Also Twitter: A Useful Tool for Teaching Structure

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

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

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

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

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Allison & Rebekah on #CNUSDEdChat

We had the honor of joining CNUSDEdChat last summer when we were in California for their Literary is Everywhere conference! Take a listen!

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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Taming the White Rabbit and Making Time for Talk

Around this time every year, I start channeling my inner white rabbit.  As of today, I have 3 months until my kids will sit for their end-of-course exams.  If you subtract a half week for mid-winter break, a week for spring break, three days for state testing, and another three for a giant field trip that will take two-thirds of my class, I’m left with closer to two months.

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Image Source: giphy.com

 

There’s no way they’ll be ready. We have so much more to do.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly white-rabbity.

I missed Monday because I was out with a sick kid, and there were rumors of a snow day for today (which came true! YAY!), so the five days of teaching I had planned became three.  I stood in my classroom trying to rethink the day’s plan to cram more stuff in, but, luckily, my gut told me to slow down. My kids were *hopefully* heading into a three day weekend. I needed them to leave excited about their new writing projects and ready to spend a little of their snowy Friday writing.

Generating excitement, though, takes time.

This writing piece we’re starting is the most choice-filled thus far. Some of my kids have an idea and are running with it. Many, though, need some help. I decided to scrap the day’s plans and instead do some purposeful talk about our writing.

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5 Reasons Why Analysis Essay & Meeting Your Students Where They Are

saturday well-spent

One tried and true way I choose mentor texts for my students is to strike while inspiration is hot by building assignments from engaging and effective texts that I stumble upon “in the wild.” Like Michael’s series on Teaching From My Twitter Feed, sometimes the best mentors are the ones that find you.

Because it’s nearly impossible to turn off my teacher switch, I knew as I turned the page in my new issue of The New Yorker that I would include Carrie Battan’s “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” as a mentor text in my AP Literature class. My students had been struggling with depth in written analysis, and this text did so many things right, there’s no way it could go wrong.

For some more context and background on why this mentor text, my AP Lit students are whip-smart. They are insightful and curious and down for any activity I plan. They play my reindeer games, if you will. And although they had been making gains in their writing and analysis, I still wanted more—more depth, stronger voice, stronger arguments, more authority.

When I introduced what my students and I have fondly come to call “the Taylor Swift mentor” to my AP Lit students, I saw light bulbs. No matter how often we discussed the hallmarks of mature and sophisticated analysis, it wasn’t until my students got their hands on Battan’s deep dive into Taylor Swift’s new album that they began to understand the finesse of controlled, creative analysis.

We first read this text aloud in class and then pasted each page onto chart paper for group annotations. What I like about collaborative text annotations is the opportunity for students to process together—to exchange noticings and ideas about why the mentor text is…well, the mentor. Because ultimately that’s what it’s about, right? Examining the stitches and seams of the text to get a better, deeper understanding of the writer’s craft.

Here are my students’ major takeaways from “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation”.

Writers of sophisticated analysis…

  • Are conversational but maintain sophistication
  • Seamlessly embed quotations
  • Are intentional about the structure of their argument
  • Pull no punches—defend their analysis even if it is critical
  • Have a purpose and know what they want to communicate to the audience

Now, here’s where the 5 Reasons Why Essay comes in and why I want to stress: you’ve got to meet your kids where they are…

At the time, my students were on the heels of another big paper, at the end of the most demanding novel we’d yet encountered, and we were only a couple weeks out from Thanksgiving break. I knew I wanted my students to have an opportunity to practice what they’d learned from the Taylor Swift mentor, to discuss the novel they’d studied, and to continue to build necessary AP Lit exam skills.

So, 5 Reasons Why Beloved is a Work of Literary Merit was born.

Essentially, I wanted my students to write like Carrie Battan writes about Taylor Swift, but I wanted them to format it like the good folks at Vulture or Paste. So I set out to make “Taylor Swift’s Confessions on “Reputation” our anchor mentor text and  “Every Batman Movie, Ranked” and “5 Reasons Why Jupiter is Weird” our style guide.

Based on my students’ needs and based upon the mentor texts that were most apt, I assigned the following task:

In the style of a pop culture listicle, defend why Beloved by Toni Morrison is a work of literary merit. Students were required to address the following criteria: why the novel is ambiguous, provocative, complex, emotionally challenging, socially challenging.

Admittedly, the listicle style felt like a bit of a risk, but it yielded some of the strongest analysis I’ve seen all year. After having gone on the emotional journey of this novel, and after dedicating ample classroom time to examine the moves of Carrie Battan’s Taylor Swift mentor, and after checking out the “reasons why” listicle style, students were more than ready to write about the literature they’d studied.

Here are a few excerpts of student papers:

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All year we’ve focused on voice, style, and narrating our insights using our authentic voices. This assignment was a reminder that mentor texts are crucial in guiding student writers, but also a crucial reminder that we must meet our students where they are.

How do you determine which mentor texts to include in your instruction? How do you meet students where they are? I’d love to hear from you!

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

 

 

What Time is It? Notebook Time!

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

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

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

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

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

What Changed

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

So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.

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

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

How Notebook Time Works in My Class

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning Writing and Revision Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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Closing the Notebook Time Cycle

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

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Why It Works:

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

Impact & Implications So Far

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

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

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

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

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