But how do you start a unit of analytical writing?

SunshineOne of my colleagues just went out on a limb and had her sixth graders compose graphic essays. I’ve wanted to do this for years but haven’t had the nerve; I had a million questions! She gave me her rationale, her goals for the unit, the methods she used to scaffold the work for her students, the final products.

And yet, I still had one more question: “But what words did you say to start this?”

A reader had a similar question for us recently — “How do you start a unit of the kind of analytical writing you advocate for in Beyond Literary Analysis?” —  and it’s a really good question. How do you start? What do you say day one, minute one? What language do you use to communicate to your students what they are about to do — especially when jumping into something as challenging as analysis and as wide-open as Analyze-Anything-You-Want-In-the-World.

Although we spend the biggest chunk of Beyond Literary Analysis providing lessons for your class, we never do address the very first day or what a unit of analysis study might look like. We made this choice in part because it looks very much like the way we proceed in any unit of study (I’ve written about it here, and it gets a whole chapter of Writing With Mentors). Where our mini-lessons typically go, I use mini-lessons on passion, ideas, structure, and authority from the book based on what I think my students need most at that moment.

But I thought it might be worth spending a moment talking just about gearing up and getting going, including the language I use to explain to students what they are about to embark upon when they are writing free-choice, wholehearted, passion-driven analysis.

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InstaPoetry: a Unit of Writing Study with Resources

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Recently, I was wandering around a Target while my daughter was at Girl Scouts, and I was amazed to find six (six!) collections of poetry in the book section! Poetry! At Target! I was so moved that I took a picture and Tweeted,

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I suppose what moves me is that I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are at an unprecedented moment of social and political unrest and uprising (and renewal?) in this country and suddenly Rupi Kaur is a New York Times bestselling poet and collections of poetry are for sale to the masses at Target.

It seems poetry has gone mainstream, at least in part, because we constantly swim in a current of excess language. There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that it’s time to pare down. To distill talk until it’s just truth.

Poetry has been a bit out of vogue in education over the last few years. At least in Virginia, poetry is not longer found on state tests. So unless students take an AP or IB literature course, reading poetry has been largely erased from most classrooms. After all, why invest valuable instructional time on a cognitively challenging genre on which students won’t be tested?

Of course, we all know better. Of course, we must do better.

Rupi Kaur , r.h.sin, Amanda Lovelace, and the other poets whose collections can be purchased at airport newspaper stands write in sound bytes and Instagram posts. Their poems can often feel more like an inspirational coffee mug than classic verse. And while I don’t think that Cyrus Parker should replace Seamus Heaney, Instagram poets can open the gate for our students into a bigger world of reading and writing poetry.

So, why not create a unit of study around Instapoets — reading them, analyzing their writing, contemplating what makes them so popular, and then creating our own (hopefully viral) Instapoems.

A Unit Map:

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Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

I’ve spent a lot of time this year chatting with colleagues about Twitter and its usefulness to educators.  Mostly, we chat about the challenges of getting used to its format (it’s not fun to figure out–I almost gave up in my first week or so of fiddling with it), but sometimes the question is simply “What’s it good for?”

My answer is always the same:  Connections to great educators, incredibly fast news updates, amazing animal and nature videos…and the greatest comedy on the planet.

I could recommend some great follows for Serious Teachers or nature lovers out there, but for now I want to suggest to you that comedy Twitter is

  1. The best Twitter (as they say on Twitter) and
  2. A great resource for teaching students about writing structure with fun, playful mini-lessons.

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A Micro Writing Unit: Picket Signs

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7th graders’ peaceful protest down the halls on Friday.

Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry.  Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 3.37.20 PMBut when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.

Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.

Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles.  I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.

In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.

Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.

Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)

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What Article of the Week is Adding to My Writing Instruction

Article of the Week

Kelly Gallagher is well-known for a lot of reasons in our English teacher world.

Killer writing activities.

“Readicide”.

Clark Kent vibe.

(Allison and I once stalked him around a breakfast at NCTE. Remind me to tell you that story sometime.)

But I would argue that the thing most frequently associated with Kelly Gallagher is the Article of the Week. So much so that it has become a beloved institution. Google it and see how many versions of it live in classrooms and schools and whole districts all over the world. It’s stunning.

And yet, until six weeks ago, I had never tried it with my own students.

I’m still figuring out this middle school thing (truth: I’ll be figuring it out for awhile to come), and with the sudden realization that my students needed more nonfiction reading experiences before high school, I added the Article of the Week when we returned from winter break.

Article of the Week is a part of reading instruction, right? Students are reading an article, turning it over in their head, annotating it, and then crafting their own response. But I am a sucker for an instructional practice that does double-duty. So while my students are working on comprehension, Notice & Note signposts, and interacting with a text as a reader, I am also using Article of the Week to boost writing instruction in four ways:

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What Time is It? Notebook Time!

We are singing Hamilton as we read today’s fantastic, deep-dive guest post from Scott Bayer, an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Specialist for grades 6-12 in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has taught high school English for 16 years and is passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences for students, teaching a more inclusive reading list, and developing student agency, voice, passion, and curiosity. You can find him on Twitter: @Lyricalswordz

Even though students have always written in my class, I’ve always known that they’ve needed to write more and in different ways. When I first started teaching, I was stuck in traditional modes—ones that I learned from my own experiences as a student in school: students wrote what I told them to write, and then I graded their work.

As my craft evolved, so did my classroom. I began to have kids write in various ways during class and for various purposes, but my methods were always somewhat wayward and unevenly implemented. My classes would go through periods of writing and writing instruction.

More recently, I passed out marble composition notebooks, and although I gained a lot of muscle transporting stacks of those things home and back every weekend, their use always faded, being replaced by something else deemed more worthy of instructional time. My desire for kids to write more was the correct impulse, I just had never quite figured out how to sew it into the fabric of our classroom.

But the following remained true: If I want my students to be thinkers, I must provide them opportunities to think. If I want them to be writers, I must provide them opportunities to write.

What Changed

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.10.59 PMI was so inspired last summer by reading Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Their ideas about mentor texts are so clear and relevant and utilitarian and are not so much a strategy as a way of life.

So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.

I decided I needed to start small and adapt an idea that would work for me and my students. I wanted a strategy that would encourage risk-taking. I wanted a tool that would provide low-stakes writing opportunities. I wanted something that would let students develop their own voices. I found Notebook Time made these possibilities a reality, and in a way that could be implemented in my classroom right away.

Since I would have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom for the first time, I also considered how I would adapt this to the newly available technology. The Notebook Time experience detailed here is almost entirely digital, which has been a big risk for me, but the rewards have been immense. If you don’t have access to technology in your classroom, this experience can be replicated in your classroom—there’s just more printing involved!

How Notebook Time Works in My Class

This year I teach on-level English 12 and Notebook Time functions like this in our classroom: the first three days of the week, my students have the first 10 minutes of class to complete a Notebook Time entry. On Thursday, we spend the 10 minutes learning about the art of writing or the craft of revising, focusing on a specific skill or idea or strategy. On Friday, students choose one of their three entries from the week, revise it, and submit it for a grade.

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Each week I try to provide various types of texts. Because I limit Notebook Time to 10 minutes, I elected to avoid lengthy passages that students would need to read and interpret. I will use a few lines of prose, a stanza of poetry, or a verse from a song, but rarely more than that.

I also select from various images (photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons), as well as charts, graphs, and statistics. I pull from a resource library of collected readings in my curriculum in which the texts are thematically linked to our units of study, but I also search the internet for anything relevant to students’ own lives. So three times each week, students are seeing a wide variety of cold texts, and then they can respond in writing however they want. In a broad sense, they may perform analytical, argumentative, or narrative writing.

We started Notebook Time in mid-september, with a presentation and a student handout adapted from Writing with Mentors.

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All of this was to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is really important for students to know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it. Additionally, although a bit paradoxical, this type of freedom can be paralyzing for some students. I had to convince them that as the author of their work, they are in full control. For the remainder of that first week, we did some practice, and I wrote along with them to model some different types of responses.

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Learning Writing and Revision Strategies

There are an endless number of things to talk about with regard to writing, so I try to have kids try a strategy for a few minutes and then talk about it for a few minutes. For instance, one day, I gave them a quote from Brent Staples about rewriting, and I merely had them discuss why rewriting is so important. Another day, we looked at Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Method and considered ways we could use it to revise our work.

Although we occasionally look at something as an entire class, I want them to maintain the same sense of choice, and I want what we learn to be germane to their own writing. So I have never, for example, taught a mini-lesson on run-on sentences. That might be new learning for some kids, but not all kids. But I did, one day, give them the option, based on feedback I’d given them, to choose whether they needed to learn more about run-ons, fragments, or “other” (which explored how to create more complex sentence structures) .

Another day we tried something a bit different: In our Google Classroom, I shared an exemplar I wrote on Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”, and then gave them “can comment” access to the document, with the following directions:

  1. Read the sample Notebook Time entry below from start to finish.
  2. Consider the work as a whole in relation to the text.
  3. Highlight part of the writing that engaged or interested you.
  4. Write a comment about why it is a strength of the writing OR
  5. Write a comment about how and why you will try something like it in your writing.

Students developed insightful comments about the writing itself, but also talked about how they wanted to try specific moves in their own writing, which was so inspiring. Here’s an example of Derrick’s comments, in which he noted the intentional fragments (even if he didn’t know to call them that) in one comment and rhetorical questions in another, as well as his later work on an M.C. Escher drawing where he tried using both writing moves he commented on.

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Closing the Notebook Time Cycle

Students choose one of their responses to revise, copying and pasting it in the table provided at the top of that week’s document. Then they begin their revision process in the adjacent box. Seeing their original and their revision side-by-side has been powerfulScreen Shot 2018-01-10 at 9.25.03 PM for students. In our classroom we have talked a lot about the importance of revising, but as teachers know, revision talk can be cheap to burgeoning writers. My students wanted something more concrete, so I shared with them an adaptation of the STAR Method from the inestimable Kelly Gallagher, and this really cool Upgrade Your Sentence document I found on Twitter from @heymrshallahan. I gave them an exemplar with a single sentence so they could see how one sentence could be upgraded in many different ways, and then I gave them a more functional document where they can actually plug their sentences in and work on their writing at the sentence level.

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Why It Works:

  • Routine: Students come into class, get a Chromebook, and know exactly what to do for the first 10 minutes. Some students even begin before the bell rings to get a few extra minutes—which of course is great! We stop after 10 minutes every time. Things like this can take over a lesson if you let them (and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but students know exactly how long they have and I know precisely the remaining number of minutes to plan for.
  • Low-stakes: The environment allows kids to take risks without worry of being penalized by something as silly as a grade. I encourage them to reach, because there is no fear of falling.
  • Text Variety: In addition to what’s normally going on in our classroom, students are exposed to texts in real-world situations. They bring only the knowledge they have to a cold text, and must reason inductively. They cannot wait for someone else to tell them “the answer;” they must forge ahead alone, which fosters their self-reliance and independence.
  • Revision: I no longer have to hope students are making revision a regular practice. I see it every week. By juxtaposing the original and the revision on the documents, kids see it too.
  • Practice: My students wrote for 190 minutes during Notebook Time during quarter 1; they will write for more than 350 minutes during quarter 2.
  • Grading: I don’t get buried under a stack of papers. No teacher has time to provide feedback on four Notebook Time entries each week, so I give them feedback on the one they want.
  • Timed Writing: Because they are the most tested generation in the history of education, it’s not a bad thing that students get regular practice of on-demand writing in a timed situation. Just a bonus!

Impact & Implications So Far

For years, I was unsure of how to embed regular writing opportunities that challenged and inspired kids, giving them the freedom to write in ways that are important to them. I tried different strategies and routines, but none had the staying power for me or my students. That has all changed with Notebook Time. The routine—using the first 10 minutes of class every day, writing to three prompts the first three days of the week, talking about writing on Thursday, revising on Friday—has been great for me and for my students.

The overall benefits of Notebook Time have been almost too numerous to list, but a few that I’ve found incredibly important: an increase in the volume of writing—some students have claimed they’ve written more this semester than they ever have before; writing as a way to explore one’s own thinking, rather than just being a way to demonstrate final thought; and the development of student voice, and this one is the most meaningful of all. Students who were resistant to writing—there was almost a mutiny in the first week when I asked them to write 100 words—and now are not only writing a lot more than they ever have before, but they are writing about things that are important to them in ways that elevate their voices, bringing them from the margins to the mainstream.

Scott has generously shared a folder of resources with you! Go ahead — thank him here in the comments or on Twitter @LyricalsWordz. You can also comment with strategies you have used to adapt Notebook Time for your students! 

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Fun with Maps

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I’ve found that it’s pretty easy to get lost in the weeds on Twitter–with all the wonderful educators and pundits and armchair comedians I follow, I can find myself miles from my original feed in just a few retweet-clicks.  Good thing Twitter is full of Brilliant Maps!

Or at least it’s the home of one lovely cartographical (I totally guessed about whether that was a word or not–no spell check squiggle!) feed that I’m excited to add to my classroom for both freewriting activities and some deeper context exploration this semester:  The aptly-named @BrilliantMaps .  This feed is the home of countless wonderful maps that do everything from highlighting current events and hot-button political issues to providing mind-bending perspectives about how we understand the physical (and sometimes psychological) spaces we exist in.

My students love visuals (actually whenever I say “visuals” they hope after the first syllable that I’m about to say “video” but the mildness of their disappointment tells me they like visuals almost as much).  They make for great writing prompts and spur class discussions that might otherwise dwindle after we’d picked apart a news article or story.  The subjects of the maps here are wide-ranging and not always practical, but man do they make for compelling conversation and writing opportunities.

Check out this one:  

brilliant maps adults living at home
image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

I’ve actually had interesting conversations with students the past few years about the topic of living at home with parents after college versus striking out on their own, so this map would be fascinating to show kids and ask them to reflect on.  What factors might have caused the change?  What implications are there for the country or regions of it based on these shifts?  Why would anyone collect this data to begin with?  The mere fact that the information is so unusual compared to the sorts of things we usually encourage them to examine makes it worth our time!

Here’s another favorite.  It reveals how the election would have turned out if “Did Not Vote” represented a candidate instead of just people staying home.  

brilliant maps did not vote

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Look at that map!  People staying home and not exercising their voting rights would have accounted for ALMOST 500 electoral votes!  An amazing stat, but more striking as a visual–especially if you have time to examine why a small handful of states actually have a more active voting population and escape the gray fate of the rest.

One of the coolest things about following @BrilliantMaps though is that it isn’t all heavy and serious.  Some of their maps are playful–and occasionally not really classroom appropriate, so be selective–and others take a crack at visualization just for the fun of mapping things never intended to be rendered into maps.  Like this one!  A map of every character’s travels throughout the first Star Wars film.  Yes they have one for each of the other original films.  Yes I’m going to make you go dig through the feed to see them for yourself.  

brilliant maps star wars

image via @BrilliantMaps (Twitter)

Maps might not seem highly useful to an English classroom at first blush, but consider the number of skills involved in interpreting one–they carry unspoken and varying degrees of implication and require quite a bit of synthesizing if you want to apply the information they provide to your own view of the world.  And besides, aren’t you already imaging what student-drawn maps of the major characters travels in their independent novels would look like?  

Pretty cool, I’d bet.

If you’re looking for even more cartographical cookiness (that’s a word too!  English is crazy!)?  Check out the utterly impractical but often laugh-aloud funny @TerribleMaps which is exactly what it sounds like plus wildly uneven, but fun follow that might just prove useful every once in a while too.  Like this gem:

terrible maps
–Mike

 

Do you find yourself #tweaching some days? Connect with us on Twitter @TeacherHattie or @ZigThinks. We’d love to know what you’re up to!

4 Launching Points for Independent Writing

June 23, 2020

I started a practice of nightly, independent writing with my students this year on a whim.

(For the record, if you are ever going to start a giant, year-long project with students on a whim, do make sure that the idea came from Nancie Atwell. I think that makes a difference.)

And so, since September, my students have written for 20-minutes outside of class on five nights per week. After the freaking out ceased and we got into the swing of things, I have received every kind of feedback you would predict:

“I love this! Now, I don’t have to feel bad about spending homework time writing my novel!”

and

“Yeah, I guess it’s okay. I mean, I write some stuff, so that’s cool.”

and

“Uh, yeah …I write,” said whilst avoiding eye contact and smirking.

Some students are really into it, some have grown to love the practice, some report that they can see a change in their writing because they are writing so much more frequently, and some, I know, are totally phoning it in or faking it. I’m okay (more or less) with all of these outcomes. To do what’s best for my students overall, I have to be.

And now, we need to do something with some of this writing. If students are going to dedicate their time to developing pieces of writing on their own, I need to legitimize that by bringing those pieces into the “real” writing workshop of the classroom. I’ve come to believe that if I want my students to maintain writing lives after their year in my classroom is over, I have to give as much time to their writing projects as I give to the writing studies that are my instructional priority. Their independent writing projects need to become my priority.

But even after months of nightly independent writing, when I told my students that they would get to develop one of these projects into bigger piece of polished, publishable writing, I got a roomful of blank stares. Because, you know, where to begin?

In response, I taught a little mini-lesson — Four Launching Points for Your Independent Writing. I offer them here to you to help your students get started with independent writing large and small, from nightly writing to big, self-directed writing projects.

Past writing

Sometimes past writing, even tiny bits of it, can lead us to present writing projects. Notebook Time is designed to provide seeds of ideas that could someday be developed into something more. And, of course, this is the very purpose of the 20 minutes of nightly independent writing — to give writers an opportunity to try on ideas to see if they might want to develop it into something bigger later. 

Past writing from other classes can also provide ideas, though. Sara used a Mari Andrew illustration as inspiration to write a piece about how her friends’ zodiac signs speak to their friendship style. Katherine used the first sentence of a discarded personal essay as the first line of a new poem describing a house that is special in her family.

Perhaps your student wrote a book review in English last year, and they really enjoyed it. They might choose to write another review. Or, conversely, maybe that review didn’t go so well, but now that he is older, wiser, and has more writing experience under his belt, he wants to tackle it again to get it right. Maybe they started a novel years ago when they were wee bitty, but the idea has stuck with them — this might be a place to which they return now.

Topic

This is the easiest and most predictable starting point. “Well, what do you like? What do you know a lot about? WHAT do you want to write about?”  Students who begin with topics might find them within their writer’s notebook, but they also probably come instantly to mind. Soccer, video games, superheroes, a Netflix series — these are our students’ favorite things, and so a natural starting point for a piece of independent writing.

What students don’t do as naturally, though, is brainstorm the different genres that might help them explore this topic. When I walked through this mini-lesson with students, I did some brainstorming in front of them using one of their topics — music.

(Beware – -this big, broad, vague topic will always come up in your classroom. Mark my words.)

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Charlie’s free verse poem about the NFL kneeling controversy

Here’s what we brainstormed together:

  • Personal essay about a time music made a big difference in the listener’s life
  • Informational writing about a genre of music or a musician
  • A review of an album, a song, or a concert
  • An opinion piece on why one genre of music (or musician) is the best of the year.
  • A story where music features prominently

When they begin with a topic, students need to next walk through this process of seeing what the topic would look like in many different genres. Then they can pick the genre that best matches their vision and get to work.

Will & Charlie are two writers who began with the same topic (football) and moved in two very different directions.  After brainstorming different genres in which they could write about football, Will decided to write an opinion commentary about the need for stricter cuts in youth league football, while Charlie wrote a free verse poem expressing his position on the NFL kneeling controversy.

Genre

Conversely, students may find it easier to start with a genre — a kind of writing they want to do. In fact, this is where most of my students began. They said things like, “I’ve never written fiction, so I think I want to do a short story” or “I want to write something really opinionated that would change someone’s mind” and “I want to write something that’s going to make someone cry.”

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The first paragraph of Harry’s historical fiction

(Notice that student writers don’t necessarily have “proper” genre words at hand — they more often describe the kind of writing or the effect of that writing. That’s when we can swoop in with a quick writing conference and give them a name: “You want to write something that would change someone’s mind! That’s awesome. Sounds like something you might find in the newspaper in the opinion section. Why don’t you start looking there?” or “You know, the genre writers use the most to elicit pure, raw emotion is poetry. How does that sound to you?”)

When students know what genre they want to begin with, the next best step is for them to do some writing off the page — an Atwellian brain dump — to search for ideas. Harry wanted to write historical fiction, a genre he’s always loved reading but never tried writing. In his notebook, he began by brainstorming the time periods he might want to write about. He decided he already knew the most about the pre-Civil War south, so he wouldn’t need to do oodles of research.  With a time period in mind and a genre chosen, Harry started drafting.

Mentor Text

And sometimes you just come across a mentor text that makes you say, “Ooooh, I wish I had written that. Maybe I could write that …”

Students can only do this if we let them loose to explore, recommending a few favorite sites along the way. But I’ve found that just a very few minutes of strategic web-surfing yields huge discoveries.

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Amani’s NYT-inspired 36 Hours in Chicago

(I showed my students A.V.Club, Vulture, The Ringer, The New York Times, and Vox to get them going. I briefly scrolled through, read a few headlines (some of which were not appropriate), and told them what kinds of writing they might see on this site. That was it.)

From their travels around the Internet, Fisher and Amani both got ideas that led to final pieces of writing. Fisher loved Pitchfork’s music reviews (he had started with music reviews on A.V. Club, but I nudged him toward Pitchfork when I saw that he wanted to write a review).  Amani stumbled upon The New York Times’ 36 Hours In… series and used it to create a piece about traveling to Chicago, her favorite city.

Starting with a mentor text usually creates a product most attuned to the inspiration and guidance of the pros.

What are other starting points for authentic, independent writing? How do you help your students move past the panic of a blank page to the writing launching pad? Leave a comment here, find me on Facebook, or on Twitter @rebekahodell1. 

Analyzing Audience with the College Essay

Today’s guest post is from Paige Timmerman, a high school English teacher in Salem, Illinois. You can connect with her on Twitter at @pbrink12 or via e-mail at timmermanp@salemhigh.com.

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When I decided to take the plunge and try writer’s workshop over the summer, I knew I wanted a unit on college application and scholarship essays for the simple fact that I knew my students would crave it.

I also couldn’t help think about how rare and valuable it is to have a unit for a potentially “real” audience.  Students spend much of their time writing hypotheticals for teacher eyes only, but this unit is an opportunity to really analyze the audience and think critically about what might impress them.  I also viewed the unit as an opportunity for students to think very deliberately about craft, as they usually only have about 500 words to convince a group of people they don’t know to contribute to their education.  It’s a tough feat!

Planning

I began by scouring the internet for mentor texts of successful college admittance and scholarship essays, and I came across the “Essays that Worked” page on the John Hopkins University website.  What I liked most about this page was that each winning essay was accompanied by a “review burst” written by the selection committee, which detailed why the essay impressed them.

After I selected four mentors and examined them, I noticed they each possessed interesting textual features (dialogue, rhetorical questions, etc.).  There also were a variety of structures; one winning essay was even structured like an instruction manual for how to “handle” millennials.  These techniques, I realized, were why they won- they stood out amongst a swarm of simple sentences in long paragraphs.  Therefore, I wanted to make sure I taught these features at the beginning of the year through a narrative unit and an informative writing unit before encouraging students to apply them to their college pieces.

Here are the mentor texts we used:

Just Keep Folding

On and Off

AdmissionsSaving the Manatees

The Palate of My Mind

Pre-Writing

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This is the anchor chart that was chosen to be displayed during the unit and served as a basis for how the essays were assessed.  An example of a cumulative discussion over the mentor texts (featuring Jack, Grace B., Tina, and Nick) can be found here.

We spent four days in class analyzing four different mentor texts.  Just as I had hoped, the “review bursts” from the selection committee deepened our discussion by causing students to consider audience.  Next, I had students mine the mentor texts for commonalities in groups, each of which submitted a 3-5 minute video of its discussion and created its own anchor chart.  With new knowledge of the unit in the back of their minds, students then developed questions they would ask members of a college scholarship/application selection committee if given the opportunity.

I asked two of our counselors, both of whom have been part of the selection process for

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Mrs. Knapp and Mrs. Kessler impart their most valuable piece of advice: the best essays tell a compelling story.

local scholarships, to select the anchor chart they thought best captured the spirit of the unit, and they came into my class the next day to explain their choice.  After that, they answered questions about the genre, which helped students “get inside the head” of the audience.

 

Pause

While I needed students to write at least 1,000 words for a dual credit requirement, I considered that many prompts are 500 words or less.  Therefore, I decided to have them complete two essays instead of one.  Prompts were chosen authentically from real scholarships or college websites, or they were chosen from “general prompts” from The Common App.

Once the first essays were in the rear-view, I decided to facilitate mock “selection committees.”  Students returned to their discussion groups and received a packet of three student essays, each of which had an “alias” to replace the name for anonymity.  They read the essays quietly first, annotating pros and cons in the margins as they went along.  Each group member used a different color of colored pencil so I could see the progression of their silent discussions as each essay was passed from person to person.

 

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Logan, Max, and Grace H. judge three anonymous essays.  Click here to view their discussion.

Group members then discussed what they noticed in each piece, and a criteria was determined for selecting the “best essay.”  They then submitted a 2-3 minute video that explained which essay they believed was most deserving of the desired award and how they came to that conclusion, citing specifics in each of the three essays for support.

 

What I liked most about this activity was that students were no longer thinking about the audience; they were the audience.  They got the opportunity to “try on” the selection committee’s shoes for an hour or so and walk around, which helped them understand what it takes for an essay of this style to stand out.  Additionally, it allowed them to understand the impact of the specific textual features we had studied with the first two units.  

Present

As my students are currently wrapping up their second pieces of the unit, I am reflecting back on what I have been seeing as I have been conferring with them.  I’ve seen less “I am a really hard worker and deserve this scholarship” and more unique textual structures and craft techniques introduced in class.  I am confident my students are entering the sea of paperwork known the college application and scholarship process armed and ready to give their competitors a literal run for their money, and I know this is due largely to the fact that we spent so much time considering audience.

While this unit encouraged my students to think about their futures, it also allowed me to continue considering my own future as a writing teacher.  As I think back to common comments I made during conferences, I remember saying frequently: “You should incorporate some of the techniques we talked about in the memoir unit or the informative writing unit!”  Although hypothetical, those units at the beginning of the year served as building blocks for the authentic piece constructed in this unit.  This is leading me to believe students’ college essays could be even better if I added another unit into the mix before the college essay unit to give them even more tools in their toolboxes before constructing an essay they want to push out to a real audience.  With this in mind, I plan to go forward next year by cutting the college writing to one paper rather than two in order to make room for another “building blocks” unit to precede it.  With newfound knowledge that acting as the audience improved student writing drastically, I am saving a few student pieces and plan to kick off the unit next year by placing my students in the judge’s seat.

While the college writing unit may not have been as exciting as some of the others, the experience of having an authentic audience proved to be unique and invaluable.  That said, as I go forward and continue to dabble in writer’s workshop, I am left with one main lingering question: If knowing a real audience will read students’ work pushes them toward more deliberate thinking about their writing craft, how can this phenomenon be replicated in units of writing where students do not feel authenticity from the audience?

What are you thinking, teachers? How might you use the analysis of audience in a different writing study? How have you used the college essay to teach more than just the college essay? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find Paige on Twitter @pbrink12.