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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Revision? Pshhh…I write best under pressure.

My husband is in a grad school program that requires a lot of writing. He likes to write, and he’s a good writer, so that’s not a problem….except he also works full time with crazy hours and we have two small-ish children. He’s just juggling way too much. So I was not surprised at all when he casually informed me yesterday that his final paper for this semester (15-20 pages, a bunch of research needed) is due next week, and he hasn’t started it yet.Copy of #tweaching

Right away I felt like I was talking to one of my students: “Trust me. I work best under pressure. I can sit for hours staring at the screen and write nothing. Then when it comes down to 2am and I have to do it, I write my best stuff.”

Though I don’t doubt that many are successful following this philosophy, I often wonder how much better they could be if they’d let their ideas marinate a little. I discussed this post with fellow Moving Writers blogger and my classroom-mate @ZigThinks and he was adamant that in the last days (or even hours!) before something is due, he really “dials in” and his thinking gets sharper.  

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t done it myself, too, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that at least a little time to think through my ideas, or revise, or rethink always makes my writing better.

So how can we get kids (and my husband) to get going and give their writing the time it needs?

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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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Success Through Structure

In January, during Moving Writers’ series on testing, I wrote about structuring a class when there’s that external test to consider. I really like having a structure. It’s nice to have touchstones and routines to ground things so you can go and explore the things that come up as you go.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing course. We’re almost done, as I’m only teaching them for a term, but the structure has been key to the successes we’ve had. I tweeted a piece earlier this week, and it got a lot of likes and retweets. Rebekah suggested it become a post, so here we are.

At the outset of the course, I had, of course, a plan in my notebook for the structure. However, knowing that there were students who had chosen the course to grow as writers, I made sure that we had an open discussion about goals. I asked what forms we wanted to work on, and how much freedom we wanted. In a great moment of serendipity, their input aligned quite closely with what I had on paper. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

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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The First Seven Days of a First-Time Workshopper

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 4.29.24 PMThere are lots of teachers who implement writing workshop in baby steps — maybe first some mini-lessons, and then some conferring down the road, and later expanded choice for students, and next year some mentor texts. And that works!

For me, it didn’t, though. I dabbled in workshop for a year before I realized that I needed to be all in or all out; there was no workable middle ground. Today’s guest writer, Elontra Hall (@cloudscholar) was the same way. At the beginning of this semester, he found himself with a brand new class and ultimate freedom to teach whatever he wanted to teach. He knew this was the time to jump into workshop with both feet. 

We are so lucky today to feature a post where he walks us through those tentative and miraculous first days of one teacher’s leap into the workshop life! We hope to hear more from him as the semester progresses! 

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explore thedeepestwaters

“Are we doing drama today?”

“Are you American?”

“What’s  a writer’s workshop?”

These questions ambushed me as I stepped out into uncharted waters.  Let’s rewind for a moment though before I give my account of the first week of writer’s workshop.

……….

When I interviewed at my current school, I was asked what I would do with seven hours of drama (seven one-hour lessons per week with seven different groups of students) if I were allowed to do whatever I wished. My response was immediate and made my heart feel as if were fluttering:

Writer’s workshop!

Collaboration with teachers of other subjects, team teaching opportunities, group work and research, chances for students to go out of the academy on trips and guest speakers to come in and support. A dream.

Then, I got the job.

After celebrating my new appointment and the freedom that I was to be given, I stared out into the abyss and worry began to boil in a cloud above me.  How was this going to work?

In the States, as a young teacher (two or three years in) I had tried to run a writer’s workshop with varying results. Since moving to England, I had used various writer’s workshop elements in English lessons: freewrites, mentor texts, peer feedback and revision, but in my experience of teaching in the U.K. there was never time to run a proper writer’s workshop because of the amount of content to cover. The GCSEs* loom menacingly over everything; they weigh heavily on students’ future prospects as well as the rating* of the school. Having never “properly” run a writer’s workshop in the UK or heard of anyone else  here running one, I had no idea how it would work.

But, my teacher intuition grumbled, and I remembered what I saw in my mind’s eye during the interview: Teams of students working together to tighten up pieces, Writer’s Marathon in London, pockets of reading and engaged discussion spread out around the room, a board of pieces published by students, a revision and feedback board. Freedom and focus.

It was a risk worth taking.

New job, new class, new content. Luckily, the Christmas holidays had come, so there was time, hypothetically, to thrash some order out of the chaos. One of the best ideas that I had was to take to twitter -as one does- to ask for help and suggestions. And boy did they come!


Next, I took a look back through some of my Writer’s workshop texts: Why Workshop, Bullock; Teaching Writing that Matters, Gallagher, Lee; Living and Teaching the Writer’s Workshop, Painter. I also made sure to get a writer’s notebook for myself and a good pen (Parker IM, ball point, gel ink refills). Finally, I made sure to try to plot out a kind of rough course for my students and I to chart. I wanted to start with freedom and gradually build in a loose structure. These students had never done authentic writing that wasn’t an assessment of some kind. So I worked out that the students would always have a ten minute writing session, a ten minute mini-lesson followed by self-directed writing and one to one/group conferencing.

Well, the festive vittles consumed, the initial anxiety having given way to the choppy waters of starting a new school mid year, I have begun the grand experiment.

Here’s what’s happened so far.  

The First Seven Days

  1. The first seven days have been extremely interesting. I have one hour per week of writer’s workshop with seven groups. My writer’s workshop lessons have taken the place of drama lessons- to the great dismay of a few (Sorry.) From anecdotal accounts, the kids love it. They are excited about being able to choose what they want to write about. They like that they don’t have to be overly focused on SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation), and they- so far- are genuinely invested in what they are writing. The UK secondary school system is in dire need of programmes like writer’s workshop – programmes that are focused on the student’s interests.
  2. The moment the students realised that they held majority control in their learning they were in. It was remarkable, all of the annoyance disappeared, and pens began that strange yet familiar dance across the page.
  3. Allowing the students to decorate their writer’s notebooks was a quick and definite win.

On the first day, I told them about writer’s workshop and some of the things that are possible. In order to get as much writing done as possible, and to create a positive atmosphere about the new class, I forewent the majority of my teaching time, and we worked through three exercises:

  1. A ten minute free-write
  2. I wonder
  3. Fruit bowl

Free-write:

I think this is pretty standard. Write for ten minutes without stopping and when you get stuck write, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ until you think of something more interesting. The students got to choose the format and content of their writing and as they wrote I wrote. It was a  great experience, sharing time writing with young writers. After time was up, I let the students move around to share their work, with the condition that they could only say thank you in response. (Thank you Ms. Cox from NWP – Meadowbrook Writing Project – Oakland University – Michigan.)

The buzz around the room after the share was palpable and  the apprehension that had lined their faces earlier was gone, replaced by something else – excitement.

I Wonder:

This, too, is a common activity; I have to thank Twitter again for the inspiration. To begin with, I modeled and shared some things that I am genuinely curious about- from scientific and distant to more personal. The students all took a moment (Twenty seconds) to think about things that they were genuinely curious about and then wrote them down. When that moment was over, they wrote down as many ideas as they could in about a minute and a half. Once the time was up, I gave them the option to share with each other:

I wonder if human beings will still exist in a thousand years.

I wonder if faster than light travel is possible.

I wonder what it would be like to live forever.

I wonder how big sharks can get.

I explained to them that as we moved forward these topics might provide topics or act as springboards for them to begin writing. Later on this half term, I plan to compile a number of these from a range of notebooks and put them on sticky notes. The sticky notes will then go to a ‘station’ in the room where students can look at them and perhaps draw inspiration.

Next, I took a bit of time to reinforce some of the basic pillars of our writer’s workshop:

  1. Everybody writes – including me
  2. Traditional teaching only lasts ten to fifteen minutes (max)
  3. Writing here is a process with focus on development and growth – not grades or levels
  4. Collaboration and trust are key for the workshop to be successful
  5. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about creation.

In the time that we had left, I explained ‘Fruit Bowl’.

Fruit Bowl:

The idea is that they were to describe an object without letting (the reader) know explicitly what is being described through naming or other obvious signposting.

After all of the activities I did an informal survey and asked that if they had enjoyed the lesson, that they raise their hands.  A forest of hands shot up and I noticed a number of wide smiles.

The last thing I did was assign homework: Three ten minutes writes on whatever moved them. No sighs, no groans, no muttered whispering about how pointless the homework was. I was pleasantly stunned.

…………..

At the end of the seven days, I have to say that I’m pleased with how each classes’ first session went. Now though, I have a different set of issues.

I have to pin down an enthusiastic and reliable team for my PLC to make the workshop truly interdisciplinary. I have to figure out how to make sure that at least one piece of homework gets looked at for each student in each lesson: which calls for conferencing, but is borderline impossible to do in the time frame that I have as each of my groups are over twenty students.

And, finally – most worryingly for me – I’ve given a target of two to three publishable pieces for this five week period. How can I monitor that and coordinate mini-lessons that are meaningful and helpful to all of the students with their disparate ideas and writing ideas?

The answers to this and many more questions I’m sure I’ll come up with soon. I have had quite a bit of help and advice from a number of sources that I regularly refer to; I’m certain that I’ll unearth an answer or, if I’m lucky, a clutch of them.

In short, although I may not be doing it the ‘right’ way (if there is such a thing) I feel like what we’ve started is good, has legs  and a bit of room to grow and develop and adapt as we go along.

What was your first week of workshop like? What did you choose to spend time on? What did you skip? What words of wisdom would you give to Elontra? Leave him a comment below, share your thoughts on Twitter @cloudscholar, or find us on Facebook to join the conversation.

 

*GCSE exam: an end of year exam for sophomore students (year 11) these are national exams that every student in the UK takes on the same day at the same time across the country, The grades that they get from these have a huge impact on what students do next in their educational careers.
*Rating: Schools in the UK are inspected by a central governmental body called OfSTED. Schools are graded in the following areas: Leadership and management, Teaching, learning and assessment.

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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Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading