3 Ways I Approach Voice & Style with my AP Literature Class

I’d like to formally apologize to my college professors for my “I’m trying to sound smart” papers.

I remember cranking out papers in college that, when looking back, make me shudder with embarrassment. How many attempts at “smart sounding” papers did I diligently and dutifully write while holed up in my tiny room in my tiny apartment, typing away into the wee hours of the night? It’s hard to say. Words like thus and therefore littered my papers and dichotomy and paradoxically kept them company.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of these words. I was just trying on my “academic” and “formal” writing style in college—the descriptors my own students now parrot back to me—because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, or rather, how I was supposed to sound.  

You walk a fine line when teaching a course like AP Literature and Composition because, as I often say, it’s about the test, but it ain’t about the test. Helping students develop their aptitude for handling complex texts, exploring truths of human nature, and embarking on the quest of elegant and creative writing is challenging and deeply rewarding.

And what I’ve learned is that oftentimes my students have the tools for deep, insightful analysis, but clearly and creatively articulating them in writing is where they struggle. And rightly so. It’s a difficult skill to grasp and master.

I’ve also learned that every student who has aced the AP Literature exam is a student who has extraordinary control and command of language. My “fives” are the students who can bend language to their will and capture your attention in a mere 25-30 minutes of drafting.  

Here are a few strategies we use in my class to consistently build our voice and style in writing, so on test day, students feel comfortable and confident in their writer’s skin and focus on both the content and the quality of their writing.

Strategy: Student Blogs

Tricia’s post To Blog or Not to Blog: Blog! beautifully captures the benefits of student blogging. Consider this my ditto and what she said. Blogging gives students license to experiment with and exercise their own authentic voices, and, importantly, it gives them an audience for their voices.

My students write a monthly blog post about a contemporary poem. For the complete assignment, check it out here. Like any other literary analysis, they must discuss the content of the text, the choices of the writer, and what it all all means. The catch is: my students participate in a “blog share” with other AP Lit classes from all over the country. Each month they are responsible for posting their own work, reading the work of others, and commenting on posts from our cooperating classes in other states.

In short here’s what this assignment has afforded my students:

  • Choice in content and approach
  • Creative license in structure and format
  • The opportunity to read their work through the eyes of a living reader
  • Reflection on what works and what does work in their writing and the writing of others
  • Practice narrating ideas, analysis, and arguments in — gasp! —  their  own voices, the way they choose

Because blogging about poetry isn’t nearly as intimidating or daunting as drafting a “controlled analysis with significant insight” in 40 minutes, students see that dialing back the big words and ratcheting up the intention can have an impact on the personality and panache of their writing. 

For examples of student blogs, check out Chocolate Curls, The Inner Workings of Ally’s Mind, Chasing Daisies, and Poetic Thoughts With Matthew.

Giving students a platform to experiment and exercise their voices has been a) meaningful b) effective and c) really fun and rewarding to watch grow.

Strategy: Free Response Texts as Mini Mentors

I admit it. This is wacky. But it works.

My mentor, who taught AP Lang, used to say he wanted his students to “write the quiet beautiful essay about the quiet beautiful essay.” Here’s how I nudge students towards utilizing and transferring this skill…

I introduce free response texts as mentor texts in Notebook Time. Like any other mini mentor text we study, students read like readers and like writers—arguably, the foundation of AP Literature, and then analyze the passage or poem to determine how the writer created the effect he or she did through their craft.

Students then spend time in their notebooks answering an AP style prompt.

But there’s a catch.

As students develop their argument, I ask them to try out one of the writer’s moves in their own writing. So if students notice repetition, they use repetition in their response. If they notice strong connotative language, they assert their claims and evidence with strong connotative language. If students see rich and vivid imagery, they, too, attempt to describe the writer’s approach and their insights using rich and vivid imagery. Of course the upshot is students will have identified moves that they can both implement and discuss.  

It’s no easy task, but in a low stakes writing opportunity, students has have permission to play—and importantly, to wander outside the bounds of more traditional analytical writing.

My goal is to practice this skill enough, so that when it’s game day, my students are bringing these mature reading and writing skills to the exam. I want them to feel comfortable and confident with any passage or poem — knowing that they can read it, interpret it, and borrow from it to guide and inspire their own writing.

If you want to try it out, a good jumping off point comes from a popular, workable passage and prompt that, with a little adjustment of your students’ reading lens, could yield some pretty excellent writing: “Birthday Party” by Katherine Brush from the 2005 AP Literature .

Strategy: Mentor Texts from “the wild”

This is one of my favorite ways to get kids hip to voice. Just last week, I screenshot excerpts of emails from friends and colleagues who manage to breathe life into their professional emails and speak with style from their screen to mine. If you’re a member of Folger Library’s new teacher community Forsooth!, you already have a wealth of voice and style mentor texts at your fingertips in the emails from Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Education Director at Folger. She is so wicked smart and funny, her emails read like you’re hanging out with her.

If you don’t have a whizz bang emailer with strong personality and clear stylistic choices, try Twitter. It’s incredible what effect a (now) 280 character tweet can hold. But if you’re still swinging and missing, try out Amazon reviews. Trust me, some folks make art in their commentary on hygiene products/air compressors/baby gates/down comforters/wifi crockpots/eyeglass cases, and…you get the idea.

The power of this strategy is in question “How does it work?”

Invite students to read the mentors from the wild to determine how voice and style work—to examine what moves communicate the author’s personality and intention to the audience.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t have a clear through line to The Test, but it sure is fun. And it opens one more door for students into considering the impact of their writerly choices, their intention, and the impact of their voice on their writing.

The hope is, by developing and practicing this skill early and often, students are prepared for, yes the AP test, but writing beyond my AP Literature classroom, so one day, when their future selves are cranking out papers in their tiny rooms in their tiny apartments, they will be writing with intention and the goal of making effective, engaging writing.

For other tips and tricks for developing student voice, check out Meagan’s post 3 Moves Towards Better Teaching: Tone and Voice , my post called Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voice, and Kelly Pace’s guest post Do You Hear What I Hear?  Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice. 

How do you help students develop their voice and style? How do you see voice and style fitting into the AP English classroom? 

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

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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. 

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: We Were Liars

ds are the luckiest.

Text: 
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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

 

 

 

Audience:

Later middle school – high school (Perhaps 7-12?)

Book Talk:

Every summer, members of the incredibly wealthy Sinclair family gather on a private island. Everything appears to be perfect — perfect children, perfect relationships, plenty of money. But, of course, you know that things are almost never the way they appear from the outside. This book takes place over two years in Cadence’s life as she tries to piece together what happened two summers ago when she had a mysterious accident and most of her memories were wiped away. What was the cause of the accident? What really happened? And what secrets is this family trying to protect? This book is part Gossip Girl, part mystery, and completely a page turner that will suck you in as you — and Cadence — try to put all the pieces together.

Sentence Study:

“It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.

It does’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.”

This passage can help writers …

  • Use repetition effectively (specifically anaphora, if you want to throw in a fun literary term!)
  • Write using symbols
  • Make a dramatic shift.

Together, the class might notice

  • The repetition of “It doesn’t matter” at the beginning of each sentence.
  • The repetition of the word “desperately” in the last sentence — this kind of repetition feels different than the anaphora of “it doesn’t matter”.
  • The dramatic figurative language — “divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so they hardly beat without a struggle”
  • Symbolism of credit card bills and pill bottles to represent problems and pain within the family.
  • The single-sentence paragraph at the end of this passage that creates a twist

Invite students to try it by saying …

In this passage, Lockhart is describing a family. And certainly we can use these techniques to describe a group of people. But we could use these techniques in any piece of writing where we want to strongly emphasize an idea (using anaphora) and then twist that idea (by using a different kind of repetition, a separate, short paragraph, and a surprise). In your notebook, either devise a new description in which you try these techniques, or, better yet, find a place in your notebook work that could benefit from emphasis and a dramatic twist. Try it out. 

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

Helping Students Think Before They Write

Helping STudents Think Before They Write-2

Have you ever considered how many aphorisms there are for good writing?

Show, don’t tell.
Write what you know.
To write well, read.
First drafts are crap.
Adverbs are the devil.  

And so on.

But there’s one tidy little truth that haunts me over and over and reminds me that my job is not only to teach writing, but to teach thinking. And as you’ve probably heard dozens of times before, “clean writing is clean thinking.”

Or, as I say to my classes: clear writing is clear thinking, interesting writing is interesting thinking, quality writing is quality thinking.

But students struggle to find ideas for their writing. I’m sure you’ve seen the double handed head clutch when it comes time to set pen to paper.

I stress to my students to do their thinking up front. And this is where it comes in handy that I practice writing myself. Whenever I am under a tight deadline, I try to take my own advice. I go wash the dishes or tidy a drawer, I take a walk or make a cup of tea, I prep for dinner or fold a load of laundry. There’s a special writerly magic in freeing your mind enough to happen upon an idea.

When it comes to the students in my class, we talk about our “shower idea” or our “cross-country idea” and how it’s in these moments of tacit boredom and busyness — like food that is both too salty and not salty enough, we find an idea compelling enough to put down on paper. If we’re lucky, we might find an opening line or analogy, or maybe even a vignette we can weave in.  

Another, more reliable way into “clear writing is clear thinking” is conversation. Because most students aren’t quite practiced enough in trusting their instincts and sussing out the good ideas from the bad, having conversations with classmates can generate ideas and illuminate or capture that elusive “thing” they’re trying to say.

Below are five strategies for how you might cultivate conversation in your classrooms to help your students do their thinking up front:

1. Flipgrid

1511892437446There’s a lot of buzz out there about Flipgrid and for good reason. The possibilities of embedding Flipgrid into lessons seem infinite, and although I’m still experimenting, the four or five strategies I have tried — flipping Socratic seminar, reflecting on essential questions, explaining a process, reading a poem or narrative, “free-writing” and riffing on an idea — make this app is worth its weight in gold.

Idea:

Introduce the writing task and purpose, and have students plan, prepare, and record their response to the prompt. Chances are, they’ll sharpen their ideas as they plan, and when they hear the playback of their response (and others), they’ll begin revising. What I like about Flipgrid (besides everything) is how easy and adaptable it is.

2. Voxer

It’s no secret I’mVoxer_Logo_Horizontal a serious Voxer fan. This new-fangled walkie talkie has made a significant impact on my professional life with a nearly ongoing conversation with my PLN fam. But Voxer isn’t just for teachers (or for sending spouses to the store after work). It’s an app that can leverage student conversation, feedback, and reflection.

Idea:

Organize students into focus groups (think teacher PLNs except for students), and have them “brainstorm” or “prewrite” via Voxer. What I like about Voxer is that you speak and listen without interruption, which forces you to process and think about your response before you continue or contribute to a conversation.

3. Tea Party

Yes, I mean an actual, literal tea party. Similar to how boredom is useful for generating ideas, tea parties can kick start even the quietest classroom crowd.

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Idea:

Pre-arrange your room. Think pods, large circle, or banquet style tables. Ask your Family and Consumer Science teacher for a hot water urn, grab some tea (and cookies if you’re feeling crazy), and let students relax a bit. It might help to provide conversation starter cards that scaffold to your prompt or task. What I like about actual tea parties is the opportunity to build community and generate conversation in a low stakes enviornment.

4. Speed Dating

Speed dating is a versatile activity that allows students to “date” books, ideas, and topics. Like the name suggests, students spend only 4-5 minutes exchanging ideas with a partner. When the time is up, students move on to the next “date.”

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Idea:

Have students bring notebooks and brainstorming notes to speed dating, and ask students to talk through their ideas to their conversation partners. Students should treat this as an opportunity to take an idea for a test run, or to walk it around and see how far it will go.

You could challenge students to tell stories for narrative, present claims and evidence for argument, or identify strong textual support for analysis. Like Flipgrid, students will notice the strengths and limitations of their ideas through their explanations. What I like about speed dating is its quick pace and flexibility.

5. Moving to Music

This is a personal favorite. First off, Moving to Music is simple, requires almost zero prep, and is perfectly student centered. Like speed dating, students have an opportunity to test run ideas with partners or small groups, but this time they have a bit more say-so in their groupings.

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Idea:

Hit play on your playlist and have students work the room. When the music stops, give them one part of the writing task or prompt to discuss. Repeat until all parts of the task have been covered. After the last round, provide students with the task in its entirety and have them flash draft.

What I like about Moving to Music is that it gets students up and moving and it frees up the teacher to guide and coach individual groups.

 

How do you cultivate conversation in your classroom? How else can we encourage students to think before they write? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

6 Authentic Alternatives to the Book Report

6 authentic alternatives to the

I have inherited a legacy of book reports.

Every quarter for eons, students in my school have written book reports. And, for whatever reason, parents in my community are rumored to be enamored with book reports — they are somehow a mark of a rigorous writing curriculum. So, while I work on a grand re-education project, I’ve been looking for ways to check this box for parents while doing what’s best for student by providing opportunities for authentic writing experiences.

Why the Book Report Anyway?

Book reports fill an important hole in students’ K-12 writing experiences; it fills a gapQuote (1) between simple comprehension-driven plot summary in the primary grades and literary analysis in high school. They sit in the gap, offering students a chance to recap the plot (thereby verifying their comprehension) with some add-on reader response, getting them closer to the how and why of analysis.

So, what’s wrong with it?

It’s not authentic. You can’t open The Atlantic and find a book report. And if a type of writing doesn’t exist out in the world, it shouldn’t exist in our classrooms.

If writing is going to matter to our students, authenticity has to be our cornerstone.

6 Authentic Alternatives

There are authentic alternatives — texts created by professional writers and thinkers that do more than a mere book report but stop shorts of serious literary analysis. Some require very little actual writing but require the same thinking and rehearsal as a more formal piece of written text. Others require multiple pages of written text. You know what your students are ready for. And you know how to scaffold for them.

Maybe you move from non-written to written responses to literature over the course of the school year? Maybe you create smaller writing groups and assign each one a different product based on their  needs. Perhaps you present all of these as a menu of options they choose from a few times over the course of the year.

Sketchnote

Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Everything, Everything

ds are the luckiest.Today’s snapshot comes from Katie Stuart (@KatieStuart10) who teaches 9th grade English and 11th and 12 grade electives at Windham High School in Windham, NH. She previously taught at Windham Middle School and Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.  She earned her B.A. in English and M.A.T. in Secondary English from the University of New Hampshire.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-27 at 8.51.48 PMText:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Audience:

High School

Book Talk:

Imagine being a teen who is allergic to the world.  Maddy cannot leave her specially designed, air-lock protected house for fear of germs that might kill her. When smart, funny Olly moves in next door, they quickly become intrigued with each other.  This book is written in the style of a diary and is a fast read. 

Sentence Study:

“Then I see him.  He’s tall, lean, and wearing all black: black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely.  He’s white with a pale honey tan and his face is starkly angular.  He jumps down from his perch at the back of the truck and glides across the driveway, moving as if gravity affects him differently than it does the rest of us.”

This Passage Can Help Writers: 

  • Describe a person’s appearance in a way that communicates something about his or her personality
  • Use a colon to introduce a list
  • Vary sentence length
  • Play with repetition

Together, the Class Might Notice …

  • Yoon starts with a short, punchy sentence.
  • The colon is used to introduce a list
  • Each item in the list repeats the adjective that was used in the first clause
  • The third sentence is shorter and contrasts all the “black” in the second sentence
  • The last sentence describes how the person does something, not just how he look
  • The last sentence uses figurative language,  the simile “as if”

Invite Students to Try It By Saying …

There are many times we might describe someone in writing — sure, in fiction like Nicola Yoon. But we might also describe a person when writing a profile, a memoir, a poem, a personal essay. Try on the techniques we noticed here: the colon to introduce a list, the repetition, the description of how, and the figurative language. Use them to try your hand at describing a person who is important to you. It can be anyone you want, a real or fictional person. It could be your dog. See if this mentor text can help you describe a person.

 

Are there other ways you might use this sentence with students? Do you see different techniques worth teaching? Leave us a comment below, join the conversation on Facebook, or connect with me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1. 

Making Hot Takes Cool Again

In an effort to help pry our writers loose from the death grip of formulaic writing, my PLC went out on a limb last year.  We decided to see what would happen if we let the kids cut loose with their argumentative voices and throw caution (and, to some extent, evidence) to the wind.  

I’m talking of course about that most wonderful of all internet prose, The Hot Take.  If you aren’t familiar, the genre basically entails an excessively strong opinion piece about a hot button issue.  And it doesn’t usually entail much else!  It’s an impassioned, evidence-deficient perspective being shouted from some jagged rock of a blog by some bleating, bloviating pundit or opinionated amateur who just doesn’t have time for evidence, dammit, but if you’d only listen to how LOUDLY he’s shouting then you’d understand how right he is!

They’re delightful to read.  A few respectable voices on the internet have even embraced and defended them.  

Whatever your personal opinion of them, they certainly brought our more timid writers out of their shells.  The results were some of the most personalized and impassioned–and organizationally liberated!–writing we’d seen in years. Continue reading

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: A Long Walk to Water

No matter how much we try, none of us can do it all; there simply aren’t enough hours in the classroom. So, whenever possible, I try to double-dip — pulling the learning from one area of our work to another. 

And that’s exactly my aim in this new column. To feed our students’ book love, we need to prepare book talks. We also know that the mentor-text centered sentence study that we do during Notebook Time often provides some of students’ richest writing experiences. This is exactly where I like to do one of my favorite double-dips:  sentence study and book talk in one. 

In this column, I’ll pull sentence studies from young adult and middle grades texts — give you a little book talk, show you the sentence study, and walk you through the way you might use it with students today! Let’s get started! 

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Audience:

Middle grades

Book Talk:

A Long Walk to Water combines fiction and non-fiction to tell two stories in Southern Sudan: the fictional story of Nya, an eleven-year-old in 2008 who must walk for 8-10 hours a day to fetch water for her family,  and the true story of Salva, and eleven-year-old in 1985 who is forced to flee home because of war and violence and walk to Ethiopia. Each chapter shares a part of Nya’s story and a part of Salva’s story. Students like trying to piece together how these two narratives will speak to one another by the end of the book.  A Long Walk to Water tells a simple story but asks big questions: How can we maintain hope and perseverance in the face of the unimaginable? What can one person do to make a difference? What is really needed to live? At it’s heart, it’s a survival story.

Sentence Study: 

I came to this text as the first in our series because A Long Walk to Water is the middle grades selection for the Global Read Aloud this year. Here’s the sentence I worked on with my students:

“There was always so much life around the pond: other people, mostly women and girls, who had come to fill their own containers; many kinds of birds, all flap and twitter and caw; herds of cattle that had been brought to the good grazing by the young boys who looked after them.” 

Continue reading

Teaching From My Twitter Feed: Diction, Syntax, and the Gray Lady

teaching from twitter pic

One of my greatest hopes as a writing teacher is that my students will become conscious of the ways small moves can subtly shift the impact their words have on readers.  Unfortunately, what sounds easy in theory often ends up being cumbersome in the execution.  We discuss the significance of diction and syntax in their writing–one of my favorite mini-lessons is exploring the minefield of connotational problems when choosing synonyms for “beautiful”–but when it comes to closely examining the real impact of tiny moments in writing, I find that our conversations are too few and far between.

When we encounter a particular turn of phrase in a text, we might stop and chat about it, but there’s always something inherently hypothetical about the discussions.  “Why do you THINK this essayist chose such a strong verb?” Or “How would the impact have been different if Coates had chosen THIS phrasing?”  

When it comes to feedback on their own writing, I find such conversations to be far too infrequent as well.  Conferences about small moments and individual moments of phrasing tend to give way to larger-scale concerns like paragraph organization or problematic use of evidence or the like.  

In other words, my kids don’t talk shop about the actual raw power of words and sentences nearly often enough.

Enter Twitter!  Specifically, the fascinating, robotic magic of “Editing the Gray Lady”.  You’ll find this delightfully indifferent twitter feed at  @nyt_diff   . Continue reading

“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading