The Food Memory Narrative

If you’re anything like me, those few short weeks between fall and winter breaks are nothing short of an anxiety inducing shopping/baking/grading/wrapping/tying-up-loose-ends extravaganza. Each year, the time sandwiched between breaks seems like too little or not quite enough.

But a few years ago, I cooked up a new dish called Food Lit. Food Lit was inspired by the Navajo Kentuckians, one of the best sessions I’ve ever attended at NCTE . To offer you the Happy Meal version of this session, teachers in two regions educated their students on “good food.” Students learned about topics such as food insecurity, obesity rates, and food integrity. Students grew gardens, educated their communities, and even prepared meals with food they harvested. Some even studied food and nature-centric literature like Mark Twain’s “The Bee.”

After attending this session, I began cultivating an inquiry into food in my own classroom and savoring the delicacy of “between breaks” learning.

One assignment that fires up my students’ brains is the food memory narrative task. You can read more about what we’ve been up to in Food Lit here and from years past, here and here.

Food is such an important, driving force in our lives. We share and create some of our most important stories surrounded by food. It comforts us, nourishes us, and heals us. So far, I haven’t met a student who didn’t have one special dish or fond food memory to look back on.

That’s what the food memory narrative is about.

I first ask students to examine these mentor texts:

Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner from NPR

Memories of Meals Past from The New York Times

Jeruselem: A Love Letter to Food from NPR 

I remind them that they are reading (and listening) to expand their understanding of “good food” but also to read as writers who are sharing their connections to a special dish.

This year, I asked students to share their mentor text noticings in a Google Form. Here’s some of what they came up with:

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What I’ve found is that food is an easy sell with students – it is relatable, its appeal universal, and my students enjoy reflecting on their “memories of meals past.” Here’s an example of how one student made this writing her own:

But the cherry on top? Our Food Lit Family Dinner, the day everyone brings in their favorite, most meaningful dish to share with the class.

Some of the biggest hits this year? Pizelles (or as one student called them: “cookie waffles”), King’s cake (somebody gifted me the baby), “brookies” (a delightful brownie/cookie duo), pepperoni rolls (a unique West Virginia snack and my contribution), tried and true homemade mac and cheese (what’s not to love), and West Indian curry (which you can read about below).

For me, this assignment does at least two things: it encourages a different bite of the narrative apple, and most importantly it continues to build and strengthen classroom culture. And that’s one recipe that can’t go wrong.

What works for you in your classrooms in the weeks between breaks? What activities inspire student writing and build classroom culture? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

-Karla

 

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Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy

Today’s guest post comes from Brian Kelley, co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. He teaches at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and produces the podcast “The Classroom,” where he confers with students about writing. you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or at brianjkelley.net.

Mentor Text

Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Judd Apatow

Writing Techniques

  • Developing ideas
  • Identifying mentors

Background

From books to blog posts, writing teachers recognize possibilities for mentor texts everywhere. My radar is up as I look at Instagram, Twitter, and roadside billboards. I listen to podcasts and watch videos not only for pure enjoyment and personalized learning, but also for crumbs to bring into the classroom.

I found a breadcrumb trail worth sharing–mentor texts drawing attention to the act of writers doing writerly things outside of the classroom–where the real prewriting happens.

When Donald Graves wrote about a child’s control of the writing process, a piece of his interest was in what children did away from the classroom. When and where were children in a constant states of composition? Graves knew, in this state of constant composition (thinking of ideas), writers can glow like jack-o-lanterns.

A text in my reading pile, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Lessons about Life and Comedy, filled my writer’s notebook with ideas for focused free writes on our lives outside of the classroom.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-7-08-11-am

Sometimes, students don’t know how to chase their curiosity when an activity, idea, or person absorbs them. Their life outside of the classroom does not always feel welcome or accessible inside the classroom. Our students need the mentor act as much as they need the mentor text. Often, a good first step is our sharing writing of writers doing writerly things outside of a classroom, on their own, because of a relentless curiosity.

Apatow tells comedian Marc Mahon that as a teenager he “used to transcribe Saturday Night Live. I would record it on an audio cassette…I think that I was in some way trying to figure out how to get into that world–how does it work? I wanted to break it down somehow (306).”

I wonder what our kids sink that much curiosity into? I also wonder…why I have never asked? You bet your ass I am asking now.

How we might use this text

I am offering several ideas for focused free writing to help students:

  1. identify ideas absorbing their attention.
  2. develop & write their thinking.
  3. reach out to mentors.

Could our students’ lives and thinking outside of school feel welcome in our classrooms? Could they write for themselves first and not for me? Could what I offer inside the classroom inspire action outside the classroom? Can I help students reach a constant state of composition about an element of joy and curiosity?

Each of the following ideas could be used as focused free writes in isolation or as a series.

Our mind

What is something that absorbs your attention so much that time spent with it is pure joy? Write about it so that you might share that joy with a reader.

When Apatow spoke with the team of Key and Peele, Jordan Peele said:

“…you can take all the classes you want and learn and practice and get all the advice from other people, but it’s really like learning an instrument that never existed until you were born. No one can tell you how to play that instrument. There’s a part of the journey that you have to figure out for yourself” (250).

What do you want in your life that would be worth the journey?

Our heart

What are the challenges of …? an older sister? being an only child? a dancer? being a perfectionist? living with a grandparent? caring for a sick pet? Perhaps Harold Ramis says as much about developing ideas as any mentor text:

“Maybe it would be better to do something you’re actually interested in, like an issue in your life…there’s got to be something going–what are the challenges of being a [fill in the blank] in the world? Start with something that’s important or of interest to you…” (125)

Write about the challenges of any truth you know. Share your truth until a reader owns it too.

Our belly

Seth Rogan began writing the script for Superbad when he was thirteen years old. When asked if he just kept rewriting it over and over again, Rogan said:

“Yeah, for around twelve years. If they made it when we were twelve–I mean it would be pathetic…What’s sad is that a fair amount of the jokes in the movie were in the draft we wrote when we were twelve years old…”(421).

What funny ideas do you have for a movie? What makes you laugh so hard that you feel it deep within? Don’t hold back–share ideas where laughter just pours from you and your friends like water from a jug. The odds are in your favor as a writer–if something makes you laugh, it may make your readers laugh.

Our feet

Apatow notes that mentoring comes from being in a place where you want to learn. As a teen, Apatow interviewed comedians. He went to comedy clubs. He made phone calls. And most often the George Carlins of the world were surprised to see a teenager when they finally met. But every comedian answered Apatow’s questions–and then they encouraged and mentored him.

I asked students to read this quote about Judd’s experiences and apply it to themselves:

“I needed to become one of them. The question was, how to do that? And the answer seemed clear: meet them. Talk to them. Get to know them. Learn their secrets (xii).”

Write about who the “them” is in our lives…who or what is it that we “need to become?” Framed another way, if you did not have to come to school for the next month, but you had to go someplace to learn something, where would you go?

Our soul

How can we create conditions so students feel as though they are in a place deep inside of themselves where they want to learn–bigger than the classroom–bigger than school–a mindset where they want to illuminate the page with writing that is like a grinning, toothy, jack-o-lantern inviting us closer to knock on the doors of their texts?

A good start is, of course, a teacher sharing what is deep inside himself; however, another move is finding other people in the real world (outside mentors) who feel so much love and curiosity for an idea that they share it through writing, sketching, digital mashups, music, and through multiple forms that transfer the glow of an idea to the eyes of a reader.

We can’t let this insight get away, can we? I so often see myself as the mentor, but Apatow pulls the rug out from underneath me. What about the push to bring more mentors into our students’ lives (inside and outside of the classroom) through local connections, writing letters, Google Hangouts, and social media?

Students can only be mentors themselves or get the most from a mentor if they care about what they are doing–if the writing is for them from the beginning–and if they are in a place (inside of themselves) where they want to learn. This is about a state of mind more than any physical space. Student writing does not begin or end by the light of a teacher’s dwindling candle.

Students must touch the flame to their own wicks. Yet teachers, as mentors, encourage that act.

Writers Explore Possibility

thefirstthingToday our school was abuzz with new students arriving for freshman orientation. At certain points in the day I felt like I was fast forwarding through an action movie: students dashed from classroom to classroom at uncomfortable speeds, clutching their schedules, many barely looking up to say hello. Pure relief washed over the face of a new student when he saw me waving his lost schedule in the air. What would he have done without a schedule to tell him where to go and when?

The schedules these students were glued to are stories. Stories other people have written them into. On the first day of school, students are being ushered to classes that (excluding electives) have been chosen for them. They are expected to know what sports they are trying out for, what clubs they want to join, and what electives they want to take. They are expected to “orient” themselves to several fixed points, to discover themselves quickly and painlessly.

This is a lot for a ninth grader. This is a lot for a human!

What can we offer to these students in this first week? What can we offer to these students throughout the year as they continue to be bombarded by fixed curricula and well worn paths?

The writing classroom. It can be an oasis. An escape from the crazy. Because in the writing classroom, students are invited to discover rather than receive, to turn rather than stand still, to explore rather than orient.

I want my students to know immediately that writing is not about right answers, or formulas, or worn paths. Writing is about possibilities. A writer’s purpose is to explore possibility.

Writer's(1)

How writers explore what’s possible in their writing:

Writers explore what’s possible in their writing by practicing writing every day; trying on new ideas, structures, and patterns; and talking with other writers about their thinking and craft.

One way I will introduce this concept to my students:

Notebooks. I want notebooks to be EVERYTHING this year. Like an athletic field on which my student athletes practice and try new formations and fiddle with moves, the notebook is a space where students can capture thinking, emulate mentor sentences, plan out a piece of writing, jot down ideas for future writing projects…the list goes on and on. I figure that THE FIRST THING we present to students says volumes about what is important in our classroom, which is why I plan to introduce the writer’s notebook on the second day of school, and all the rhythms and routines of workshop will spring up from there. My notebook minilesson will include a tour of writers’ notebooks — my own and famous writers’ notebooks I have found images of on the internet — as well as some suggestions for how to organize (or de-organize) the notebook, ideas of what to keep inside, and some notebook work for the day.

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives:

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives by closely examining their lives, by looking forward and backward and noticing patterns across moments; by reflecting on things they’ve seen, experienced, and thought; and by sharing that thinking and writing with others.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Poetry. For many reasons — and especially because Nancie Atwell told me to — I like to start the year with a study of poetry writing. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” What better way to help students understand the power of language than with poetry?

Even more important, I have found that poetry is the best invitation to students to explore their inner lives. So many of our students arrive at our classroom doors at the beginning of the year with the introspection beaten out of them. They have been tested and SOL-ed and standardized more than we’d like to know. And even if they aren’t come from high stakes testing environments, many of them hail from classrooms in which the first person pronoun has not been allowed in their writing.

But the beautiful poems of Greg Orr and Faith Shearin and Jed Chambers and William Stafford can set them free again.

Beginning with a study of poetry can rekindle the same introspection and reflection and care that all genres of writing demand — because writing without an I  — without a thinking, feeling, vested person behind the words — is empty writing.

How writers explore what’s possible in the world:

Writers explore what’s possible in the world by reading actively, trying on others’ ideas for size, and writing into those ideas; by making research a daily practice; by drawing connections with other thinkers and writers.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Noticing ideas too. I’ll admit that I can get carried away by mentor texts. I love mentor texts and what they do for my students’ writing (and mine!) so much that I sometimes skip the important part that comes before the reading like writers: I skip the reading like readers. I jump to the chase after we read a mentor text together: What do you notice? What techniques do you see? Why do you think the writer used that craft? How might you use it in your own writing? And when we skip over reading like readers, we missing something really, really important: the pulsing heart of the piece itself. The ideas. This isn’t good for us as readers, and this isn’t good for us as writers.

Because writers MUST also be readers who think and talk about ideas — about the what — rather than just the how.

I love the how. I love noticing craft moves and naming them and seeing what my students come up with. Out of order adjectives. Whispering parenthesis. Absolutes. Circular structure. I eat craft for breakfast.

But without a what there would be no how. And I want to raise writers who care about the what. So this year, when I teach a lesson on reading like a writer, I will amend the guidelines I typically give to writers:

Reading Like Writers (the old way)

Reading Like Writers (the new way)

  1. Notice something about the craft.
  2. Name is using language that makes sense to you.
  3. Think about why the writer used this craft.
  4. Try it in your own writing.
  1. Find and think or talk about an idea that strikes you.
  2. Notice something about the craft.
  3. Name it using language that makes sense to you.
  4. Think about why the writer used this craft and how it enhances her ideas.
  5. Try some writing yourself on this topic and/or using some of the craft in a piece of writing.

 

Our writing classrooms must be places where students can feel safe trying on ideas, playing with new forms, and exploring what they may or may not think. I believe that what happens in the notebook is directly linked to what happens in the brain and the heart. And I want to nurture students with open minds, open notes, open hearts.

-Allison

How can you facilitate exploration in your writing classroom? How can you invite students to explore, discover, uncover their ideas, their preferences, their opinions? How can you help show them the possibilities?

 

A Writer’s Secret Weapon

“I don’t know what to write about.”

As a teacher and writer with “so many ideas and so little time,” I find this common student response troubling. But when I pause to reflect on why students might be uninspired or why they have difficulty finding ideas, I realize that, in some cases, it’s because they haven’t been taught how–or worse, many of them have actually been force-fed ideas, forms, sentences, everything, in the past.

While professional writers do sometimes write on demand (job interviews, article deadlines) or to a specific prompt (“Hey you, cover the rally downtown today…”), writing seems to emerge from a place far more natural and common…from experience.

Writers experience moments and write into those moments.

Continue reading