The Food Memory Narrative

If you’re anything like me, those few short weeks between fall and winter breaks are nothing short of an anxiety inducing shopping/baking/grading/wrapping/tying-up-loose-ends extravaganza. Each year, the time sandwiched between breaks seems like too little or not quite enough.

But a few years ago, I cooked up a new dish called Food Lit. Food Lit was inspired by the Navajo Kentuckians, one of the best sessions I’ve ever attended at NCTE . To offer you the Happy Meal version of this session, teachers in two regions educated their students on “good food.” Students learned about topics such as food insecurity, obesity rates, and food integrity. Students grew gardens, educated their communities, and even prepared meals with food they harvested. Some even studied food and nature-centric literature like Mark Twain’s “The Bee.”

After attending this session, I began cultivating an inquiry into food in my own classroom and savoring the delicacy of “between breaks” learning.

One assignment that fires up my students’ brains is the food memory narrative task. You can read more about what we’ve been up to in Food Lit here and from years past, here and here.

Food is such an important, driving force in our lives. We share and create some of our most important stories surrounded by food. It comforts us, nourishes us, and heals us. So far, I haven’t met a student who didn’t have one special dish or fond food memory to look back on.

That’s what the food memory narrative is about.

I first ask students to examine these mentor texts:

Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner from NPR

Memories of Meals Past from The New York Times

Jeruselem: A Love Letter to Food from NPR 

I remind them that they are reading (and listening) to expand their understanding of “good food” but also to read as writers who are sharing their connections to a special dish.

This year, I asked students to share their mentor text noticings in a Google Form. Here’s some of what they came up with:

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What I’ve found is that food is an easy sell with students – it is relatable, its appeal universal, and my students enjoy reflecting on their “memories of meals past.” Here’s an example of how one student made this writing her own:

But the cherry on top? Our Food Lit Family Dinner, the day everyone brings in their favorite, most meaningful dish to share with the class.

Some of the biggest hits this year? Pizelles (or as one student called them: “cookie waffles”), King’s cake (somebody gifted me the baby), “brookies” (a delightful brownie/cookie duo), pepperoni rolls (a unique West Virginia snack and my contribution), tried and true homemade mac and cheese (what’s not to love), and West Indian curry (which you can read about below).

For me, this assignment does at least two things: it encourages a different bite of the narrative apple, and most importantly it continues to build and strengthen classroom culture. And that’s one recipe that can’t go wrong.

What works for you in your classrooms in the weeks between breaks? What activities inspire student writing and build classroom culture? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

-Karla

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Reflecting On the Year’s End

Mentor Text: The Quietus Albums of The Year 2016

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing an Introduction
  • Reflective Writing

Background:

I sat to write this week’s post with an idea in mind. Alas, it seems impossible for me to operate a browser that has but one tab open, so I opened a couple of websites, and took a quick rip through my Twitter feed before I wrote.

And, as happened to so many of us I’m sure, I came across an idea that in the moment seemed more interesting than the one I was planning to use.

See, as December rolls ahead, the end of the year approaches. As a fan of pop culture, and ideas, I get excited because that means the unveiling of a multitude of best of lists. My magazine budget needs a shot in the arm as I grab extra things I don’t normally buy, all because they have some sort of ‘Best of 2016’ list. As well, pretty much everybody with access to the Internet releases their lists. I love them all, even if they make me mad.

A big part of what I love about these lists is that it’s a nice way to reflect on a year. Yes, they’re often crafted well before the year is done. Yes, they’re often biased. Yes, I don’t always have any idea what or who the things in people’s top 10s are, but the reflection is nice. Some of it is written very well too.

So, that made it pretty hard for me to ignore this tweet that popped into my feed.

Yeah, pretty hard for me to ignore that. So I read those paragraphs.

How we might use this text:

Writing an Introduction- My favorite introductions do more than simply explain what follows the introduction. That is actually something that this piece does rather briefly. We know the conceit, so we don’t need a big explanation.

What it does so well, however, is explain what is important about their list. They admit that much of what they include as the best of 2016 is actually music created in 2015. Though this introduction highlights the difficult nature of 2016, it doesn’t do what I think many other Best of 2016 lists will do, and consider this music a response to 2016.

This introduction is, quite simply, a love letter to music. The important (to me anyway) question is asked, “What purpose does music serve in these times? ” This, in my opinion is the focus of the introduction, not a canned packaging of the list to follow. It does so much more than set up a typical ranked list of music curated by the website’s writers, but it makes a case for listening to, engaging with and writing about music going forth.

I love the idea of giving a text like this our writers, and showing them that they can express their love of a piece of media with a level of importance that we know they feel.

Reflective Writing- I’ve alluded to this already, but much of this piece is actually about the year that’s wrapping up, in my mind, so much more than music.It reflects on the year we’ve had: “…before the events that have made this year such a strange, challenging, even traumatic one. The sparks that led to this being one of the best years for albums since we started The Quietus in 2008 ignited before Brexit and Trump, the murder of Jo Cox, the rise in British hate crimes, record-breaking increases in global temperatures, the slide of the pound, the growing sense that we’re teetering on the edge of something very grim indeed.”  This highlights some of the less than awesome things that 2016 has wrought upon us.

As the piece discusses, art is often created in response to the kinds of events of 2016. “In a world that is increasingly sinking into myopic nationalism and putting up borders, music is a vital, universal force that can unite people, open up the channels of understanding that exist even beyond language..” speaks to music’s role in our society. For music fans, this is important. It also acknowledges that, “This is not to say, of course, that we (as some foolishly and dangerously do) subscribe to the belief that a terrible period in history will produce great music.” which looks forward as well. I love that this statement reflects upon society, and our commentary on art, as well as the notion that the bad stuff that is happening is somehow a good thing.

I’m confident that this year’s crop of Best Of lists will inspire another post, but that’s likely going to be about curation and defending choices. Introduction and reflection were key in this piece. I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually looked at the list. All I know is the well laid out, well written truths in the introductory paragraphs were all I needed today.

What are some things you look forward to all year, like my Best Of lists? How do you get students to reflect on a year? Do you make your own Best Of lists?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

On the Power of Choice (Plus a Writing Center Update!)

As you may have noticed from some previous posts, Rebekah’s “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” has been fueling a number of experiments in my classes this year. Another risk I decided to take was to replace a long-running historical narrative project with a new study of informational texts. The results of this experiment have reminded me once again of the power of choice: as Tricia wrote recently, students succeed when they can write about what matters to them.
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From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

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The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

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Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot. Continue reading

Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

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Breaking Rules Like a Pro

Last week I participated in a Twitter chat hosted by @TalksWTeachers and this blog’s creators: @AllisonMarchett and @RebekahODell1. It was a fast-paced flurry of awesome ideas and thought-provoking questions, but one question in particular kept me thinking the next day.  Allison posed the following question:

What do you struggle to teach and how might mentor texts enable that?

I struggle with all kinds of things, but the one that popped into my head first was my struggle to wrestle kids away from formulaic writing. I thought about formulaic writing a lot this summer. In June I was a reader for the AP Language exam and read hundreds of formulaic essays. The brave essays that abandoned tired, overused formats were almost always more engaging to read. Later in the summer I read this lovely take-down of the 5 paragraph “monster” by Kathleen Duddan Rowlands in NCTE’s English Journal. So, when asked the question about struggles, my immediate response was this:

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Okay. If #mentortexts show them that the pros do it, which ones will I use? Time to tackle this struggle. Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Writing With Mentors

 

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This was us one year ago, celebrating Writing With Mentor‘s publication in the world.

It’s been a wonderful year as we watched this book work its way into your hands, spoke to teachers across the country, and led workshops on how mentor texts can change your students’ writing.  And it’s been an exhilarating fall as we watch mentor texts work their way into your classrooms.

 

Thank you for reading – what an honor it is to share with you as we do this work together!