Adapting Mid-Stream: A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School

One of the very best parts of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with inspiring educators across the country. This week, we are sharing a two-part guest post from Cincinnati teacher Beth Toerner (btoerner). We connected this year through a mutual professional friend and spent months corresponding about her 8th grade classroom and her desire to move them toward more authentic writing experiences and products. What you will read today and on Wednesday represents one of those experiences that changed the shape of her classroom and her students’ writing lives. Not only are Beth’s experiences and student work amazing, but so is her reflective spirit and willingness to change her plan mid-stream when she realized her students needed something different. Something more. We are SO excited to share this with you.  – Rebekah

#socialmediaday

Last year, I started using essential questions to help my students connect our whole class novels through a focus on universal human issues. This year, I attempted to transition these questions into literary essays about the topics using mentor texts as guidance. My plan did not unfold as I imagined, but the course it took produced more authentic and thoughtful writing than I have seen from my eighth graders all year. In the following posts, I will work through the steps that this process took in class and share what we learned along the way.

Overview:

Whole class reads: Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do differences make us uncomfortable?
  2. What is empathy? Why is it an important human characteristic?
  3. Why is it important to be connected to others?

Before reading, students write short, informal responses to these questions to get them thinking about the ideas. During third quarter, we read the texts above in the order listed, frequently circling back to our essential questions for discussion and reinforcement of the guiding ideas.

After we had read all three pieces, we did an activity to help students specifically connect their thinking about these questions to text-based evidence from the pieces that we had read together. This activity (Allison’s brainchild), called “Inside/Outside Brain,” required students to organize their “inside brain thoughts” by writing them inside a giant face and the matching them to their “outside brain” supporting evidence. I modeled on the board and they wrote in their writer’s notebooks.

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After completing this activity, my goal for students was to write a literary essay in which they responded to one of our three essential questions in a lengthier, more detailed response. I planned for them to use our common texts (Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl)  to support their thinking. It seemed like I had it all in order: I gave them questions to help them trace the development of ideas as they read, we brainstormed examples together, and I had three wonderful mentor texts to help them discover ideas for crafting and organizing masterpieces.

However, as my students brainstormed ideas, I started to feel uneasy. Although my students were doing a perfect job sharing examples to support our essential questions, like the idea that Stargirl’s shunning at Mica High School and its impact on her emotional state showed the importance of human connection, I also noticed that they were eagerly sharing examples from books we had read in seventh grade, as well as books they had read on their own. Would requiring them to write about the three texts that I had chosen squelch their creativity? Would limiting them to one of three teacher-generated questions limit their thinking?

I took some time to reflect. My students were doing something much more important than what I had planned for them: they were thinking beyond our classroom lessons and analyzing the impact that reading has had on them throughout their lives. And of course, each student had a unique experience with reading. Different books, different life experiences, different lessons gleaned. I needed to create an assignment that allowed them to express these thoughts.

So, we changed the plan. I told my students that their ideas had changed my idea, and we started with a new assignment: a literary essay that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” We were able to use the same mentor texts that I had originally planned, and in fact, they were a more natural fit for this piece than for what I had previously developed. We centered our study around three mentor texts:

“Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”

“Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later”

“How Judy Blume Changed My Life”

Each of these mentor texts has its own strengths in modeling the writing that I wanted my students to do. I was looking for writing that showed a deep understanding of literature but also shared a more personal element; I wanted students’ essays to have a conversational tone that zoomed in on a discussion of the subject (a book, author, or characters) through a very personal and reflective lens.

The first mentor text with which we worked was “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”. This text functioned well to start this project; its length was accessible, the highly structured list format gave both an approachable model for organization, and it was a jumping off point for a brainstorming activity.

First, we read the article as a class and had a quick discussion of the general plot and themes in Catcher itself. Even though my students hadn’t read it, the fact that it focused on universal lessons made it accessible. Next, we made a list of what we noticed as writers. My students noticed all kinds of stuff:

  • The article has a short introduction that explains why the author wrote it
  • The author made a list of five life lessons the book can teach
  • Each lesson is followed by an explanation that uses an example from the book
  • Each explanation is followed by a direct quote from the book that supports the example
  • The sections a numbered and each life lesson is in bold
  • It goes from universal —> more specific (explanation from the book) —> very specific (direct quote)
  • Each item on the list has the same structure
  • Even though it’s about a specific book, the lessons apply to everyone

I thought that this structure could be a great one for my students to imitate in their own pieces of writing, as the outline was clear and consistent. But first, I gave students a chance to collaboratively practice some of the thinking it would take to get there. I gave them some time to brainstorm other “Five Things ____ Can Teach You About Life” lists in their writer’s notebooks. Then, I had students get together in small groups to share their ideas. They chose one idea for a list and wrote it out on the giant sticky notes that I have in my room. They came up with a range of ideas, some of which drew on our preceding essential question work, and some of which did not:

  • Five Reasons Differences Make Us Uncomfortable
  • Five Things Reading Can Teach You About Empathy
  • Five Things Realistic Fiction Teaches You About Life
  • Five Things Book Can Teach You About Connections
  • Five Things Stargirl Can Teach Us About Human Connections
  • Five Ways to React After Losing Someone Close to You

After they made their lists, I armed them with normal-sized sticky notes and had them circulate the room, reviewing the lists that other groups made. Their job was to put at least three sticky notes on other groups’ posters showing examples from our common texts that supported one of the reasons on the list.

Here are some of the final products:

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Although my students used this as a jumping off point for essay writing, this activity itself served as a collaborative way to review common themes among our three class texts. In the future, I think it would come in handy as a way to review at the end of a novel unit or practice writing “Listicles,” which seem to have taken over the internet these days. Later this week, I will be back to share how we moved from these lists into polished literary essays.

You can connect with us by leaving a question or comment below, finding us on Facebook, or Tweeting Beth @btoerner! Stay tuned Wednesday for Part 2 of her series! 

How To Reflect: 5 Ways to Encourage Reflection in Your Classroom

How to Reflect

Today is an important day, a day all teachers cherish. Graduation. How remarkable to be able to share in this milestone year after year, class after class. What a privilege to take some small part in the upbringing and education of so many wonderful young people moving up and onto the next steps of their lives.

Every year this time, I’m verklempt by the flood of students parading in and out of my room in their caps and gowns, their hugs and photos, their thank yous and goodbyes. It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite poems I teach, “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” And recently when tearfully thanking my students for sharing in great literature like this with me, one student jokingly promised to not turn bitter and rot like the molded over blackberries in the poem.

It gets me thinking. More accurately, it gets me reflecting—seeing the image of the year thrown back at me without being absorbed by it. Not yet anyway. That will happen in the fall when the yellow school buses pull up and a new year begins.

But for now, I’m reflecting on this year—what went well, what went not so well, where I succeeded, where I failed, how I helped and how I hindered. I reflect on another year’s experience of teaching because reflection is a powerful opportunity to learn and grow, both personally and professionally.

The same, of course, is true for our students.

I love creating opportunities for my students to reflect. I see on their faces the deep introspection that is the turning over of your own thoughts. It’s the class-magic equivalent of a room of silent readers all digging into a good book. But this time, instead of books, it’s their brains. And over the years I’ve noticed that reflection creates sound writing. Speaking of magic, there’s something about making sense of your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas that sparks creativity and, as we like to say around here, moves the writer.

Here are some ways you can encourage reflection in your classroom:

  1. Letter Writing

This is by far my favorite reflective activity. Aside from the beauty and nostalgia of a handwritten letter, the form lends itself to contemplation and introspection. It’s something I’ve only happened upon in my classroom. In letter writing, the task is clear—address a specific person and relay information in your own unique and authentic voice. Plus Letters of Note would sure make for some great mentor texts.

Here are two of my favorite letter writing activities:

The first is an assignment created by my teaching mentor Kevin Mooney, called Hello, It’s Me. The task is to write a letter to someone who you think needs it. There are a few stipulations, and that’s what yields considered writing. They are as follows:

  • The letter should be to someone real, living and available.
  • The letter should say what you haven’t had the presence of mind, the guts, the opportunity or the time to say.
  • The letter should be genuine, heartfelt, and brave.
  • The letter should represent your full effort to balance the scales, pay the debt, mend the fence or rightly honor the achievements.
  • The letter should be written to someone who you would send the letter to. And, I would suggest and prefer, it should be written to someone you think might appreciate or need or require a letter like this most.

My next favorite letter writing assignment is the Literature Letter to Your Teacher. My only requirements were that students read, enjoy, appreciate, and savor an assigned poem; to talk about it with their friends;  examine the writer’s craft, structure, literary elements; and then write a letter to me reflecting on it.

The poem was Wild Geese by Mary Oliver in case you’re wondering. And a poem like this certainly begs reflection and elegant prose.

The letter form was perfect for exploring the concepts of the poem. Students were freed from “academic style writing” and free to use their own voices. Here is one of my favorite letters:

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  1. Prove You’ve Been Here (an end-of-course reflection)

Here’s a fun little thought experiment. Give your students this prompt: It’s graduation day and the principal says, “Nope, you’re not walking today. You don’t have your English credit.” You stand there, clad in cap and gown, and you have to defend you did indeed earn an English credit this year. Your task is to prove you’ve been here.

Students have a lot of fun with this, and this playful prompt allows them to really explore what they have learned and achieved throughout the year. And while you’ll probably get a lot of genuine and heartfelt “thank yous” along the way, you’ll also get some surprising reflections from students you may not anticipate. Here was a student response that humbled me and made my heart swell.

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I do love playful writing, but beginning and ending the year with meaningful reflection is meaningful to students. Check out Liz Matheny’s post using the beautiful E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” as a way to open or close your year with reflective writing.

  1. SketchNotes

It’s no secret that visual arts is one of my tricks of the English classroom trade. This year, after my students studied Slaughterhouse Five and before assigning their Narrative of Learning essay, I asked my students to use SketchNotes as a means of reflection and a way to “brain dump.”

The meditative quality of sketching and coloring made this reflection style both unique and worthwhile. This particular form worked as scaffolding to my students’ end of novel essays, but in the meantime, it helped them continue to uncover ideas about the text and see connections they perhaps didn’t before. SketchNotes proved to be an effective form of pre-writing and reflection.

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Fostering Reflection in Narrative Writing

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Today’s guest post is from Liz Matheny (@matheeli)

I like to open and close the year with reflective, narrative writing. I do this for two reasons: to help my students explore themselves and their experiences, but also to help them see the growth in their writing. One of my favorite ways to do is to have my students reflect on personal change through the lens of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”.

Becoming an adult is tricky, especially for my juniors and seniors. They have one foot planted in adolescence, but want the independence and confidence of adults. That duality is exactly why White’s essay works so well with older high school students.

Just like my students, White yearns for summer. He recalls sweet memories of vacationing at a lake in Maine every August with his family. He recalls the sights, the sounds, the little intricacies one only notices in the sweltering heat summer solitude. Eventually his nostalgia gets the best of him and he revisits the lake as an adult with his son. White’s new experience–visiting the lake as an adult– is all consuming. He tries to enjoy all the things he once did as a boy, but realizes he no longer fits in. It is his son that must enjoy the subtle nuances of this magical place.

When I introduce the essay to my students, I give very little context other than they probably know E.B. White as the writer of Charlotte’s Web. I request that as they read they mark up their noticings. What moves does White make that make the essay work?

Once they finish reading, I see students caught up in their own daydreams, lusting for summer or the past. I ask them to form a small group (no more than 4 people) and share out their noticings. I want them to talk it out and pick up on noticings they may not have recognized.

After their 5-minute conversation, we compile a class set of noticings on the board.  As they share their noticings, I request that they add noticings from other groups to their own annotations. As they contribute various noticings, I ask them to explain the impact of that move on White’s essay. How did it impact the reader’s experience?

Here’s a sample of what my 6th period class noticed:

  • Varied sentence structure and lengths (to create intensity and emphasize certain emotions).
  • Repetition (to create rhythm)
  • The use of contrast (to help the reader see his “a-ha” moment)
  • Tone shifts (to contrast before and after)
  • Imagery (symbolism of lightning; keen attention to detail and description)
  • Duality of experience (past vs. present comparison)
  • Organization: before/after, past/present, compare/contrast (to show his own growth and awareness)
  • Concluding recognition (the realization his experience at the lake will never be the same and he will have to live through his son’s experience)

I then ask my students to talk within their groups and select the three or four most meaningful moves White makes. We reconvene, and the groups discuss and whittle away at our master list. My mod 6 determined these moves as the most significant, meaningful moves:

  • Varied sentence length
  • Detail & description
  • Repeition
  • past/present organization

We spend a few minutes talking about what they liked about the essay: their favorite lines, if they could relate. I share some of my favorite lines (“…sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”).

I close our conversation by talking about the reflective nature of personal narratives. How these essays often reflect human nature and experience more authentically than any other form. Then, I give students the following prompt:

Use White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a mentor text for your own reflective narrative.

  • Incorporate at least 3 of White’s moves that your class selected.
  • Pick an approach:
    • Tell about an occasion when you revisited a place that you no longer “fit” into.
    • Consider a belief you once had that changed or developed. Tell about the experience prompted the change?

My students spend the rest of class brainstorming and writing. I encourage them to go back to White’s essays frequently to study the moves so they can play in their own writing. I tend to give them about 48-hours to compose their narratives.

Over the next two or three class periods, we work on the essay by re-reading White’s moves and sharing their writing with one another. They label the top of their essays with the moves they incorporated in their own essays. This helps their partners give feedback about the success or limits of how the move is used. They consult their copies of “Once More to the Lake” again and again, deeply analyzing how White’s moves function. They compare White’s writing to their own and their peers’. They see how they’ve used the same moves similarly, or in unique ways.

Our final step is to use White’s title as inspiration. Over the years I’ve read essays entitled  “Once More to the 1st Grade Classroom”, “Once More to the Church”, “Once More to the Soccer Field”. Just as my students learn so much about themselves and each other through this process, I also learn about them, too. I learn about their experiences as people, but I also get to see my risk-takers when it comes to writing. I get to see who put themselves out there and who kept guard. I get to know them as people and as writers.

Teachers (especially high school teachers!)  love “Once More to the Lake” — how have you used this text to spark writing in your classroom? Are there other texts you use as mentors for reflective narratives? Leave us a comment below! 

“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.

4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

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3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic

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Teachers from Farmington High School in Farmington, CT, armed with authentic literary analysis mentor texts and a game plan for bringing it to their classrooms!

Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does?

As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement.  Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading

a Writing With Mentors Webinar!

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Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.

But what does this look like in your plan book?

How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?

How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?

And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?

We’ve got a webinar for you!

Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!

Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.

 

Blending Genres with Narrative Journalism

Years ago, my PLC adopted the “I-Search” paper as a piece of informative writing that now feels like a relic from another age.  It was a sort of “meta-writing” wherein the students undertook a research project and then wrote a paper not about the research topic, but about the experience as a writing process.

It was a failure, but at least it had noble intentions:  To get students to think about their writing process and roles as authors.  

For us, the failure was a blessing in disguise.  Once it was clear that the assignment was something of a dumpster fire, we were forced to revisit our entire unit.  And from the ashes of the I-Search emerged our favorite writing piece of the year:  The Narrative Journalism Experience.  

What’s Narrative Journalism?

Many people know the genre as “Longform Journalism”–indeed, your best resource for mentor texts would be the outstandingly curated site www.Longform.org, which compiles the best in the genre and even sorts it by subject matter.  Students are more drawn into the genre when I can point them to entire collections of mentor texts thematically sorted around topics like “Imposters” or “Sad Retired Athletes” (the collections get VERY specific!).

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image via http://www.longform.org

While styles vary, the core of this type of writing is the conveyance of non-fictional information through a narrative structure–often, the narrative is about the journalist’s experience in investigating the story.  In fact, that’s the narrative perspective the students end up adopting when we turn them into amateur journalists later in the unit.  More on that below… Continue reading

Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

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image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

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-Karla