Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

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image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

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

-Karla

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

 

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

Breaking Mentor Texts into Loose Parts

“What’s a break it box?” Ethan asked, pulling the overflowing black bin from the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. These shelves on wheels serve as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.

“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there are some old wireless modems in there right now.”

“And you’re going to let us break them?” He asked me, incredulously.

“Sure,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. Make something new.”

He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re going to let me rip this stuff apart.”

“How will you know what’s inside unless you break it open?”

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Continue reading

The Fearless Writers

This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.

I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!

I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text! Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiring Mentor Texts

MentorTextWednesday

Mentor Texts:

“Repetition” by Phil Kaye

“In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez

Skill: Seeking inspiration from outside sources

Most discussions about writer’s workshop usually center around two components: mini lessons and conferring. They are the favorite children of workshop. But lately Rebekah and I have been turning our attention to mentor texts.

When students leave us in June, mentor texts will remain as the sole source of instruction for students. Not all of them will be lucky enough to enroll in a workshop-style class complete with conferring and mini-lessons the following year. And in college, aside from office hours, they’re on their own. But they will have mentor texts.

With this in mind, we’ve been looking at how to better teach students how to use mentor texts. Recently Rebekah posted a great chart that uses an if-then structure to enable students to utilize mentor texts. The chart notes that students can gain a lot from reading mentor texts, including finding inspiration. I think this an essential piece–helping students seek inspiration from sources other than themselves.

Throughout the year I carefully plan notebook time, bringing in mini mentor texts that may inspire my students to write, as well as offering them prompts that bubble up from these mentor texts. As the year goes on, however, I remove some of this scaffolding and put the responsibility to find the inspiration on my students.

How I Used Them:

We begin by reading (or viewing, in some cases) the mentor texts twice. Then I ask, “What topics, lines, or patterns do you see here that might inspire some of your own writing?”

Students have listened to me present topics, lines, and patterns throughout the year, so they know what I am asking:

  • topics that are present in the mentor text that might inspire some of their own writing

  • lines that might serve as “jumping off points” for their own work

  • sentence patterns they might “try on”

Below you’ll see the two mentor texts I recently used to inspire student writing, as well as the Topics, Lines, and Patterns my students culled from each one.

Mentor Text: “Repetition” by Phil Kaye

Read the transcript here

Topics

Lines

Patterns

  • words that hurt me

  • divorce, separation, falling outs

  • family stories

  • routines that become dull unless we “live in a way” that allows us to find joy in them (students made a connection to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “An Invitation to Ernest Mann”)

  • “My mother taught me this trick”

  • “You watch the sun set too often, it just becomes 6 PM”

  • “Nothing is forever, she said”

  • “___________ is a cage made of mirrors”

  • “Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor”

  • Using the phrase “even now” to show your present perspective

  • Repeating the word “every” and following it with a specific detail before summarizing what these things mean together

Mentor Text: “In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez

Topics

Lines

Patterns

  • childhood stories

  • poverty stories

  • tricks of the imagination

  • building/making

  • “In childhood, ________ and I…”

  • Last sentence opens with a participial phrase that zooms in on the action, and is followed by a series of four verb phrases that elaborate on the actions

  • Alternating simple and complex sentences

  • Writing a 7 sentence, 8 line poem

When my students leave me, I want them to know how to be a writer, which means, at the most basic of levels, to seek inspiration in everything around you and write into that inspiration.

Which mentor texts inspire writing in your students? Feel free to leave a comment or join us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

– Allison