can we hold them accountable as we do in their writing and reading?

I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities I’m thinking about:

  • Word Notebooks. Students keep word notebooks, or a section of their writer’s notebook, devoted solely to word collection from their independent/whole class reading, thinking about words, and trying on new words. They share pieces of their word notebooks in Notebook Spotlights or Padlet Walls or Writing Groups, just they like they share pieces of their writing with one another.
  • Word Podcasts. Students partner up to create monthly word podcasts in which they talk about some of the words they’ve discovered that month, the origins of the words, how the words have impacted their reading and writing. Here’s a great lists of podcasts for logophiles that we might use as mentor podcasts!
  • Vocabulary Resources that are accessible 24/7. A digital dropbox of lessons that help vocabulary students cultivate some of the habits listed above. Lessons might include:

                 Dictionary 101

                 How to Use a Thesaurus & Avoid Sounding Ridiculous

                 What Etymology Is & Why It’s Awesome

                 Word Parts: Prefixes & Suffixes and How They Can Help

                  How Do Ya Say It?: A Guide to Pronunciation

                 Twitter Handles & Email Lists to Subscribe To

  • Keep at writing and reading workshop…because that’s honestly the best way to cultivate word love.

Okay, last but not least: the more complicated second half of your question. How do we assess vocabulary? For the record, I am so, so, so glad you used the word assessed instead of graded.

Because it makes my job here much, much easier 🙂

I’m thinking about the questions I might ask my students at the end of the month/quarter/semester year as they reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. I might ask questions like:

  • How has your vocabulary grown this month/semester/year? What evidence can you show me of your growth?
  • How have your vocabulary studies impacted your reading and your writing?
  • What vocabulary practices that you formed this year do you plan to continue in the future?

I think the assessment of vocabulary can be this simple so long as the feedback we give our students is timely & relevant. My teacher feedback checklist might look something like this, and I might use it once or twice a quarter to assess their growth as vocabulary students:

Student’s Name__________________   Date_____________________

         Is the student:

__ able to use a dictionary and thesaurus to research an unfamiliar word?

__ showing word curiosity through:

         Word notebooks

         A section of their notebook

         Word Pinterest board

          Other

__ actively “trying on” new words in their speaking & writing?

__ showing word discrimination in their writing — especially in poetry?

__becoming a student who loves words?

This last item was inspired by the children’s book The Boy Who Loved Words, which currently sits on my son’s nightstand. He’s a little young (okay, way too young…he’s 2) to really appreciate its message, but I can’t help but at least show him the vibrant pictures and sing aloud all the words that float ethereally across the pages.

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Image via Amazon.com

The main character Selig is a boy who collects words and seeks joy in sharing these words with others. On the last page the narrator reveals that Selig is in all of us: You too may find yourself lucky if, one day, while you are thinking or writing or simply speaking, the perfect word just seems to come to you.

As I rethink vocabulary instruction thanks to your question, I’ll keep Selig close. For what better gift to give my students than to help them find, through their writing and thinking and speaking, “the perfect word” to express what’s in their minds and on their hearts…

Thanks for asking this question, Noel. It’s definitely one that will keep me up at night, in a good way.

Warmly,

Allison

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

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Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

I love this question…although that might be because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  I wish that meant that the forthcoming answer was some magic bullet I’ve discovered, but alas, I’m fairly certain that no such bullet exists.  But there are some magic spells (I don’t like bullet metaphors–so violent!) that I’ve found work at least some of the time.

My overarching advice would be to be willing to cast lots of spells with any given piece of writing–one student may respond amazingly to one approach while another proves impervious to the same strategy.  There’s probably a Voldemort in every class too–that one kid who just doesn’t respond very well to ANY of your magic.   Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Three Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers

Learning to read like a writer is a skill that takes time and practice, but there are some simple scaffolds for moving our writers towards this special way of reading that can help. In this post, I offer three try-it-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas for helping your writers understand how a piece of writing was put together, so they can bring these ideas back to their own work.

Imagine you’re eating at your favorite go-to restaurant, that small table for two in the back corner by the window. You place an order for dinner without the menu. You have been here more times than you care to count. You don’t need a menu!

Now imagine that the head chef at this restaurant has invited you to cook alongside him in the kitchen. You’ve been eating at this restaurant for years — you know the menu like the back of your hand, but as you enter the steaming kitchen, your body seizes up. You know the food by heart, but you don’t know the first thing about making it. “Just watch,” the chef says to you, pushing you into a row of line cooks. He smiles, assuming you’ll be fine since you frequent this restaurant so often. But eating the food and cooking the food are two very different things, and the cooks are moving so quickly. Even though this restaurant has always been dependable in the past, suddenly you find yourself wishing you hadn’t come here tonight.

This analogy is my best attempt to describe how our students might feel when we first introduce the idea of reading like writers. As in the scenario above, our students have been eating at the same restaurant for years: they are experienced readers, and they have been “eating” books and texts like readers for a while. But for these same readers, the concept of reading like writers–or reading to identify writing techniques–is brand new.  It’s hard to “cook up” techniques when you don’t know what to look for.

To grow, young writers must be able to recognize craft in professional writing and bring it back to their own work. But this kind of reading does not come easily. At the end of a year, we still have students who struggle to read a text in this way. Continue reading

Best of the 2016-2017 School Year: Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

Each summer we press pause for a few weeks to tackle new writing projects and plan for the upcoming school year. And we reflect on where we’ve been by sharing with you the most popular posts of the past school year. We will share these with you over the next ten weeks, beginning with today’s post — one Megan wrote in August about suppressing the urge to cover your classroom walls with stuff, and instead saving room for instruction.

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

who_vs_whom_poster_smaller

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

How did I do?

As I write this, I’m finishing up the school year.

The last exam is written, and I’m marking the last dregs of the deadline hugging academic daredevils. Report cards are in various stages of completion. Graduation celebrations are in full swing. I’m getting my family ready to travel halfway across the country in our annual pilgrimage home.

 

The end of the year is a special time. I look at the last few weeks as special opportunities to give students opportunities to show what they can do for the last time in the course. The wonderful thing about this is how many take this to heart. There is no greater feeling than marking an essay that not only exemplifies what you asked them to do, but actually exceeds your expectations. I’m kind of an analog guy, and I write notes about the assignments on my marking sheets. Without prompting, or discussing it with me, three different students added elements to an essay that I had them write, adding depth to the assignment. I’m hitting my notebook later with those suggestions, and that piece will be stronger next year.

 

 

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My marking sheet for the Adversity in Children’s Film Essay, complete with my notes and  grape drink splatter.

The last few years, I’ve forgone any kind of formal reflection or feedback piece from my students. There have been a couple of reasons for this. I guess I ran into a few classes in a row where the responses were best summed up in one pithy, “Why are you asking us how the course could have been taught differently? It’s your job to plan it dude.” It seemed like at this point of the course, many students weren’t in the most reflective place. There were a lot of lists of products they liked, claims to have learned a few skills, and a general complimentary vibe. Like so many feedback opportunities, it was taken as a thing they had to do to be done, but not really worth investing the time.

 

I was reflecting on this this week, as I marked. In procrastination, I went walkabout in my room, and visited some colleagues. They were sharing their feedback forms, and had much the same result that I’ve had in the past, stock responses with a few gems peppered throughout. With others, I discussed projects and materials we had planned together, and how students responded, as well as performed.

Upon reflection, I feel as if the way that a handful of my students just did what they saw was necessary reflects a more organic feedback model. See, I work to encourage this kind of spirit, this intentional way of working to improve things. I try to be open and purposeful as we work, explaining what we’re doing and why. I’m open to questions and feedback. Sometimes, our work evolves as we’re doing it. Other times, we work to understand why I’m being rigid on something, from a pedagogical or metacognitive stance.

See, I don’t ask for feedback at the end anymore because I want it to be a regular part of doing business in my room. I tell students that I believe that their education is something that should be done with them, not to them. They are active participants in what happens in our room, and not just jumping through the hoops that I set up for them. The goal is learning, and we work towards that goal as a community. As I expect them to be using their strengths, and working to do their best, I must do the same. As a result, we talk a lot while we’re working. That talk is where I draw my feedback from, our discussion of the work and ideas we’re dealing with. We reflect frequently, as we’re in the midst of things, and as we finish them.

I like that a lot better.

What is your model for getting feedback from your students? What is the value of their feedback to you? What’s your system for keeping track of that feedback?

As always, connect with me on Twitter, @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below to connect.

-Jay

All the Culture Wars We Cannot See

I was browsing my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon one of those little wars that sometimes erupt on social media.  They’re usually small and self-contained, but if you’ve got an hour and a bowl of popcorn they can be terribly fun to watch.  

This one happened to be about a lovely little arthouse theater in Austin that had dared to set up women-only screenings for the upcoming release of Wonder Woman.  I know; how dare they, right?  

Cries of “reverse sexism” were instant, followed immediately by the counter-volleys from enlightened guys and gals making fun of the fragile egos of the men so affronted by a film screening they weren’t invited to.  

Like I said, a lovely sight to behold!  It got me thinking, though, about how rapidly culture conversations shift–and what that means when we try to help our kids consider their context for writing.

And once you get a teacher thinking about a topic, he’s going to want to have students write about it.  And if he’s going to have students write about it, he’ll probably want to make sure they understand it first.  And if he has to figure out how to help them understand it, he’ll probably get hungry for some pancakes.  

Or something like that… Continue reading

Machete or Scalpel?

Two and a half weeks from the end of the school year and I’m lucky enough to have kids clamoring to learn! A testament to my mad teacher skills? Unfortunately, no. Rather, they are desperately motivated by the elusive “perfect” college application essay. Several years ago my colleagues and I started finishing our year in AP Language with work on college application essays because we discovered that it is one of the easiest ways to keep the kids invested after the test in early May.  We don’t actually grade them or even collect final drafts, but we spend our last weeks of school knee-deep in writer’s workshop as the students struggle through this high stakes writing and work to produce something of which they can be proud.

 

This year, I’ve been doing daily Google Form “Status of the Class” check-ins to get the pulse of the class and figure out what they need from me in the form of mini lessons. In a recent form, a common theme quickly emerged: word count. They are all way over the dreaded 650 Common Application word limit.  They all need to cut things, but I realized that they needed  some focused instruction on which tool to use: machete or scalpel?

 

Being Concise

Continue reading