Mentor Text Wednesday: Songs In A Discordant Voice

Mentor Texts: Another Nightmare in America – Cory Branan (listen here)

American Tune – AJJ (listen here)

Writing Techniques:

  • Voice
  • Adopting a persona
  • Writing a protest piece

Background – I’m a music fan. I use music in many ways in my classroom. It matters in my life so it features in my work.

As I was waiting for my vinyl copy of Cory Branan’s fine new album Adios to arrive, I was reading some writing about it. As an English teacher, and fan of the craft of songwriting, I was especially enthralled by a song-by-song breakdown of the album that was featured on NoiseTrade’s website. Branan is one of the finest songwriters working today, and a chance to see him explain where the songs on this album came from was exciting. (Also, on NoiseTrade, you can get a sampler of three songs from the album, including this one. It’s like Costco. Try these, than buy the megapack!)

As I read, there was a link to this video of Branan performing a solo version of the album’s protest song, “Another Nightmare in America.”

As Branan speaks about assuming the voice of a racist cop, a position quite removed from his own life, I knew this would be a great mentor text. In some ways, Branan uses this exercise to express his feelings, whilst also working to attempt to understand that point of view. (This is to say nothing of having a writer give insight into his craft. We should be training our writers to seek this type of thing out!)

Songs sung in character are not new. Heck, as a Springsteen fan, I’ve already used them in the classroom. However, Branan’s song reminded me of another that I’ve brought into the classroom as a protest piece, “American Tune” by AJJ. (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) I paired them as mentor texts this week because each obviously speaks in the voice of a less than savory character, but also because they speak of things that are quite current and relevant in the world our writers live in. Continue reading

“Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword” (or bring along your shrimp puppet): Writerly Wit and Wisdom from a Weekend Book Festival

As Jay said in his last post, the spring is full of Snake Men, stealing classroom time we’re desperate for, and, unfortunately for some of us in the midwest, this spring has also been devoid of sunlight, so I’m feeling like a bit of a nocturnal, cold-blooded creature myself. Thus, I was grateful for a new ray of light in my community, the inaugural UntitledTown (I’m from Green Bay, get it?) Book Festival. Saturday sessions with midwestern writers and the keynote addresses by Sherman Alexie (!!) and Margaret Atwood (!!!) on Sunday night yielded some great tips for writers and teachers of writing that I hope will brighten your day!

  • “Writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”: Wisconsin-based novelist Nickolas Butler (add his Shotgun Lovesongs and The Hearts of Men to your summer reading list!) shared the first chapter of The Hearts of Men at his Saturday reading. (Consider teaching that chapter as a short story; it’s a heartbreaker!) Later, he explained how a pivotal scene in the novel was inspired by a painful moment in his own life. He told the crowd that fictionalizing that difficult moment gave him an opportunity to re-examine the real people involved in it. The experience reminded him that the best characters are rarely all good or all bad; rather, like real people, good characters are complex and complicated. For Butler, “writing fiction is about understanding a character for 360 degrees”; as teachers, our challenge is to understand our students for 360 degrees. Now is a good time to reflect on how much you’ve learned and come to understand about the amazing young people who enter our classrooms each day.

 

  • “Let them write what they want to write and read what they want to read”: When I asked Butler how Wisconsin had influenced his writing, he said that he wouldn’t have become a writer without the encouragement of his Eau Claire librarians and teachers. Growing up, his mother and the local librarians let him read whatever he wanted, and his teachers recognized that he was a “goofy kid” who could write, so they encouraged his gift, enlisting his help in the school newspaper and other projects. Butler encouraged the teachers in the audience to let students “write what they want to write and read what they want to read”; consider the book talks and independent reading work in your classroom author approved!

 

  • What literary analysis and “Rodeo” have in common: When asked about his craft during a panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” Benjamin Percy–an author of thrillers, comic books, and craft texts–cited the work of American composer Aaron Copland. Percy said that Copland’s essay, “How We Listen,” helped him to understand readers’ and writers’ relationships to text. In the essay, Copland describes three planes of listening to music: the sensuous, the expressive, and the musical. Most listeners experience the sensuous plane, the sheer pleasure of music; some listeners enjoy the expressive plane–the “leaning forward,” as Percy described it–that happens when music evokes emotion; and then composers and musicians can listen in the musical plane, where one recognizes music as the product of notes and musical conventions. If you’re reviewing for AP or IB tests this week, consider using Copland’s essay as a crash course in close reading! Percy explained how his MFA classes helped him think about writing on the musical plane, but returning to his favorite books–his first writing teachers–reminded him that readers need “lean forward” moments, invitations to the expressive plane.

 

  • “Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword”: Nickolas Butler joined Benjamin Percy for the panel on “Thrills, Threats, and Tenderness,” and he quoted a favorite book about samurai warriors when sharing advice for writers who are hesitant to place characters in situations of threat or commit to moments they aren’t sure they can write: “‘Once you’ve made the decision, just swing the sword.’ Keep swinging the sword; move confidently.” Butler’s samurai-inspired advice works well for our writers, too. For the past week, I’ve been encouraging my juniors to “swing the sword”–take risks make decisions–as they draft their World Literature Written Assignments for IB English. I’ve been trying to remind them that writing is a means of discovery and we have to keep swinging, keep taking chances and writing into the void, to develop our best work.

 

  • DON’T “lose the word that ends an argument in a moment”: Sherman Alexie, the first keynote speaker of the capstone session of UntitledTown, shared funny and poignant stories from his forthcoming memoir. During his remarks, he talked about Salish, the Spokane language his mother spoke fluently and founded a school to teach, and the space between “living thing” and “sacred thing” where many indigenous languages reside. Alexie seemed to suggest that a language made sacred is revered but risks being lost while a language used for day-to-day living is remembered. Alexie described how his mother and father argued in Salish, but his father could end the argument with a word, one that Alexie never learned and now can’t remember. Think of that, he warned, you lose the word that ends an argument in a moment. Alexie’s yearning for his father’s words makes me wonder what more I can do to inspire awe and appreciation for words in English and other languages.

 

  • “We are art-making beings”: Margaret Atwood, the last speaker of the festival, approached the podium with a plastic hotel laundry bag in hand. With a mischievous, Mary Poppins-like air, she pulled a hat, a plastic folder with her speech, and a shrimp puppet from the bag. The hat was helping her battle our unseasonably cold April weather; the speech would discuss The Handmaid’s Tale’s origins, Gilead’s legacy, and the importance of the humanities; and the shrimp puppet was a stand-in for Handmaid’s scholarly Dr. Peixoto during an imagined Q & A that Atwood performed for the crowd. Near the conclusion of her speech, Atwood declared that the humanities are important because “we are art-making beings”; without art, humans cease to be whole. The puppet show was a clever manifestation of this truth; it offered a completely different glimpse of Atwood, fifteen minutes of creative play that shared more of her personality and skills than the other two parts of her presentation. Atwood’s words inspire me to honor the art-making beings in my classroom, including myself, with more opportunities to do the things that make us whole.

This time of the year leaves many of us feeling like we’re running on empty, so it’s good to remind ourselves of the “lean forward” moments–the wonder and awe–that drew us to our work in the first place. I hope I’ve been able to share some of the wonder of UntitledTown with you, and if you need another helping, remember that great craft talks are often just a YouTube or author website search away. And if those fail to inspire, well, I know where to find a Booker Prize-winner with a shrimp puppet.

Have any favorite author encounters to share? A favorite writing craft podcast or YouTube series? Share your ideas for spring pick-me-ups and ways to celebrate being “art-making beings” on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

Snake Man & The Nature of Time

When I was at Teachers College, we had a professor, Rick MacDonald. He was the chair of the high school program, as well as the Social Studies department. Everybody wound up in his courses at one point or another.

Ours was a small teachers college, made progressively smaller by the fact that I was a member of the last class admitted, and graduated from it. This meant that we had this really cool vibe happening, where about halfway through the program, your professors started treating you more as a colleague than a student. I think it was even more so for my class, as we would be the last.

Rick was a taskmaster. He was that kind of teacher that you feared. You were never late, you avoided skipping, and you made sure you did your best work for him. A super serious dude.

Which made it all the more impactful when he switched to colleague mode. He did it with a story.

He told us about his first year of teaching. He acknowledged his organization, his intense long term planning, and how he began his career that way. His first year was planned out. The whole year. Every single class. When he told us that, we weren’t surprised.

Then, he told us, about three weeks into the school year, the travelling reptile show came to the school for an afternoon. That van of snakes and lizards gave everyone the afternoon out of class, and threw his plans off for the rest of the year.

So Rick gave us a piece of advice that I’ve used throughout my career, and have passed on to many teachers,

“You can’t plan for Snake Man.” Continue reading

Poetry Mentor Text: “Raised by Women”

Poetry Mentor Text-

I love the excitement of a great lesson. The kind of lesson that leaves you slack-jawed and all, “why haven’t I read this/thought of this/done this before?” The kind you know you will immediately take back with confidence to your classroom and to your students because it’s that engaging, that well-designed, that…good.

Recently, I presented at National Writing Project at West Virginia University at their Teachers as Leaders and Writers conference, and while I was thrilled to be there presenting, I was equally excited to be in sessions, learning alongside fellow WV teachers and pre-service teachers at my alma mater. Besides being a sucker for nostalgia, I enjoy being in the student’s seat—to engage with instructors and classmates, to catch my breath from the marathon of the school year. 

The first session that caught my eye was entitled “Writing Poetry in the High School Classroom”, with poet and WVU English teacher Amy Alvarez. My brain went ding! and I found a lucky seat in her session that morning.

In the spirit of great lessons and the ending of National Poetry Month, here is the relevant and thought-provoking activity that Amy, being inspired by Linda Christensen’s lesson and her book Teaching for Joy and Justice, shared with us that day, and how I ended up adapting it to my classroom.

Grab a journal. Talk about being “raised.” Questions you might ask include: What does it mean to “be raised”?  Who were you raised by? What did these individuals, places, or groups contribute, say, or do that helped to “raise” you?

Listen to “Raised by Women” by Affrilachian poet, Kelly Norman Ellis.

Annotate and analyze the poem, paying particular attention to imagery, verbs, and categories.

Share out literary “notices” (like the speaker is powerful and independent and pointing to specific supporting evidence from the poem) and then mentor text “notices” (like the poet uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza).

Make a list of mentor text “noticings” to guide the assignment and writing.

Continue reading

Discovery Writing

The Need for Writing

As I began planning my unit for The Crucible, I reflected upon previous years and noted the nearly complete lack of writing. Traditionally, the unit is taught as a close reading/character analysis unit with a strong focus on allegory and character complexity. However, I wanted to change that. I wanted a unit that would allow for deep and purposeful writing that led to ideas essential to the text. One of those essential ideas is Abigail Williams’s loss of childhood innocence, and my students reflected on this idea through Discovery Writing.

Discovery Writing

The idea of Discovery Writing came from the notion that self-directed writing often leads to personal truths. As learners, we are not looking for universal, capital-T Truth. Instead,

DiscoveryWriting

Students engaged in Discovery Writing

we are looking for personal, and oftentimes conflicting, lower-case-t truths. A great way to illustrate this lies in the difference between denotation and connotation. We are not concerned with Webster’s definition of Childhood Innocence. Instead, we are interested in what Childhood Innocence means to each student; we are interested in how they have come to realize and understand this meaning and what they are going to do with this personal truth.

The Only Rule

Students may only read, write, view, or listen for the entirety of the hour.

The Prompt

Demonstrate what Childhood Innocence means to you.

Continue reading

Voice First: An Argument for Rethinking Priorities for Novice Writers

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

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

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

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

Mentor Text Wednesday: BuzzFeed Poetics

Mentor Text:Which Famous Musician Who Died at the Age of 27 are you?  A BuzzFeed Quiz by Eirean Bradley

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetic form
  • Theme
  • Social commentary
  • Presenting research

Background: I decided to use popular culture as the anchor for the Lit course I’m currently teaching. It’s been going quite well. In my prep work for the course, I searched online for as much pop culture related poetry as I could find. I found this poem, which I’ve already used as the basis for a Poetry and Image Pairing, or a PIP, as we call them in class. However, it had gone into my folder for other purposes as well, a possible mentor text.

I like using mentor texts that are a bit different, and thereby may engage my writers. This piece, based around the ubiquitous BuzzFeed quiz caught my attention, as it allows us to not only play with poetry, but to mess around with something that they’ve no doubt seen online. There’s a nice bit of subversion of this inspiration in the poem that would be a wonderful thing for our writers to pick up on, and use in their writing. Continue reading

Argument in the Wild: Reading & Writing from Media-Rich Texts

The idea that “everything’s an argument” seems almost too obvious these days. After all, talk to almost any adolescent today and it’s clear how aware they are of the ways in which they are constantly being persuaded, whether it’s an editorial from the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, the latest newscast from CNN or The Daily Show, or the pop-up mobile ad for an item students were browsing earlier.

That said, we all know that as tech and media-savvy our Generation Z students seem to be, students may still lack the close reading, analytical skills necessary to understand not just that they are being persuaded, but how that persuasion is happening. And because “everything’s an argument,” the sheer volume of messages can be overwhelming.  Continue reading

Scaffolding Authentic Literary Analysis

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

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

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

What we started with:

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

Borrowed Time

image via borrowedtimeshort.com

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

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

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

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

How we connected the concept of analysis to our reading:

THUG

image via: amazon.com

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

 

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

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

How I scaffolded brainstorming with mentor texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !