O Captain, My Captain

I love showing Dead Poets Society to Grade 12 students.

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Image via creoflick.net

There’s something special about that movie and that group. They’re not much longer for my building, and will soon be sallying forth to “Carpe diem.”

But, if I must be honest, I’ve always applied the Stink of English class to it by attaching an academic piece to it, often an essay. The film is rich, with lots to discuss and debate, much for students to ponder as they respond in writing. It works for this, and it’s a good piece to give them the “freedom” of an essay response to say what the movie inspires them to say.

And I kind of hate that I’ve done that. My DPS lesson plan was becoming as stolid and devoid of passion as the introduction to poetry Keating has the boys rip out of their books.

So, this year, I revamped things. There was to be no formal response. In actuality, I wasn’t even going to be able to watch the film with them, because I would be away at PD. They watched. Continue reading

Beyond the Baked Goods: Appreciate Teachers by Supporting Them

Whether you recognize it for a day or a week, it’s that time of year: teacher appreciation. If you’re an elementary teacher, I apologize; you’re probably thinking, “Don’t remind me. I’ve eaten so many baked goods, I feel a little queasy.” Secondary teachers, your eyes may have just bugged out of your head as you thought, “What!? You get baked goods!?”

 

I joke about teacher appreciation celebrations, but they’re important. And they’re well-timed. This is the stretch of the school year that can feel a bit like pushing a Buick uphill

…in the mud

…with four flat tires.

I’m incredibly thankful for everything our community does for teacher appreciation, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we could do better. Don’t get me wrong; at this time of year, a lunch or a coffee cart can seem like a godsend. But, I’d argue that more than appreciation, we need support.

I imagine we could probably get together at one of these teacher appreciation celebrations and lament all day about how we need more support from our legislators and our community. But I don’t know how far we’d get beyond sharing the same concerns. At least not in one conversation around the coffee cart. There is, however, a lot that we can do within our own buildings to move beyond baked goods to support teachers all year long. Continue reading

“Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword” (or bring along your shrimp puppet): Writerly Wit and Wisdom from a Weekend Book Festival

As Jay said in his last post, the spring is full of Snake Men, stealing classroom time we’re desperate for, and, unfortunately for some of us in the midwest, this spring has also been devoid of sunlight, so I’m feeling like a bit of a nocturnal, cold-blooded creature myself. Thus, I was grateful for a new ray of light in my community, the inaugural UntitledTown (I’m from Green Bay, get it?) Book Festival. Saturday sessions with midwestern writers and the keynote addresses by Sherman Alexie (!!) and Margaret Atwood (!!!) on Sunday night yielded some great tips for writers and teachers of writing that I hope will brighten your day!

  • “Writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”: Wisconsin-based novelist Nickolas Butler (add his Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men to your summer reading list!) shared the first chapter of The Hearts of Men at his Saturday reading. (Consider teaching that chapter as a short story; it’s a heartbreaker!) Later, he explained how a pivotal scene in the novel was inspired by a painful moment in his own life. He told the crowd that fictionalizing that difficult moment gave him an opportunity to re-examine the real people involved in it. The experience reminded him that the best characters are rarely all good or all bad; rather, like real people, good characters are complex and complicated. For Butler, “writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”; as teachers, our challenge is to understand our students for 360 degrees. Now is a good time to reflect on how much you’ve learned and come to understand about the amazing young people who enter our classrooms each day.

 

  • “Let them write what they want to write and read what they want to read”: When I asked Butler how Wisconsin had influenced his writing, he said that he wouldn’t have become a writer without the encouragement of his Eau Claire librarians and teachers. Growing up, his mother and the local librarians let him read whatever he wanted, and his teachers recognized that he was a “goofy kid” who could write, so they encouraged his gift, enlisting his help in the school newspaper and other projects. Butler encouraged the teachers in the audience to let students “write what they want to write and read what they want to read”; consider the book talks and independent reading work in your classroom author approved!

 

  • What literary analysis and “Rodeo” have in common: When asked about his craft during a panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” Benjamin Percy–an author of thrillers, comic books, and craft texts–cited the work of American composer Aaron Copland. Percy said that Copland’s essay, “How We Listen,” helped him to understand readers’ and writers’ relationships to text. In the essay, Copland describes three planes of listening to music: the sensuous, the expressive, and the musical. Most listeners experience the sensuous plane, the sheer pleasure of music; some listeners enjoy the expressive plane–the “leaning forward,” as Percy described it–that happens when music evokes emotion; and then composers and musicians can listen in the musical plane, where one recognizes music as the product of notes and musical conventions. If you’re reviewing for AP or IB tests this week, consider using Copland’s essay as a crash course in close reading! Percy explained how his MFA classes helped him think about writing on the musical plane, but returning to his favorite books–his first writing teachers–reminded him that readers need “lean forward” moments, invitations to the expressive plane.

 

  • “Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword”: Nickolas Butler joined Benjamin Percy for the panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” and he quoted a favorite book about samurai warriors when sharing advice for writers who are hesitant to place characters in situations of threat or commit to moments they aren’t sure they can write: “‘Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword.’ Keep swinging the sword; move confidently.” Butler’s samurai-inspired advice works well for our writers, too. For the past week, I’ve been encouraging my juniors to “swing the sword”–take risks make decisions–as they draft their World Literature Written Assignments for IB English. I’ve been trying to remind them that writing is a means of discovery and we have to keep swinging, keep taking chances and writing into the void, to develop our best work.

 

  • DON’T “lose the word that ends an argument in a moment”: Sherman Alexie, the first keynote speaker of the capstone session of UntitledTown, shared funny and poignant stories from his forthcoming memoir. During his remarks, he talked about Salish, the Spokane language his mother spoke fluently and founded a school to teach, and the space between “living thing” and “sacred thing” where many indigenous languages reside. Alexie seemed to suggest that a language made sacred is revered but risks being lost while a language used for day-to-day living is remembered. Alexie described how his mother and father argued in Salish, but his father could end the argument with a word, one that Alexie never learned and now can’t remember. Think of that, he warned, you lose the word that ends an argument in a moment. Alexie’s yearning for his father’s words makes me wonder what more I can do to inspire awe and appreciation for words in English and other languages.

 

  • “We are art-making beings”: Margaret Atwood, the last speaker of the festival, approached the podium with a plastic hotel laundry bag in hand. With a mischievous, Mary Poppins-like air, she pulled a hat, a plastic folder with her speech, and a shrimp puppet from the bag. The hat was helping her battle our unseasonably cold April weather; the speech would discuss The Handmaid’s Tale’s origins, Gilead’s legacy, and the importance of the humanities; and the shrimp puppet was a stand-in for Handmaid’s scholarly Dr. Peixoto during an imagined Q & A that Atwood performed for the crowd. Near the conclusion of her speech, Atwood declared that the humanities are important because “we are art-making beings”; without art, humans cease to be whole. The puppet show was a clever manifestation of this truth; it offered a completely different glimpse of Atwood, fifteen minutes of creative play that shared more of her personality and skills than the other two parts of her presentation. Atwood’s words inspire me to honor the art-making beings in my classroom, including myself, with more opportunities to do the things that make us whole.

This time of the year leaves many of us feeling like we’re running on empty, so it’s good to remind ourselves of the “lean forward” moments–the wonder and awe–that drew us to our work in the first place. I hope I’ve been able to share some of the wonder of UntitledTown with you, and if you need another helping, remember that great craft talks are often just a YouTube or author website search away. And if those fail to inspire, well, I know where to find a Booker Prize-winner with a shrimp puppet.

Have any favorite author encounters to share? A favorite writing craft podcast or YouTube series? Share your ideas for spring pick-me-ups and ways to celebrate being “art-making beings” on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

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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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

To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog!

why-i-blogging

As Moving Writers readers know, one of the central ideas behind this site is authentic writing—what does writing in the real and wild world look like (versus the sometimes too-tightly controlled world of our classrooms)? Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the more the writing I ask students to do in the classroom can mirror the world outside our classroom walls, the better served my students will be.

I started my first blog in 2006, a few months after my oldest was born. Blogging was relatively new back then, but for me, it was a way for me to document our family life. I titled my blog “Familyhood: Adventures managing toddlers, marriage, family, friends, work, school, and everything in between.” In my very first post—dated January 20, 2006 (more than 11 years ago!)—I wrote about how I wanted to capture, to keep forever, all the details of my little one.

It was a few short years later that I decided to bring blogging into my classroom. I’ve used blogs with my 9th graders and my 11th graders; blog assignments have been structured and open-ended; posts are serious and funny and everything in between.

With a rapidly changing technology environment, with new tools and gadgets announced almost daily, blogging almost seems passe or “old-school.” After all, blogs have been around for more than 20 years at this point (so in 2006, I guess I was actually late to the game!).

Yet if I had to choose just one technology tool I could not live without, it would be blogging, hands-down. It’s not even close. During an online webinar a few years ago, I heard Troy Hicks, co-author of the recently published Argument in the Real World, say the same thing. As one very skeptical student once said to me, “I thought I would hate blogging, but it turned out to be a really valuable experience. Probably the most valuable.” Then after a pause, he added, “You should definitely keep doing this with students.” That was more than eight years ago, and happily, I’ve followed his advice. Continue reading

Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

windmill-1927-650x300

Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

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The First Thing: Writers are Readers.

thefirstthingOn Moving Writers and in Writing With Mentors, you get a taste of my classroom and a peek behind the curtain of my planning process.

But what you see is only half the story.

While I am passionate about writing instruction, it’s only one half of my instruction. I also teach literature — through whole class novels, in literature circles, through independent reading. Even if I were only a writing teacher, I would teach many close and critical reading skills just through mentor text instruction alone. But I became an English major once-upon-a-time because I was in love with literature, and I became a teacher because I wanted to impart that to students. And so, while my professional writing zooms in on writing instruction, reading is equally taught and equally important to me.

I’m like you – I want to make learning as sticky as possible for my students, and I want to try to make my life easier in the process. Explicitly linking our literature study and our writing study to the greatest degree possible can help us accomplish this. And so, the first thing that I want my student writers to know about writing is that our reading lives and writing lives are more than two discrete activities we do in English class. They are more than two sides of a coin. Our reading life and our writing life feed off of each other — they each survive and thrive when they are meaningfully joined together. Put more simply, I want my students to immediately know this : Writers are readers. Readers are writers.

What does this look like in the first two weeks of school? Here are three foundational understandings I want to communicate to students from the get-go as  I connect students’ reading and writing lives: Continue reading