Poetry Mentor Text: “Raised by Women”

Poetry Mentor Text-

I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.

Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year. 

The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.

In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.

Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”?  Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?

Listen to “Raised by Women” by Affrilachian poet, Kelly Norman Ellis.

Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.

Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).

Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.

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Discovery Writing

The Need for Writing

As I began planning my unit for The Crucible, I reflected upon previous years and noted the nearly complete lack of writing. Traditionally, the unit is taught as a close reading/character analysis unit with a strong focus on allegory and character complexity. However, I wanted to change that. I wanted a unit that would allow for deep and purposeful writing that led to ideas essential to the text. One of those essential ideas is Abigail Williams’s loss of childhood innocence, and my students reflected on this idea through Discovery Writing.

Discovery Writing

The idea of Discovery Writing came from the notion that self-directed writing often leads to personal truths. As learners, we are not looking for universal, capital-T Truth. Instead,

DiscoveryWriting

Students engaged in Discovery Writing

we are looking for personal, and oftentimes conflicting, lower-case-t truths. A great way to illustrate this lies in the difference between denotation and connotation. We are not concerned with Webster’s definition of Childhood Innocence. Instead, we are interested in what Childhood Innocence means to each student; we are interested in how they have come to realize and understand this meaning and what they are going to do with this personal truth.

The Only Rule

Students may only read, write, view, or listen for the entirety of the hour.

The Prompt

Demonstrate what Childhood Innocence means to you.

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Voice First: An Argument for Rethinking Priorities for Novice Writers

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My Co-Departmental English 11 class is currently undertaking the same Narrative Journalism writing assignment I wrote about a couple of entries back.  They tackle almost all of the same writing assignments as the traditional English 11 classes but can’t move at the same rapid pace.  Most of them read below a middle school level and about half of them would struggle to produce a paragraph of writing on their own without both scaffolding and at least some one-on-one support.  

It’s my favorite class when it comes to writing.

Of course, in order to take joy from the struggles that come with this sort of territory, you have to be prepared to let some things go.  

But as I discovered on this most recent endeavor into a new genre, it’s also important to remember that just because they haven’t mastered mechanical elements of writing, there’s no reason to expect that they lack mastery of the creative elements of it Continue reading

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !

Making Research Flexible

My second grader came home the other day and announced he needed to do some research. He was working on an informational book about basketball, he explained. Who am I to stand in the way of a researcher?? He plopped down and got to work. Soon, he had a document filled with all of the things he wanted to know:

bball.charlie

(Oh, the sadness when his research revealed that Michael Jordan is retired.)

Once again, the power of choice and interest was on full display. He was highly motivated because he was researching with a clear purpose: he had lots of stuff he wanted to know about basketball.   But that’s not what this post is really about. Watching him, I realized I was watching a researcher at work. I was watching a writer who was using research as a tool to support his writing.

I think that’s a shift we need to help our students make sometimes in their writing. Depending on their experiences with research writing, many of them have learned to be students who write research papers or complete research projects. Instead, we need to position them as writers who use research to support their writing. It may not seem like a big difference, but I think it’s an important shift if we want them to leave our rooms ready to be adult writers who can apply research skills in different situations. The problem with that shift is that it takes a lot of flexibility on our part.

 

 

 

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Writing Center Update: The Good, The Bad, and The Tricky

My IB teaching partner dropped a calendar page on my desk yesterday morning that reminded me–in its stark black-and-white boxes filled with Easter vacation, early release days, and special schedules–that we have very few weeks left in our semester. That somewhat panicked calendar also means that the Triton Writing Center, the fledgling dream I committed to back in September, has almost survived the school year! If you’ve been thinking about starting a writing center program at your school, this post is for you! Here is what I’ve learned and witnessed in my seven months of creating and managing a very simple student-staffed writing center.

The Good…

  • Every little bit helps. Though it has been difficult to schedule many tutoring appointments, even the briefest tutoring session can make a difference for a writer. Since my freshmen started working with peer tutors, their writing has become clearer and more confident. Though grammar is not meant to be the focus of a tutoring session, writers have appreciated the one-on-one conversations about grammar that happen during these sessions. As one freshman told me, “My tutor helped me to recognize when I was switching verb tenses, and now I’m a lot more conscious of it and can fix it on my own.”
  • To paraphrase Whitney Houston, “I believe the tutors are our future.” Want to find your future teachers? Check out peer tutors’ phenomenal reports. A few of the brave beta tutors in the program have become shining stars, giving up weeks of study halls and lunches to meet with individuals or classes. The reports they fill out in our tutor report Google form demonstrate patience, care, and their own lessons learned. 

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10 Ideas for Notebook Time

 

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.

1. Page Number Game

Have students grab any book in the room and ask them to turn to a random page you choose. Ask students to write down the first sentence on a notecard. Collect their notecards, and then have students choose a new card. After students draw their new card, have them use the book sentence to begin their writing.

It never gets old watching students’ surprise and delight when reading their starter sentences and learning what they are to do with them. They enjoy the novelty and challenge, and I enjoy watching them work through their approach. Check out my student Katie U.’s example below with a special twist of an ending sentence:

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A disease ravished her. I saw it first in her eyes, the former light in them dulling away. Then it was her body, crumbling and falling and contorting itself into nothing. Then it was her voice, from soft to screams, laughter to sobbing. Finally, it was her mind. Her beautiful mind. Instead of her mind thinking through books and adventures and fresh brwed morning coffee and happiness, it became mad with fantasies of demons surrounding her, psychos waiting in her shower, all food poioned. My mother was gone. I knew she wasn’t going to come back. My last words to her were, “I hate you.” I shouldn’t have said them. 

 

2. Writing With Images 

Imagery sparks creativity, discussion, and writing. Susan Barber is a wizard at Using Art to Teach Critical Thinking, and this thinking and analysis lends itself perfectly to notebook time.

Also, check out The New York Times Picture Prompts for a wealth of interesting and vetted images, complete with prompts.  

3. First & Last Word

Choose two words—they could be words you love (“cellar door” anyone?), words you loathe, words you happen upon, or words you choose on a whim—and have students begin and end their notebook time with these two words.

As in life, the challenge is finding a way from point A to point B, the first word to the last word.

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Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

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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