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

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Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
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Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

 

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading

Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading

Anthologies for Ending a Year

 

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The cover of Kristen’s anthology

The beauty of Jay’s Mentor Text Wednesday posts is that they give us an instant idea — something to take back into our classrooms immediately, something to tinker with and fit to our students’ needs, and something to expand the way we think about mentor texts and the possibilities for our students’ writing.

It’s easy to read educational blogs, feel the wave of inspiration, and quickly forget it in the sea of swirling lesson plans. I always mean to remember them, but I don’t. (Jay had a smart idea to write inspiration from blog posts in his notebook! So simple but clever for remembering all of the wonderful things that we read! )  

However, knowing my tendency to forget all of the brilliant ideas I read, I grabbed a Post-It as soon as I read Jay’s post about having students write anthology introductions and taped a note to my desk so that I wouldn’t forget.  I knew this would be the way I would end my year with my senior English students:

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My Assignment

I wanted my anthology assignment to do two things: to review my students for their upcoming IB exam (on which they would have to respond to a question with an essay on 2 of the 40 poems we studied this semester) and to review their ability to use mentor texts with independence.

To that end, my students chose 8 focus poems — two from each poet we studied. The criteria for choosing poems was their own; some students chose their favorite poems, some students chose strategically by aiming for a variety of poetic techniques. The students typed each poem (No cutting and pasting! I wanted them to get the poems into their fingers!) To that, they added an introduction.

Now, as Jay’s post shows and as my experience has borne out, an anthology introduction can mean a lot of things. Some are very academic and dry. Others are whimsical, so cooky that it is almost difficult to see the connection between the introduction and the texts that wait inside. The best introductions are works of art themselves, as beautifully crafted as the literature featured in the anthology.

Typically, we read mentor texts together as a class, debrief together by creating lists of techniques that students might want to use in their own pieces. But not this time.Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.52.18 PM

This time, I set them free. I provided students with the three excellent mentor texts that Jay linked to in his original post. I also set out a stack of anthologies that I found on my bookshelf. And I told my students to figure it out. They needed figure out what anthology introductions might include, what tone they might take, and what kind of introduction they wanted to create.

And better than any review packet I could provide for them, the anthology assignment required the highest order of thinking, serious written synthesis of poetry that might otherwise have no apparent link.

The Outcome

Students demonstrated the writerly voices they discovered and developed over the year.

One of the things that delighted me most about my students’ products was that I could have picked each one out of a lineup and matched it with its author. Each one showcased a unique voice and writerly perspective.

Mike, an avowed hater of all poetry ever, showed his wry humor and earnest change of heart:

Mike

Ken, who is just silly, was silly in his introduction:

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Garrett’s was characteristically  heartfelt, thoughtful, and sincere:

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And students really thought about poetry: how poems connect to other poems …

From Claire:Claire

From Kate: Kate

From Emma:

Emma B…and how poems connect to their own lives. 

From Franny: Franny

From Katie: Katie

From Kristen:

Kristen

Even at the end of the year, even in the throes of of deep, dark senioritis, anthology introductions helped students make connections that will matter far beyond their exam and into the rest of their lives.

Other Options for Using Anthologies

While I used this anthology assignment to review for a high-stakes, end-of-year exam, you could use this in any situation in which you want students to synthesize understandings from an array of texts. Maybe …

  • An anthology of most significant passages from a whole-class text – This could be a great wrap-up to end a literature study. Maybe your students have read The Catcher in the Rye. What did they learn? What was meaningful to them? Have them select their favorite passages from the text and write an introduction reflecting upon their significance.
  • An anthology of favorite mentor texts — This is one I’m dying to try. Which mentor texts have made the biggest difference in shaping your students as writers? Have them collect the most important mentor texts of the year and introduce the ways that they have influenced, instructed, and inspired their writing.
  • An anthology of passages from independent reading — What an interesting way to assess independent reading?  Have students select favorite passages from the semester (or the whole year!) and then write an introduction. They might consider what the pieces have in common, what these passages say about them as a reader, why the passages move them.

Can you envision having your students play editor and compile anthologies? In what ways might you put this Mentor Text Wednesday into action? Let me know on Twitter @rebekahodell1, on Facebook, or in the comments below!

Coaching the Overwhelmed Writer

I stumbled upon Austin Kleon’s work a few years ago while struggling to support writers through the process of creative theft. They were working on fan fiction, and many of them were having a hard time distinguishing stealing with integrity from…..well….simply stealing.

Over the years, I’ve come to view plagiarism as something of a developmental phase, so when I encounter it in my work with students, I try to work them through it and beyond it by providing specific strategies. This is how I fell in love with Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here, he shares a list of ten things he wished he had learned when he was starting out:

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On Teaching a Genre You Know Nothing About (or: an Infographic Study!)

Sometimes, no matter how good our routine, we need to shake it up. This is true in exercise; our muscles and our minds need to be surprised occasionally with a new move in order to achieve maximum results. It’s also true in writing.  And it’s true in teaching. Sometimes the very thing we need to wake up and recharge our teacher brain is to try something new, experimental, and a little bit unknown.

When my seniors recently finished studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen, none of us could face another essay, no matter how authentic or rooted in the real world of writing. They needed something else — something to re-ignite their brains, something to force new synapses to fire, something to nudge them to view literature with fresh eyes.

So, rather than writing a big paper, I assigned a genre I had never taught and knew little about — infographics!

There are so many good reasons to try infographics — they are beautiful, accessible, offer great opportunities for collaborative work, access different parts of our students’ brains. Best of all, infographic are a very authentic product of real world design and writing. As my students said, “Oh, these are everywhere!”  And they are! Open up a new tab, search “Infographics”, and you’ll see oodles.

But this was pretty terrifying to me. I am neither artistic nor extremely visual. I have no graphic design experience, and although I can tell you when an infographic is attractive and clear, I don’t really know how to define those things or tell students how to achieve them. Allison has bravely taught infographics before, so I relied heavily on her wisdom and pep talks to get me through.

Even with Allison’s help and advice, I was still nervous. Nervous like I used to be before every writing study. Nervous like I used to be before I even jumped into writing workshop — what if students asked me questions I couldn’t answer? What if I couldn’t help them? What if the products were disastrous?

Here’s what I decided: to approach the study with honesty and optimism. I confessed to my students that I didn’t know a lot about creating infographics, but we would figure it out together.

The Assignment
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Books That Move Us: Reading Projects Reimagined (Dan Feigelson)

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You know how the greats always make it look easy? This is the way I feel whenever I get to listen to Katie Ray or Tom Newkirk — they say something clear and simple and beautiful and even common sense, but it absolutely rocks my world.

So it was when I read Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined (Heinemann 2015). After hearing Feigelson speak at NCTE about “revising” reading and his “quick and dirty reading projects”, I knew I had found a strategy for my second semester literature focus. And, quite possibly, a road into student writing about literature. And after digging into the book over winter break, my teaching world was rocked by the book’s simplicity and brilliance.

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Fear not — Feigelson’s “reading projects” are not rendered on poster board or as dioramas (which was my initial fear upon reading the title). It is so much more intuitive and authentic than that.  A reading project is simply a written record of  “what the student wants to think about”. And as we encourage students to pursue those lines of thought, we make them “co-conspirators in their own comprehension.”

Why haven’t I already thought of this?

Feigelson presents a simple three-step process: Continue reading

A Podcasting Study: Podcasts as Mentor Text & More!

What a happy, exciting day it is here at Moving Writers! We’d like to introduce you to our friend and newest regular writer, Stefanie Jochman. 

Like so many great relationships of our day, we met Stefanie on Twitter. The connection was immediate. She’s a gifted writing teacher, an experimenter, an innovator, and we are thrilled to have her join our team. 

Here is the first part of her first post – a study of podcasting that has me so excited that I am going to try to replicate it in my classroom immediately! 

Help us welcome Stefanie by leaving her a comment below or sending her a Tweet @MsJochman. 

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Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.22.31 PMThe walks I take around my apartment complex are my best opportunities to think, and, embarrassingly often, I can’t keep those thoughts inside. Take, for example, one “eureka!” moment on a spring afternoon: as I rounded a familiar corner near some retirement condos, I whisper-shouted “YES!” and threw my hands up in the air. There I was again, that eccentric neighbor in her giant St. Norbert College sweatshirt, talking to herself.

The catalyst for my excitement was a discussion of the Matt Damon sci-fi film Elysium and director Neill Blomkamp’s earlier film, District 9, on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. As Linda Holmes, the podcast’s moderator, and other panelists dissected Blomkamp’s films, they analyzed the effect of artistic choices, demonstrated knowledge and understanding of an artist’s work, and used the language of the artist’s genre to explain their thinking; in short, the Pop Culture Happy Hour team was conducting its own IB English Individual Oral Commentary (IOC) discussion.

The Individual Oral Commentary and Discussion is one of four official assessments in the IB literature curriculum. For the first part of this twenty-minute, recorded assessment, students must deliver an oral analysis of a poem; for the second half, the student and teacher discuss a prose work studied during one semester.

Since seeing Allison and Rebekah’s presentation at NCTE 2014, I was hungry for opportunities to link my students’ work in the classroom to the real world. Aside from listening to students’ recorded practices with partners, I hadn’t figured out a way to authentically assess the skills students would need for the discussion portion of the IOC, and I was dissatisfied by the way those practices stayed stuck inside the vacuum of the discipline. The conversations students had in those practices belonged only in my classroom. Cue my “eureka” moment: Pop Culture Happy Hour could be a mentor “text” for the IOC, and students could create their own podcasts to practice their literary discussion skills!

My podcast epiphany arrived too late for me to share it with last year’s seniors, but that meant I had plenty of time to let the idea “marinate” before introducing it to my current seniors. I decided to make the podcast project the final assessment for my seniors’ study of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel full of ambiguity that is ripe for discussion and interpretation. Here’s how it worked: Continue reading

Conferring With Writers to Learn What We Don’t Know

Uh oh… My stomach sank, and I could feel the gears inside my head turn on and begin whirring, trying to catch up. Trying to think of the answer. The right answer. Or a good answer. Or any answer.

This right here — this is the risk we run when we commit to conferring with our student writers. They might just stump us with their need-of-the-moment, and we might be stuck in this slightly dizzying improv space as we mentally thumb through every professional book we have ever read, every piece we have ever written, every anecdote we’ve ever been told in search of a solution. This is why conferring was my last hold-out in running a true writing workshop. I was terrified of the unknown.

Zach's BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/zshumate/15-best-football-celebrations-of-all-time-1yhj4#.ud4m2vOVl

Zach’s BuzzFeed List, which has had over 10,000 views! You can see his list live on BuzzFeed here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/zshumate/15-best-football-celebrations-of-all-time-1yhj4#.ud4m2vOVl

There had been many of these moments in this workshop. Trying to do something new — branching out into more digital writing — I chose to have students study and write BuzzFeed lists. Anyone can publish to BuzzFeed, and the idea of a student’s list going viral was exciting and motivating. Surely, all of my students read BuzzFeed lists all of the time and will think I am amazingly cool, I reasoned.

Not so much.

Only a handful of my ninth graders had ever seen a BuzzFeed list, and I quickly realized that I was not as prepared to teach them as I thought I was. I had not considered the many decisions that a writer needs to make when publishing one of these lists.   Continue reading