We had the honor of joining CNUSDEdChat last summer when we were in California for their Literary is Everywhere conference! Take a listen!
We are singing Hamilton as we read today’s fantastic, deep-dive guest post from Scott Bayer, an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Specialist for grades 6-12 in Montgomery County, Maryland. He has taught high school English for 16 years and is passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences for students, teaching a more inclusive reading list, and developing student agency, voice, passion, and curiosity. You can find him on Twitter: @Lyricalswordz
Even though students have always written in my class, I’ve always known that they’ve needed to write more and in different ways. When I first started teaching, I was stuck in traditional modes—ones that I learned from my own experiences as a student in school: students wrote what I told them to write, and then I graded their work.
As my craft evolved, so did my classroom. I began to have kids write in various ways during class and for various purposes, but my methods were always somewhat wayward and unevenly implemented. My classes would go through periods of writing and writing instruction.
More recently, I passed out marble composition notebooks, and although I gained a lot of muscle transporting stacks of those things home and back every weekend, their use always faded, being replaced by something else deemed more worthy of instructional time. My desire for kids to write more was the correct impulse, I just had never quite figured out how to sew it into the fabric of our classroom.
But the following remained true: If I want my students to be thinkers, I must provide them opportunities to think. If I want them to be writers, I must provide them opportunities to write.
I was so inspired last summer by reading Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Their ideas about mentor texts are so clear and relevant and utilitarian and are not so much a strategy as a way of life.
So. Inspired, yes, but also overwhelmed.
I decided I needed to start small and adapt an idea that would work for me and my students. I wanted a strategy that would encourage risk-taking. I wanted a tool that would provide low-stakes writing opportunities. I wanted something that would let students develop their own voices. I found Notebook Time made these possibilities a reality, and in a way that could be implemented in my classroom right away.
Since I would have a 1:1 Chromebook classroom for the first time, I also considered how I would adapt this to the newly available technology. The Notebook Time experience detailed here is almost entirely digital, which has been a big risk for me, but the rewards have been immense. If you don’t have access to technology in your classroom, this experience can be replicated in your classroom—there’s just more printing involved!
How Notebook Time Works in My Class
This year I teach on-level English 12 and Notebook Time functions like this in our classroom: the first three days of the week, my students have the first 10 minutes of class to complete a Notebook Time entry. On Thursday, we spend the 10 minutes learning about the art of writing or the craft of revising, focusing on a specific skill or idea or strategy. On Friday, students choose one of their three entries from the week, revise it, and submit it for a grade.
Each week I try to provide various types of texts. Because I limit Notebook Time to 10 minutes, I elected to avoid lengthy passages that students would need to read and interpret. I will use a few lines of prose, a stanza of poetry, or a verse from a song, but rarely more than that.
I also select from various images (photographs, paintings, drawings, cartoons), as well as charts, graphs, and statistics. I pull from a resource library of collected readings in my curriculum in which the texts are thematically linked to our units of study, but I also search the internet for anything relevant to students’ own lives. So three times each week, students are seeing a wide variety of cold texts, and then they can respond in writing however they want. In a broad sense, they may perform analytical, argumentative, or narrative writing.
We started Notebook Time in mid-september, with a presentation and a student handout adapted from Writing with Mentors.
All of this was to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. It is really important for students to know not only what they are doing, but why they are doing it. Additionally, although a bit paradoxical, this type of freedom can be paralyzing for some students. I had to convince them that as the author of their work, they are in full control. For the remainder of that first week, we did some practice, and I wrote along with them to model some different types of responses.
Learning Writing and Revision Strategies
There are an endless number of things to talk about with regard to writing, so I try to have kids try a strategy for a few minutes and then talk about it for a few minutes. For instance, one day, I gave them a quote from Brent Staples about rewriting, and I merely had them discuss why rewriting is so important. Another day, we looked at Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Method and considered ways we could use it to revise our work.
Although we occasionally look at something as an entire class, I want them to maintain the same sense of choice, and I want what we learn to be germane to their own writing. So I have never, for example, taught a mini-lesson on run-on sentences. That might be new learning for some kids, but not all kids. But I did, one day, give them the option, based on feedback I’d given them, to choose whether they needed to learn more about run-ons, fragments, or “other” (which explored how to create more complex sentence structures) .
Another day we tried something a bit different: In our Google Classroom, I shared an exemplar I wrote on Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream”, and then gave them “can comment” access to the document, with the following directions:
- Read the sample Notebook Time entry below from start to finish.
- Consider the work as a whole in relation to the text.
- Highlight part of the writing that engaged or interested you.
- Write a comment about why it is a strength of the writing OR
- Write a comment about how and why you will try something like it in your writing.
Students developed insightful comments about the writing itself, but also talked about how they wanted to try specific moves in their own writing, which was so inspiring. Here’s an example of Derrick’s comments, in which he noted the intentional fragments (even if he didn’t know to call them that) in one comment and rhetorical questions in another, as well as his later work on an M.C. Escher drawing where he tried using both writing moves he commented on.
Closing the Notebook Time Cycle
Students choose one of their responses to revise, copying and pasting it in the table provided at the top of that week’s document. Then they begin their revision process in the adjacent box. Seeing their original and their revision side-by-side has been powerful for students. In our classroom we have talked a lot about the importance of revising, but as teachers know, revision talk can be cheap to burgeoning writers. My students wanted something more concrete, so I shared with them an adaptation of the STAR Method from the inestimable Kelly Gallagher, and this really cool Upgrade Your Sentence document I found on Twitter from @heymrshallahan. I gave them an exemplar with a single sentence so they could see how one sentence could be upgraded in many different ways, and then I gave them a more functional document where they can actually plug their sentences in and work on their writing at the sentence level.
Why It Works:
- Routine: Students come into class, get a Chromebook, and know exactly what to do for the first 10 minutes. Some students even begin before the bell rings to get a few extra minutes—which of course is great! We stop after 10 minutes every time. Things like this can take over a lesson if you let them (and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world), but students know exactly how long they have and I know precisely the remaining number of minutes to plan for.
- Low-stakes: The environment allows kids to take risks without worry of being penalized by something as silly as a grade. I encourage them to reach, because there is no fear of falling.
- Text Variety: In addition to what’s normally going on in our classroom, students are exposed to texts in real-world situations. They bring only the knowledge they have to a cold text, and must reason inductively. They cannot wait for someone else to tell them “the answer;” they must forge ahead alone, which fosters their self-reliance and independence.
- Revision: I no longer have to hope students are making revision a regular practice. I see it every week. By juxtaposing the original and the revision on the documents, kids see it too.
- Practice: My students wrote for 190 minutes during Notebook Time during quarter 1; they will write for more than 350 minutes during quarter 2.
- Grading: I don’t get buried under a stack of papers. No teacher has time to provide feedback on four Notebook Time entries each week, so I give them feedback on the one they want.
- Timed Writing: Because they are the most tested generation in the history of education, it’s not a bad thing that students get regular practice of on-demand writing in a timed situation. Just a bonus!
Impact & Implications So Far
For years, I was unsure of how to embed regular writing opportunities that challenged and inspired kids, giving them the freedom to write in ways that are important to them. I tried different strategies and routines, but none had the staying power for me or my students. That has all changed with Notebook Time. The routine—using the first 10 minutes of class every day, writing to three prompts the first three days of the week, talking about writing on Thursday, revising on Friday—has been great for me and for my students.
The overall benefits of Notebook Time have been almost too numerous to list, but a few that I’ve found incredibly important: an increase in the volume of writing—some students have claimed they’ve written more this semester than they ever have before; writing as a way to explore one’s own thinking, rather than just being a way to demonstrate final thought; and the development of student voice, and this one is the most meaningful of all. Students who were resistant to writing—there was almost a mutiny in the first week when I asked them to write 100 words—and now are not only writing a lot more than they ever have before, but they are writing about things that are important to them in ways that elevate their voices, bringing them from the margins to the mainstream.
Scott has generously shared a folder of resources with you! Go ahead — thank him here in the comments or on Twitter @LyricalsWordz. You can also comment with strategies you have used to adapt Notebook Time for your students!
We are over at the Heinemann PLC Series this week chatting about mentor texts & discovery . Read — and watch — more here!
Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!
Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!
Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.
We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.
So, that doesn’t work. What does?
As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement. Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading
Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.
But what does this look like in your plan book?
How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?
How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?
And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?
We’ve got a webinar for you!
Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!
Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.
This summer began with a hold-over goal from last summer: my daughter wanted to jump off the diving board. The previous summer had ended with her standing on the board, toes curled over the edge, but no jump. As soon as the pool opened this season, her mind was set. She would jump.
And yet, when we got down to the pool, nerves had reappeared. Georgia demurred. Day after day, she talked about the diving board. She looked at the diving board. She even touched the board from the safety of the deck.
But one day as Georgia watched the other children fling themselves from the board, she looked at me, resolute, and asked, “Mom, what’s the worst that could happen? There is a life guard right there. I know I can swim. You’re watching me. I just need to jump.” And so she did.
This is the way I want to teach.
I believe in the transformation that happens in our minds and in our classrooms when we take a leap and launch into an experiment, into the unknown. It’s a shot in the arm — a wake up call. Medicine for weary teachers and complacent students.
Recently, on the Talks With Teachers podcast, Allison and I shared that experimentation isn’t always borne of courage and conviction. In my experience, it has most often come out of desperation — of seeing something that isn’t working, hypothesizing about a solution, and then saying to myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
This is a question I come back to a lot. And it’s a question I also pose to my student writers. Because I want our classroom and their writing to be filled with the kind of wonder, discovery, and risk-taking that happens when we try. When we experiment.
Risks make better teachers, and risks make better writers.
Experiments — large and small — innovate our pedagogy.
Six years ago, I knew my writing instruction wasn’t working. I was scared to really teach writing — scared my writers would fail — so I resorted to no-fail solutions: formulas, fill-in-the-blank essays, giving them arguments. Of course, these measures also killed their writers’ souls. Not knowing if it would work or if I could pull it off, I wiped my plan book clean, read Write Beside Them, asked “What’s The Worst The Could Happen?”, and started a full-fledged writing workshop.
This is the same way I eliminated traditional grades in my senior English classes last year.
On a smaller scale, this is how I approach daily instruction. While our fundamentals remain constant — choice, target instruction, time to read, time to write, time to talk — I keep my teacher heart engaged by experimenting with the variables.
In the last few weeks, Allison told me that she has been getting her 9th grade writers to share their writing process and receive feedback under the document camera. In her class, students clamor to share; whole class periods are filled with sharing. I didn’t think this would work for me. What if I asked the students to volunteer to share, and no one did? What if they came forward, but they didn’t know what to say? And I didn’t know what to say? And it was painful and awkward for everyone? But, I know my students need more opportunities to talk about their writing, so I tried it. And it worked — students shared and enjoyed peeking into one another’s notebooks.
Angela’s post on making writing using a grid intrigued me as I was looking for tangible ways for my students to revise their free verse poems. But I worried: would students understand what to do? What if they couldn’t apply the poetry strategies that I taught…? And I was suddenly confronted with that reality … in the last days of our writing study? Still, I was curious. What would happen? And I didn’t want to wait until our next writing study. What was the worst that could happen?
So, we tried it last Tuesday. It was fun and fresh — a new way of looking at our writing. It transformed some students’ poetry. A few confirmed their faith in their original lines and gained confidence to stop tinkering. A couple truly struggled- – they quickly realized that this is not a revision strategy for them. At least not now. But what was lost? Nothing. Writers learned something about their process.
I want this ethos — that we will try anything to become better — to pour over into my students’ writing.
How can we get our students to try new things in their writing? How do we get them to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The good news is that their sweet and strange teenage brains are already wired for this – we just have to tap into it:
Show Them The Moves of Real Writers
Students can’t take risks if they don’t know what they look like. When we immerse them in the work of real writers, we improve the chances of them trying the (risky) techniques of real writers.
Because they saw real writers use these techniques, Federico tried his hand at using a Tweet as evidence in his sports analysis, Lauren wove personal anecdotes into her film analysis, and Claire tried out a strange and surreal metaphor in her poem about snorkeling.
Give Students Opportunities for Revision
Some experiments succeed and others fail wildly. We need to allow our students to take risks in their writing along with the opportunity to fix it if it doesn’t work. In real life, writing is not one-and-done. It shouldn’t be one-and-done for our students either, especially if we are asking them to try new techniques in their writing.
Provide Opportunities for No-Stakes Writing Play
Big, polished, published pieces can’t be the only time students take risks and experiment in their writing. Daily notebook time gives students a chance to try new techniques with the safety that comes from knowing that no one else will see it, no one will judge it, no one will give it a grade.
We encourage students to take risks in their writing when we reward it. Allison’s notebook spotlight under the document camera is a wonderful way to highlight times that students have moved beyond their comfort zone in their writing. I have even awarded students bonus points for telling me how they have taken risks in their writing.
Confer About It
Asking students “what risks have you taken in this piece so far?” brings the concept to the forefront of the student’s mind and the conversation about writing. Asking this question nudges students in the direction of experimentation and lets them know that it is not only permissible but encouraged.
“What’s the worst that could happen” is one of the most powerful questions in my toolbox — right up there with “How’s it going?” and “What do you notice”? Here’s the thing: when our risky experiments are rooted in best practices and the best interest of our students, they might fall flat, but they will never fail. We will be learning about our own pedagogy, reinvigorating our practice, helping our students discover what does and doesn’t work for them. This is true learning.
So, here’s a challenge: in this next month, try an experiment, take a risk to find a solution for something that isn’t working. Big or small, find a way to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and make a shift. Then, come back here or on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1) or Facebook and tell us about it.
Let’s celebrate the leap itself.
Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.
But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)
As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.
When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.
Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.
I like to…
- Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
- Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
- Look for variations in structure and style.
- Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.
Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
– from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.“
– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin
I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.
– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?
Allow students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”
Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.
After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?
(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)
With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.
For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.
I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.
Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.
Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:
Here they are reading like READERS:
Here they are reading like WRITERS.
Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.
If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.
I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.
Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.
The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post.
How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!
We were so excited to chat with Brian on an episode of one of our favorite education podcasts, Talks With Teachers!
Listen to us talk all things mentor texts here!
Students have a story to tell. So why not let them tell it as a way in to literature — to walk an idea around to see how far it will go and where else it might lead them?
If your students are like mine, they feel boxed in by their preconceived ideas of academic language (AKA “sounding smart), and they sometimes get stuck in the confines of the formal literary analysis. Rebekah has written some genius stuff about using mentors for literary analysis, and I think she’s on to something.
What I like about professional models of what we might qualify as “literary analysis” is their sophistication, their control, and the authentic and interesting voices exploring some equally authentic and interesting ideas. For students, simply giving them permission to exercise their own, authentic voice in literary analysis can be a game-changer in how they approach and craft this type of writing.
A mentor text I’ve had great success with is a beautiful piece from The New York Times called “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.” Full disclosure: I have two little girls, who are not so much babies anymore, but during their toddler years, we, like many other parents and their tots, read over and over again the timeless, melodic, sleep-inducing pages of “Goodnight Moon.” Perhaps that’s why I first admired this essay so much, but after introducing it to students as their first ever “narrative of learning” mentor, I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lovely piece of writing.
The Narrative of Learning Essay
Here’s the idea:
The narrative of learning essay is different in both kind and degree. The task is for students to write a deeply reflective essay in which they explore, reveal, and uncover some aspect of the literature being studied.
- Decide what to discover, explore, and uncover about the text.
- Choose one feature of the text that they find genuinely interesting and worthy of exploration.
- Write an essay that is, at its core, a mature, sustained conversation about the text, zeroing in on the one feature they’ve decided to explore and what they discover about it.
We owe a lot to Tom Newkirk. Actually, we owe almost everything to Tom Newkirk. This brilliant man has been a leader in our fields for decades, but one cold morning in Boston 2 1/2 years ago he spoke directly to Allison and me through a crowded room. And everything changed.
We talk about this “catalyzing moment” over on the Heinemann blog today — a moment that moved us to tears, that led us to start a blog, and, ultimately, to write Writing With Mentors. A moment for which we will be forever grateful.
Watch our interview here!