From Babylon to New Hampshire: Tiny Writing Lives Large

 

Today’s guest post is from Elizabeth Oosterheert (@oosterheerte). Elizabeth currently teaches middle school language arts and directs the 8th Grade Theatre Troupe at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She enjoys leading sectionals on young adult literature and writing workshop at the Iowa Reading Conference and the Heartland Teacher Convention. Her passions are writing beside students and encouraging students to use their gifts on stage.

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“Scientists seem to think there are no living beings up there…just chalk, or fire.”

Thornton Wilder

Memories & Miracles: An Autobiographical Journey

Reading Rebekah’s post about tiny writing and the necessity of publication for young writers at the end of October  inspired me to adapt some of her ideas for my eighth grade writing workshop. My students and I are engaged in a year-long autobiographical writing project that culminates in the publication of a class book featuring student photos and compositions. This year, our autobiography is entitled “Memories and Miracles,” a reference to our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe production of The Secret Garden. The goals of the autobiography are to engage each student in writing that is personally meaningful and fulfilling to him or her, and to encourage student growth as speakers, writers and thinkers as they prepare for the rigor of high school.

The autobiography consists of the following introduction and five chapters:

  • Introduction: A Room Called Remember: -Students compose place narratives framed around favorite childhood memories.
  • Chapter One: Encyclopedia of an Extraordinary Life: Using mentor texts by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Langston Hughes, students compose their own “life encyclopedias” and personalize Hughes’ classic poem, “Theme for English B,” so that it reflects truths about their lives.
  • Chapter Two: Youth, Joy, Adventure: Students explore mentor poems and narratives that I’ve composed as well as texts by professional authors like Billy Collins, and compose narrative poetry, poems for two voices, and snapshot narratives that tell the stories of favorite possessions or photos. Students have agency as far as which pieces they choose to write.
  • Chapter Three: In Spite of Everything, the Stars: In this chapter, students explore multigenre writing, experiment with writing editorial/opinion pieces after reading mentor texts by Rick Reilly, and with thanks to Penny Kittle, consider the songs that “live in their hearts” and write narratives about their life songs or life soundtracks. Finally, students dabble in composing Spoken Word poetry using mentor texts by Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay.
  • Chapter Four: Words for the Journey: Students write commentary after reading several mentor pieces by Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts, and others. Students frame a research based commentary around an essential question of their choice, and are able to reference a folder filled with professionally written commentaries.  I also write a commentary with them as they draft theirs.
  • Chapter Five: Leaving a Legacy:  Students compose a Legacy Speech that reflects their life journeys. Students decide whether they wish to focus on their spiritual or academic growth, or some other aspect of their lives.  These speeches are drafted during our workshop time during the last month of school, and are presented at a local church.  Students also design websites featuring their compositions and we publish a hardcover class book showcasing our writing and photos using Shutterfly.

 

 

 

Tiny Writing with a Big Impact…Letter to My Younger Self

Continue reading

A New Approach to Finding Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

In our 9th grade Reading Writing Workshop, most writing studies are genre-based. Occasionally, we center our writing studies around a writing technique. But in my 12th grade IB English class, things are a little different. We still use a workshop approach to writing — we move through writing processes in different ways and at different paces, we make small-and-steady progress, we learn skills together, and we still use mentor texts to guide and inspire our writing.

In this class, though, the four IB assessments — both written and oral — focus on the analysis of literature. And, so, I shift my practice in this class out of necessity and out of the best interest of my students who are working hard to earn college credit.  

goldenMy students need consistent practice writing about literature. But I still want their writing to be authentic — to look like what real writers do. And I still want their writing to be guided by their passions.

Finding Writers’ Passion about  Shakespeare

So, after our study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, students spent a few days jotting in their notebooks and chatting in small groups about the elements of the play that interested them, that excited them, that made them want to know more. While they no doubt sensed that we were working our way toward a piece of writing (they are on to me!), we didn’t say the word “writing” or “paper” or “essay” or “analysis”. We started from a place of curiosity.

If this sounds vague, it was! I wanted my instructions to be big and broad — and I wanted students to interpret them in as many different ways as they could. My fear here was limiting them or ramping up their natural writing anxiety to the point that they chose the first,easiest idea that came to mind.

They were already a bit primed for this task as they had just finished writing a piece of “wholehearted analysis” — analysis of anything they wanted. We had already walked together down the road of identifying our passions and using our expertise to lend authority to a piece of analytical writing. What I hoped to do here was extend that authority and enthusiasm into a piece of literary analysis

Finding Mentor Texts to Support Authentic Writing About Shakespeare

After students whittled their lists down and started to find a focus, they needed some mentor texts to help bridge the gap between their vague clouds of ideas and the necessary gathering of information that leads us into drafting.  

Not knowing what their particular passions were, but wanting to convince them that this, too, would be a piece of real and authentic writing,  I gathered a different kind of mentor text into my cluster. Instead of finding a bunch of pieces of writing about literature in a specific genre, I searched for pieces of real-world analysis specifically on Shakespeare.  

What do real writers write about Shakespeare in the 21st century? After just half-a-planning-period searching, here’s what I found:

Mentor Texts for Wholehearted Analysis of Shakespeare

Close Reading of a Passage: “By Heart: Shakespeare – One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Moves on Another Text”: “How Shakespeare Would Have Ended Breaking Bad”

Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy: “What Was Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy”

Analysis of a Character: Hamlet Was a Bro Who Didn’t Even Like Sex”

Review of a production: Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral

and Atmospheric ; Review: ‘Twelfth Night,’ Anything Goes in Love and

Shakespeare

Tracking a motif / symbol  through the play: 50 Shades Of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code

Tracking a trend in Shakespeare’s Language: Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds

Studying Mentor Texts for Analysis of Shakespeare

Together, we read the mentor texts and made sure they had the essential elements of analysis — a claim, reasons and evidence, a logical structure, authority, passion, and a real audience. This served as a helpful reminder to students of the elements their piece must have to be considered literary analysis, too.

Studying these mentor texts helped students refine their ideas — firming them up, erasing them completely, replacing them with stronger ideas. Many students wrote pieces that bore no topic resemblance to the mentor texts studied. Still, students used the mentor text for ideas about kinds evidence to include, what tone to strike, how to engage readers while retaining intellectual authority.  

Give it a whirl!

I feel certain your students write about literature! Give it a try  — spend a few minutes searching for writing about the author your students are studying. What do real writers write today about Salinger? About Hawthorne? About Conrad? About Dickinson?

I bet you’ll find some things that surprise you!

And then think about how this will fling wide the opportunities for your students to write literary analysis that not only matters to them but might also possibly matter to real readers.

What authors do your students study? How might your students find areas of passion even between the covers of the literature you teach? Find me on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1), on Facebook, or leave us a comment below!

Reader Mail: How do you balance writing and reading instruction?

“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”

The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).

“Writing. Hands down.”

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.

Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.

Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?

It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).

When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:

I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.

Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:

How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?

So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.

This question has two answers:

  • When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.

I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.

Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.

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Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners

In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.

As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:

  • to add detail to their writing
  • to structure their writing
  • to put voice into their writing
  • to write powerful leads and endings.

Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:

  • punctuate their writing
  • use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.

In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.

The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:

  • We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.

When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.

And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.

Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.

  • Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading

In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”

–       You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester

–       Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)

–       The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)

–       In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)

–       In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing

–       In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)

–       If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading

–       If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…

  • Devote a few days a week to each subject

In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue!

–       Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day

–       Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day

–       You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year

–       If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject

–       If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it

–       If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again

–       Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting

–       One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)

–       Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study

  • Alternate full writing and reading cycles

When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.

Pros

Cons

·      No more decision fatigue!

·      You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time

·      Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm

·      You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end

·      During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)

·      During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing

No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:

In a reading day/semester/cycle:

In a writing day/semester/cycle:

·      Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas

·      Invite students to work in their notebook for homework

·      Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read

·      Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading

 

·      Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s

·      Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night

·      Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion

 

In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.

While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.

~ Allison

Beginning AP Argument Writing – Letter to the Editor

Today’s guest post is from our friend, Betsy Reid. Betsy is a colleague of Moving Writers founders Rebekah and Allison at Trinity Episcopal School, where she teaches AP Language and Composition
and serves as the head of the department. For the past 20 years, she has taught all grades and levels in both public and private settings in Virginia and North Carolina. Betsy graduated with a B.A. from Meredith College in 1995 and obtained her Masters in Educational Leadership from VCU
in 2008. Most recently, she was a contributor to
Argument in the Real World by Troy Hicks and Kristen Turner (set for November release.) Join her on Twitter @ReadBReid Wednesday nights for #APLangChat and follow her classroom adventures on Instagram @mrsreid_tes.

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Photo of Betsy & her writers courtesy of David Ready, Trinity Episcopal School

 

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you are a Moving Writers regular, then you recognize these words. Rebekah has made some of her most important teaching discoveries while repeating this mantra, and just a few weeks ago, I did the same.

Rebekah’s room at school is just like the kitchen at a party: It’s in the middle of everything, and everyone wants to stop in. I learn something new every time I walk in the door, and if it’s not busy-mom life hacks like online grocery ordering or kid dessert ideas, it’s something about writing.

I walked in one day early this year when I was struggling with making a fundamental change in the way I teach writing in AP Language. I had taken a good, long look at The AP Chief Reader report, and it spoke to my heart. I had been teaching with the College Board-provided sample essays and rubrics, and I finally realized that my student’s writing mentors were anonymous student essays from AP Central. They were developing arguable screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-8-37-09-amclaims, but few that they really felt passionately about. They were Integrating conflicting viewpoints, but they sounded inauthentic. The were explaining how rhetorical choices work but they were not making these choices for themselves in their own writing.

Basically, my students were seeing professional writing as something far-off; it was something to analyze, but not something they could ever achieve for themselves. I looked at Rebekah and said I thought it was time for a change, and some serious mentor texting. Of course, she said,

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

________________

Nothing makes my teaching day better than when I think of a lesson that will have students practice several skills in one shot. In my beginning AP writing assignment, I wanted them to show me all that they had learned since the first day of school:

  • To be able to access and read closely from national and local news sites
  • To have an opinion on something that matters to them
  • To defend it using the elements of argument
  • To demonstrate their knowledge of basic rhetorical strategies by employing them in their own writing

I decided to go big by starting small: The Letter to the Editor.

Here was my process: Continue reading

Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
Continue reading

The Fearless Writers

This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.

I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!

I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text! Continue reading

3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

 

How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 

-Karla

 

Ironic How-To’s: Using Satire Writing As a Tool for Self-Discovery

Today’s guest post is from Christina Gil, a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. Christina believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.

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Image via youtube.com

One of my defining moments as a teacher happened sometime around 2004.  Another teacher in my department who was retiring that year said that she would never let a student make a fool out of her in her last year as a teacher.

And I remember thinking that my willingness to make a fool of myself on a daily basis is probably my biggest strength as a teacher.  If I can laugh at myself, then I am comfortable with my own faults, and I also get to know my students better when I open myself up to ridicule this way.

But it’s not always easy to incorporate humor into what we are actually studying–if you don’t get Jane Austen, you think it’s 300 pages about people going for walks and drinking tea.  Getting students to write funny pieces is even harder, unless they are naturally funny, but most kids don’t feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable.

And of course, exposing some part of yourself to your reader is the key to meaningful writing. 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

A Study for Growing Writers & Naturalists

“Can we have class outside today?” said all students everywhere.

How many times have you been asked that question in your career, and how many times have you said, “Not today.”?

I am kicking myself for keeping them inside all these years.

A few months ago, on my commute home, I listened to a story on NPR about kids and nature. I learned that the average kid spends between 4 and 7 minutes outside.Then a few days later, my mom sent me a copy of the book Last Child in the Woods, so I could read about saving my own child from “nature-deficit disorder.”

Later that day, as I was harnessing my dog up for a walk and getting my son in the stroller, all of these messages about nature collided into one moment, and suddenly I was overcome with a sense of responsibility to take my students outside. But not just as a fun end-of-the-year treat. I felt an urgent sense of duty to put nature at the center of what we would be doing in the last few weeks of school.

Enter Nature Essay Study, a collaborative effort with my colleague Ned. Unlike the children’s literature collaboration I blogged about earlier this month in which my 8th graders worked with 11th grade artists, this was a collaboration between teachers  —  an opportunity for my science colleague and I to work together. Because Ned and I both teach the same class of 8th graders, the logistics were simple. We met a few times during common planning periods to study mentor texts, plan lessons, create the rubric, and eventually grade the essays together! We also planned a double-period field trip with our students at the river.

The Study: Nature Writing

Because this study emerged from student interest and the pure desire to spend time outside (rather than a specific genre, writing technique, standard, or piece of writing) we had to go in search of mentor texts — we weren’t even exactly sure what we were looking for!  Ned came with a huge stack of National Geographic magazines and some climbing journals. We found lots of bits and pieces we loved and would be able to use as mini mentors, but we were not able to find a single mentor text that seemed appropriate in topic AND length for our 8th graders.

Unfamiliar with nature writers myself, I emailed two people — the director of the outdoors program at our school and my uncle, an arborist and avid reader. He had some great ideas:

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We pored over his recommendations, the recommendations of our outdoorsman colleague, and a few famous nature writers  — Annie Dillard, some of the essays of Mary Oliver — but we eventually settled on the writing of  Bill Sherwonit, a Connecticut-born Alaskan writer whose beautiful, focused prose would mentor and inspire our writers without overwhelming.We found him deep in the Googled rabbit hole of nature writing.

We chose three of his essays, all focusing on one animal or element of the Alaskan landscape (Ned referred to these as “abiotic” and “biotic” elements during his science lessons).

On the first day of the unit, I passed out a simple introductory handout, and then we went outside!

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Here is a brief outline of how we spent the next two weeks:

  • IMG_0934 2We read the mentor texts as readers first. Outside, students sketched details they could perceive with their senses. One day it rained, and we had to finish this work inside.
  • Then we read them like writers. Click here for my students’ observations.
  • While we studied mentor texts in English class, Ned taught the students how to take field notes, make observations in nature, and use field guides.
  • When our mentor text study commenced, we spent a double period at the river. BEST DAY EVER! IMG_0942Students took field notes, jotting down everything they saw, heard, and touched, as well as questions, bits of dialogue, musings, and possible focal points for their essay.
  • Over the next week, I taught lessons on the following techniques that my students and I had observed in the mentors:
    • The UNboring way to incorporate scientific facts into your writing
    • Smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom transitions
    • Description in nature writing
    • “That’s So Deep”: How To Show the  Larger Significance of Your Writing
    • Ned taught lessons in science class on scientific research, using scientific vocabulary, and providing accurate information.
  • We wrote together, conferred, spent a delicious amount of time outside, went back to the mentors, and wrote some more.

The Takeaways

The study happened so quickly and during the busiest time of the year — the last two weeks of school — that I could barely take the students’ pulse. I KNEW they were having fun at the river and outside, but were they enjoying the writing part? It wasn’t until I read their end-of-study reflections that I discovered the pure joy this study had brought them (see their reflections below)…it was also at this time  I  realized my eighth graders had truly grown up and were ready for whatever ninth grade was going to throw at them.

This study was a game-changer for me, too.

  • It let me see another side of students — and let them see another side of me

Knowing a student is an Eagle Scout and letting him teach about the wide variety of plant life that grows in our river basin are not the same thing. For some of my students, truly getting to know them meant taking them outside. Observing them in their element. Letting them observe me OUT of my element.

This hit home for me as I read V’s essay, and was surprised to find myself featured in it. Here is an excerpt:

Getting to the river after what felt like an hour long bus ride, I find out, much to my dismay, that I had gotten Ms. Marchetti as a supervising teacher. I thought to myself, “Oh great, I got the teacher that has the least experience in the wild.” I quickly went down to the river, still disappointed.  I walked ahead of everyone else wondering if she would even let me jump from rock to rock, or rock hopping as it’s known to the locals.

Still not paying too much attention to Ms. Marchetti, I jumped in the water. It was very, very frigid to say the least. When people asked me about it, being the natural tough guy I am, I said, “It’s not even that cold, you should hop in!” but I knew that going to scout camp and being taught how to keep your body temperature in cold water was the only reason I wasn’t shivering to death. I started swimming around in the rapids, being careful where I was. They can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I soon had to hop out, because my friends had gone looking for another group to join up with.

After I hopped out, I could tell Ms. Marchetti was really excited to be at the river and wanted to know about the types of birds and plants that were surrounding us. She  started out with pretty standard questions like,“What type of tree is that?” or  “What type of flower petal is this?”  but then she started testing me on my knowledge with tougher questions like, “What type of bird is that across the river?” I knew it was a European starling due to where it was located on the river and how the flock was flying. One was obviously able to tell she was genuinely interested in the river. She then started to make small talk. That was when I saw something I had never seen in her. She actually cared about me as a person and not just as a student.

Can I cry now, please? 🙂

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Brave, river-drenched V, proudly hoisting his found stick

  • It provided an alternate space for students who have trouble focusing and writing in the classroom

There is a reason kids ask to have class outside –- it’s easier to breathe, to think, to be out there. The other day I asked my students to write about their ideal writing space –- be it a quiet room with a window and lots of natural light or a spacious kitchen table with a bowl of popcorn. For some the ideal writing space is outdoors, where the spaces to think and write are generous and the scenery inspiring.

Here’s what two students had to say about the experience of going to and writing at the river.

I think the most helpful thing for me was actually going to the river. I think I should start to try to do it more often. Not going to the river but actually experiencing what I write about. MUCH like Roland Smith who is actually known for living in the countries and environments that he writes his books in and he will research a book for years before starting it. -V

Actually going outside into the wilderness to experience this moment first hand [what the most helpful thing in this study]. Because you could have just [told us to] write a experience [we]] have had in the past that [we] remember really well. But instead you wanted [us] to experience something so that we could write about it and have a really good memory so that we could add lots of detail and be very specific which helped me out a lot. -Martin

  • It reminded me that writing IS and SHOULD BE more active

    A lot of writing happens at a desk, but it doesn’t have to. Many famous writers are known for writing as they walk. There is something about the rhythm of walking that draws out ideas and inspiration. Some of us provide bean bag chairs or invite students to sit in window frames or empty corners of the room, but why does the space in which we write have to be limited by our classroom walls? Writing is as flexible an activity as running – it’s free, and you can do it anywhere. All you need is paper and a writing utensil.

  • It showed me that nature writing does matter. Here’s what a few students had to say about that:

The big message I would like my readers to take away from this piece would be to never take anything for granted. That might sound a tad cliche, but nature is a beautiful gift that we have been given. A lot of the time we don’t realize how much nature, or trees to be specific are there for us. Yet they never seem to ask for anything in return. -Lilly

After writing about nature myself, I think writing about nature is a very important part of writing. If no one wrote about nature, nature would be viewed as nothing but cruel and unforgiving. I love nature, and I especially love it when nature is depicted as more beautiful than it already is. -Lane

Before we did this study, I didn’t really care about nature and being outside period. But by being outside and taking the time to stop and pay attention to my surroundings, and things that were going on I learned things. Before, we went to the river I didn’t know what a gar was and anything about it. So just by being outside I learned about something and saw something I had never seen before. It also reminded me of memories as a child that I never really thought about. – Jarrett

Is it just me, or do these student sound like adults? I think nature has a way of bringing out the best in us — in all of us.

–Allison

Do you let your writers write outside? What are some ways we can incorporate nature and the outdoors into our writing studies? What nature writers do you know about and love (help me expand my mentors for next year!).

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett