A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School: Part II

Today’s guest post is part of a series on changing the way we think about literary essays in middle school. In Part 2, Beth Toerner (@btoerner) will share how she moved students from thinking about texts in interesting, fresh ways to actually producing polished pieces of literary writing! 

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Earlier this week, I shared the beginning of my journey with literary essays this year, ending with the creation of an assignment asking my students to write essays that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” So far, we had created lists inspired by the mentor text “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”.

After making these lists, we moved onto work with our next two mentor texts, which showed two different ways to write about personal experiences with reading. “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” is the perfect text to model writing about the impact that different characters have on us as readers. Plus, it’s written by Lois Lowry, so the students have a bit of background knowledge as they begin. Once again, we had to spend some time reviewing the basic concept behind Lord of the Flies, but this essay has no major spoilers in it.

Following reading and discussion, students completed an activity in which they highlighted every sentence that shows a personal connection in one color and every sentence that showed text-based evidence in another color. (Spoiler alert: everything was highlighted!) This helped students to outline a pattern they could easily follow: write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; write about something in the book, explain how it relates to you; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the mentor text, Lois Lowry writes about the immediate connection she had with Ralph as a reader. She highlights the admirable qualities that she identified in him, such as leadership and a sense of humor. She notes that even though she didn’t necessarily possess those qualities, she wished she did.

And then — yes, this appealed to me greatly — he took charge. He established order, made rules, saw to everyone’s well-being and, with very little opposition, was chosen to be chief. Me? I was a follower, always, not a leader; but I secretly yearned to be the kind of kid who would be chosen as chief.

Then, she went on to discuss Piggy, acknowledging the fact that although he was less likeable, she saw parts of herself in him- traits of which she was not exactly proud

“Now, as a young student at a very large university, I felt as vulnerable as Piggy and disliked him for that reason — he revealed too much about my own self.”

I had students make a t-chart in their writer’s notebooks; one side was to be a list of their “Simons,” and the other was to be a list of their “Piggies.”  On the Simons side, we listed characters we loved and wanted to be like: your Harry Potters, Percy Jacksons, and Katniss Everdeens. On the Piggies side came the characters with whom we weren’t proud to admit we identified: Draco Malfoy, George from Of Mice and Men, and “the boy who tried to kill Tris in Divergent. Then, I had them complete some writing sprints in their writer’s notebooks, taking about a minute or so to write out a more detailed explanation of their relationship with one these characters, then switching to a new character for the next minute of writing.

The final mentor text that we studied was “How Judy Blume Changed My Life”. This mentor text showed students how to write about how one book, author, or series had a direct impact on them, thus showing them how to analyze plot and theme in a format other than a list. At this point, students were beginning to better conceptualize where we were headed with our essay, and they had started to gather some ideas of their own. As we read this text, many students were already identifying where the author used evidence and where she drew on her own personal experience.

After we read, I had students reflect on the three mentor texts we had read by completing the chart below.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.40.25 AM

Here are some examples of the final products my students created:

One student closely imitated “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life” in her analysis of The Help. She identified five thoughtful lessons that this book teaches, and maintained a consistent example-explanation-evidence format throughout the piece.

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One student used “Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later” to write an essay called “They’re Not Just Characters,” in which she explored the impact that characters from her favorite books: The Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and A Dog’s Purpose (she analyzed her personal connection with the main character, who happens to be a dog). Her essay is full of wonderful moments where she uses the mentor text to guide her writing while simultaneously moving outside of its guidelines.

Screen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.24 AMScreen Shot 2017-05-24 at 9.42.30 AM

Another student used this mentor text to analyze his similarities to two characters in the novel Game Changers. He began with a story about his recent soccer tournament and some of the challenges he faced while playing; then, he moved on to draw the novel and its characters in through a comparison. Throughout his writing, he does an excellent job of alternating between personal experience and text-based evidence, drawing from the highlighter activity we had done after reading the article for the first time.

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Overall, students answered the question “What does reading teach us?” in thoughtful, authentic, and analytical ways. I loved noticing the mentor texts popping up in my students’ writing- whether it was an overall organizational move, like a list; or smaller, sentence level craft moves. My students’ voices came across clearly in each piece.  As I read my student’s writing, I felt like I was hearing their true voices and getting insight into what they were thinking about the world and their role in it, rather than checking off a list of prescribed steps that are required in a literary analysis essay. Students were able to use their reading experiences to explore a variety of personal issues that I would have never been able to get them writing about through a prescriptive writing assignment.  

And, for the first time in my teaching career, rather than a sense of relief that essay-grading had finally ended, I actually felt a pang of sadness when I finished grading because there weren’t any more essays for me to read. My students scored higher on their essays than they had on any assignment this year, and more importantly, they created writing that was truly their own. No two people have the same experience with reading, and I have twenty-six essays that show that.

How might taking Beth’s approach change writing in your classroom? Leave a comment or questions below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with Beth on Twitter (@btoerner). 

 

 

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Adapting Mid-Stream: A New Approach to Literary Essays in Middle School

One of the very best parts of writing this blog is the opportunity to connect with inspiring educators across the country. This week, we are sharing a two-part guest post from Cincinnati teacher Beth Toerner (btoerner). We connected this year through a mutual professional friend and spent months corresponding about her 8th grade classroom and her desire to move them toward more authentic writing experiences and products. What you will read today and on Wednesday represents one of those experiences that changed the shape of her classroom and her students’ writing lives. Not only are Beth’s experiences and student work amazing, but so is her reflective spirit and willingness to change her plan mid-stream when she realized her students needed something different. Something more. We are SO excited to share this with you.  – Rebekah

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Last year, I started using essential questions to help my students connect our whole class novels through a focus on universal human issues. This year, I attempted to transition these questions into literary essays about the topics using mentor texts as guidance. My plan did not unfold as I imagined, but the course it took produced more authentic and thoughtful writing than I have seen from my eighth graders all year. In the following posts, I will work through the steps that this process took in class and share what we learned along the way.

Overview:

Whole class reads: Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl

Essential Questions:

  1. Why do differences make us uncomfortable?
  2. What is empathy? Why is it an important human characteristic?
  3. Why is it important to be connected to others?

Before reading, students write short, informal responses to these questions to get them thinking about the ideas. During third quarter, we read the texts above in the order listed, frequently circling back to our essential questions for discussion and reinforcement of the guiding ideas.

After we had read all three pieces, we did an activity to help students specifically connect their thinking about these questions to text-based evidence from the pieces that we had read together. This activity (Allison’s brainchild), called “Inside/Outside Brain,” required students to organize their “inside brain thoughts” by writing them inside a giant face and the matching them to their “outside brain” supporting evidence. I modeled on the board and they wrote in their writer’s notebooks.

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After completing this activity, my goal for students was to write a literary essay in which they responded to one of our three essential questions in a lengthier, more detailed response. I planned for them to use our common texts (Of Mice and Men, “Flowers for Algernon,” and Stargirl)  to support their thinking. It seemed like I had it all in order: I gave them questions to help them trace the development of ideas as they read, we brainstormed examples together, and I had three wonderful mentor texts to help them discover ideas for crafting and organizing masterpieces.

However, as my students brainstormed ideas, I started to feel uneasy. Although my students were doing a perfect job sharing examples to support our essential questions, like the idea that Stargirl’s shunning at Mica High School and its impact on her emotional state showed the importance of human connection, I also noticed that they were eagerly sharing examples from books we had read in seventh grade, as well as books they had read on their own. Would requiring them to write about the three texts that I had chosen squelch their creativity? Would limiting them to one of three teacher-generated questions limit their thinking?

I took some time to reflect. My students were doing something much more important than what I had planned for them: they were thinking beyond our classroom lessons and analyzing the impact that reading has had on them throughout their lives. And of course, each student had a unique experience with reading. Different books, different life experiences, different lessons gleaned. I needed to create an assignment that allowed them to express these thoughts.

So, we changed the plan. I told my students that their ideas had changed my idea, and we started with a new assignment: a literary essay that answered the question “What does reading teach us?” We were able to use the same mentor texts that I had originally planned, and in fact, they were a more natural fit for this piece than for what I had previously developed. We centered our study around three mentor texts:

“Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”

“Their Inner Beasts: The Lord of the Flies Six Decades Later”

“How Judy Blume Changed My Life”

Each of these mentor texts has its own strengths in modeling the writing that I wanted my students to do. I was looking for writing that showed a deep understanding of literature but also shared a more personal element; I wanted students’ essays to have a conversational tone that zoomed in on a discussion of the subject (a book, author, or characters) through a very personal and reflective lens.

The first mentor text with which we worked was “Here’s What The Catcher In The Rye Can Teach You About Life”. This text functioned well to start this project; its length was accessible, the highly structured list format gave both an approachable model for organization, and it was a jumping off point for a brainstorming activity.

First, we read the article as a class and had a quick discussion of the general plot and themes in Catcher itself. Even though my students hadn’t read it, the fact that it focused on universal lessons made it accessible. Next, we made a list of what we noticed as writers. My students noticed all kinds of stuff:

  • The article has a short introduction that explains why the author wrote it
  • The author made a list of five life lessons the book can teach
  • Each lesson is followed by an explanation that uses an example from the book
  • Each explanation is followed by a direct quote from the book that supports the example
  • The sections a numbered and each life lesson is in bold
  • It goes from universal —> more specific (explanation from the book) —> very specific (direct quote)
  • Each item on the list has the same structure
  • Even though it’s about a specific book, the lessons apply to everyone

I thought that this structure could be a great one for my students to imitate in their own pieces of writing, as the outline was clear and consistent. But first, I gave students a chance to collaboratively practice some of the thinking it would take to get there. I gave them some time to brainstorm other “Five Things ____ Can Teach You About Life” lists in their writer’s notebooks. Then, I had students get together in small groups to share their ideas. They chose one idea for a list and wrote it out on the giant sticky notes that I have in my room. They came up with a range of ideas, some of which drew on our preceding essential question work, and some of which did not:

  • Five Reasons Differences Make Us Uncomfortable
  • Five Things Reading Can Teach You About Empathy
  • Five Things Realistic Fiction Teaches You About Life
  • Five Things Book Can Teach You About Connections
  • Five Things Stargirl Can Teach Us About Human Connections
  • Five Ways to React After Losing Someone Close to You

After they made their lists, I armed them with normal-sized sticky notes and had them circulate the room, reviewing the lists that other groups made. Their job was to put at least three sticky notes on other groups’ posters showing examples from our common texts that supported one of the reasons on the list.

Here are some of the final products:

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Although my students used this as a jumping off point for essay writing, this activity itself served as a collaborative way to review common themes among our three class texts. In the future, I think it would come in handy as a way to review at the end of a novel unit or practice writing “Listicles,” which seem to have taken over the internet these days. Later this week, I will be back to share how we moved from these lists into polished literary essays.

You can connect with us by leaving a question or comment below, finding us on Facebook, or Tweeting Beth @btoerner! Stay tuned Wednesday for Part 2 of her series! 

The Wonder of Whipstitch: Poetry as Literary Analysis

The Wonder of Whipstitch-.png

We are delighted to share a guest post today from middle school teacher Elizabeth Oosterheert. You might remember her from a post earlier this year! You can connect with her on Twitter @oosterheerte. 

Ah, spring. It’s that vibrant time when my “garden” of students begins to blossom beautifully, and the seeds planted earlier in the year stretch toward the sun as students gain a stronger sense of voice and begin to take more ownership of their writing. That’s the sweetness of seasons changing.

Another end of the year splendor is celebrating National Poetry Month in April, and flowing into May with more reasons than ever to incorporate poetry into my writing workshop. After reading Karla Hilliard’s post earlier this year about whipstitch poetry, and Rebekah’s challenge to strive for authenticity in literary analysis, I began to wonder what it would look like to use whipstitch poetry as a whimsical frame for everything from character study to thinking about more abstract concepts like theme and mood.

When I first explored this idea, my students were reading in coming of age book clubs that we called Voyages. As Karla suggested in her post, I began my workshop one day by inviting students to make a list of objects or natural forces  they noticed in the books they were reading. We visited Randi Ward’s website and read examples of whipstitch poems, carefully examining the way that she used word choice, brevity, line breaks, and breathtaking photography to enhance her poetry. We discussed how vital the right image can be to inspiring excellent writing.

After using Ward’s poems as mentor texts, my students experimented with writing whipstitch poetry as an analytical response to their book club reading.

Tessa, one of my eighth grade writers, composed these poems after reading the novel Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt. Her poems invite readers to consider the natural forces at work in the story such as the ice that eventually leads to a character’s death, and also to think about Joseph, the protagonist, and his search for his daughter, Jupiter.

Orbiting Jupiter Whipstitch PoemsScreen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.50 PM

  1. Ice

I am the ice

I climb with the cold

And fall with the heat

Do you not think I feel you Joseph?

I try to warn you with splinters on my surface            

But you go too far

I fall, taking you with me

You escape the cold waters the first time

But your life seeps from you the second

You sink to the bone chilling cold beneath

I am the ice

 

  1. Jupiter

I’m looking for you Jupiter

Gazing at the planet in the sky

Every night, gazing

I am alone with Silence

I let it have my heart

But I can’t make it breathe

Yet it grows, it grows big around me

But I am growing too

  1. Will.Find.You.

 

  1. Rosie

Warped stall doors creak

Bright motes of dust swirl between sinking beams

Streaking the spindly hay string loft

Careful hands squeeze and release my udder

Creating a steady stream of milk

The circular rubbing of the coarse hide on my rump

Makes my backside waggle

I moo a sigh of contentment

Chiming a melody with the steady thumping of milk

I love you, Joseph.

 

  1. Church Bell

Snowballs explode against my sturdy frame             

Joseph seems to find it fun to strike me with snowballs

I scream loudly, clanging my tongue against my exterior

But no matter how hard I try, he doesn’t stop.

He shows up every day after school, tackling me

with an onslaught of snowballs.

Later, we read Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys, as a whole class text and the “banner” story in our study of World War II.   An exemplary novel for examining characterization and voice,  Sepetys’ haunting tale is told from the perspectives of four young refugees trying to escape the relentlessly advancing Russian army.

Working with coauthors, students were invited to compose whipstitch poems that explored characters’ motivations, fears, and questions. They were also encouraged to create their own artwork to accompany their poetry, or to import images that enhanced their message.

We shared our work in the context of a class poetry reading, and discussed what we had learned about characterization and other elements in the novel through the lens of whipstitch poetry.

Salt to the Sea Whipstitch

By Kayla, Maria, and Grant

 

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.15.13 PM.pngEmilia—- Maria

I walk through the snow.

With every step I take my feet sink beneath the coldness.

I had nowhere to go, I could only follow.

Florian, he is much like August, my knight.

I carry him inside me wherever I go.

I look up to the nests in the trees.

Beautiful baby birds soon flying free.

No one is free.

No one is safe.

Shame is a hunter.

 

Eva—- Maria

Sorry, but it’s true, we are nearly gone.

War is destroying everything around it.

No one is safe.

Soon we will all vanish, whether we are killed

or we starve.

The only thing we are fed is lies.

These people all around me have no hope.

Those who do soon will be swallowed by

the grave they dug for themselves.

 

Wandering Boy—- Grant

I follow life, just wandering

Wandering away from pain

Wandering toward freedom

Wandering home.

 

One-eared Bunny—- Kayla

One hope lost

A new one found.

Like everyone in my sad story

I am just looking for someone to love me.

 

Joana—- Kayla

Everyone seems to forget-

War does not justify inhumanity.

Currently,  to conclude our study of World War II, my students and I have been reading the young adult adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and we’ve chosen to revisit whipstitch one more time, but broaden the ways that we employ it as an analytical tool.

Today, my students received this invitation to engage with our shared text using a poetic lens:

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 11.14.02 PMWhat would it look like to frame the events in Unbroken as whipstitch reflections?

You might use whipstitch poetry to:

  • Analyze decisions and the resulting actions/consequences
  • Compose an apology from one character to another
  • Capture one event from the book, such as one day on the raft, or one day in a japanese pow camp.
  • Reflect on a word that has special meaning in the story such as: glory, courage, determination, champion, villain, faith, etc.
  • Ask questions
  • Emphasize an important conversation (what is being said, and what is implied, but left unspoken?)
  • Focus on a definition
  • Express a big idea

 

Your Invitation:

 

  • Choose a theme you’ve noticed in unbroken, and frame a series of four whipstitch poems around your big idea.
  • Example: “a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.” If you choose these words spoken by pete zamperini, your four poems could be about the following topics: Pete’s influence in Louie’s life, the determination that louie shows while training for the olympics, a reflection on louie’s time on the raft, or a day in louie’s struggle against the bird.
  • You may work individually or collaboratively on your poems.

 

 

The final weeks of school are a perfect “garden” for growing student writers, an opportunity to engage students by using poetry to celebrate language and promote authentic analysis in your classroom. My students also enjoy writing narrative poetry and poetry in two or more voices.  How do you use poetry with your students? What are your favorite poems?

Connect with me on Twitter @oosterheerte, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net to share your ideas!

Translating Writing With Mentors for Elementary and Middle School, Part II

Last week, we shared our four fundamental beliefs about teaching with mentor texts — beliefs that apply to any students in any classroom, from kindergarten to senior year. We believe that:

  • Real writing is the result of studying real writing
  • Students benefit from studying hot-off-the-presses mentor texts
  • Students need to study multiple mentor texts in each writing study

And, we believe

Mentor texts should be used at every phase of the writing process — from play to planning to drafting to going public

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PMWriting With Mentors, in part, is about what this flow of mentor texts looks like in our classrooms. One of the best things about making mentor texts a centerpiece of your writing instruction is their versatility; mentor texts meet each student exactly where he is. They provide the ultimate inspiration and ultimate differentiation simultaneously!  So, while our elementary and middle school counterparts will want to swap out the Grantland article we use with our high schoolers for a piece from Sports Illustrated Kids, the approach we take to infusing the entire writing process with mentor texts is universal.

Our book is chock-full of details about how we introduce these methods to our students, how we instruct at each step, how we confer with students as they move from play to publication, and how we teach students to be independent so that they can take mentor texts into their writing future long after formal schooling is over. Today, we want to show you the bones of our approach to mentor texts and help you imagine what each phase might look like in a classroom of younger students.

Notebook Time

Notebook Time is a regularly-scheduled playdate with words, mentors, and ideas. Since mentor texts both inspire and instruct writing, Notebook Time is a perfect time for students to dig into short mentor texts and try them on for size! This notebook play will not only expose students to new techniques and build their confidence, but will also begin to spark ideas and build a foundation for future pieces of writing.

Here’s how you might translate Notebook Time in an elementary or middle school classroom: Continue reading