Voice First: An Argument for Rethinking Priorities for Novice Writers

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My Co-Departmental English 11 class is currently undertaking the same Narrative Journalism writing assignment I wrote about a couple of entries back.  They tackle almost all of the same writing assignments as the traditional English 11 classes but can’t move at the same rapid pace.  Most of them read below a middle school level and about half of them would struggle to produce a paragraph of writing on their own without both scaffolding and at least some one-on-one support.  

It’s my favorite class when it comes to writing.

Of course, in order to take joy from the struggles that come with this sort of territory, you have to be prepared to let some things go.  

But as I discovered on this most recent endeavor into a new genre, it’s also important to remember that just because they haven’t mastered mechanical elements of writing, there’s no reason to expect that they lack mastery of the creative elements of it Continue reading

Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

The need for authentic literary analysis has been simmering in my brain for a while now. Rebekah wrote about 3 Reasons for it  a while back, and I’ve been working on how to help teachers support and empower their students to write without formulas.

I talked with my students about this issue, too. Not surprisingly, they thought the traditional 5 paragraph, formulaic essays were pointless. They didn’t see any connection to why they’d want to write them or who would ever want to read them in the real world. Every single student agreed that they’d rather write for real, authentic audiences in real, authentic formats.

So, I committed. For our literary analysis unit, I was not going to provide them with a list of topics or thesis statements. I wouldn’t start with an outline of how many paragraphs. They would write about something worth analyzing in a way that they felt was worth reading. But I quickly realized that even though they were empowered by choice, some of them still needed a lot of support.

What we started with:

To launch the idea of analyzing literature, we watched a short film together. (I used Borrowed Time. It’s beautifully crafted and packs an awful lot into its short 6 minute time frame. Really, any short or scene that elicits a strong reaction in its viewers could work, though.) I set it up only by telling the students that they would watch, write their reactions in their journals, and then we’d have an opportunity to discuss.

Borrowed Time

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Their responses were varied: emotional reactions, wonderings, and postulating about meaning. As we wrapped up our conversation I said, “Did you notice how, for some of our conversation topics, there seemed to be a lot more to talk about? That feeling that there’s a conversation waiting to happen is where real literary analysis lives.”

I connected them to this idea by asking if they ever tweet or text a friend after they’ve finished watching a show. Of course they have. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked.

“How— (this character) — was so dumb,” someone replied.

“Yeah, or how I can’t believe it ended like that,” another student responded.

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

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image via: amazon.com

I did a think-aloud with the book I was reading at the time, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I explained, “you know, there’s a lot about this book that I’m really loving. And I keep finding myself recommending it to other people because I want to talk about it with them! That feeling like I need to talk about an idea is a clue that it might be a good topic for analysis, since I sometimes think of analysis as a conversation about thoughts. So I’m going to jot it down in my notebook as a possible topic.” Then, I listed the following possibilities in unpolished, thinking-aloud wording:

 

  • I love how authentic the narrator’s voice is. Angie Thomas does a beautiful job making it sound like a teenage girl is talking to you.
  • I love how Angie Thomas doesn’t oversimplify or fall for easy stereotypes with her characters.
  • That reminds me of another thing. In a lot of YA lit, the parents are either absent or awful. Hers are neither. It’s refreshing.
  • It’s tempting to think that because it’s dealing with a hot-button issue, this book will be a flash-in-the-pan, but I think it has a lot of literary merit and could become a YA classic.

After modeling the thinking behind brainstorming, students went back to their own notebooks to generate similar lists of topics for their own reading.

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

As I conferred with my students, some were ready to hit the ground running right away. With these students, we studied a few shared mentor texts to examine how authors of real literary analysis support their claims. (Hint: they still have evidence, but there is no magic 5 paragraph formula.)

There were still a few kids, though, who were really struggling with coming up with their own topics for analysis. In frustration, one moaned, “just tell me what to write!” I hesitated. I wondered if maybe some kids would benefit from the concrete structure of a 5 paragraph formula, but even they had told me how pointless they feel that kind of writing is. I wasn’t willing to give up on authentic writing.

So, instead I pushed for more. After questioning them about what was frustrating, we agreed that it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to organize their ideas into paragraphs; it was that they still didn’t have ideas that they felt were worth analyzing.

That reminded me of a post by Hattie and a conversation I’ve often had with colleagues. As she described in her post, the hardest work of writing often isn’t always the writing itself. It’s the thinking. Sometimes we need to scaffold the thinking that goes into writing more than we need to scaffold where a topic sentence goes in a paragraph.

To do this, we went back to mentor texts again. (They’re the professionals. Why wouldn’t we?) Instead of reading an article carefully, we looked at as many headlines as we could. Students flipped through VultureA/V Club, Literary Hub, and files of mentor texts that I’ve pulled throughout the past few years. We recorded the titles of articles that stood out as being analytical, then once we had a bunch, we stepped back to see if we noticed any patterns.

Literary Analysis JackpotRight away, they noticed that  almost all dealt with a “why” or a “how.” Then, they noticed that they might examine the “why” or the “how” of a character, a particular scene, etc. (And I bookmarked the idea that the difference between “why” and “how” as it relates to rhetorical analysis might make for some powerful lessons later in the process.) As we collected these trends and observations, we started to form columns, and we noticed how you could almost mix and match to form analysis topics. In my head, I started to picture the columns as the screen on a slot machine where all of the components line up to give you a result. Obviously, we said, our topics shouldn’t be random like a slot machine, but this image helped them understand how different pieces could fit together to make a topic for literary analysis. Fitting together some pieces that they had observed themselves in real-world writing gave them the support they needed to add their own thinking.

After a few minutes and some more tooling around in their notebooks, everyone had an idea for something they were excited to explore in literary analysis and they were starting to draft – without ever asking how many paragraphs they’d need. Jackpot!

What have you done to scaffold your students in authentic literary analysis? Where do you find students usually struggle the most when it comes to literary analysis? Contact me in the comments below or @megankortlandt.

Writing Center Update: The Good, The Bad, and The Tricky

My IB teaching partner dropped a calendar page on my desk yesterday morning that reminded me–in its stark black-and-white boxes filled with Easter vacation, early release days, and special schedules–that we have very few weeks left in our semester. That somewhat panicked calendar also means that the Triton Writing Center, the fledgling dream I committed to back in September, has almost survived the school year! If you’ve been thinking about starting a writing center program at your school, this post is for you! Here is what I’ve learned and witnessed in my seven months of creating and managing a very simple student-staffed writing center.

The Good…

  • Every little bit helps. Though it has been difficult to schedule many tutoring appointments, even the briefest tutoring session can make a difference for a writer. Since my freshmen started working with peer tutors, their writing has become clearer and more confident. Though grammar is not meant to be the focus of a tutoring session, writers have appreciated the one-on-one conversations about grammar that happen during these sessions. As one freshman told me, “My tutor helped me to recognize when I was switching verb tenses, and now I’m a lot more conscious of it and can fix it on my own.”
  • To paraphrase Whitney Houston, “I believe the tutors are our future.” Want to find your future teachers? Check out peer tutors’ phenomenal reports. A few of the brave beta tutors in the program have become shining stars, giving up weeks of study halls and lunches to meet with individuals or classes. The reports they fill out in our tutor report Google form demonstrate patience, care, and their own lessons learned. 

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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

From Babylon to New Hampshire: Tiny Writing Lives Large

 

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

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

Thornton Wilder

Memories & Miracles: An Autobiographical Journey

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

The autobiography consists of the following introduction and five chapters:

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

 

 

 

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

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New Year, New Writer’s Notebook

I’m one of those New Year’s Resolvers. I love making lists. I love setting goals. I look at the New Year as a chance to reorganize my whole life. It’s a magical time in my weird little world. So, of course, I was immediately intrigued when I saw a mention of Bullet Journals on Facebook. I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of lists and codes and layouts. Apparently these have been a thing on Instagram for awhile, and I’m a little late to game. Later in the day, I spied a Twitter convo between Moving Writers’ Allison and Rebekah about a bullet journal layout that would make for writing notebook time.  And, I’d been thinking quite a bit about Tricia Ebarvia’s Writer’s Workshop blog post and how that could help me better organize workshop in my AP Seminar class. The pieces started clicking together, and my second semester writers’ notebooks in my AP Seminar are about to get a big makeover.

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What Are You Working On? Empowering Student Writers through Workshop

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I’ve always believed in the writing process. My teaching didn’t always reflect that belief, as I spent too many years earlier in my career creating worksheets and essay prompts and outlines and templates. I soon realized that just because my writing instruction included steps didn’t mean it was a process.

That said, in more recent years, I’ve tried to integrate more elements of writing workshop: writer’s notebooks, quickwrites, peer response groups, conferring. Just about every day, for example, we begin my AP Lang class with writing—writing to reflect, explore, find topics, generate ideas, develop fluency, play with language. Students work through the process of finding ideas worth writing about, organizing those ideas, and developing their voices.

As much as I’ve tried to turn the writing process over the students, the truth is, no matter how well-intentioned I may have been in my efforts to empower students, I realized that nothing empowers students more than actually giving them power. So that’s what I did.

What follows is how I’ve taken another step in shifting my classroom towards a more authentic writing workshop. Continue reading

Video Essays for More Authentic Literary Analysis

Today’s guest post comes from a California teacher that we met at the Southland Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference in October! 

Noël Ingram currently teaches English 10, Cinematic Arts, and Yearbook at Da Vinci Communications in Hawthorne, CA. She conducted her undergraduate studies in English and Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and earned her teaching certification through the LMU|Teach for America Partnership. She believes in the power of stories and values people who speak their truth. Various pathways to Noël’s heart include books, cats, coffee, tea, running, line dancing, and colorful office supplies.Want to connect? ningram@davincischools.org; http://www.dvcnoel.weebly.com 

At my school, projects drive the learning process. Each grade level team collaborates to create project deliverables that are connected. Sometimes, students create one large product at the end, with each class focusing on a particular piece of the final creation. Other times, our team decides on a big driving question and then focuses on answering the question a little different within each of our classes. Regardless of the approach we take, the content that kids learn in each class is essential for them to be successful in their other classes. For example, students may be required to incorporate content from their Chemistry course into the story they are writing in Humanities. The main characters from this story may then form the basis of the app they code in Computer Science.  We work through a minimum of two projects a semester and the kids publicly display their work at Exhibition once a semester. I teach 10th grade English and Cinematic Arts in a blocked schedule, and I have the freedom to allocate the time however I choose. I do not divide my time into an “English” block and a “Cinematic Arts” block. Rather, I teach films as “text” and weave in basic film concepts that will assist students in creating their own pieces.

Our last project, “Case Closed,” explored the following driving question: What is evidence and how is it used to make a case?

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What I Hoped Students Would Get From This Project

A broader concept of “evidence.”

By the time students come to me, they have a relatively solid understanding that “evidence means quotes”. However, I don’t want my students to think that quotes are the only form of evidence out there. I want them to view their world as brimming with pieces of evidence to analyze including images, films, texts, and behavior.

An understanding of intertextuality.

I want students to see that the themes explored in Hamlet are timeless and very much present today. I want students to make connections between their favorite films and T.V. shows and the literature we read in class.

A focus on authentic analysis.

When we as teachers say “analysis,” most students automatically think of the five-paragraph, literary analysis essay that they have been trained to write since middle school. Unfortunately, I rarely ever see any authentic analysis in these types of essays. Plagiarism runs rampant and much of the essay is simply parroted information from Shmoop, SparkNotes, or other similar sites. This project could not be plagiarized from study sites. Students were required to think deeply about the text and make intertextual thematic connections.

 

Before the Project

We did a whole-class novel study of Hamlet. We watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 TV adaptation of the play in class, pausing often to discuss and analyze key moments.

Genre Immersion

We begin all genre studies in our workshop the same way: with a genre immersion. I screened our “mentor texts” in-class, while students took notes on their “noticings.” After the first viewing, students discussed at their tables what they noticed and then shared-out whole class. I then shared with them a little bit of context about how the genre of video essay is currently being defined.

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I relied heavily on pieces from the YouTube channels Nerdwriter and Every Frame a Painting, intentionally choosing pieces that focused on film concepts we had covered in class to reinforce their cinematic knowledge. I also included a few more experimental forms so that they could see some of the range of the genre. Please note: If you plan to use any of these videos in your own class, please watch them beforehand and decide on the video’s appropriateness according to your unique class community. My students all sign a permission slip that allows me to screen rated R material for curricular purposes.

After making a list of their own noticings, students discussed which features of the genre they thought were the most important. They then shared these features out in a whole-class discussion. I took notes of what students were sharing on a google doc and then used their notes as the basis for the checklist I used to grade their final cuts.

The Creation Process

To guide students in the creation process, I had them submit work for four checkpoints. They were allowed to use any video editor they liked and I did not provide any direct instruction in video editing. Most students used either iMovie (as an app on their phones) or WeVideo. We had a little bit of a snafu when our school’s content filter would not allow me to adjust the settings to allow students to have access to YouTube to find video clips. Students then either found their clips at home or used their cell phones to save clips to their Google Drive. There are many browser extensions that students can use to download video clips to use in their projects. Additionally, Subzin is a helpful resource that allows you to search movie quotes. Students would use this to find additional sources of video that they wished to use in their project.

Some topics that students chose to explore included:

  • The portrayal of mental health
  • Revenge
  • Gender discrimination

Changes I Will Make Next Time

Emphasize clip length: “the shorter the better.”

Students tended to show clips that were far too long. I believe this came from their personal attachment to the clips they chose. They frequently chose to look at their favorite movies or TV shows and had a difficult time cutting down the length of the clips, instead wanting to show every part of the scene.

Analysis vs. Summary

Even though I taught a mini lesson on analysis vs. summary and had students analyze a mentor text, indicating which parts of the voice over were analysis and which parts were summary, many students still struggled with this. Next time, I plan to modify this project by requiring students to submit the files of the clips they are using in a separate checkpoint and having students fill out a say/mean/matter chart for their clips prior to working on their script

More feedback

 Students didn’t have as many opportunities for peer feedback as they usually do during a genre study. Next time, I will add in a “rough cut” screening so students can receive ample feedback before submitting their final cut.

Requirement of a Voice Over

 Some very effective video essays are created without the use of a voice over. Thus, I told students that they could create their video essays without a voice over, but that they should keep in mind that this is a more challenging option. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students who did not use a voice over in their project made their choice based upon the erroneous belief that it would be “easier,” rather than because it was the best artistic choice for their vision. Students were overwhelmingly unsuccessful at communicating their argument without the use of a voice over.

Some Outstanding Student Examples: 

In Their Own Words: What Students Said About This Project

  • I liked that we were able to choose how we did it and it wasn’t too guided.
  • I liked that we could relate it to any topic and I liked how we got to see how the themes were portrayed in modern day TV or movies.
  • I liked how we got to watch Hamlet and pick a theme from it and put it in our perspective.
  • I liked that I really got to show my creative side and I got to express myself.
  • What I likes about this project was the production behind the Video Essays, I thought through the details and important part of my video essay. I chose decisions because decisions are key in plot formation and climax in stories or movies. And I see that a lot in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The editing was a fun experience because I got to learn how to uses new software in editing. I want to be an editor and animator so it is why I enjoyed editing classwork.
  • I liked that Noel left room for us to do whatever we needed to carry out our vision. She gave us room to be creative.
  • I liked that we had the opportunity to find themes and argue about them. We could back our ideas and arguments up with video clips.

This is a project that I will use again. The video creation and use of their favorite shows and movies immediately engaged students, while the foundation of our study in video essay mentor texts held students to a high level of rigor. As the deadline loomed nearer, many students approached me to share that they found this project “so much harder than [they] thought it would be.” I responded, “you’re right. This project is really difficult because it’s hard to create beautiful work that people care about. Let’s see how our mentor texts can help us here.”

How do you use film as mentor texts in your classroom? How can you see students using video essays to engage in authentic analysis within your curriculum?

“Teachable Alternatives” to the 5-Paragraph Essay

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On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades.  Continue reading