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.

Continue reading

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

Coaching Writers to Provide Quality Feedback

5

Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio

When writers trust that they can consistently receive high quality feedback from their peers, everything changes.

Rather than relying on the teacher, kids begin turning to one another for support. They begin knowing and naming their expertise and soon, they grow hungry for cool feedback. Rather than hearing it as criticism, they take it for what it is: a gift. Quality feedback is timely, criteria specific, and of service to the writer.

Criticism isn’t the same as feedback, and neither are compliments.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The OUPA

Mentor Text: Various Poems

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing poetry
  • Writing around a theme or topic
  • Building a writing community

Background:

Though it’s no longer something that I do, I have taught Art. It’s pretty clear in my classroom, as I do a lot of work that incorporates visual elements. I love having students express their learning in different ways, and it’s been very engaging for many young people as they’ve come through my room. As an artist, I know that this kind of creation taps into things in our brains that bring out the best in us.

Out of habit, I still haunt a number of my favorite websites I surfed for inspiration as an Art teacher. I keep a file on every device to drop inspiring visuals and project ideas into. As second semester finished, I stumbled upon one of Johan Deckmann’s Imaginary Books. The title, “Smart Ways to use Poetry in a Street Fight” made me laugh, and I tucked it away, digitally, as well as mentally, knowing that I would most definitely be coming back to it. Continue reading

Supporting Our Most Reluctant-to-Share Writers

 

We’ve all wondered what more we could do to help the Todd Andersons of our class–the painfully shy writers who would rather do a week’s worth of extra homework than read one line from their writer’s notebook aloud.

And while leaving the shy student alone and allowing him to skip his turn in the sharing circle may seem like a benevolent gesture, it robs that student of an opportunity to grow as a writer and, ultimately, as a person.

This year it seems I have more Todds in my class than ever before, so I’ve had to resort to new methods to support these reluctant-to-share writers and keep our writing community strong and balanced. Below I’ve shared five ways to encourage your apprehensive writers to join in. Continue reading