Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

Continue reading

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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 !

Teaching Each Instead of All

Differentiation: It’s one of those words that all teachers seem to use, but I wonder how many of us really feel confident doing well. When I went through my teacher prep program in undergrad, I thought I had it. Then, when I got asked in interviews about differentiation (and, let’s be honest, we’ve all answered those questions in interviews) I thought I nailed it. I talked about offering opportunities for multiple types of learners. I’d mix visual representations with auditory. And, what I thought was most impressive, I’d give the kids some chances to move around with some especially creative lessons that I peppered in. I thought I had this differentiation thing figured out and was ready for anything.

I know, I know. You can practically hear the sound of music screeching to a halt like in scenes from 90s movies where the parents get home and bust up the house party. I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t have it. The reality of a real-world classroom with a diverse range of learners set in. Some of my students were carrying around Jane Austen while others didn’t want to move beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Some wrote beautifully crafted prose while others struggled to remember where end punctuation goes.

differentiation

Image via: someecards.com

How could I be fair and reach all my learners? And why on Earth weren’t my carefully prepared, creative lessons helping? It seemed like all the hard work and time I put into developing these lessons was wasted because I never felt like they were reaching all of my kids.

And that’s where, I’ve learned, my mistake was: I was thinking in terms of all of my kids, when I should have been trying to teach each of my kids. The main difference between these two mindsets is grammar; “all” is plural whereas “each” refers to students singularly. Instead of trying to plan perfect lessons that reach all of my students at once, I’ve realized that I need to plan lessons with enough flexibility to adapt for each learner. Continue reading

No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: Continue reading

A New Approach to Finding Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

In our 9th grade Reading Writing Workshop, most writing studies are genre-based. Occasionally, we center our writing studies around a writing technique. But in my 12th grade IB English class, things are a little different. We still use a workshop approach to writing — we move through writing processes in different ways and at different paces, we make small-and-steady progress, we learn skills together, and we still use mentor texts to guide and inspire our writing.

In this class, though, the four IB assessments — both written and oral — focus on the analysis of literature. And, so, I shift my practice in this class out of necessity and out of the best interest of my students who are working hard to earn college credit.  

goldenMy students need consistent practice writing about literature. But I still want their writing to be authentic — to look like what real writers do. And I still want their writing to be guided by their passions.

Finding Writers’ Passion about  Shakespeare

So, after our study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, students spent a few days jotting in their notebooks and chatting in small groups about the elements of the play that interested them, that excited them, that made them want to know more. While they no doubt sensed that we were working our way toward a piece of writing (they are on to me!), we didn’t say the word “writing” or “paper” or “essay” or “analysis”. We started from a place of curiosity.

If this sounds vague, it was! I wanted my instructions to be big and broad — and I wanted students to interpret them in as many different ways as they could. My fear here was limiting them or ramping up their natural writing anxiety to the point that they chose the first,easiest idea that came to mind.

They were already a bit primed for this task as they had just finished writing a piece of “wholehearted analysis” — analysis of anything they wanted. We had already walked together down the road of identifying our passions and using our expertise to lend authority to a piece of analytical writing. What I hoped to do here was extend that authority and enthusiasm into a piece of literary analysis

Finding Mentor Texts to Support Authentic Writing About Shakespeare

After students whittled their lists down and started to find a focus, they needed some mentor texts to help bridge the gap between their vague clouds of ideas and the necessary gathering of information that leads us into drafting.  

Not knowing what their particular passions were, but wanting to convince them that this, too, would be a piece of real and authentic writing,  I gathered a different kind of mentor text into my cluster. Instead of finding a bunch of pieces of writing about literature in a specific genre, I searched for pieces of real-world analysis specifically on Shakespeare.  

What do real writers write about Shakespeare in the 21st century? After just half-a-planning-period searching, here’s what I found:

Mentor Texts for Wholehearted Analysis of Shakespeare

Close Reading of a Passage: “By Heart: Shakespeare – One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Moves on Another Text”: “How Shakespeare Would Have Ended Breaking Bad”

Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy: “What Was Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy”

Analysis of a Character: Hamlet Was a Bro Who Didn’t Even Like Sex”

Review of a production: Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral

and Atmospheric ; Review: ‘Twelfth Night,’ Anything Goes in Love and

Shakespeare

Tracking a motif / symbol  through the play: 50 Shades Of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code

Tracking a trend in Shakespeare’s Language: Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds

Studying Mentor Texts for Analysis of Shakespeare

Together, we read the mentor texts and made sure they had the essential elements of analysis — a claim, reasons and evidence, a logical structure, authority, passion, and a real audience. This served as a helpful reminder to students of the elements their piece must have to be considered literary analysis, too.

Studying these mentor texts helped students refine their ideas — firming them up, erasing them completely, replacing them with stronger ideas. Many students wrote pieces that bore no topic resemblance to the mentor texts studied. Still, students used the mentor text for ideas about kinds evidence to include, what tone to strike, how to engage readers while retaining intellectual authority.  

Give it a whirl!

I feel certain your students write about literature! Give it a try  — spend a few minutes searching for writing about the author your students are studying. What do real writers write today about Salinger? About Hawthorne? About Conrad? About Dickinson?

I bet you’ll find some things that surprise you!

And then think about how this will fling wide the opportunities for your students to write literary analysis that not only matters to them but might also possibly matter to real readers.

What authors do your students study? How might your students find areas of passion even between the covers of the literature you teach? Find me on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1), on Facebook, or leave us a comment below!

Tiny Writing: Boosting Opportunities for Frequent Student Publication

I love swimming in writing studies for weeks at a time with my students — immersing ourselves in mentor texts, gathering information, writing off the page, talking out our ideas, drafting, revising. But when the average writing study lasts 3-5 weeks, it’s hard to keep the momentum and excitement of seeing a piece through to completion. Last year, I dabbled with mini writing units between big genre studies, like writing our own Buzzfeed lists. But this year, I’m getting even smaller as I find ways to support tiny writing publication.

Inspired by Allison’s post last year about finding time in workshop by extending notebook time through a 5-day week, I have been using extended notebook times as opportunities for tiny writing studies.  Before I tell you about what we have written, let me tell you why this works:

  • We can be working on meaningful, publishable writing while we simultaneously work on our literature study.
  • I am using time already set aside in my class.
  • We can continuously ride the wave of publication — through big genre studies and though low-stakes tiny writing studies.
  • I can experiment with pieces of writing in my classroom that normally wouldn’t make the genre study cut because of other demands.
  • Students are getting more practice reading like writers & more exposure to the real world of writers.

Tiny Writing Study Logistics

For a tiny writing study, I use my regularly scheduled notebook time — the first 5-7 minutes of class when we play, explore, and discover in our notebooks. (If you want to know more about all the ways we use this time, we dedicate an entire chapter to it in Writing With Mentors, and you can check out our session on notebook time at last spring’s EdCollab Gathering.) Each day, we build on and expand our writing.  By the end of our fifth class period, we have a piece of writing that is ready to publish.

Day 1  – Introduction & Mentor Text Immersion

On day 1, I direct students to a slew of mentor texts and ask them to skim, scan, and look around for 5-7 minutes to get a sense of the genre. I don’t specify which mentor texts they should look at because I want there to be variety. This will help make our noticings more thoroughly developed tomorrow.

Day 2 – Noticings

Next, I grab a marker and we make a list of our noticings on the board. How is this thing made? What is it composed of? What will they need to do to create something in kind?

Students have been learning how to make noticings since the very first week of school. This is  awesome practice as they continue to practice and refine their reading-like-a-writer skills.

Students copy this list of noticings into their notebooks so that they have them as we work throughout the week.

Day 3 – Try one

In most cases, I reserve the middle day for trying — writing their own version of the mentor.

This often extends into homework. For example, when we did a “Humans of …” series, students needed to actually interview and photograph people outside of class. So students used  the “Try One” class period to brainstorm and share interview questions. When we wrote haikus, students tried their hand at writing a few during notebook time, but then they selected their favorite for homework.

Day 4 – Revise

On the fourth day of a tiny writing study, we share and then revise. We keep the task of revision simple: make your writing better.

Day 5 – Publication

We keep publication simple, too. Publication simply means “going public” and sharing our work in some way. But you don’t need to have a big author’s celebration every time. Here are some simple ways we publish:

  • Read-arounds
  • Jotting favorite bits and golden lines on the white board for all to see
  • Compiling a whole-class slideshow of writing
  • Tweeting out our writing.

It is so easy for me to make publication an after-thought — a nice-to-do but not necessary. What I forget is that this is the step that takes my kids from students to real writers. This is where we get buy in and show students that their words are real and that their writing matters.

Four Tiny Writing Studies That Have Worked for Me

Ready to try this with your students next week?

The secret to a tiny writing study is in the size. The product has to be very, very small in order for students to successfully study the mentor texts and produce their own original piece. Here are four tiny writing studies that have worked for me:

Two-Sentence Horror Stories 

 

This week, my ninth grade classes studied two-sentence horror stories. (You can find oodles of these on the web, but here are some I share with my students.)  We noticed that there was a lot of sentence variety, that they built suspense, that they usually begin with something ordinary and then twist it into something scary in the second sentence.

Students wrote their own and then Tweeted them. You can see some of them here:

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Haiku

 

Allison came up with the brilliant idea to teach reading like a reader versus reading like a writer through haiku — something so small and so concrete students could quickly see the differences between their readerly observations and their writerly observations.

Using mentor texts from The New York Times’ haiku contest, student made noticings and ultimate wrote their own haikus about places they love.

Humans of …

 

Based on Humans of New York, students interviewed and photographed people around a theme they invented (Humans of My Neighborhood or Humans of the Trinity Basketball Team or, my favorite, Humans of Teenage Drama). By the end of the week, students had composed three slides, each featuring an image and bit of an interview.

I compiled all of these into one giant slideshow that we enjoyed together.

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Buzzfeed Lists

 

This is slightly bigger than tiny, but I’ve found that students are so well-versed in listicles that they can quickly pick this up and put it together.

Students worked on their own original list in the style of Buzzfeed. They incorporated images, gifs, and videos to support their list and boost reader engagement. Best of all, Buzzfeed allows you to submit your lists for publication on their site! Publishing for a big, wide Internet audience boosts students efforts in a race to see who will get published and who will get the most “likes”. One student even had his list featured for a day on the Buzzfeed main page!

Two More Ideas I will Try This Year 

I’m constantly on the lookout for great tiny writing projects. Here are two more I want to try this year:

Letter to My Younger Self

The Player’s Tribune, a site started by Derek Jeter, features writing by pro athletes. What a gold mine! While only some of these pieces feature enough craft to really be used as technique-teaching mentor texts, many lead to big-time inspiration for our student writers.

I’m dying to have students look at the series Letter to My Younger Self, in which athletes look back and give themselves advice. Students will love finding the insightful, personal letters written by their favorite athletes and then composing their own letter.

Crowdsourcing Pitches

One way that real adults write is in the form of crowdsourcing pitches. Sites like Kickstarter and Donor’s Choose rely on savvy pitch-writing and story-telling to elicit funds from donors!

Using this as fodder for tiny writing would be so much fun. It’s a very authentic form of writing, and it also asks students to be inventive. What would you want to raise money for? Maybe a film you’ve been dying to make or a video game you want to produce or a book you want to self-publish … or maybe a car for your sixteenth birthday! Students will learn to write persuasively for strangers (or in order to persuade their parents!)

Let’s pool our resources! What ideas do you have for units of tiny writing? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet me @RebekahOdell1.

The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

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