Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website, www.DonnieWelchPoetry.com.

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Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes

Background:

Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook

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A Micro Writing Unit: Picket Signs

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7th graders’ peaceful protest down the halls on Friday.

Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry.  Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 3.37.20 PMBut when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.

Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.

Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles.  I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.

In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.

Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.

Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)

Continue reading

The First Seven Days of a First-Time Workshopper

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 4.29.24 PMThere are lots of teachers who implement writing workshop in baby steps — maybe first some mini-lessons, and then some conferring down the road, and later expanded choice for students, and next year some mentor texts. And that works!

For me, it didn’t, though. I dabbled in workshop for a year before I realized that I needed to be all in or all out; there was no workable middle ground. Today’s guest writer, Elontra Hall (@cloudscholar) was the same way. At the beginning of this semester, he found himself with a brand new class and ultimate freedom to teach whatever he wanted to teach. He knew this was the time to jump into workshop with both feet. 

We are so lucky today to feature a post where he walks us through those tentative and miraculous first days of one teacher’s leap into the workshop life! We hope to hear more from him as the semester progresses! 

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explore thedeepestwaters

“Are we doing drama today?”

“Are you American?”

“What’s  a writer’s workshop?”

These questions ambushed me as I stepped out into uncharted waters.  Let’s rewind for a moment though before I give my account of the first week of writer’s workshop.

……….

When I interviewed at my current school, I was asked what I would do with seven hours of drama (seven one-hour lessons per week with seven different groups of students) if I were allowed to do whatever I wished. My response was immediate and made my heart feel as if were fluttering:

Writer’s workshop!

Collaboration with teachers of other subjects, team teaching opportunities, group work and research, chances for students to go out of the academy on trips and guest speakers to come in and support. A dream.

Then, I got the job.

After celebrating my new appointment and the freedom that I was to be given, I stared out into the abyss and worry began to boil in a cloud above me.  How was this going to work?

In the States, as a young teacher (two or three years in) I had tried to run a writer’s workshop with varying results. Since moving to England, I had used various writer’s workshop elements in English lessons: freewrites, mentor texts, peer feedback and revision, but in my experience of teaching in the U.K. there was never time to run a proper writer’s workshop because of the amount of content to cover. The GCSEs* loom menacingly over everything; they weigh heavily on students’ future prospects as well as the rating* of the school. Having never “properly” run a writer’s workshop in the UK or heard of anyone else  here running one, I had no idea how it would work.

But, my teacher intuition grumbled, and I remembered what I saw in my mind’s eye during the interview: Teams of students working together to tighten up pieces, Writer’s Marathon in London, pockets of reading and engaged discussion spread out around the room, a board of pieces published by students, a revision and feedback board. Freedom and focus.

It was a risk worth taking.

New job, new class, new content. Luckily, the Christmas holidays had come, so there was time, hypothetically, to thrash some order out of the chaos. One of the best ideas that I had was to take to twitter -as one does- to ask for help and suggestions. And boy did they come!


Next, I took a look back through some of my Writer’s workshop texts: Why Workshop, Bullock; Teaching Writing that Matters, Gallagher, Lee; Living and Teaching the Writer’s Workshop, Painter. I also made sure to get a writer’s notebook for myself and a good pen (Parker IM, ball point, gel ink refills). Finally, I made sure to try to plot out a kind of rough course for my students and I to chart. I wanted to start with freedom and gradually build in a loose structure. These students had never done authentic writing that wasn’t an assessment of some kind. So I worked out that the students would always have a ten minute writing session, a ten minute mini-lesson followed by self-directed writing and one to one/group conferencing.

Well, the festive vittles consumed, the initial anxiety having given way to the choppy waters of starting a new school mid year, I have begun the grand experiment.

Here’s what’s happened so far.  

The First Seven Days

  1. The first seven days have been extremely interesting. I have one hour per week of writer’s workshop with seven groups. My writer’s workshop lessons have taken the place of drama lessons- to the great dismay of a few (Sorry.) From anecdotal accounts, the kids love it. They are excited about being able to choose what they want to write about. They like that they don’t have to be overly focused on SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation), and they- so far- are genuinely invested in what they are writing. The UK secondary school system is in dire need of programmes like writer’s workshop – programmes that are focused on the student’s interests.
  2. The moment the students realised that they held majority control in their learning they were in. It was remarkable, all of the annoyance disappeared, and pens began that strange yet familiar dance across the page.
  3. Allowing the students to decorate their writer’s notebooks was a quick and definite win.

On the first day, I told them about writer’s workshop and some of the things that are possible. In order to get as much writing done as possible, and to create a positive atmosphere about the new class, I forewent the majority of my teaching time, and we worked through three exercises:

  1. A ten minute free-write
  2. I wonder
  3. Fruit bowl

Free-write:

I think this is pretty standard. Write for ten minutes without stopping and when you get stuck write, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ until you think of something more interesting. The students got to choose the format and content of their writing and as they wrote I wrote. It was a  great experience, sharing time writing with young writers. After time was up, I let the students move around to share their work, with the condition that they could only say thank you in response. (Thank you Ms. Cox from NWP – Meadowbrook Writing Project – Oakland University – Michigan.)

The buzz around the room after the share was palpable and  the apprehension that had lined their faces earlier was gone, replaced by something else – excitement.

I Wonder:

This, too, is a common activity; I have to thank Twitter again for the inspiration. To begin with, I modeled and shared some things that I am genuinely curious about- from scientific and distant to more personal. The students all took a moment (Twenty seconds) to think about things that they were genuinely curious about and then wrote them down. When that moment was over, they wrote down as many ideas as they could in about a minute and a half. Once the time was up, I gave them the option to share with each other:

I wonder if human beings will still exist in a thousand years.

I wonder if faster than light travel is possible.

I wonder what it would be like to live forever.

I wonder how big sharks can get.

I explained to them that as we moved forward these topics might provide topics or act as springboards for them to begin writing. Later on this half term, I plan to compile a number of these from a range of notebooks and put them on sticky notes. The sticky notes will then go to a ‘station’ in the room where students can look at them and perhaps draw inspiration.

Next, I took a bit of time to reinforce some of the basic pillars of our writer’s workshop:

  1. Everybody writes – including me
  2. Traditional teaching only lasts ten to fifteen minutes (max)
  3. Writing here is a process with focus on development and growth – not grades or levels
  4. Collaboration and trust are key for the workshop to be successful
  5. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about creation.

In the time that we had left, I explained ‘Fruit Bowl’.

Fruit Bowl:

The idea is that they were to describe an object without letting (the reader) know explicitly what is being described through naming or other obvious signposting.

After all of the activities I did an informal survey and asked that if they had enjoyed the lesson, that they raise their hands.  A forest of hands shot up and I noticed a number of wide smiles.

The last thing I did was assign homework: Three ten minutes writes on whatever moved them. No sighs, no groans, no muttered whispering about how pointless the homework was. I was pleasantly stunned.

…………..

At the end of the seven days, I have to say that I’m pleased with how each classes’ first session went. Now though, I have a different set of issues.

I have to pin down an enthusiastic and reliable team for my PLC to make the workshop truly interdisciplinary. I have to figure out how to make sure that at least one piece of homework gets looked at for each student in each lesson: which calls for conferencing, but is borderline impossible to do in the time frame that I have as each of my groups are over twenty students.

And, finally – most worryingly for me – I’ve given a target of two to three publishable pieces for this five week period. How can I monitor that and coordinate mini-lessons that are meaningful and helpful to all of the students with their disparate ideas and writing ideas?

The answers to this and many more questions I’m sure I’ll come up with soon. I have had quite a bit of help and advice from a number of sources that I regularly refer to; I’m certain that I’ll unearth an answer or, if I’m lucky, a clutch of them.

In short, although I may not be doing it the ‘right’ way (if there is such a thing) I feel like what we’ve started is good, has legs  and a bit of room to grow and develop and adapt as we go along.

What was your first week of workshop like? What did you choose to spend time on? What did you skip? What words of wisdom would you give to Elontra? Leave him a comment below, share your thoughts on Twitter @cloudscholar, or find us on Facebook to join the conversation.

 

*GCSE exam: an end of year exam for sophomore students (year 11) these are national exams that every student in the UK takes on the same day at the same time across the country, The grades that they get from these have a huge impact on what students do next in their educational careers.
*Rating: Schools in the UK are inspected by a central governmental body called OfSTED. Schools are graded in the following areas: Leadership and management, Teaching, learning and assessment.

With Apologies to Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Charlie Rose: Strategies for Compare/Contrast Writing

Today’s post is from frequent guest-poster Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. You can read some of her other Moving Writers pieces here and here. You can connect with her on Twitter @kellyapace.

“Mrs. Pace, did you hear about Matt Lauer?” one of my students accosted me as I entered the Raider Writing Center, a student-led center for writing help that I manage and teach.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I often feel like I live in a bubble while at school, not knowing what is going on in the world outside of Room 211.

“Check on Twitter. It’s all over that. He’s gone from the TODAY Show because of sexual misconduct charges,” she said. I glanced at my Twitter feed and sure enough, I saw the news: 

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I stepped back, jaw open, stunned like I was reading about my own personal friend. Yet I was. I watched Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show every day as I took care of my first child while on maternity leave. He was my Olympics news source. I lived 9-11, Columbine, several presidential elections, and the War on Iraq through Lauer’s eyes. He looked at me through the television, and I thought I saw honesty and integrity. I marveled that day: If Matt Lauer can’t be trusted, I’m not sure who in our popular culture can.

Later that week, I sat down to figure out how I would introduce the idea of compare and contrast for an essay my IB juniors were writing. I knew my students had done this skill before; I knew they had made plenty of Venn diagrams in their time, so I needed something to really grab their attention. I wanted to teach about how to write a thesis statement for a compare/contrast paper and how to structure the paper so that it doesn’t seem as if they are isolating two subjects. I wanted a more organic and authentic compare/contrast structure for their writing.

Hoping for inspiration, I flipped through a file of mentor texts I recently put aside. Nothing. I trolled the internet. Nothing. And then I got back on Twitter. Matt Lauer was still clogging my feed, and I stumbled upon an article about the similarities among the apologies of sexual harassment cases: “Regret,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Predator’: Analyzing the Apologies of Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, and Others Accused of Sexual Misconduct” Discussing the overlapping ideas between those accused of sexual misconduct, the article was intriguing, as was the cloud of overlapping words in their apologies that the article included:

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I suddenly had an idea. I used the public apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer as mentor texts and asked my students to color mark similarities and differences for homework. Students came to my class the next block eager to discuss these apologies. They had no idea they were learning skills of compare/contrast for their upcoming papers, and they couldn’t stop them from discussing (and arguing) all of the ideas they did. We color marked their ideas together, grouping the similarities and differences to the side:

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Most agreed that Harvey Weinstein’s apology was the most sincere while Lauer’s was more emotional. Rose’s showed no growth at all. We also discussed the similarities like how much of the apology followed the same format: make an excuse–say I’m sorry–discuss how I will work on my flaw.

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I then asked students to write a thesis statement that presented an argument comparing and contrasting the three apologies. Here are two from my class that day:

Although Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer recognize that they caused pain and apologize and justify what they did, Harvey Weinstein is more sincere in his apology because he shows commitment to fixing what he did.

 

Although the apologies of Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer present a similar pattern, admit learning occurred, and clearly say they are sorry, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer are more sincere in their apologies.

We discussed the idea that their thesis should be an argument. Such arguments were easy to form because they were interested in the subject of these public apologies and clearly had strong feelings on who was more sincere.

In the end, I used this lesson to teach my students how to write a thesis statement and how to structure their papers for the literary analysis paper they were writing. The results were stunning pieces of writing that were far more organic than if I had them complete a Venn diagram of the similarities and differences. Later that week, I received an email from a parent:

“I just wanted to reach out and tell you how thrilled I am with your lesson on apologies by our public figures…In a day and age where lies are told so frequently, this lesson is so timely and just what all kids need.  We are in the ages of “lie, deflect, lie deflect.”  Thank you for this lesson of sincerity and accountability.  I’ve told my children over and over, sorry needs to be genuine or just don’t say it.  Don’t be “sorry you got caught”; be sorry for your actions.  Thank you for explaining this from someone other than their mother, in a way that is less lecture and more deep thought.”

When planning this lesson, this was not my intention, but I realize now that it added a bonus of teaching students character in writing instruction. Perhaps they would not only learn the structure of a compare/contrast piece of writing, but they also would learn the value of genuine words.
As a final note to Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein: My apologies for using your public words as more than just uttered phrases. Yet, they have provided my students with mentor texts on the art of comparing and contrasting, enabling them to make connections and write more authentically in Room 211. For that, I am grateful.

Independent Writing — a Mid-Year Update

Happy EnglishLanguage Day to thee!You might remember that this fall, on a whim, I jumped into a year long independent writing routine with my students. I did it because I know that students needed more time to pursue their own writing interests, because I know it will build students’ writing muscles, because I know some of my own teacher heroes do it.

But I didn’t quite know how I would manage it. Or what the outcomes would be.

We’ve been doing this for months now — long enough to both form habits and fall into slumps. Here’s where we are mid-year:

What’s Working

  • Routine

    I wanted a routine, and we’ve got one! That routine is probably a little stronger for some students than for others, but students are now used to the regular assignment of working  on independent writing for 20 minutes at home, 5 nights per week.  Image-1 (2).pngThey come into class each day and record their nightly writing on the wall o’ charts (pictured in my first post on this topic).

    Building In Time For Other Writing

An unexpected fringe benefit has been that students now have built-in time to work on the extracurricular writing that might come up in their lives. My 8th graders are applying to high schools, and high school essay writing abounds. Many students participate in Model UN, and they use some of this time to work on position papers.

Initially, I paused at this “double-dipping”. While not for a particular class, should they be allowed to use independent writing time for other official kinds of writing they need to do? Is that really the spirit of the assignment?

I think YES! Students are spending outside-of-class time building writing skills. That’s what I am aiming for. And so, whether that’s planning for an application essay or preparing for a Model UN debate, they are writing. And the writing is the thing.

Building in the time for independent writing, however they use it, validates that our lives are filled with all kinds of writing tasks everyday. And hopefully, it becomes a writing habit that sticks.

  • Polishing Independent Writing in Workshop

The biggest highlight of our independent writing journeys has been students’ eagerness to polish and perfect some of their own work through a workshop study. In fact, it has worked so well that I’ve begun to wonder if every writing study should be independent. Because it always feels like the more freedom I give students, the deeper their focus, the more authentic their process, the more engaged their effort. When we limit their choices at all — even limiting it to a certain genre — we seem to limit some of that natural buy-in and ownership. (I haven’t answered this question yet or figured out what that might look like in my classroom. But I keep thinking about it.)

Students have written graphic novels and pieces of sports analysis and a commentary about the failings of a new video game and mini-novels-in-verse and album reviews and short stories and fan fiction. All the things. And they have been more loved than any other writing we’ve done in writing workshop this year.

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  • Fake Writing

For all that love and passion, there is still fake writing happening. I know it. I don’t know exactly who (though I have my guesses) and I don’t know how much, but I am certain that every piece of writing recorded on our independent writing sheets isn’t real. Just like I know that every student who shows me that she has met her reading goal for the week probably hasn’t. That’s part and parcel of teaching my students, trusting them to do the real stuff of reading and writing (which is always the hard stuff), and building levels of independence that will live on past my class.

So, sure, there is probably some fake writing happening. I don’t know how to change that. I’m not sure there is a way to change that. I’m trying to make the right kind of peace with it.

  • Conferring about Nightly Writing

In my head when I started this thing, I envisioned regularly dipping in to confer with students not just about our whole-class unit of writing study but also their independent writing? I’d ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what you’ve been working on recently? How is it going?” and I’d offer sage wisdom beginning with, “You know, a lot of times when writers are doing this kind of work, they try …”

Truth: I haven’t conferred with a single writer on nightly writing.

have conferred with them when they choose a piece to take to publication in a workshop but not on regular, ordinary nightly writing. I want it to happen — I think it would build in meaningful accountability while also helping students continue to move their writing forward. I just don’t know when it would happen. This is a problem to figure out.

Image-1 (1)What I’m Tweaking

  • Breaking Writing Slumps

If I were conferring with my writers regularly about the things they are working on after-hours, I would probably be able to help them out of their writing slumps. While some students have certainly found momentum in longterm projects during independent writing, many others have fallen into a monotonous slump.

I have tried to remedy this by reminding students all the different kinds of writing activities they could do during this time. Not just writing in sentences, but also brainstorming, writing off the page, annotating a mentor text, outlining a piece of writing, revising past writing, extending notebook time.

Intentionally and regularly introducing writers to different kinds of writing would also help if I remembered to do it. This semester, I have introduced Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week. I need to talk with students about how writers could do this kind of writing on their own.

  • Moving More Writing Into Workshop

Like I said, the thing that is going best is asking students to take something from their nightly writing and developing it into a “best draft”. So, I need to do more of this. In fact, I’m thinking that we might need to do MOSTLY this, and punctuate these free-choice writing studies with whole-class genre studies (instead of the other way around). I would love for students to be able to write three more pieces like this before the end of the year.

  • Periodic Nightly Writing Portfolios

To build in accountability and reflection, I am asking students to turn in a portfolio of nightly writing every so often. (Depending on how it goes, I’m thinking this might be a regular staple of independent writing).

Here’s what I’m asking students to do:

  • Choose 10 pieces of nightly writing (or writing that represents 10 different nights of writing work).
  • Move these into a new Google Folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio”. (If the work happened on paper — in your notebook or on a mentor text — take a picture of that artifact and then put that picture in the Google folder.)
  • Add a document to the folder called “Nightly Writing Portfolio Reflection”.  In this document, explain why you chose each item for the portfolio, what is shows about you as a writer, and where you want these pieces to go next (Extend the work? Combine it with other writing? Abandon?)

I think these portfolios might help less-enthusiastic students take the work more seriously and also let students who ARE enthusiastic about their nightly writing feel like they are really doing something with all of it. We could share these in small groups to share ideas.

Okay — do you have ideas for me? How do you manage independent writing in YOUR classroom? What questions do you have about my classroom? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or on Facebook

YA Sentence Study Snapshot: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

ds are the luckiest.

Text:

IMG_7677 The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Audience:

Grades 6-12 — Truly, there is something here for middle grades readers, and something for AP/IB literature students. (It’s my dream to do a joint middle school / IB seniors book club around this text. Hear that, Stefanie? ;))

Book Talk:

This fairy tale tells the story of a kingdom known as the Protectorate and the witch who lives in the wood surrounding it. Each year, in order to keep the witch at bay, the elders of the Protectorate sacrifice the community’s last-born baby. What the citizens don’t know, though, is that the witch isn’t real — she’s a scapegoat devised by the elders to keep the people in line.

Or so they think. There IS a witch who lives in the woods — a good witch who takes the baby and gives them to loving families in other kingdoms. But one day she keeps one of the babies who becomes filled to the brim with magic from drinking moonlight. This book is the story of her growth from magical infant to adolescent. It’s a story about perception versus reality, the lies we tell to keep ourselves safe, the sacrifices we make for love, and what happens when people begin asking questions and resisting. And, of course, it won the Newberry.

Sentence Study:

“A swallow in flight is graceful, agile, and precise. It hooks, swoops, dives, twists, and beats. It is a dancer, a musician, an arrow.

Usually.

This swallow stumbled from tree to tree. No arabesques. No gathering speed. Its spotted breast lost feathers by the fistful. Its eyes were dull. It hit the trunk of an alder tree and tumbled into the arms of a pine…”

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, p. 255

This passage can help writers…

  • Compare and contrast expectations and reality
  • Move around time in a passage
  • Describe
  • Use meaningful fragments
  • Use sound devices

Together, the class might notice…

  • Paragraph 1 is in present tense (expectations), paragraph 3 (reality) is in past tense (like the rest of the book)
  • Paragraph 2 is a one-word paragraph. It serves as a shift between expectations and reality.
  • In paragraph 1, there are three lists. List one is three adjectives. List two is 5 verbs, List three is 3 metaphors.
  • There is alliteration in paragraph 3.
  • There is assonance in paragraph 1.
  • The two sentence fragments in paragraph 3 coordinate with the metaphors in paragraph 1.
  • There is personification in paragraph 3 (“the arms of the pine”).

Invite students to try it by saying …

While Kelly Barnhill uses these techniques to describe a bird (a character) in her novel, we could use these techniques to compare and contrast lots of different things. What if you used this to discuss your expectations for the school year versus the reality of the school year? What if you used it to describe a friend or family member who has let you down in some way? Students have used this frame to describe Panda Express and also the setting of a fictional world. Your options are wide open. Select something to compare and contrast in terms of expectations and reality, and see what you can do with this in your notebook! 

What possibilities do you see here for your students? How could this sentence / passage study connect with the current literature or writing content in your class? How could it help your students? Leave us a comment below! 

 

A Test-Prep/Writing Workshop Loop

I acknowledge that learning to really craft writing on demand (rather than brain-dumping on demand) is an important skill for our students to cultivate. They will all engage in some kind of timed, test-like writing situation in their academic lives. And after that, they will still be asked to compose something on-the-spot in job interviews and assessments.

But that doesn’t mean I ever want to give one minute of writing workshop to it.

We know how hard it is to find and make and carve out the time for the things that really matter in our classrooms. We fight for time to let our students write on topics and in genres of their own choosing. Handing that time back over to test prep is incredibly unappealing.

What if every writing study of the year in your workshop could double as on-demand writing test preparation?

Inspired by a session with Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins at NCTE 16, this is my new routine — one that allows students to practice on-demand writing regularly without compromising the integrity or routines of my writing workshop:

On-DemandFlash Draft

Allow me to explain and show you how this worked itself out in one writing study with my 8th graders this year!

Step One: On-Demand Flash Draft

At the beginning of a writing unit, I give my students a basic definition of the new kind of writing they will do or the technique we will focus on. I give them a few minutes to brainstorm or talk out ideas with their peers, and then I give them the rest of the class period to write.

For instance, upon starting a study of opinion writing, I said, “We are about to begin a new kind of writing which focuses on stating and supporting our opinions. This is the kind of writing you might find on someone’s blog, but more often in a newspaper or website. Typically, people use this kind of writing to share their opinion when they know that others are likely to disagree with them. So backing up your thinking with examples and other support is important. So, today, I want you to spend the rest of this class period writing about an opinion you feeling strongly about and explaining why you feel that way.”

And then they were off!

What? you exclaim. What if they don’t have ideas? What if they aren’t ready? What if they don’t know what they’re doing? 

Exactly.

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Analyzing Audience with the College Essay

Today’s guest post is from Paige Timmerman, a high school English teacher in Salem, Illinois. You can connect with her on Twitter at @pbrink12 or via e-mail at timmermanp@salemhigh.com.

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When I decided to take the plunge and try writer’s workshop over the summer, I knew I wanted a unit on college application and scholarship essays for the simple fact that I knew my students would crave it.

I also couldn’t help think about how rare and valuable it is to have a unit for a potentially “real” audience.  Students spend much of their time writing hypotheticals for teacher eyes only, but this unit is an opportunity to really analyze the audience and think critically about what might impress them.  I also viewed the unit as an opportunity for students to think very deliberately about craft, as they usually only have about 500 words to convince a group of people they don’t know to contribute to their education.  It’s a tough feat!

Planning

I began by scouring the internet for mentor texts of successful college admittance and scholarship essays, and I came across the “Essays that Worked” page on the John Hopkins University website.  What I liked most about this page was that each winning essay was accompanied by a “review burst” written by the selection committee, which detailed why the essay impressed them.

After I selected four mentors and examined them, I noticed they each possessed interesting textual features (dialogue, rhetorical questions, etc.).  There also were a variety of structures; one winning essay was even structured like an instruction manual for how to “handle” millennials.  These techniques, I realized, were why they won- they stood out amongst a swarm of simple sentences in long paragraphs.  Therefore, I wanted to make sure I taught these features at the beginning of the year through a narrative unit and an informative writing unit before encouraging students to apply them to their college pieces.

Here are the mentor texts we used:

Just Keep Folding

On and Off

AdmissionsSaving the Manatees

The Palate of My Mind

Pre-Writing

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This is the anchor chart that was chosen to be displayed during the unit and served as a basis for how the essays were assessed.  An example of a cumulative discussion over the mentor texts (featuring Jack, Grace B., Tina, and Nick) can be found here.

We spent four days in class analyzing four different mentor texts.  Just as I had hoped, the “review bursts” from the selection committee deepened our discussion by causing students to consider audience.  Next, I had students mine the mentor texts for commonalities in groups, each of which submitted a 3-5 minute video of its discussion and created its own anchor chart.  With new knowledge of the unit in the back of their minds, students then developed questions they would ask members of a college scholarship/application selection committee if given the opportunity.

I asked two of our counselors, both of whom have been part of the selection process for

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Mrs. Knapp and Mrs. Kessler impart their most valuable piece of advice: the best essays tell a compelling story.

local scholarships, to select the anchor chart they thought best captured the spirit of the unit, and they came into my class the next day to explain their choice.  After that, they answered questions about the genre, which helped students “get inside the head” of the audience.

 

Pause

While I needed students to write at least 1,000 words for a dual credit requirement, I considered that many prompts are 500 words or less.  Therefore, I decided to have them complete two essays instead of one.  Prompts were chosen authentically from real scholarships or college websites, or they were chosen from “general prompts” from The Common App.

Once the first essays were in the rear-view, I decided to facilitate mock “selection committees.”  Students returned to their discussion groups and received a packet of three student essays, each of which had an “alias” to replace the name for anonymity.  They read the essays quietly first, annotating pros and cons in the margins as they went along.  Each group member used a different color of colored pencil so I could see the progression of their silent discussions as each essay was passed from person to person.

 

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Logan, Max, and Grace H. judge three anonymous essays.  Click here to view their discussion.

Group members then discussed what they noticed in each piece, and a criteria was determined for selecting the “best essay.”  They then submitted a 2-3 minute video that explained which essay they believed was most deserving of the desired award and how they came to that conclusion, citing specifics in each of the three essays for support.

 

What I liked most about this activity was that students were no longer thinking about the audience; they were the audience.  They got the opportunity to “try on” the selection committee’s shoes for an hour or so and walk around, which helped them understand what it takes for an essay of this style to stand out.  Additionally, it allowed them to understand the impact of the specific textual features we had studied with the first two units.  

Present

As my students are currently wrapping up their second pieces of the unit, I am reflecting back on what I have been seeing as I have been conferring with them.  I’ve seen less “I am a really hard worker and deserve this scholarship” and more unique textual structures and craft techniques introduced in class.  I am confident my students are entering the sea of paperwork known the college application and scholarship process armed and ready to give their competitors a literal run for their money, and I know this is due largely to the fact that we spent so much time considering audience.

While this unit encouraged my students to think about their futures, it also allowed me to continue considering my own future as a writing teacher.  As I think back to common comments I made during conferences, I remember saying frequently: “You should incorporate some of the techniques we talked about in the memoir unit or the informative writing unit!”  Although hypothetical, those units at the beginning of the year served as building blocks for the authentic piece constructed in this unit.  This is leading me to believe students’ college essays could be even better if I added another unit into the mix before the college essay unit to give them even more tools in their toolboxes before constructing an essay they want to push out to a real audience.  With this in mind, I plan to go forward next year by cutting the college writing to one paper rather than two in order to make room for another “building blocks” unit to precede it.  With newfound knowledge that acting as the audience improved student writing drastically, I am saving a few student pieces and plan to kick off the unit next year by placing my students in the judge’s seat.

While the college writing unit may not have been as exciting as some of the others, the experience of having an authentic audience proved to be unique and invaluable.  That said, as I go forward and continue to dabble in writer’s workshop, I am left with one main lingering question: If knowing a real audience will read students’ work pushes them toward more deliberate thinking about their writing craft, how can this phenomenon be replicated in units of writing where students do not feel authenticity from the audience?

What are you thinking, teachers? How might you use the analysis of audience in a different writing study? How have you used the college essay to teach more than just the college essay? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find Paige on Twitter @pbrink12. 

Punctuation Study: A 5-Day Writing Study to Set the Tone for the Year

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This year, I am teaching two new grades in a new classroom in a new school with new colleagues and a new schedule. And with all that comes the delightful insecurity that comes with every new school year to some degree — the feeling that I’ve never taught anyone anything before, the fear that I won’t know what to say, the general conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing.

And sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.

Teacher insecurity can breed productive reflection and experimentation and letting go. Often, not knowing what’s going to happen next leads us to something new.

This month, after a few weeks of getting-to-know-you-and-getting-to-know-mentor-texts, not knowing what was going to happen next lead me to a new writing study that I’ve long wanted to try but never before attempted: a whole study just about punctuation.

Here’s what I taught, what students did, how I assessed it, what students thought, and why this worked so well:

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