InstaPoetry: a Unit of Writing Study with Resources

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Recently, I was wandering around a Target while my daughter was at Girl Scouts, and I was amazed to find six (six!) collections of poetry in the book section! Poetry! At Target! I was so moved that I took a picture and Tweeted,

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I suppose what moves me is that I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are at an unprecedented moment of social and political unrest and uprising (and renewal?) in this country and suddenly Rupi Kaur is a New York Times bestselling poet and collections of poetry are for sale to the masses at Target.

It seems poetry has gone mainstream, at least in part, because we constantly swim in a current of excess language. There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that it’s time to pare down. To distill talk until it’s just truth.

Poetry has been a bit out of vogue in education over the last few years. At least in Virginia, poetry is not longer found on state tests. So unless students take an AP or IB literature course, reading poetry has been largely erased from most classrooms. After all, why invest valuable instructional time on a cognitively challenging genre on which students won’t be tested?

Of course, we all know better. Of course, we must do better.

Rupi Kaur , r.h.sin, Amanda Lovelace, and the other poets whose collections can be purchased at airport newspaper stands write in sound bytes and Instagram posts. Their poems can often feel more like an inspirational coffee mug than classic verse. And while I don’t think that Cyrus Parker should replace Seamus Heaney, Instagram poets can open the gate for our students into a bigger world of reading and writing poetry.

So, why not create a unit of study around Instapoets — reading them, analyzing their writing, contemplating what makes them so popular, and then creating our own (hopefully viral) Instapoems.

A Unit Map:

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Possible Subtitles

Mentor Text: Possible Subtitles by Mari Andrew

Subtitles

Techniques:

  • Memoir
  • Analyzing Rhetoric
  • Explaining a quote
  • Pre-writing

Background: If you’re a member of the Moving Writers community, then the work of Mari Andrew is familiar. We’re all big fans, and have been using her work in our classrooms. We’re all probably buying her book this week too. There is something so powerful and real in the honesty and openness that she puts into the pieces that she shares on Twitter and Instagram. They’re wonderfully accessible and inspiring for students, making them some of our favorite Mentor Texts.

Last week, I stole a few phone moments while I waited for my family. As is generally the case when a Mari Andrew post comes across my screen, I flagged it for future use. As I often do, I retweeted the post. (Usually under my #nowherenearmynotebook tag.) As I wrote an accompanying tweet, I realized how versatile this particular image was.

That’s the very best thing about a mentor text, or really anything that we can bring into our classroom – the ability to use it in more than one way with your students. A really good mentor text is versatile, and can be used in a variety of ways. Mari Andrew’s pieces are like that. I’ve used many of them as prompts for memoir writing, but I’ve also used them to explore vocabulary, or as inspirations for other writing pieces. I love using her pieces, because there is a simplicity and accessibility in her work. As I work to encourage students to express themselves visually, her work is an example of how it can look, and that it doesn’t need to be perfect, and that honesty is actually more important than skill. It’s nice putting a piece of art in front of a student, and having confidence they can easily do a version of their own. Continue reading

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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Success Through Structure

In January, during Moving Writers’ series on testing, I wrote about structuring a class when there’s that external test to consider. I really like having a structure. It’s nice to have touchstones and routines to ground things so you can go and explore the things that come up as you go.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing course. We’re almost done, as I’m only teaching them for a term, but the structure has been key to the successes we’ve had. I tweeted a piece earlier this week, and it got a lot of likes and retweets. Rebekah suggested it become a post, so here we are.

At the outset of the course, I had, of course, a plan in my notebook for the structure. However, knowing that there were students who had chosen the course to grow as writers, I made sure that we had an open discussion about goals. I asked what forms we wanted to work on, and how much freedom we wanted. In a great moment of serendipity, their input aligned quite closely with what I had on paper. Continue reading

Leaning into Difficult Topics: Toward an Informed Stance

After the Parkland school shooting in February, we witnessed something tangible shift in our discourse about school safety and gun regulation.

Nationally, we saw and still see young people like the Parkland student survivors stand up and make their voices heard, including the CNN sponsored town hall with Florida politicians and a coordinated student-led walkout on March 14 in schools across the country. With the increased attention to issues related to gun control and gun rights, we’ve also seen some (though not enough) discourse around the history of activism among students of color regarding school safety and gun reform.  And this weekend, millions are expected to gather for March for Our Lives events around the country to advocate for gun reform.

But something shifted, too, among my students. All politics is local, and the fears and challenges that have increased in the wake of the Parkland shooting has become personal for many of my students. In fact, shortly after the shooting, several of my own students asked me to sponsor a new club, Students Against Gun Violence. They hope to not just increase awareness through greater education on gun control issues, but to also advocate for change that will keep students safe in schools. They want change, and inspired by their fellow young people at Parkland and across the country, they don’t want to wait for the change to happen—they want to do something.

Yet in my actual classes, students didn’t bring up Parkland and many seemed content to go on with class, business as usual. But as a teacher, it seemed strange to continue with the lesson of the day with so much happening in the world affecting our students’ lives. Perhaps it was me: maybe students feel comfortable with me leading us through these messy conversations. I know the routine and ritual of school can also be comforting for kids. Or perhaps it was a lack of awareness or disinterest. But no, I knew that wasn’t true. You could hear their conversations in the hallways, on social media, and in the library. Students were already talking about these issues, which made me wonder: How? Who was leading them through these difficult conversations? If school is any kind of reflection of the outside world, I wondered, how many of their conversations included multiple perspectives? How critical was their media consumption? How were they processing the endless stream of noise? How were they distinguishing the shouting from the dialogue? Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up.  Continue reading

A Micro Writing Unit: Picket Signs

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7th graders’ peaceful protest down the halls on Friday.

Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry.  Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 3.37.20 PMBut when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.

Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.

Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles.  I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.

In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.

Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.

Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)

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Puzzling Through a Movement

One of the reasons I love eduTwitter and the friends I’ve made here on Moving Writers is because it makes me feel less like I’m on my own teaching island. The other day, I tweeted a question about a resource for evaluating bias, and Tricia responded that she was looking at the same site with her students. Then, as I started to piece together the ideas for this post, I read Mike’s latest and realized he, too, was grappling with very similar issues.

Now, with an event as staggering as Parkland and its fallout, it’s no surprise that teachers are on the same wavelength. This time feels different, though.  And I know we’ve heard that so many times it almost seems trite. But I don’t just mean that it feels different from a political standpoint. Maybe it’s the students and how crazy-proud we are of their activism, but teachers this time seem to be digging deeper into our literacy practices.

In Mike’s post, he makes the case for reading like a writer to analyze angles to help students process modern news cycles. My thinking stemmed from a very similar goal, but also from the way that I stumbled through a (somewhat) failed lesson.  

My failed lesson

I presented my students with several articles following the Parkland shooting and asked them to sort the articles. I assumed they’d sort them on a range of opinions: left to right slant, pro-legislation restricting access to guns and against. I was wrong. They had trouble sorting because, many times, they weren’t even recognizing that the article conveyed an opinion. They fumbled through headlines and quotes and graphics, and I stumbled my way through helping them make some sense of what they were reading.

As they finished sorting, we took a look at what they’d come up with. One group sorted their articles by the ideas that each author focused on (gun control legislation, arming teachers, Parkland students as activists) while another group sorted the articles into those that seemed to be persuasive vs. informative in nature. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to land where I’d hoped they would, so I tried to claw towards a takeaway.

Puzzle ReadingWe ended up agreeing that, when we’re trying to process an issue as big as this one, there’s a lot that we have to think about as readers. When we encounter a text, we have to approach it with the understanding that it’s just one piece of a puzzle.  In order to start putting together the puzzle, we have to work to understand the ideas presented, the author’s opinions, and the purpose for the text we’re reading.

Backing up

The next day, we revisited this puzzle concept, and we zeroed in on how to start understanding the authors’ opinions. So, we put on our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses, and I asked students to revisit one of the articles from yesterday in order to start answering the question:

When do we see clues that the author’s opinion is showing through?

The conversation started off fuzzy. They said things like, “I don’t know. It just sounds like she’s got somethin’ to say.” So we drilled into that. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Love Letter to Saga

Mentor Text: A Love Letter to Saga by Laura Sackton (via BookRiot)

Strategies:

  • Lit appreciation
  • Media Appreciation
  • Review
  • Criticism

 

Background: Teaching English the way so many of us do winds up highlighting so many great dichotomies that exist in that practice. Write with passion, yet realize that you must do this within constraints sometimes. Read poetry with your heart, but be ready to subject it to an autopsy.

Enjoy and appreciate literature, even though we’re going to attach academic tasks to the reading.

That’s the one that hits me the hardest, and it’s where I see this week’s offering of a mentor text being a good resource. Having students write to a beloved text should prove to be an engaging act of literary appreciation.

 

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Book One of Saga via amazon.com

As you likely already know, Book Riot is a great source for writing about all kinds of books. I especially enjoy their features on genres such as sci-fi and comics. This specific piece reminded me of a particular series, Saga, which I haven’t read in a while, and now need to carve out some time for.

 

It is the way that this piece is written, as a love letter to that comic, that makes it such a great mentor text. Continue reading